Monday, February 2, 2009

Shared Common Experiences

Grognardia has its Retrospective series, recalling classic cultural touchpoints that many traditional D&D players have experienced in their gaming history. The Tao of D&D rejects such things, preferring gaming activity to be self-generated. I'm somewhat mixed about the classic modules.

But I am running one currently, albeit a newer one that is very unlikely to have been seen by the players. I have put a classic module (more or less disguised) into The Olden Domain, but nobody's gone there yet. (hell, I should also put Tomb of Horrors up on a mountain somwhere there just to fuck with people... actually, is there any reason to not put all of the location-based adventures in there, besides a desire to "own" the setting myself?)

My approach to modules in my current campaigns got me thinking. Are these common elements of our past important, or just trivia? Has our hobby been helped by having Keep on the Borderlands experienced by millions of people? Has our creativity been stifled by having "the moathouse" be a a recognized term with an understood meaning?

I'm not talking about the methods of play put forward by any of the more popular modules. If for some reason Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh had been the standard module in all those basic sets from 1977 - 1982 and Beyond the Crystal Cave had been the very first TSR module, playstyles today might be different but there would still be the element of extremely common and well understood cultural references that are undoubtedly related to the game, but really aren't the game itself any more than some awesome dungeon you ran once back in 1988.

So what if the "adventure module" had never been presented as a commercial tool? What if the "sample dungeons" of OD&D and Mentzer and Holmes and Moldvay (and maybe Temple of the Frog) were the only published examples of what a D&D adventure might look like?

What if we were never given even those?

Would our hobby be more alive and more individually creative, with people looking less to publications? Would the hobby have ever reached any real state of popularity or gone beyond its original intended audience without so many ready-to-play opportunities available for just $6 a pop?

Was the adventure module actually the glue that bound gamers across the country and the world? The means by which gamers largely communicated with each other, moreso than actual rules? Are they iitally important to gamers on a community level or is it just small-talk fluff?



  1. I think published adventure modules were the beginning of a common gamer understanding of "what D&D is supposed to be," for good and for ill. This was invaluable for the second wave of players of the game, who might otherwise have been baffled by it. I know I personally found adventure modules great models for my own refereeing. Looking back on it now, though, I'm a lot more ambivalent about modules, not least because they were a vehicle for advancing standardization of rules and play style, movements that eventually bore bitter fruit.

  2. I have mixed feelings about commercial modules as well. While they provide novice GMs a decent example of plot and story, too many GMs are dependent upon them. As a GM myself, I feel that my players deserved more of a customized approach.

  3. Modules are what they are. I believe that modules opened up the game to a wider audience. You can take this as good or bad.

    If you're an elitist that believes modules are too limiting and a crutch, then you're more likely to have a poor opinion of modules.

    I think adventure modules are good, as they serve as a "gateway drug" for potential long-term enthusiasts. It draws them in and they have fun, but eventually they find modules lacking.

    Then they open open up their options and begin exploring other styles or genres and customizing the game to their (and their players') needs and desires.

  4. I’ve been anticipated.

    I want to make the point that without the module, there are many DMs who would never have been able to play at all. They needed that baby-food that the company provided. They simply didn’t have the creative temperment or the desire to put in the work that a solid game would require…and being casual in that way was enough for them.

    What I think is sad and pathetic is that the module has somehow been transformed into the “Renaissance” of this game, when clearly the respect ought to have been directed towards the unique game artist working on his individual world, or the players operating in that world. This is because the modules, and the corporate/creative spirits that created them, simply awed the masses and created this faux perception that those people were the geniuses. This was helped by the inability of the individual artist to publish, and get his or her work out where it could be seen. So hardworking players and DMs toiled in the wilderness, hardly to be seen.

