The Interactive Toolkit
In this four-part series, Christopher Kubasik examines what roleplaying games are and they work, and presents a new approach to playing RPGs.
Part Two: Why Do Modules Suck
If you're one of the people who buy published adventures, you're probably one of the people who complain about them. You've found them to be so linear that they undo the open-ended nature of roleplaying games. Or they're so open-ended that they're utterly useless. Or they're too heavy on combat. Or they're too subtle for players to puzzle through. These complaints are all valid. Most modules (as published adventures used to be known) don't work.
Here's at look at why.
The basic plot form of a story is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and arrives at a win, lose or draw. All roleplaying games involve this basic plot in one form or another.
Dungeon & Dragons fulfilled this requirement brilliantly and simply. Characters wanted experience points and wanted to gain levels. Any other want they might have had - social, political or personal - was subsumed within the acquisition of levels. Did you want social recognition? A greater understanding of the ways of magic? Influence over people as a religious leader? Pretty much anything your character might have wanted was acquired by gaining levels.
Dungeon modules worked for this very reason. A D&D character who wanted to become a lord didn't go off and court a princess. He became a lord by wandering around dungeons, killing monsters and overcoming traps. The game offered no rules for courting a princess, but did provide rules for becoming a lord at 10th level, after looting enough arbitrarily placed holes in the ground.
Modules disintegrated the moment a player got the bright idea of having his character become a lord by courting a princess. Suddenly the world opened up. Instead of getting what they wanted by pursuing a single activity - namely, overcoming traps and monsters characters now wanted to interact with people, gaining what they wanted through individual action and detailed plots.
The motivation behind hitting on the princess rather than crawling through a series of traps is obvious. First, and perhaps most importantly for some, the idea of wooing a princess was more fun than hanging out in a dungeon. Second, just because the rules didn't say anything about wooing didn't mean you couldn't do it. As we all know, the minute an idea pops into a player's head, he's going to try it. Third, the goofiness of acquiring the title of lord by looting holes grated against the sensibilities of many players. They wanted to become lords in ways that made sense.
Games released since the advent of D&D have wildly opened up the narrative possibilities of adventures. The dungeon vanished, replaced by the settings of AD&D's Forgotten Realms, Traveller's Imperium, Star Wars' Empire and Vampire's World of Darkness.
Unfortunately, characters in many games still have to stick it out as a group. Since dungeon crawling no longer provides a focus for group activity, characters are often hired, as in Traveller or Shadowrun, or wait around for something bad to happen that they can put an end to, as in most super-hero games.
Designing Adventure Modules
The expansion of narrative possibilities by recent games has led to the development of two basic types of modules: location based and scene based. Both work on the same premise: A module contains a list of adventure blocks - either rooms on a map or a sequence of scenes floating in a kind of "plot void." Characters move around the map or plot void, enter a room or scene, "activate" it, deal with whatever is in the room or scene and then go to the next block.
Location-based modules are the standard for TSR products. Though they started in dungeons, they aren't confined to them. A TSR module might be set in a village, swamp, inhabited castle or an entire city. But invariably there is a map with a key. Characters can go anywhere on the map. Whatever they need to solve the problem at hand - whether it's solving a mystery, defeating an evil wizard, gaining a valuable treasure or marrying a princess - is found by traveling to keyed locations.
Almost every game system that's come out since D&D tells scene-based rather than location-based stories in its modules. People really like the open-ended possibilities of roleplaying games, and scene-based games make use of this freedom. Star Wars, Vampire and Shadowrun all use this format. Although adventure modules might contain keyed maps, those maps are contained within a structure of scenes.
Scene-based modules engage characters in a goal from the start (steal the money, stop Dr. Dread's Doomsday Ray, get Mr. Johnson his data, make peace with the Prince of Chicago) and offer a set of options of where to go and with whom to speak to fulfill the goal.
The problem with scene-based modules is that characters may go anywhere and do anything. Unlike location-based adventures, where it's understood that everything needed to succeed is geographically at hand, a story-based game suggests that the next vital Clue/person/conflict could be anywhere. This often leads characters to visit places and talk to people (or make assumptions of any kind) not explicitly covered in the module. The GM who bought the module (so she wouldn't have to make up maps and NPCS) suddenly has to make up both on the spot.
There are three solutions to this problem, and they fall upon, module writers (or we GMS who are prepared to redesign the adventures we purchase) to act upon.
The first is to create modules like those first designed for Star Wars the "lead the players by the nose" variety. Characters are forced to go from one scene to the next, each scene ending with a big red arrow that says GO THIS WAY! This style of module makes players fidgety, if not hostile, and should be avoided.
