Perspectivism, Positivism and Progress - D&D and the Adventure Module
Being an academic I’ve been trained to do a few things more or less by default. One of them is to evaluate people’s opinions by assuming that there is a reason for their belief. Even if the belief is out there, or unusual, or seemingly contradictory, the job of the analyst is to attempt to reconstruct the reasoning from the perspective of the user.
In game design terms, if you see something that seems odd, or unusual, or whatever, you don’t just assume that the feature is the result of a mistake, or irrationality, or stupidity, you assume that it was there for a reason, and figure out what the reason is, to the best of your ability. When I look back on old RPGs that I am just discovering now, there will be bits that seem nonsensical or strange, but I assume that they are there for a reason.
Why does this matter? Well, there is a growing tendency amongst game designers to look at older games and think they are badly designed as they don’t make sense to them. It’s no different than looking at the practices of people in the past and assuming they are irrational as what they are doing makes no sense to us. Or looking at the cultural practices of others and assuming they are nonsensical.
But that’s a mistake, it’s a mistake in history and it’s a mistake in game design. Game designers these days are thoroughgoing positivists, they see game design as moving towards some sort of platonic ideal of ease, elegance and playability. Older games were “prototypes” or “halting steps” along the inevitable road of TTRPG progress. We used to look at most things this way, science, civilization, etc, was on an eternally progressive road, more efficient, better, as time goes by.
To do this however, you first have to establish that the old version was bad, that’s why the new version represents progress. So what you see going on now is a widespread effort not just to claim that D&D is “problematic”, which is the main spearhead of the initiative, but also to claim that it is badly designed.
So you see discussions of how “fail forward” mechanics are superior to “pass fail” mechanics. No, fail forward and pass/fail mechanics deliver different things in different ways, but one isn’t any better than the other.
The latest salvo in this particular vein is one that looks at older TSR modules and argues that they were ‘badly designed’.
I see this ALL THE TIME. So for example, people will claim that boxed text is “bad design”, and they will find stilted examples of boxed text that aren’t particularly well written, and point at it saying, “see, see, bad design”, but in actuality, the design is fine, the execution is wanting. You would see this if you just expanded your search to GOOD boxed text, and it certainly exists.
Boxed text is ONE WAY of dealing with the fact that the ref will know some things that the players do not. Boxing the text to be read to the players is an easily recognizable way of ensuring that the ref gives out relevant, helpful information to inform the players about the environment so they can explore it. There are other ways to present information, but there is nothing badly designed about box text.
Another often cited complaint is that older modules are just a series of set piece encounters, and there is nothing else there, no RP guidance, no factions, nothing other than encounter after disconnected encounter. I think this sort of criticism is useful to unpack.
First, it’s false. Yes, older modules had less guidance for RP (social RP to be exact, all actions by your PC are RP), but that was standard in the game. Looking back on old modules and criticizing them for lack of social RP in a game that did not stress social RP is an odd criticism to make. That’s like criticizing a science-fiction RPG for lack of rules for making magical swords.
But older modules did have RP guidance, for example:
The Secret of Bone Hiil:
Isle of Dread:
Egg of the Phoenix:
The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Yes, this is not the same as having a system with explicit social RP rules, but it is clearly direction for social role playing in the modules.
And it’s more than this, although not all early modules “made sense”, and some were primarily disconnected encounters, this is an oversimplification. Modules had more than just encounters, they also discussed factions, how to handle the players passing through those encounters, what would happen when the PCs impacted the environment, and how to use the materials of the module in your game. For example,
Danger at Dunwater:
To the Aid of Falx:
Isle of Dread:
Isle of Dread
Older modules also encouraged expansion of the materials provided, something that helped new refs to grow and learn how to develop the materials that they had, for example:
Dwellers of the Forbidden City:
Isle of Dread:
Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade
I should also point out (though I won’t quote as it would take up too much space!) that EVERY early module had a “background” section to introduce and contextualize the module. It was NEVER just a ‘series of disconnected encounters’, in some cases the background and set up for an adventure took up pages and pages of the module, and was intimately tied up to the unfolding of the story.
So let’s put to bed the idea that older modules were just a series of disconnected encounters. Yes, by today’s “story game” standards they lacked a lot of the social RP and connections to the PCs ‘backstories” that you would expect in newer products, but that doesn’t mean that these elements weren’t there.
Minimalism in Game Design
An oft cited turning point in this arc of game design is the Desert of Desolation series, I have it, I’ve played it a number of times, and it is a great series. Fun, engaging, exciting, it delivers a great story with great flavor. Dragonlance is also cited in this context, but I have never played or read any of it.
I would agree that the Desert of Desolation series provides MORE social RP guidance, more story, more structure, and generally gives the ref more material to work with outside of and in addition to the encounters.
But here is the interesting thing, that doesn’t make it better, it makes it different.
People seem to forget that modules are not “stand alone”, although they can be run that way. Modules were originally designed with the intention of being dropped into your campaign. Yes, many were based on tournament modules, but even these were then published so that D&D players could run them in their campaigns.
You could of course run a home game that consisted of a disconnected series of published modules, using different pregens for each adventure or rolling up new PCs each time, but the basic concept here was to drop these modules into your game with your existing PCs and such.
If that’s the case, and I’m fairly sure it is, then consider dropping the Desert of Desolation series into your game, or taking one of the modules from the series and using it in isolation. I’ve tried doing both, and it’s considerably harder to do than you might think.