    But the Net has already begun to change that. Anyone can publish. That makes it stupid to spend twenty dollars on some pre-made adventure when the ideas for hundreds of adventures are available for free. Thus encouraging more DMs to take up the ideas and produce art rather than accept pre-generated garbage. And it encourages the diaspora of individual, non-corporate, non-censored work to be created, marketed and distributed; so that we’re not stuck in the “children’s acceptance rule” of gameplay.

  5. I think their importance is overrated. There were plenty of other games on the shelves and ideas in the air. However you think it would have been different, people were and still are doing it that way. Though maybe without modules to emphasize what D&D was about, they would have turned sooner to novels and Dragonlance.

    As for the chest-beating and schlong-measuring over using published material, I have no further opinion. Rock on with the ToH!

  6. For me, modules were a jump-cable to the creation of my own adventures - and still are. I get inspired or the urge to tweak and change a module or setting until it fits what I want it to be in the initial presentation. I don't have much use for the plot-driven modules, but the single-setting modules are great fun as starting points.

    They also helped a newbie, young DM learn how the "older guys" saw the game and thought about it.

  7. I think I played less than half a dozen prepublished adventure modules during my first bout with Dungeons & Dragons, and read maybe two or three. The first AD&D campaign I ran all the monsters and spells were made up, and even now I sometimes view the official spells as foreign territory to my D&D experience. Never affected how we played the game.

    Since returning to the game I have played a few new modules, and learned a few things about the design ideas behind them, but my campaign remains completely home brewed; modules are for the days when I don't have anything prepared or we're looking for a break from the regular game without completely changing gear.

    The first modules I ever owned were probably what comprised the Enemy Within Campaign.

  8. Judges Guild was the first really push the concept. Gygax told Bledsaw that he didn't believe that any GM would want to use prepared materials.

    When they did it (Judges Guild) it sold. TSR followed suit mostly by republishing tournament adventures and then original adventures.

    It was the players and referees that provide the initial demand not the company trying out new accessories for a rpg.

  9. I can’t say that I’ve really seen a lot of this “shared common experience” stuff—as regards modules. My AD&D group didn’t play a lot of modules. Among all the gamers I’ve known since, most of the stories they’ve swapped with me have not been about modules. The common experience of participating in the same hobby has been enough.

  10. My experience has been close to Matthew's but I think this online playground's emergence was only possible because those who did play the same modules knew what the hell some other fella was talking about when describing his campaign.

    Gamers must have reflected on the differences in their games in spite of using the same modules. Differences small enough to be meaningfully discussed and hence a language and a community.

    As a DM going it alone I remember losing respect for dice. I have recently restored confidence in them only by listening in on conversations where guys know what they're talking about.

    While I still dont recommend their use, so that a DM develops his own style, I'm glad they have been heavily used so that these discussions are even possible.

  11. The Tomb of Horrors is on my hexmap, not too very far from the Temple of the Frog. I like modules because I am a lazy bastard. Filling out a sandbox is so much easier with a few decades worth of dungeons on the bookshelf.

  12. Thinking back on it, the published AD&D modules we played back in the day were often a direct spur to our own creativity. The spur was often one of "That sucked. I could have written better!", rather than anything positive though.

    As Gary said: "Why let us imagine it for you?"

  13. I agree with Jeff above. I like modules; I've always used them. Recently I've been on a module-buying spree.

    Most games, I don't have modules and I don't know what to do with them. D&D I have random encounter tables and I have modules, I always have something to run.

    My current campaign is essentially a sequence of modules. Location-based modules; each a mini-sandbox, so it's not like I'm railroading the PCs down a plot. Recently we missed the second half of the module, due to its structure (not enough PCs survived to spring the trap that led into the second half of the module). That's fine, I have plenty more.

    Now, do the players enjoy it more when I create my own stuff? Sure. It's the difference between good home cooking and takeaway pizza. Without the pizza I wouldn't be running a twice-monthly game, though.

    That said, reading Grognardia et al, I do get the itch to do a module-free, mega-dungeon or wilderness sandbox type campaign of my own devising. Maybe one day. For now, gimme those modules baby. Yeah. >:)