I’ve been reading quite a few modules lately (mostly in prep for a Curse of Strahd D&D module I will be trying to run in september). But I also wanted to look at what modules do in other games as I tried to get a deeper understanding of what a good d&d (or any rpg) module really is. So after digging through several systems and a fair bit of dungeons and dragons modules I have found some commonalities that seem to be in every good modules, and missing in every bad one. While the intent here is not to make a template or formula, hopefully these guidelines to good modules will help give designers a lens in how to create better modules and to gain perspective as to why their module may not be working.
Elements in most good modules
1. Understand the roles of the players and the basic game loop
Good modules understand the roles of the players and what the game is good at. They do a really good job of supporting that experience with their content. While a module may offer encounters that are a ‘difference in kind’ to the standard play, they don't try to make the game something its not.
In mobile games they often talk about the ‘game loop’ the basic progression of the player through an experience that is often repeated each session. All rpgs tend to have one of these for their adventure. In a way these are a basic formula that module should support, but not necessarily adhere to. The Red Hand of Doom and Curse of Strahd (and even the original Ravenloft) don’t adhere very closely to the basic d&d formula, but they do support it in its own way. Castle Ravenloft is a big dungeon with a vampire in it, The Red Hand of Doom is a bunch of travel encounters with a lot of goblins and dragons. They are all still a part of the formula.
2. Characters, Items, Locations, and EncountersEvery good module has a cast of crazy characters, Interesting items, legendary locations, and enchanting encounters. Defining the characters, items, locations and encounters seems obvious, but what's important is that these are the memorable parts of the module. Ravenloft is The Vampire Strahd, Castle Ravenloft, the Sunsword, the the fights with the vampire and his spawn. The definition of these is the creation of the materials that the module will be based upon so special attention needs to be paid. Better ingredients, better module.
3. CustomizationGood modules flex and bend to accommodate a large cast of different types of characters. They also help let the GM tailor the module to their tastes, their groups game style, and the players power or skill. There also tends to be a bit of randomness so that players or GMs can run the module again and get a similar, yet distinct experience. A player may see a module twice with two different groups but end up having a completely different experience based on the choices that and information that gets revealed to them through the module.
Not every module gets ran as intended. Sometimes they are cut up and frankensteined together with other modules. Sometimes encounters are added and removed. Many times they are slotted into different campaign settings. While I think the module should always aim to be complete, it should also accommodate being built upon. It needs to have threads that can be woven into a larger tapestry.
3. A focus on hooks, lore, and relationships
A good module always starts out with hooks. But beyond that the location and stories and lore all point characters to the interesting encounters, items, characters and locations. It never takes the choice away from players but it always informs them and teases them with the places they could go to. The module is like a theme park. The players choose what events to go to, but the park makes sure they can find out what interesting things to do next. You always want the players to have a choice in things to do. The players know they will fight a dragon at the end of the dungeon, but they want to decide how they will get there.
What important is that every encounter, item, character, and location feeds into this. Everything needs to serve the purpose to keep players moving through the module. I know this sounds pretty extreme, and I know there are times you want to showcase the theme, the roleplaying, the combat etc. You always want to have a secondary note or scrap of paper or trinket or clue that connects everything to the world and the things you can find there. As corollary to this; don’t point to the same encounter/location/item/character twice; always have two or three things the players can be lead to.
4. Players actions are connected to the world
Modules need to call back to past actions of the players and earlier events. Players need to have an effect on the world and feel that their reactions are related. While it's great to have a few big things that are related, little things are often easier and just as important. You start to lose a sense of control and the suspension of disbelief when the actions don't have results.
Harlequin is a Shadowrun module that heavily plays into the players starting to realize what they are doing is connected; and that is the reveal that is most enjoyed about that module. On paper it’s actually pretty railroad-y and doesn't seem that great. But the reveal of everything being connected is what’s enjoyed. There are more nuances that make the module work, but it's worthy to note for its clear devotion to this single idea.
5. The three things that help (timelines, boundaries, and gimmicks)
These next three tips are not as essential as the other four; but including at least one (or all if you can) helps to build opportunities for a module to work well. A module should include Timelines, Boundaries, and/or Gimmicks. The inclusion of these helps helps to bring out the best in the module. These tips help accentuate the other four guidelines (which are always detrimental if overlooked).
Timelines are basically about showing a world in motion. If the players don't act, the world still moves around them. This helps to create a sense of the players being connected to the world. The idea of things happening without the player’s influence sort of taunts players into trying to change things. Also the relationships of characters can evolve to reveal more information to players and hook them into other scenarios.
Boundaries can be physical or based on time. The boundaries of a dungeon for instance, prevent the players from ‘just leaving’. If it’s a count down to the end of the world, it forces players to make decisions and act. This sort of constraint is like a wall for players to bounce ideas against and helps to foster creativity. This is why most shadowruns are on a countdown clock and ravenloft is surrounded by evil myst.
Gimmicks are the spices of modules. They color the entire experience and should be used with care so they are not overdone. They create a unique style to the module, something to draw in and attract the players. A good gimmick can take an ordinary module and turn it into something extraordinary. Afterall ravenloft started out as a Halloween themed dungeon with a wandering vampire.