Doing it Wrong - Why I Don't Play D&D, and Probably Never Did
The longer I’m on Twitter the more I’m convinced that about half the people there are there to kill your fun. For some reason the app seems to draw in people who like to TELL YOU WHAT TO DO. And it’s not restricted to “overtly political” topics either, it covers gaming topics as well.
For a while it was the “story gamers” telling the “D&D is a game” crowd that D&D was a shared storytelling experience, so you should, for example, get permission from your players to kill their characters, and that the “beer and pretzels” D&D crowd was a toxic bunch.
For a few weeks recently it was “homebrew is bad”, because homebrew meant that players wouldn’t know what to expect, homebrew was ‘rarely any good’, or that homebrew was too much work. I disagree with all of these positions (not that homebrew can’t be bad, or that players having expectations is wrong) but that’s another blog post.
Today I’m going to look at the latest discussion, “published modules and expansion materials for the game are bad”.
Because of course they are.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the “WotC modules are bad because WotC is a bad company that does bad things so you shouldn’t support them” argument, again, that’s another blog post.
Instead, the criticism is coming largely from the BROSR crowd (there may be others that are saying the same thing, but I’ve only seen the BROSR take). The “problem” here is that published modules are claimed to be badly designed, and apparently if you use them it's because you want someone else to “do the work” for you, and you are lazy or unimaginative.
I think this is not only mistaken, but ridiculously so.
In order to get there, a brief diversion.
In 1984 a friend of mine invited me over to try “a new game” his cousin (who was visiting for the summer) had brought with him, ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’.
I had never heard of it before, and the first TTRPG product I ever saw was the 1e AD&D Players Handbook.
I was smitten. What a cover! And so many of the “heroes” on the cover looked like regular people, this wasn’t “heroic”, “posed” fantasy art, this was gritty, dangerous looking stuff.
And so we played.
But as it was AD&D, and we were all of 14 years old at the time, we got pretty much everything wrong. We misunderstood movement rates and outdoor versus indoor ranges, initiative was a mess, we missed all the finicky little rules (1 in 6 chance of the unarmored head being hit!), we didn’t “get” so much of that game.
But it didn’t matter at all. We had MASSIVE amounts of fun. Those early games were magical, I had never played a TTRPG before and it completely sucked me in, playing a role, being a hero. Dying, lots and lots of dying! We played most days that summer (the summer before my first summer job), and I loved wizards. They usually lasted about 1-2 sessions before dying off, so I played a LOT of wizards that summer.
We were learning as we went along. And we played modules, lots of modules. Hommlet, Forbidden City, Isle of Dread, White Plume Mountain, we ran the gamut, we even ran some non TSR stuff in our game, Judges Guild was a popular choice. In pretty much every case we “modified” the modules to fit our fledgling campaign and flawed understanding of the rules.
And it was glorious.
So first things first, anyone claiming that you “aren’t playing real D&D” by playing modules is writing off the experience of literally thousands of D&D players over the years, and the intentions of the original game designers, who ALL published modules to be used with the game.
That’s just nonsense.
However, these days it might be simpler to just give in to the nonsense, because people are so siloed and so wedded to their “image” online that fighting this might be pointless and just lead to more vitriol and needless discussion.
So I have decided that I won’t try to “claim” D&D here. If running a game with modules as part of your campaign is “not D&D”, or if playing D&D primarily as a game rather than a “shared storytelling experience” is “not D&D” (because I’ve heard that too), then I haven’t been playing D&D for the last 40 years.
I’m fine with that, the story gamers and the BROSR dudes can have it.
A pox on all their houses.
I play TTRPGs, my favorite is a house ruled version of AD&D first edition. It’s not REALLY D&D, it’s something else.
There. That was easy.
Now that I have given the BROSR brothas and the storygaming sistahs their D&D so they can covet it like a golden ring snatched from Gollum, I can get on to the meat of this post.
Should you use modules or not, to be clear, this isn’t “does REAL D&D use modules or not”, because I’ve already given up on the idea that I play “REAL D&D”. So the question is, whether or not you play “REAL D&D”, are modules a good idea?
I say yes.
How you use modules is a slightly different issue, and one I will dive into now.
