To Mod or Not to Mod (or Why Gregory is Bad at Running Modules)

The Games Librarian recently posted about a Game Master’s desire to revisit places in his or her games in which his or her Players invested their time and effort. This was in response to Admiral Ironbombs’ post about Player vs. Character Buy-in when running Adventure Paths or Modules. Both are good reads and I encourage you to check them out.  Mike Mearls of WotC talks about the new Starter Set for 5E and the emphasis they are putting on the included adventure in his Legend and Lore Column. Together, they really got me thinking about how I build and run Ryllmorrin and why I don’t use more Modules.

I have owned or borrowed an untold number of Adventure Modules, since I started gaming. I even ran a few of them.  Any decent Game Master will tell you that unless you are running a One Shot Game, adapt the Module you are running for your campaign.  I did that.  I used NPCs in my game to fit the roles presented in the Modules.  I used my cities and villages in place of the settings in the Adventures.  I did my best to fold them into the World of Rilmorn and make the Modules seem to be part of it.  Yet, I never seemed successful in running an Adventure that I didn’t design. Things always go wrong and I have to throw out the Adventure Module and improvise.  I think I know why I run modules so poorly and I’ll try to explain why over the next few paragraph.

When I began GMing, I possessed the Basic D&D blue book by Dr. Eric Holmes (just the book, not the rest of the boxed set), a borrowed Dungeon Masters Guide, a Monster Manual and the module B1 – In Search of the Unknown.  With that, I began building my campaign.  I did not have a lot of examples to use in my design process, so I made it up as I went along.

I’ve talked about my first games and Mythgold the Underground City of Wizards. When I first ran it, Mythgold was not a complete map. I would fill in the areas I thought I needed, leave the rest blank, and fill in more before the next session. I do not remember when my players decided to go off the map section I had completed and head into the unknown, but I’d bet it was fairly early on. I had to jump through some hoops to keep the game going.

When my players went off map, I would describe what the person making the map would need to know to continue the map (because making the map was a BIG part of D&D in the early days) and while they drew in the map section I had just described, I would pretend to check my notes and fill in what I had just described. Every time from that point on, when my players decided to talk among themselves, I’d draw a bit more on my map and make notes as to what was therein. I did everything I could to keep up the illusion that I had everything planned out and that my players couldn’t catch me off guard. I guess I did/do the same thing when I run Modules/Adventures.

I know I run a very sandbox-style of game and that may predicate my aversion to running Canned Adventures. I, also, have had a number of players, who want to “make the plot train jump the tracks.” They are the players that when presented with a plot hook of “Save the Princess and You’ll be Gifted with Titles and Lands by the King,” say “Why should we do that? We are adventurers and can claim lands and keeps from the monsters we defeat in the wilderness, so what else will you give us? Make it good or we might go help the kidnapper.” So, when these Players know there is a Module being run, they try to break out of the rails from the word “Go!” These are two things that make running Modules difficult for me.

Another thing that makes running Canned Adventures and Adventure paths difficult for me is the fact that sometimes I think what the Module says is supposed to happen is stupid or unfair. My latest complaint of this nature is with the 4E Adventure Revenge of the Giants.


SPOILER BEGINS (Highlight to see Spoiler)

On pages 154-155 of Revenge of the Giants, the Adventure sets up the ultimate fight between the drow priestess Lolestra, as she attempts to free the primordial Piranoth, and the Heroes.  There is way for the PCs to defeat Lolestra before she releases the primordial.  Here’s where I get upset, if the PCs defeat Lolestra, then her goddess Lolth steps in and frees the primordial, so the PCs then have to defeat the Primodial, too.


That is unfair. If the Players come up with a way to circumvent the Big Boss Fight, then they should be awarded the Experience Points for that fight for thinking outside the box or getting lucky and doing all the things they needed to do right to prevent the fight from happening.

