Sunday, 24 April 2016

How I Use Modules

It's been difficult to build the motivation to post to the blog, but as we've got a session coming this weekend, I'm doing my best to cough up something.

When I look at the current page of this blog, which comprises perhaps the most recent ten posts, under each of them is emblazoned the discouraging words 'No Comments'. Oddly, when I look at the stats, I can see that people are clicking onto these pages from North America, a few countries in Europe, and even India on occasion. Although I do get feedback from the players in my campaign once in a while, most of the time I feel like I'm talking to myself. Perhaps the readers are largely just clicking here by accident and immediately leaving when they see there's nothing here that they want. Or they might actually be staying to read, even regularly, but without any feedback I have no idea whether they're thinking, 'Hmm, interesting, good stuff' or, 'Man, this guy's a yutz. Why does he waste his time?'

At any rate, here it goes. The topic on which I'm going to pontificate today is the use of modules. Not long ago my DMing hero decided to market a module on his blog, and there was mention that it was possible to interpret this decision as 'selling out', or in contradiction to his philosophy and approach to the game. Since our campaign just finished making an excursion into a module--rather waltzed over the tip of its dramatic iceberg and, after some bloodshed, dropped the whole adventure like a bad habit--I thought it would be a good place to look at how I personally use those dandy packets lazy DMs adore so.
The module we recently bastardised is called The Village with No Name, and it's available for free download at along with a boatload of other modules. I'm going to go into a bit of detail about what I did with it, while mocking it just a tad.
I have never opened a module with the intention of running it the way its writers direct it to be run. I might have done when I was a young teenager first playing the game, if I had been aware of the existence of modules back then. As a jaded greybeard, I look at what the module is supposed to accomplish and think about whether the party is likely to find that their while. I then consider what minimal adjustments would be necessary to have the module make sense in the geographical and temporal context of my world. Lastly, I rummage through it to isolate any bits that are particularly interesting, at least as window dressing. Because most modules are a hodgepodge of tropes and cliches, this search is almost always fruitless, and I have to rely on actual history and  my own imagination to jazz it up.
Now, if I happen to find a module that I think has something to offer my party, I cut it up andmake paper dolls with it so that it can fit where the party is and what they're doing without appearing absolutely ridiculous. Sometimes this takes so much tweaking that the adventure bears scarce resemblance to the module.
The most annoying aspects of any module are immediately discarded. That includes the gaudy prose in which the descriptions are normally ensconced; treasure and weapons that couldn't possibly exist where the party is; the NPCs personalities and back-stories, which are invariably two-dimensional and derivative; and, usually, their names. (In the case of The Village with No Name, I kept most of the original names and just toned down the hyperbolic elements and gave the personages a bit of depth.)
The module's title itself is pretty ridiculous. The idea that 'the villagers never bothered to name it' is improbable though not, I suppose, impossible. Naturally enough, my party asked one of the villagers the name, and he replied that it didn't really have one. It's a bit of a stretch, but we could say that before the poll tax of 1377 not every locale had to be categorised and recorded. In this case, since the village straddles the border of Shropshire and Staffordshire, it might be recorded as Straddling East if finally determined to belong to the former, or Straddling West if the latter. This is of no great consequence, because they were able to find it easily enough with the help of the king's foresters, and at any rate they wouldn't have been likely to be particularly awed by mention of 'the village with no name'.
Map possessed by the party's paladin. The village would be in the Morfe Forest.

The characters, introduced on the second page of the .pdf, are: Galyn, the leader of the band of outlaws the party are supposed to face; Pilanor, a green-cloaked assassin who hangs out in the church; Feldryk, the parish priest; Vilnin, whom I couldn't help picture as a drunken and belligerent Rebeus Hagrid; and Burl, a fat, ugly, subhuman monster with a 'massive mace'. The module mentions about a score of outlaws without names; I gave them names on my record sheet as a means of keeping track of them and inspiring myself to run them sort of like people, which is surpisingly hard to do during the confusion of melee.

