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Packaged Adventures

A common debate amongst gaming circles today is the use of packaged adventures or 'modules' as most people call them. Indeed, for a company such as New Dimension Games that is struggling for a fanbase, why put so much emphasis on something as controversial as Modules and other prepared adventures at all? Well, we are not going to try and duplicate what other companies do, but rather, we are going to provide for those gamers that are as yet unspoken for. Specifically, we want to target old-school gamers as well as those who look beyond today's products, indeed that the industry will change for the better, combining the best of both worlds to create the 'dream game' for those who are more interested in role-playing than roll-playing. Now, one may ask, don't packaged adventures work against that concept? Aren't they restrictive? Isn't it better when a GM tailors an adventure to the specific Characters he is to play with? And, indeed, aren't packaged modules at best a thing of the past, and at worst a crutch for unimaginative GMs?

        Since this is one of those questions for which there is no absolute answer, but rather only preferences, I will answer as far as the agenda of New Dimension Games is concerned. The truth is that role-playing games have no solid foundation, and so, like any art, anyone can play them according to their individual tastes, likes and dislikes. I do regret that so many people try to impose their preferences on others like some sort of official canon or religion, and prepared adventures, 'modules' if you wish to call them that, often take the brunt of this negativity. We at NDG simply prefer writing adventures over rules, and for many good reasons. But before we go into those, let's look at what packaged adventures are not. I mean, truly, are packaged adventures any more of a crutch than endless volumes of rules that list details and specifics? Think about it. Who needs a supplement book that lists two hundred different versions of swords? Can't one's imagination come up with runes, bloodgrooves, hilt designs and other details? Players who complain about GMs being uncreative by using modules and then crack open a 400-page sourcebook for expanded character quirks and colours for their boot laces simply make me laugh. Can't they describe dice rolls or ability scores on their own? Home brewed rules are bad, they argue, but home brewed adventures are what they demand, but look at not just the contradiction in that, but also the absurdity, and the risk for Character survival. At least home brewed rules are agreed upon in advance, and if an adventure is packaged and printed, it is solid, and the GM cannot change things to force the Characters one way or another, as if he does, then they can just check the text and call him on it. Truly, what is a home brewed adventure other than a volume of as yet unknown home rules that can alter the game at any time without being answerable to the Players? Traps, puzzles, even battles, all these can have home brewed stipulations that can be of serious trouble to the Players. And aren't all rules, by their very nature, a crutch for unimaginative players? No, they are not, no more than 'modules' are. Home brewed rules and adventures have their place, just as printed and prepared ones do. However, I don't believe that a lot of naysayers truly appreciate what packaged adventures truly are.

        Now, I will be the first to agree that packaged adventures, as we have known them for the last ten years or so, leave a lot to be desired. The Corporate Monster that we know as a common enemy saw to the death of quality in the late '80s and pretty much throughout the '90s. But remember, New Dimension Games has a lot of old-school spirit in it, and back in the days of Gygax, modules were always pushing the envelope on what the game could do. No, perhaps they didn't find a perfect balance even back then, but they accomplished a lot more than redundant rules have ever done, and in the last twenty years, we at NDG have been refining packaged adventures to make them better. For instance, we don't have any 'useless' Encounters like corridors in a castle, unless there is a ghost haunting it. No, every Encounter offers danger, reward, interest, or a combination of the three. Also, the storylines are more open and inviting to role-players, thus encouraging Character development rather than hampering or 'plot hammering' it. That sounds easy, I know, but our system has been going for years, and it works just fine. We do not do video game-like dungeons, but rather, something more like the Mines of Moria from Tolkien, where the prepared adventure focuses on those areas where the 'dungeon' offers opportunities for drama, rather than selling a box of graph paper than encloses the party in like rats in a maze.

