Are Modules TTRPGs?
Thoughts on GMing
The theory behind why you should care about the system you use.
The challenge of certain systems for your story and how to overcome them.
Is there a place for empathy in a D&D game? And why does that matter?
How to and how not to use gender and sexuality in game and around your table.
When is a trope good/bad?
But... are they? Are they really?
Why are modules hard to run well?
On paper it seems like a great idea, right? You want to run a game, but you’re a grown-ass adult who doesn't have time to sit around and build a whole-ass game. You’re a new GM who’s nervous about things being unbalanced, or people asking questions you don’t know the answer to. You’re an avid reader who loves to pour through PHBs and DMGs, and you want to put that all to use. A module seems like exactly the right tool to use to fill your needs.
So why do so many modules fall flat?
This isn’t a rant against modules.
I like the concept. I’ve never run one and I never will, because I don’t fall into any of those aforementioned categories. For me, a large part of the joy of running is the creating of the stuff. But I really like the idea of modules. In my 20+ years of playing in games, I’ve played in one very well run module. It was at Gen Con. It was a LotR game. I don’t remember the specific plot, but I do remember being engaged and really enjoying it. And the GM wasn’t particularly boisterous or energetic, they were just running the module for the umpteenth time that weekend. I think it was pretty late in the con. And yet, I had a metric ass load of fun.
So, what was different? I’ve played in two module campaigns for a considerable amount of time, once with a highly energetic GM who loved the story, and once with a CRUNCH IS ALL THAT MATTERS GM. Neither were satisfying. There is something both those modules had in common – I felt like I was playing a board game.
What makes a Module different from other methods?
The modules I’ve played in, mostly short-form, con-style games, and the two long form ones, consisted of the following:
Flavor text describing the space
Objectives (traps, monsters, or both)
And that’s basically how I run my all-organic-no-GMO-gluten-free-homebrew game, right? There are places my player characters go and obstacles to overcome there. The difference is, in my fancy homebrew, I don’t have the answers. I set up the obstacles, I have 2-3 designed ways to overcome the obstacles, and my players usually come up with one of them on their own because I’ve put clues in to lead them to those conclusions, or they come up with something off the wall that blows my mind and I give them all a happy-papa-smile in GIF form on our discord channel.
In a module, the only difference is that the rules don’t have built in flexibility for players to go off the wall and do something different.
So what was different about that LotR mod? Well, I never felt like I was picking an existing option. I felt like I was coming up with, or at least discovering the way to overcome something. There were clues to guide me to discover the solutions. Another thing that I loved was the final battle – we had a location with points of entry that we had to defend, and when we realized we were being attacked, someone asked if they could close off one of the smaller ones. The GM looked at the book, didn’t see the rules, shrugged, and let them use a skill to try and close it. They rolled well, and one of the points of entry was closed. This made the fight interesting. We had challenges built into the terrain by the module, we had things to climb, to take cover behind, and had to strategize.
This was SO different from most modules I’ve played in. Most of the time it’s, check for traps, open the door, fight the monster, repeat. This one was different. We had different locations we traveled to, the game had built in traveling mechanics to play to represent what we did in the traveling, and we got bonuses for being successful, but it didn’t cost us anything. We had time to talk to each other as our characters travelled, giving us time to do some RP. Each location was different – I believe there was a tavern, a graveyard, and a ruined caravan.
Also, when we wanted to do something not in the book, the GM considered, determined it was reasonable, and let us do it.
That was a good module. That was a good GM.
Partly, it's the writing, but maybe that's not a problem.
But so many modules are written or run like a boardgame with cutscenes, or a choose your own adventure story with fights. Clues are usually buried in blocks of flavor text, or so obvious there’s no satisfaction in identifying them. Fight locations are usually rooms, hallways, etc, in a set location. RP is usually, uh, well, kind of like we’re wearing headsets while we play COD or something. We’re not really doing RP.
Why, then, are modules so hard to run well? Maybe that’s a faulty question to ask. Maybe it’s not that modules are hard to run well, but that expectations are difficult to manage. It seems most people are happy to play a turn-based-strategy game with interludes of story arcs. I mean, Pathfinder and Adventure League are just that. But calling that style of gaming a Table Top Role Playing Game is not accurate. They are Turn Based Strategy Games. The challenge is that when I’m recruiting players for my TTRPG which is actually an RPG, I sometimes get people who want to play TBSGs. Now, most of the time when I get a TBSG player, if they give my game a fair shot, they end up enjoying it. Sometimes they don’t. But what matters is that we need to, as a community, do a better job of explaining what kind of game we’re running, and that means facing the facts of what we are playing. TBSGs aren’t inherently worse, and TTRPGs aren’t inherently better. And some Modules do have RP built into them, which makes them TTRPGs instead. But if your module doesn’t have RP based solutions to problems, of opportunities for players to speak to each other in character, then the RP isn’t part of the game – it’s a flavor item, an add on, something extra. And that’s fine – sometimes people do want to roll dice and do strategy stuff! It’s fun to make big numbers and work with friends to come up with strategies an enact them. But we need to communicate clearly about what we are doing so that players can make an informed decision about whether they want to play in that game or not.