 So far, the best way I've found to keep track of that mess.

The outlaws are all carrying or wearing weapons and other items of value or power that could be found if the party had time to search the bodies after combat. Sometimes, they just have to run for their lives, and don't get the chance.

The idea of the module is that a band of outlaws, led by Galyn, have captured a village and are using it as their base of operations, to the horror of the people living in it. The subplot is that some of Galyn's gang are going to betray and assassinate him, and there's a bit about a special ring he's wearing, and the 'thinking' party are ostensibly expected to focus on that. Whether my party would been interested in doing or not, I cannot tell; they never made it that far. It doesn't matter whether I would have had Galyn killed by his own men nor whether Feldryk was actually a priest. The more powerful members of the gang were unreachable during the bellicose forays the party made into the village proper, and now they are long gone, having vacated the premises when they saw that a band of adventurers was making their stay in the village rather unfun.

They did encounter Vilnin, though his name never came up. The module instructs the DM to have this lone ruffian 'demand' the outrageous sum of '100gp' or attack the party. I did have him berate and attempt to intimidate the party, but he had to be drunk off his arse to do, and the party at that point was seven strong and fronted by a seasoned Danish mariner not likely to be intimidated by a loudmouth drunk. It did eventually escalate into a fight, but Vilnin wasn't difficult to take down in his condition. Having all the treasure the module gave him would have been a joke. Why would Galyn have even allowed him to keep it in a barn, the first building on the road into the village, instead of in a locked chest in deep in the gang's hideout? One of the party's henchmen greedily snatched up the earrings to sell to a local jeweler; whether I had endowed them with the magical properties suggested, the players will never know.
The monster Burl is described as 'the size of a house, standing 7' tall with shoulders nearly as wide', and one suspects, or at any rate I do, that that description wasn't proofread before publishing. As wide as he is tall? What is he, a gelatinous cube?
The module has the ruffians playing cards, but as this is unlikely in 14th-century England ours were playing dice, and not gambling nearly as much money. Their weapons and armour are all of local and unspectacular origin. With particular attention to Burl, the module reads:

Burl sits and watches the melee with passing interest for a full round before draining his drink, rising to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, grabbing his mace and attacking the nearest PC with a roar of battle lust.

Not something PCs are going to notice. They'd be too focused on the enemy directly in front of them. I might say instead, 'It occurs to you that the gelatinous cube with the mace the size of a tree is headed toward you. If you have to roll a new character, I'm sorry'. Even converting this Burl's stats into 2e terms, they're still unreasonable: STR 19, 24 hit points. Considering the attack bonus for strength and brawn as well as the mere weight of a 'massive mace' crashing down with the force of gravity behind it, our paladin, bard, and mariner would be three mushy piles of guts and brains. Planning for gratuitous treasure in the unlikely event the party survived wouldn't have been much compensation.

But after doing away with Vilnin, my party weren't stupid enough to traipse into a public house and start a fisticuffs, and I didn't expect them to be. As a 'thinking party' of a quite different sort, they played the situation much better: They had some henchmen find out who the village chandler was and buy up all the pitch they could, then set the pub on fire and knocked off the outlaws as they staggered outside. They may not have plundered the booty the gang left on the tables, but they captured the five panicking horses tied up outside, which were probably worth more.

There was no solving of any mystery. My party weren't going to care about backstabbing within the outlaw gang, much less attempt to put a stop to it. There was a bit of intrigue at first, but after that it was just hack and slash: The paladin read the priest's aura and decided he was corrupt and she wanted nothing to do with him. (It should go without saying that I had no itention of decorating Feldryk's office with a shelf of books with titles like The Beginner's Guide to Pious Practices listed on page 10 of the module. The 1980s North American self-help craze hasn't come to medieval Shropshire, and  besides, books in the Middle Ages were kept in locked chests, not on shelves; and this DM would be a tad less blatant in dropping hints about a priest's authenticity. Whether he was a real priest or not isn't actually something that would have been relevant; even if the party had defeated the gang, if they hadn't killed Feldryk, I would have had him do everything in his power to get away from the party, not continue to plague them in future adventures.)