The second solution is for the module writer to read the minds of people he doesn't know, consider all the possibly decisions that the characters might come up with, and somehow account for all these possibilities in 64 pages not counting the 6 to 10 pages that are reserved for art.
The third, and only possible sane option, is to try to balance the first two options and hope for the best.
Ultimately, no matter how hard she tries, the module writer can't create something that will work for everybody.
One player's "good clue" is another player's "he's leading us by the nose." Also, since the adventure's story is open, ended, there's no way to guess what players are going to have their characters do.
Finally, no pregenerated adventure can be complete because characters have different motivations.
Remember the adventurer who left the dungeon to woo a princess? Before he did that he assumed that if he trashed enough dungeons, a princess would be his once he got to 10th level. His motivations and desires were subsumed within the group activity of exploring dungeons.
Let's say this guy - Charise d'Amor, a lovable rake who's trying to marry a rich princess - is your character. You arrive at the gaming table and see the GM crack open a new pregenerated adventure, "The Quest of Tallian's Orb."
A busy wizard hires your group of adventurers to steal back a magical orb that keeps the fair land of Tallian safe from terrible monsters. He tells you what he knows about the theft of the orb. You're on the doorstep of a scene. based module. You know the goal, the clues and the options of what to do next.
Let's assume the author has done a good job. The clues presented are intriguing, not obvious. The characters encountered are amusing and full of life. The scene descriptions help the GM evoke the proper mood. Every, thing is going fine.
And then the princess shows up. The module's author just put the princess in because she was a fun character who would have some information about the orb's location. You see, the guy who wrote the module didn't know your character is Charise d'Amor.
Suddenly your character doesn't care about finding the orb. The only reason he's out searching for an orb in the first place is to pull together enough cash for a suitable set of clothes and an introduction to royalty. But now he's got a princess rigl-it in front of him. You could play "out hours of flirting with the princess. The story suddenly fractures into tiny pieces.
Does everybody wait around for Charise to woo the princess? Do the others leave your character behind? Do you blow the princess off to stay with the group, even though your character's motivation is right in front of him?
It could be worse. Could the module's author have known that one of the players' characters, Bombim the Barbarian, believes that wizards are the scourge of the planet and he'll never take a job from one? Nope. The whole adventure would end before it begins. Sure, the GM can change the module, refitting circumstances and character choices to match the party. But then why buy it in the first place?
The problem is this: simple plots and sophisticated characters just don't mix. If you 'want a character who's more than a hired gun, you'll be disappointed by pregenerated adventures. And adventures released for recent ga I mes only make the problem worse.
There's a new type of roleplaying game out there for which it is even harder to write modules. In fact, it's impossible to write modules for them. In these 'games the characters actually are characters. As in the definition at the start of this article, they have wants. The wants of the characters are made up during character creation. The whole point of playing them is to see if the characters will move closer to a win, lose or draw in the attempt to fulfill their wants. They aren't waiting around for plots to drop into their laps as do mercenaries Or super-heroes. They are the stories.
These games include Ars Magica, Vampire and all the others in the Storyteller Series, Amber Diceless and Castle Falkenstein. In Ars Magica, characters are part of a tightknit organization that sets goals and ambitions for the group. In Vampire, the characters are a group of warring factions, sometimes searching for final rest, sometimes searching to become human, sometimes looking for power over a city. In Castle Falkenstein, characters create their own nemeses and name their own social, romantic and professional goals.
In most roleplaying stories, the plot is indifferent to the characters. You can drop any character in, and it works fine. This phenomenon goes back to roleplaying's heritage in wargaming. It didn't matter why armies fought. All that mattered were choices during battle and the battle's outcome. The same can be said for a dungeon crawl or mercenary adventure story.
But as vou build more sophisticated characters, characters with more detailed dreams, desires and quirks, stories much change correspondingly. If not, they remain clunky, leaving players and GMs with a vague dissatisfaction: "How come we did all that work on our characters if it didn't matter?"
Of course, modules can be written for these rich characters. You can try to build interesting strap-in-the-players, roller coaster stories for interesting characters. For example, a moody, thematically rich adventure for Vampire that's filled with detailed, complicated characters could be published Let's say it's about the conflicts between the vampires of Chicago and Gary and hope it works better than other modules. But it won't. Because what if the characters don't care about Gary?
