Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Good Module Guidelines

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 Encounters
Every 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. Customization
Good 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Curse of Gothic

Meta Moment: I'm kinda back from the dead. Work and stuff. Whatever, I've had my absences before.

This post comes about because as I was thinking of DMing ' The Curse of Strahd,' a 5th ed Dungeons and Dragons module that is the Horror module for Dungeons and Dragons. It takes place in and around the infamous Castle Ravenloft and has players oppose the vampire Dracula Strahd von Barovich. 

 I'm instantly intrigued by the Halloween Level of Dungeons and Dragons that Castle Ravenloft has become, sitting alone on top of its mountainous perch. It's a unique and well remembered module and it's had an iteration in almost every edition of Dungeons and Dragons since first edition. A lot of modules have come out, this is one of the ones that has stood the test of time. In a way it mirrors its source material as it defiantly stands as a bastion to an age far past.

But things have changed.

'The Curse of Strahd' is the most recent iteration, like all iterations, draws from its Gothic Horror source material. Sometimes its from pulp, other-times its from the Victorian era, but a bothersome thread remains; it's lack of modern sensibilities.

The Curse

I know a lot of people dislike the Politically Correct Police and would rather not deal with it in their games. I know they will say "it is what it is" and "that's just part of Gothic Horror" and not think about it. There is also an asshole out there who will go on about censorship and how this is what's wrong with games today and whatever. Maybe an asshole will try to get smart and say its being subversive or something. But I think it doesn't really matter, and more importantly these people aren't asking the right questions (or any questions at all).

How do all the elements of 'The Curse of Strahd' make it better? How does it connect with itself and the real world to make a better d&d module?

I know people will say it reinforces the 'Gothic' element of the horror or references the source material it draws from. But that just pushes the question on to the source material. Do the elements we find racist today actually make the work better? Most times they don't. It's just a product of the times and culture the work was made in. It doesn't play into the story, and could be swapped around without making the story worse.

HP Lovecraft.

I like HP Lovecraft, and he's a racist. Actually, to be fair, I've never met the guy and I don't think I could really like someone so racist and so bothered by some romance stories to write a letter to the editor. But I think the racism does add something unintended to his work. It moves a lot of his characters into anti-hero territory. His characters and their racism are not aspirational. While it's certainly not true for all of Lovecraft's work, the racism sometimes serves the story. His themes of cosmic horror also tend to push against his racism; making it seem like a folly that befalls people who are eventually driven to madness. Authors of color have talked more about having complex relationships with Lovecraft. It's bigger than you think. (Oh and if you are writing a horror something, including issues like racism is probably not worth it. It's not a good way to make your story scarier).

Return to Castle Ravenloft

What first tipped me off to some questionable themes was the treatment of the Romani Vistani. They are portrayed as untrustworthy drinkers, travelers, charlatans, and thieves. I was honestly kinda surprised that this got through. This isn't some indie rpg, some small time author, some fan module. This is D&D, the property that is synonymous with table-top role-playing games. This came from Wizards of the Coast; one of the largest table top game makers in the world. They are a subsidiary of Hasbro! There is an HR department! They had editors and assistant editors, they had no less than 50 people involved on this. Did nobody notice? Did they decide it wasn't that bad? Did they just forget that Romani are a real people? Did nobody google 'Gypsy' or 'Romani' during the entire duration of the projects development? Did they just lock some intern in a cubicle and tell them to update Vistani for the setting? Was it too hard to change or revisit these issues? Was it considered 'ok' because you just changed the name? Did they not want to take the time to try to do something better? (to be fair, I think someone probably raised the issue and instead of delaying and rewriting the whole 'product' and then released it because of the schedule and money. I don't think that makes it OK, it kinda makes it worse).

This took me out of the setting. This prompted me to look to see if anyone else had issues with the setting and other people did have issues. It's not just the Romani, but also the portrayal of women, mental illness, violence against children, and racism. Do those things add to teh story? Could they be changed to make the module a better module?

Real Horror

The real problem is that changing this stuff could result in a better module. It might be more inclusive, but definitely more believable, more nuanced, and better written. The very ending of the module has a moment where Ireena (a reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) meets up with Sergei (the actual lover of the long dead Tatyana). Magically her memories for Sergei come back and they walk off into the sunrise. Like, what the fuck? That's not romantic, that's weird! It's a strange and terrible end to the story, to one of the NPCs arcs, to everything. I get it's the Epilogue and nobody is supposed to really care, but seriously. There is an optional earlier scene around reuniting Ireena and Sergei that's not much better.

Instead of some convoluted magical true love triangle of vampires and reincarnation, what if the same thing still happened but there was not magical true love reincarnation? What if Strahd is so delusional that he just thinks it's the case? Maybe his unrequited love for Tatyana all those years ago was all in his head, and she was just blissfully unaware of his attention when she fell for the dashing (prehaps promiscuous) Sergei. Maybe every reincarnation was an attempt to find a reincarnation of a Tatayna that only existed in Strahd's imagination; a soul that never existed. The Curse of Strahd could be a real tragic horror, something not so simple as a vampire in a castle, but a curse people all too often inflict upon themselves. For Strahd, so wrapped up in his world, he makes the curse it's own realm, trapping everyone inside his beautiful dark twisted fantasy. #kino

To Run the Game

I already did want to add some stuff to 'The Curse of Strahd', but I was really hoping for something that I could slap down and be done with. You know just run and not offend anyone. Honestly, I know I can run this for a group of white guys and it wont be an issue (unless I find out one of my friends has Romani in his family). D&D has always had issues and is slowly but surely getting more inclusive and better; but it's the main stream Table Top RPG and it needs to act like it. I'm not supposed to have to deal with this from professionals.

I know not everyone only gets to feel disappointed that 'The Curse of Strahd' isn't something you can just read and run. While it's always good practice to have open communication with your players, it's probably more important with this setting. At some point some serious modification is gonna have to be done to punch up the characters and remove some things that really distract from the tone. I think with some modification it can be a really interesting setting. But for now, I have to comb through 255 pages to edit it into something a little bit more interesting.