In addition to “Rail Buster” Players, I’ve also had really good “Lateral Thinker” Players (sometimes, they are the same Player). I like it when my Players come up with ideas outside the box and I know good GMs always go beyond the Adventure Path or Module and let the unexpected idea work, because it is the good GMing thing to do. But what does a GM do, when the Players take such an idea to a logical conclusion? Admiral Ironbombs describes this exact scenario in his post. I understand why he did what he did, but when I encounter this problem, I leave the Path.  When I’m running a Module and my Players get caught up in a subplot or tangent, I rum with it. I use as much of the material in the Adventure as possible and fill in the gaps as I go. I guess the final answer, as to why I run Canned Adventures so poorly, is I’m more interested in what my players are doing, than I am in what the Adventure Path or Module is doing.

Tony Powers over at Epic Heroes is gearing up to run the Pathfinder Adventure Path Skulls and Shackles.  Here is his post about prep. (2014.07.21)

The GM Behind the Screen also has a post about players Riding Off The Rails. (2014.09.10)


Until next time, Game On!

10 thoughts on “To Mod or Not to Mod (or Why Gregory is Bad at Running Modules)

  1. My last campaign was all home-written. My new campaign will all be pre-written – I’m running one of the old Living Greyhawk regions.

    When I write my own material, I edge towards systemless. I’ve never been a crunchy systems guy, so I tend to either create encounters that are totally overpowered or encounters that are wimpy and underpowered.

    When I run a pre-written module, I don’t need to worry about that. I know that most encounters are balanced and have been play-tested. This has the advantage that I’m only going to TPK the party if they do something very strange or are incredibly unlucky. In the case of the Living Greyhawk modules, it has the disadvantage that they are so constrained that the characters can almost predict which encounter will be the ‘boss’.

    Either way, I feel like there is always plenty of scope to develop characters. Characters are a mix of the hopes and dreams of the players and the experiences thrown at them by the GM. I don’t think it matters if those experiences are home-written or drawn from published modules.

    If players jump the rails, that’s OK by me. Generally it is just a spur that comes back to the main track in the end.

    In the case of Ironbomb’s Legacy of Fire example, the players considered building a deathtrap dungeon to protect a scroll from being read. The next module required that the scroll be read. I can imagine a spur on the railroad where the players try to prevent the inevitable for as long as possible, and then get back on track when they finally fail. Whether the scroll side-plot is dealt with as five minutes of boxed text or five years of campaigning is up to the GM.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathon, I’ve been thinking about your comment for a while and I was wondering how your Module based game is going? What is going right, what is going wrong, and what is completely unexpected. Your comment may give me another blog post; thanks.


  2. Pingback: When Posts Bounce Back Upon Themselves | The Games Librarian

  3. Ok. I have a few mins at work to comment – not as long as a response as I’d like, but there you go.

    I personally don’t like modules (surprise, surprise) – I like writing my own stuff from my own imagination (however corrupted by absorbing influences around me they may be), and I find modules are the very antithesis of being a good DM. The plot is already written and its a story-on-rails by its very nature. Rails = bad.
    If you are time-poor, however, and your world is not very detailed, I can see the appeal, but I personally don’t like running them OR playing them – if you can’t break out of the plot box, then is it really D&D?
    Great post by the way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I end up with kind of a mix, I have no problem modding modules on the fly, or setting them “tweaked” from the beginning (or doing both as needed). What I have found modules great for (especially some of those old low-level ones) is ready-made villages and small towns that one or two high level adventurers can adopt as a home base, or that make great “overnight stops” that have “a problem” and I can now force the players to move towards their long-term goal or get pulled by their alignment or oaths of service or own good nature into delaying The Quest to help some poor villagers out of a jam.

    I’ve also noticed that most modules, if you run the monsters intelligently, are often much, much tougher than the level would nominally indicate. I end up writing custom content because if I ran the modules the way that makes sense to me, I’d sweep the floor with the party… LOL!


    Liked by 1 person

    • i love stealing maps from modules and NPCs, they really add a twist to my games. I know that I have ruts in which I like to drive, so lifting a map, an NPC, and/or a plot out of a module or three really helps me expand my GMing chops and gives my players a curve ball to my usual style. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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