Changing the nature of adventure modules to suit these more sophisticated games doesn't help. The problem is with the structure and format of the adventures themselves. We keep stapling new ideas on top of old ones, putting more interesting characters into formats designed for dungeon crawls. If you want more interesting characters, you have to take the risk of having more interesting stories.
Last issue, I rummaged through the rules of roleplaying games and picked out the rules and ideas that I thought got in the way of broadening the scope of roleplaying stories. Now I'm going to gut some of the assumptions of the stories we usually tell. Let me state again that what I'm discussing is not better than roleplaying, nor an evolutionary advancement. It's just different.
I won't call my subject a roleplaying game. That sidesteps the issue of which company is doing roleplaying games "right" - if anyone is. We'll take a cue from Mike Pondsmith's clever Castle Falkenstein term "Adventure Entertainments" and dub this new social activity "Story Entertainments." The evening's gathering is now focused on story, rather than on the partaking of roles. However, people are still playing characters. Moreover, by removing the term "game" and replacing it with entertainment," we remove concerns about winning - whether as a group or an individual player. The goal is to improvise an entertaining story; to get together and have a good time or, if a powerful sentiment is carefully introduced, be moved. What we don't want to do is sit around a table staring grimly down at character sheets.
So, what are the differences between roleplaying games and Story Entertainments? Let's start with roleplaying's GM (referee, Storyteller or whatever). This is usually the person who works out the plot, the world and everything that isn't the players'. To a greater or lesser degree, she is above the other players in importance, depending on the group's temperament. In a Story Entertainment, she is just another player. Distinctly different, but no more and no less than any other player. The terms GM and referee fail to convey this spirit of equality. The term Storyteller suggests that the players are passive listeners of her tale. So here's another term for this participant - one that invokes the spirit of Story Entertainments - Fifth Business.
Fifth Business is a term that originates from European opera companies. A character from Robertson Davies' novel, The Fifth Business, describes the' term this way:
You cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business. You must have a Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death, if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without the Fifth Business!
This certainly sounds a lot like a GM, but it also makes it clear that he's part of the show, not the show itself.
Let's call the players the Leads. They're not players in the GM's game. They're participants in a story. The Fifth Business has a lot more work to do than do the Leads, changing costumes and shaping the story while it's in progress. But the Leads are equal to the Fifth Business. The Leads must react to the characters, incidents and information that the Fifth Business offers, just as players must react to what the GM offers in a roleplaying game. But the Fifth Business must always be on his toes and react to what the Leads offer.
Because in a Story Entertainment the story doesn't belong to the Fifth Business. The Fifth Business can't decide what the plot is going to be and then run the players through it like mice in a maze. The Leads determine the direction of the story when they create their characters. Remember our definition of plot from the start of this article? What do the characters want? What are their goals? The story is about the attempt to gain those goals. The Fifth Business creates obstacles to those goals.
Let's say you're a space-faring smuggler who needs to pay off massive debts to an interstellar loan shark. The Fifth Business provides an opportunity for the smuggler to pay off his debt some kid, an old man and two robots need passage to a planet and don't want the Stellar Dominion to know about it.
It sounds like a standard adventure scenario - your character's hired to do a job and all - but it isn't standard roleplaying fare. The goal of the night's session isn't to complete the mission that the Fifth Business sets before you. It's for your character to get out from under the thumb of the loan shark.
Your smuggler might refuse the job. If he does, the loan shark's goons might come after him, asking where the latest payment is. Your smuggler might then decide to transport the kid after all. Or he might just skip the planet and hope for the best. He might kill the loan shark, and then it becomes a story about staying alive with the loan shark's thugs in pursuit. Hell, your smuggler might sell the kid to the Dominion.
Or during the trip, a new opportunity for money might come up: if they rescue a princess, says the kid, the smuggler will make more money than he can imagine. Will he take it or pass? The adventure doesn't depend on the right answer. There is no right answer. There's only the story, as created by everyone gathered that night. In a Story Entertainment, no one knows how the thing's going to end or even what the story is. The plot is unknown. What is known are the characters' goals, the fact that the Fifth Business is going to provide opportunities for those wants to be met, and the fact that the Fifth Business is going to impose obstacles for the characters. It's also known that at some time those goals are going to be pursued to a win, loss or draw in terms of their fufillment.
It's just like watching a movie unfold before your eyes.
Of course, pulling all this together with several Leads, all with their own goals and on the spur of the moment, is a daunting prospect. So in the next installment of this series, I'll discuss how characters, rules and plots are woven together to create successful Story Entertainment.
Copyright ©1995 Christopher Kubasik
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