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A way to salvage linear modules

OK, this post is written from a perspective of GM-led RPGs. Think D&D. This post assumes that playing trad games, or games with some overlap with trad play, is something that some people do still want to do, at least some part of the time.

Before I started playing, many modules were written in a place-centric way. This is the cave, this is the wandering monster table, this is the porte, the monstre and the trésor. That was awesome. I would’ve had a much easier time getting started if I had had access to something like B4 The Lost City.

But when I did start playing, most modules I found were written in a timeline-centric way. First this happens, then this happens etc etc. Places are described only when the protags were expected to go there. Characters were described only when the protags were expected to meet them.

And as I’ve recounted many times before: this baffled me to no end. “But… but… what if the players don’t do that?” and I started improvising instead but the way I improvised was in a way that didn’t really give the players agency or really build on what they did. Some players did love my style but I found myself with a dwindling group without any real feedback of what I was doing wrong. When I found story games I discovered how to improvise together, which was better, and then when I found OSR I found how to get back the GM/PC split [which has its upsides] but also maintain some real agency.

Now that I’ve many years of experience running sandbox games, many of those timeline-centric modules that just left me confused and frustrated suddenly seem playable again.

The solution is to both

  1. Place them in a sandbox. Have other stuff going on, have a full setting book and random tables etc etc where you can play without any rails. Like if you have a full, working, set up sandbox, then you can place the starting village of Torch (from the linear Iron Gods adventure path) on your map and the starting event from that village on your rumor table. And,

  2. Treat them as a sandbox. The thing that I didn’t fully grok (and old-timers are shaking their heads as they read this, if they knew how to use these modules. Well, I didn’t) is that even linear modules have places, people, monsters, dilemmas etc set up. If they don’t go to the place the module-writer expected? Well, hopefully the place they do go to is described somewhere in the module. Extracting places, people, items etc from these modules is often a lot of work but it can be done.

And that’s something I wish I had understood 20 years ago. Better yet, I wish that I had started with some small, easy sandbox modules like B4 The Lost City.

Q&A

This isn’t new, every DM worth their salt knows this!

A lot of people are able to run linear modules successfully. Some using this technique, and others using the opposite technique (and by opposite technique I mean keeping them on the rail — often overtly and with buy-in). And I’m not saying I invented this technique. In hindsight, I guess people must have been doing it this way, sinte it makes so much sense to me. But I’ve never learned it nor did I see it written down. Hence this post: to write it down so that people can learn it.

Does this work for every linear module?

Not as far as I know, but it works for a non-zero amount and even that is cool to me. It means that some pretty darn interesting setups and people and places that I’ve let gather dust over the years now can find a new life.

Ugh, is it even worth it?

Probably not. There are so many good sandboxes small and big now. And it can sometimes be a lot of work. But if you have a pet module that you always wish you had been able to do something with…

Wait, does this mean that presentation doesn’t matter?

Oh, it does! As an example, I had a very hard time running Princes of the Apocalypse even though it is a legit sandbox, and even though the setting and characters are (to me) very compelling, because the book is so weirdly organized. And then extracting info from linear modules can be even harder.

Wait, does this mean that you think that timeline-centric presentation is sometimes the right choice for a module?

No. My own opinion is that it’s the wrong choice but I’m trying to write down a way to work with modules that made that choice, work with them spite of that choice.

I often see that intro adventures to trad games are linear…

I know, and that’s bull! I know that many people believe it’ll be a lot easier and more scripted and tutorial-like for new GMs and DMs but… there are so many ways things can go wrong. Game makers, make sure that the intro adventures you provide are non-linear!

What do you recommend for trad game makers creating intro adventures?

Make a small sandbox. A town, some small dungeons, rumors that lead to those dungeons, and well-stocked and evocative encounter tables for every region. Emphasis on set up over story. Teach when to look things up and when to make things up. (I made a first draft of a a game mastering tutorial text in Swedish, here.)

What do you recommend for adventure writers who’s working on a big adventure?

Organize it as a sandbox. I think Curse of Strahd is a usable and interesting example. As are Stonehell and Barrowmaze.

What do you recommend for GMs who don’t have a big sandbox?

Start with a small sandbox. I’m trying to create a way to grow a sandbox, and one of my first attempts at that is the Quest Queue.