All of that “extra” content that wasn’t in the early modules, the extensive social RP guidance, the lore and background that “fleshes out” the module, these things work against integrating the materials into your campaign. As you can imagine, individual campaigns vary WILDLY, so taking an existing module that specifies motivations, factions, backgrounds and such in a way that adds a lot of depth to the module creates barriers to integrating that module into your game.
I am running 6 concurrent AD&D campaigns at the moment, I create most of the materials myself, but I periodically insert an old school module into the mix for fun, and I can tell you with confidence that the older, minimalist style of adventure module is PERFECT to drop into an ongoing campaign.
I don’t have to significantly adjust modules to fit my campaign’s “lore” as they have minimalist design, so they are easily added. It is far easier to integrate a module into my game and my players past actions, etc. when it is minimalist in this fashion. In particular, if you run a game where faction play is important, minimalist design is brilliant.
Older D&D modules are perfectly designed to be dropped rather seamlessly into a D&D campaign, no matter what the lore or the factions being used. That’s a great design feature, not a bug, and it should be recognized as such.
The Art of Empty Spaces
Another feature of older D&D modules that is worth noting is the “empty spaces” they left. Gygax was notorious for this. Heleft significant portions of modules undeveloped, for example, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks has over 200 unkeyed rooms on one level alone. Gygax deliberately leaves parts of the map undeveloped in many of his modules.
It’s easy to look at this and think it’s lazy game design, and I’ve seen people claim exactly this. However, there are two reasons why this is a mistake. First, it was a choice on Gygax’s part, he didn’t do it to save work or because he was too lazy to figure something out, Gygax didn’t lack in imagination or persistence.
He designed modules this way so you could flavor them for your own game. Non-designated spaces on the map are opportunities to bring in elements of your campaign to the module. In some cases there are spaces left and the module writers give suggestions as to how you can fill them, Gygax tended to leave you to your own except for vague suggestions.
Leaving things up to the ref is often cited as bad game design, particularly for newer refs, where examples and specificity is cited as a goal. However, this just assumes that there is only one best way to teach people how to play D&D.
Giving the ref specific instructions and details is one way to teach them how to run D&D games. And it can work well. You run a few detailed and fully specified modules and you can start to produce your own. However, leaving many things “open” is an excellent way to learn how to design your own adventures (by having to design the open components in an adventure) and to make your own decisions about how to develop your game.
Pretty much every single person I know who grew up playing AD&D as a kid says something similar about this, yes, those lacunae in the early modules did create work for the ref, but they learned more from “filling in the blanks'' in old modules than they did from just reading the rules. For many people, specifying the blanks and fitting the game into their campaign was one of their first experiences of game design. Rather than running a whole module then seeking to emulate it in your game, refs were given a template for a more or less complete module and were asked to customize it and complete it for their game.
If you think about it, it’s kind of genius design.
Many people want “plug and play”, buy the module, read it and run it. Easy. And that’s fine, but “incomplete” modules invite the ref to make them their own, to integrate them into their existing campaign and to flavor them for their game. You don’t have to like this, you may simply prefer to have this work done for you, and that’s fine.
But designing modules where you have to do some work to integrate and complete the materials helps you to build your referee and game design skills. It’s not BAD design, it’s design with a particular purpose, and it works remarkably well in a long running open campaign.
Kit Bashing, Improvisation and Sandbox Play
The other aspect of this issue that is interesting is the idea of kit-bashing. Early D&D modules were written when the game was new. TSR cranked out materials at a fearsome pace, but even then, it was unlikely that they could satiate the growing appetite for new materials.
Add to that the fact that many early game designers were inveterate thieves, they shamelessly stole game mechanics, plot elements, etc. from anywhere they could find them, as the game was new and growing, and they were trying out new things. And if you check in with “old school” refs you will often find that they create ‘Frankengames’, versions of D&D that have hacked bits off of other games and put them together.
Modules that are light on the context and specifications are ideal for kit-bashing. You can pinch NPCs, maps, plot points, mechanics, you name it, from published modules. But here is the rub, the more context, lore, social role play direction, etc, that a module has, the harder it is to kit-bash.
Take just one example. Recently the PCs in my Monday game needed to find some frost giants (long story, suffice it to say they needed fantastic components to aid in the creation of a magic item). I could have come up with something myself, instead I grabbed my copy of Against the Giants, and grabbed the section for G2, The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.
At a blistering 6 pages (5 if you take out the evocative artwork) G2 is a study in minimalism, just what you need and nothing more. That makes it ideal to pinch and drop into my game.
As someone who runs a sandbox game where the players can pivot on a dime, being able to grab pieces of existing adventures and drop them into my game is a HUGE advantage. It’s not that you can’t do this with modules that have a lot more detail, of course you can, but finding what to pinch and extracting it is a lot more work.
I quite literally took 15 minutes to read through G2, spent another 10 modding the map and I was good to go. The reason this works is that the module is lean, it gives you just what you need to run the encounters, how you frame them, contextualize them and fit them to your campaign is entirely up to you.
Note, and this is very important, that having a preference for more fully fleshed out modules is just fine, you like what you like. And there are advantages to that approach, fully fleshed out modules can serve as templates for new refs, and having a “plug and play” module is on one level less work. But to call minimalist adventures “bad design” or “unplayable” just betrays a lack of understanding of both game design and campaign play.