Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Kiss and Module Design Tips

In an online community I hang at, we were talking about one thing but the topic eventually derailed to adventure building, and someone posted a nice checklist for module design.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a fan of canned adventures since they're railroads by definition.


There's a thin red line between a railroad and a theme park: A theme park is a railroad that's actually enjoyable.

If you ask me, there's just one requisite for a successful theme park:


(I was thinking of "Keep It Simple, Stupid," but KISS also makes everything better)

A module is, first and foremost, a scenario:

Definition of scenario

plural scenarios

1a an outline or synopsis of a play; especially a plot outline used by actors of the commedia dell'arte
the libretto of an opera

3a sequence of events especially when imagined; especially an account or synopsis of a possible course of action or events
  • his scenario for a settlement envisages … reunification
  •  —Selig Harrison
As a scenario, even the most flexible modules will offer you at most one out of two choices at specific moments in time (which is inevitable since writers can't account for all possible player actions). So, the best modules are those built around circumstances that:

1) Are so simple that changes are irrelevant.
2) Are inherently fun, so the players have no need to want things any differently.

Just keep things simple and fun. Just like GMs use modules when they don't feel like writing their own material, players are likewise entitled to put their brains in neutral and go with the flow.

Now, while "modules with rich stories and intricate plots" sound pretty on paper... the thing with rich stories is that you run the risk of players actually wanting in on said stories, and interacting with them... and your module's scenario happens to be written in stone, and 9 out of 10 GMs will stick to the script*, so the more complex the plot, the more it will look like a Second Order Idiot Plot from the outside (see Rise of the Runelords) and the more players will resent being railroaded.

((Boots, right before mysteriously contracting a case of lead poisoning))

So, say with me:
"I'm not the next JRR Tolkien."
"I'm not the next GRR Martin."
"I'm not the next Ryo Mizuno."

A module with such a simple premise as "the player characters wake up inside a labyrinth, don't ask why." is perfectly valid: The player characters are already there, it could be for any reason (it could be a dream for all we know), no motivations are needed, and there's no "story" the players can "disrupt" (also it used to work for Robert E. Howard, Conan used to start each tale in a different place under different circumstances with no explanations given).

Never underestimate the simple little things.

* P.D: Yeah, I know there are those few and proud unicorns who upon reading a module, they de-compile it in their heads and turn it into a sandbox where players can do anything with the story. In case you're one of them, congratulations, but you happen to be the exception, not the norm, and never having experienced a problem yourself doesn't make that problem inexistent to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Paradox of Puzzles

Of all the old school's traditions, few I care less for than in-game puzzles and riddles.

1) They take you out of the game since they're meant for the player, not the character. It's as if the GM said that, to beat the BBEG of the game, you had to beat him in Super Smash Bros. This breaks narrative flow and immersion.

2) They break roleplay. You are not your character, nor you are obligated to. You are not presented with vector calculus sheets whenever your character needs to land a plane. You are not required to narrate the full procedure when your character is performing surgery. You are not required to study at the police academy and then take the detective course to play a private eye. Whenever your character undertakes something you can't, that's where the skills, attributes, and dice come in the picture.

Warning: This only works in cartoons, or in campaigns with overbearing, micromanaging GMs

3) GMs are rarely (if ever) actual game designers themselves. I say this as a GM: "Clever puzzles" usually aren't. Descriptions always seem clearer in our heads than the way they're actually conveyed to players. The solutions to each puzzle are always "obvious" to us because we wrote them; as GMs, we play with a full deck. Truth is: Our descriptions are usually as incomplete as our clues, which means players have as easy a time trying to solve our puzzles as a female creator trying to get to the top in Marvel comics.

 (Tip: Ask Chelsea Cain about her feminist agenda).

Puzzles are something I lump straight with bait&switch, BDSM, and playing Numenera. If the whole table is into it then go ahead, more power to you all, but never force it on the unwilling, and be aware that the lesser your degree of expertise, the higher the chances of one or more of your players flipping the table on you.