        The good, solid reasons for using packaged adventures are many. First, when an adventure is written down, it is solid and fair, and thus the text makes an undeniable ruling in any argument. It also shows the players the proportions of the game world, as intended by the game's designers, and presents us all with legends to explore; just as we as fans say "Oh, I can't wait to read that book", we can (and used to) say the same thing about packaged adventures, like "Damn, I can't wait to try my hand at beating that maze!" Or maybe the GM is ill and, while loyal and determined to run an adventure, he simply cannot be creative enough to do it on the spot, being drugged up or in pain (this author cannot personally attest to this, for as of this writing, I am a month and counting into a battle with Mono, and I like having an adventure prepared because I'm often too tired to even stand, much less be seven steps ahead of seven Players for seven hours). Furthermore, GMs have lives too. Not only do they not get to play, but they are expected to set aside ten or perhaps even twenty hours preparing an adventure? Truly, what time, outside the game, do the Players contribute? Do they spend even one hour prepping anything for the game? The GM puts in just as much time at the game table as they do, but what extra effort does he get out of it from those who cry foul when they hear 'pre-fab'? Another reason packaged adventures are okay is that the very 'gawdfather of gaming', Gygax himself, wrote tons of adventures, indeed it was pretty much all he did, creating endless opportunities for people to explore his world, and if he made the game we all know and love, then I'd say his opinion, his legacy, weighs heavily in such a debate as this. But most importantly, prepared adventures give all the players, both GMs and PCs alike, something to do with those Characters who seem to need a story so much. For when a GM is forced to go without a prepared adventure (usually by Players who believe that prepared stuff is soooo sacrilegious), storytelling inevitably fades away behind a subtle dance of demands, as the GM and Players bandy rules and reality-details. It is possible, after all, to try too much to tell a story, and with everybody trying to take their story in a different direction, it becomes impossible to satisfy everyone's preferences. Sometimes, it's just more fun and more practical to assault a castle or have a simpler story (i.e. a packaged one) that everybody can adhere to, but whilst in pursuit of the treasure, still develop their Character according to where the book takes them or where the dice happen to fall. Sometimes, when a brand new Character is accompanied by twelve pages of notes, I wonder if his story isn't already told, and that the adventure isn't merely a formality to satisfy his preferences.

        So, on to adventure! And adventure is the name of the game. Fantasia may be a 'soft' game as far as rules are concerned (i.e. a lack of them), but it is hardcore indeed when it comes to danger, peril, and taking on the greatest villains and ancient powers the fantasy world has to offer! After all, those Characters built up by endless expansive (and expensive) supplements have to have something to do. It is an adventure game, not a bodybuilding contest. So, as we in an adventure game like to get out there and adventure, we must choose one of a few select roads, with prepared adventures being one of those few. The others, like 'seat of the pants' and 'impromptu' games are fine for more involved storytelling, and if that's what people want, then we wish them all the best. But it's hard to package details about personal Characters we don't know of. Moreover, the 'playing on the fly' approach doesn't allow for as fair a game, nor indeed as truly an imaginative one, in some respects. Consider, fairly, how much of any improvisational adventure has anything to it outside of NPC interaction and battle? Pulling monsters from the roster and throwing them at the party doesn't constitute an Encounter, at least not a good one. There is so much in the fantasy world that simply cannot be created on a moment's notice. How can a GM come up with the complexities of traps on the fly? How can he compose riddles in two seconds? And prepared adventures, while perhaps only able to be played once, always offer guidelines and inspiration for one who designs his own adventures. Perhaps the GM who follows a Module 'by the numbers' and recites boxed text is indeed a uncreative, or perhaps he's just learning and honing his skills, like an actor with his lines. We see prepared text as being like a script, and the GM can perform it in his own ways, adding his own touches. After all, every performance of Hamlet over the last four centuries hasn't been letter-perfect nor performed exactly the same way. And GMs can always add, omit or modify Encounters, subplots, or anything else. And again, if one is quick to say that reading from an adventure is uncreative, show me the Player who comes up with fancy descriptions or involving drama for each one of his actions or dice rolls on that spot. It's tough to do. If one is quick to say that someone should only use home brewed adventures, why stop there? The argument could be made that all rules should be home brewed as well, and people should carve their own dice and miniatures too, for selecting a mini off the shelf that's 'close' to what one's Character looks like and then saying 'good enough' is being 'uncreative', isn't it? Shouldn't such Players, by their own logic, be expected to, while the GM is taking ten hours to write their adventure, take ten hours to carve their Character? In this age of video game-thinking, it's easy to see packaged adventures as being as restrictive as a digital world with those square walls and other barriers, but they're restrictive only to those who would be doomed to create just as boring an adventure as that square world on their own, whether they ever opened up a Module or not. At the least, prepared adventures show other possibilities. At most, however, they are the meat and drink of the adventure role-playing game. A thing of the past? Is adventure a thing of the past?

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