Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sometimes, I ponder for a long time on a blog post. Other times, they just come to me. This is one of those.

It all started with our friend Joethelawyer. Apparently, he was in a group playing through a pre-packaged dungeon that, in his opinion, sucked. And this brought a few other bloggers out of the woodwork, writing about the value of pre-packaged adventures in general. The bloggers that I've read suggest that pre-written adventures are useful, but not always as something to present directly to your players.

Noisms over at Monsters and Manuals even goes so far as to suggest that running an adventure module as written is the creative equivalent of playing a cover song or remaking a movie. And that's something that I disagree with.

Because a module should not represent the sum total of the gaming experience provided. There are some badly written modules out there, that railroad player choice and force them through a single plot. But the better ones don't. The better ones give the players lots of opportunities to make choices and make their own story out of the module.

Two great examples of adventures that give players lots of room to make choices are The Castle of the Mad Archmage (by the brilliant Joseph Bloch) and The Jaded City of Oz, the sample adventure in Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. (You knew that was coming, didn't you? Purchase links are on the right.)

As a mega-dungeon, The Castle of the Mad Archmage has multiple angles of approach. There's no single path through the dungeon. There's not even a clear delineation between "plot encounter" and "side quest". (I've been running this dungeon for over a year and I'm still not sure that delineation even exists. It doesn't matter, though, because me and my players are having a blast.)

I'm running this dungeon as written, for the most part. It's so big and full of stuff that I don't feel I can prepare for it in a holistic way, so I've just been running it off-the-cuff. When I do modify the dungeon, it is mostly in terms of description. By virtue of being so vast, the descriptions tend to be terse and practical, without much in the way of "boxed text" for the players. So I make stuff up and add details.

For example, one section of the first level of the dungeon is a temple to an evil god. So at the entryway to this temple, I placed a small table with a coffee pot and some ceramic cups. Because even at evil church, they have coffee hour after the service ;)

There are empty rooms here (which I knew was one of Joe's complaints about the dungeon he played in). While I don't always fill these rooms myself, it can be fun to see what players try to do. Very often, they will simply leave them. Sometimes they'll check for secret doors, but sometimes not. The fun times are when the players decide to leave something behind in the room for the next party to discover. (This is actually something I heard happened quite a bit in Gary Gygax's original Castle Greyhawk dungeon. Gary maintained that dungeon as a persistent, responsive environment for his friends to explore. When a room was cleared of monsters or treasure discovered, that's how it was for everyone else. Likewise when the players made a deliberate change to the environment, such as writing on a wall or using a magic mouth spell to leave a message in the dungeon, Gary added it in. Sometimes these changes were helpful, but just as often, they were intended as tricks or traps set by one player against the other dungeon explorers.)

The Jaded City of Oz takes place entirely above ground, and is all the more open for it. It is a loosely linked set of scenarios, each one without a strictly defined solution. In fact, most of the scenarios do not require that their problem be solved in order to advance to the next. Although every group I've run this adventure with has engaged with every problem, they do not always come to the same solution.

Even when the solutions are similar, they're not always exactly the same. While most groups negotiate a peace between the Gloofers and the Blue Trees of Munchkinland (the first scenario of the adventure), I can only recall one group who implored the Gloofers to learn good forestry practices to ensure the health of the Blue Tree forest.

And then there are the solutions that are always different. The final encounter of the adventure, the Jaded City itself, has never been resolved the same way twice. When asked to present something that the Jaded Citizens had not already seen before, one group presented Bungle the Glass Cat (who was a member of the party). The session that I recorded at DunDraCon (and I really need to get around to editing the rest of it) answered this challenge with a giant bubble-blowing mecha.

Even though I've used these pre-written adventures extensively and with as little modification as possible, I have never been stifled as a DM/GM/Narrator while running them. My players have had broad latitude to make choices and my ability to respond to those choices is equally broad.

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