The thing is, there were three PCs, plus a handful of jakeys from the Quattforde alehouse who happened to be taken in by the paladin's charismatic recruitment speech--the survivors became her henchmen later, but in the first foray into the village they were merely roustabouts--against more than a score of professional scallwags. Before burning down the pub, they had already got into a skirmish outside the church, and the peasants (whose existence is noted nowhere in the module, but they would have had to be there for the village to function) helped them get away before the gang could call for reinforcements. In retaliation, the outlaws went on a murderous spree, trampling the crops, burning down the cottages and orchards, carving up the men and doing to the women what one would imagine them doing to women. When the party came back after hiding in the woods for a day, they couldn't very well ask the torched corpses for help.

Once the PCs and their henchmen--two of whom had been slain at this point--destroyed the public house and stole the horses, they had what they thought was the best they could hope for, and they headed for the hills. At the end of our last session, the party found themselves well west of the Clee Forest, ready to do something completely different. Galyn's (or Feldryk's) gang would have abandoned the village, its most important resources used up or destroyed, and gone to evade the law in some other land, leaving the remaining buildings to be shrugged off and marked down as a ghost town by the 1377 tax collectors.

So if you're in this party, go ahead and spend the money on the Tao Jumpstart Proposal. When the module you get hits you in our campaign, it won't look anything like you imagine.


  1. Hello there,

    Sorry for never commenting, I don't have much to say.

    Still, you are NOT talking to yourself. You are implementing Alexis' ideas, putting work and effort and your own ideas there, and it IS interesting stuff. Stuff I want to read. I want more, more, more, because it's inspiring and a learning process. You're not waisting your time, I assure you.

    Other than that, what to add ? I've read everything you put here as soon as I discovered your blog, and it's in my favorites, I'm always waiting eagerly for the next post.

    I'm not in a position to start on the path of World Building yet. I'm making forays into another aspect of my gaming, and I don't want to end my campaign just to try something else. Would be bad form and not responsible.
    So reading your blog was a very nice reminder of what was awaiting me one I'd be free to do so. And as I have quite the desire to play in our historical past, it was thrilling.

    Note that I do not comment much on Alexis' blog either. Same reasons. And I realize it has the same adverse effect : lack of support. Which is a shame, considering how much I adore it ...

    1. Vlad, thank you heartily for your comment. I assume you're the one making Russia light green on my stats map.

      Your encouragement and feedback is enough to keep me going for a while. I'll try to get back into the habit of updating weekly; if I don't manage to do it that often, at least it will be more often than it has been.

    2. Well, contrary to my pseudonym, I'm from France ^^ . Now I'm wondering who's our Russian acquaintance...

      Update at the speed that makes sense to you. What you've already done is quite nice already, each of my visits bring me closer to starting work on my own settings according to Alexis' plan :P ...

      Now, if only I had the same leaning toward the old D&D rulesets as you two, it'd be heaven :P . Alas, I'm curiously bound to some kind of 3.X mod, with a strong desire to inflict GURPS on unsuspecting players ...

      Well, in any case, I wish you the best of luck !

  2. Always fascinating, if a bit embarrassing, to read the post-mortems on all the finished episodes of the campaign. I still find it difficult to see beyond the surface of the story into not only the possibilities the stories have of expanding but also of what we can do as players.

    1. I wouldn't be embarrassed. You turned it into something completely different, which is the whole joy of the experience.

      The next stage on which you're about to set foot is pulled completely from my own mind; there won't be any post-mortem because nothing is planned. The only things that could happen are those you make happen.

  3. I had to use a dictionary for "yutz".
    I'm sure we're going to meet Galyn again in the future

    1. 1. Was my picture in the dictionary?
      2. Not if he's dead, mate.