I’ve recently found an old piece on Hill Cantons about an exchange with Rob Kuntz, who was among the people who working on Dungeons & Dragons in the early years. In it, Kuntz is quite outspoken against published modules, which he regards as clearly a step into the completely wrong direction which turned the game into something very different from what they had thought to be the spirit of D&D.
I have always thought that the DM’s route to any fantastic achievement in such literature was through a very personal course, most certainly inspired by reading and study or other such related matter, but not actually “implanted” or done for them.
I first thought of this as a highly negative and overly criticizing view bordering on being elitist and snobbery, even though I am not really a fan of published adventures myself. But that had me wondering how I actually have been using modules over the 15 years that I’ve been running games. I am one of those rare and elusive people who actually got into RPGs without anyone to introduce me to it and teach me how it works, and worked myself through the rules the hard way. There was an introductory scenario which I used for the first shaky steps and then tried to start a real campaign with The Sword of the Dales using the 3rd edition rules which had just been released a few weeks before. Some years later I did run City of the Spider Queen, which we thought was very cool (because we were young and stupid), and was the only time I’ve ever seen characters of 11th level or higher. But as far as I can remember, that really was it as far as running published adventures went.
However, I did use a lot of other adventures. The last game that I ran was based on Flight of the Red Raven by Paizo, using a different rulesset, being set in a homebrew setting, there was no winter and ice, I made my own dungeon, created my own encounters, the jinn was an oni, and the Red Raven was a completely different guy. But the idea why the party went to that dungeon and what situation they were encountering there, that was pretty straight up taken from Flight of the Red Raven. I started that campaign with an adaptation of The Automatic Hound and Depths of Rage from Dungeon magazine. A blend of The Disappearance of Harold the Hedge Mage and Raiders of the Black Ice was plannes for later. I also did Escape from Meenlock Prison with an earlier group, which I think that was the best game I’ve ever ran. So yeah, I do love them and get a lot of use from them.
But I think this approach actually matches very well with what Kuntz said. “Inspired by reading and study or other such related matter, but not actually “implanted” or done for them.” That the related matter was a published RPG adventure and not a novel or book doesn’t really change anything in my view. There are plenty of other published adventures I very much love. Master of the Desert Nomads, Rahasia, Night’s Dark Terror, and Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and The Styes, to name a few. And Savage Tide has just full awesome all over it. But I never use the floorplans. I don’t use the NPC stats and I rebuild all the encounters from scratch using creatures that fit my setting and are of a difficulty that works well for the particular group of PCs I am currently playing with. Most of the time I actually use a different game edition or even an entirely different game.
So yeah, I think I am kind of in agreement with Kuntz here. Published adventures, as they are, are pretty much unusable for the kind of games that I run and I wouldn’t advice any new GM to run them out of the book. What I am getting out of them is really the description of adventuring sites, the motivation and goal of the antagonists, and the outline of their plans to achieve their goal. Everything else I can do myself, and even though I don’t consider myself a great GM, I can do it better myself. Not because the writers of published adventures are all total hacks who don’t know anything, but because only I know the level and composition of the party and the setting in which the campaign takes place. Publish adventures cannot account for this. And what I really would love to see is adventures that don’t even try. Just give me the setup, the location, and the antagonists plan. That is really the most difficult part of creating a good adventure for a group. Leave all that number stuff to me, that part is easy once you know what you’re trying to do.