Adaptation and Inspiration
One of the first realizations I made when I started to referee a regular campaign was that inspiration was HARD. Most of us have seen enough fantasy themed entertainment to create a few adventures on our own, but running a regular campaign, particularly a SANDBOX STYLE campaign as I prefer to run, quickly burns through your most well recognized tropes and storylines. I ran over 560 hours of D&D last year alone, for 7 different campaigns. That’s not happening unless I seek inspiration in lots of places.
As it happens, I’m in luck as I am a voluminous reader. I have three graduate degrees so reading is pretty much in my DNA, I read faster (and type faster) than most normal human beings. I read fantasy, sci-fi, literature, comics, non-fiction historical sources, you name it, and I draw from ALL of them in my gaming.
So my first piece of advice is this: take inspiration from ANYWHERE. If you are restricting yourself to “Appendix N” and only doing home brew then you are depriving yourself of incredible sources of inspiration. Not that Appendix N isn’t FREAKING AMAZING, I’ve read the majority of it and drawn on it for inspiration for years. But D&D need not be restricted to that.
So what about published modules?
My first recommendation is that published modules need significant work to be usable in your campaign. “Drop and run” is not really an option here. One of the reasons I find the idea that “you are wanting someone else to do the work” when you play a module so completely absurd. I have NEVER, and I want to stress, NEVER, run a published module the way it was written.
I have done a variety of things:
Run it pretty much as is with minor changes to location and setting tone (least common)
Run it like 1 but with changes to the content as well, modifying monsters, encounters, etc.
Run it by changing the genre (e.g. taken a module from a TTRPG like Top Secret and “reskinned” it to fit D&D
Run it by taking the basic premise and main encounter(s) but dropping large sections of the adventure
Decided not to run it, but strip mined it for encounters/monsters
In every one of these cases using a module was helpful, either in a big or a small way, to a great gaming experience at the table.
Let me be amply clear about this, some modules are terrific, others, not so much. There is wildly varying quality to published materials. I have read amazing modules from many different companies and time periods, modules from 40 years ago, modules from last year, modules from independent creators, modules from D&D and modules from other gaming systems that are VERY different from D&D. The end result from my perspective is: it’s a mixed bag, some of the best modules I’ve read are decades old, or from different systems, or by “non-professional” creators.
So why bother?
Fun, that’s why.
I think modules require work, but at the end of the day I have had some of the most AMAZING gaming experiences running modules in my campaigns. Forbidden City, Barrier Peaks, Isle of Dread, White Plume Mountain, I’ve gone back to the well on these classics many times and they did not disappoint. EPIC LEVELS OF FUN. I ran Barrier Peaks for my home group 8 years ago, my son is off to university and he and his friends STILL TALK ABOUT IT TODAY.
If that’s “wrong fun”, I like wrong fun. All I can think is that people are missing out on such enjoyment because they have a “hill to die on”.
The other thing that strikes me about the idea that you shouldn’t use published modules is the utter arrogance of it. How could anyone else’s ideas be as good as mine, or helpful to me in any way? What chutzpah, what brass. Even flawed modules that I have to adjust to put into my campaign have brilliance in them. Barrier Peaks is a fantastic module, flavorful, subversive of expectations, deadly, utterly unique. It was a BEAR to run for various reasons (how does Speak with Animals work on alien animals, can a fireball destroy a bulkhead, etc.), but goddamn it had so many good ideas in it.
Isle of Dread could sustain campaign play for months and helped me learn how to run a hexcrawl. Forbidden City taught me the value of factions in the game. White Plume helped me see the fun of a “monster zoo” dungeon. Tharizdun and Tjoscanth introduced me to new monsters and the value of “creepy” modules. Descent into the Depths of the Earth showed me how to bring the flava and how to do “brevity”, so tightly written, so evocative.
I became a far better referee adapting and running these modules than I was when I started. And my players LOVED THEM. Why in the world would you suggest that you shouldn’t use these modules, and why in the world would you think that it was “no work” to use them. YES they were work, but it was totally worth it. I enjoyed them and learned from them, my players had a ton of fun.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but if you know creative people of any stripe in any field you will know this: they steal mercilessly from any source they can find, full stop. Creative people, really creative people, are constantly taking in new ideas from wherever they can find them. All your favorite authors are like this. Even if they have encyclopedic knowledge of a particular genre or field, they still take in ideas from anywhere they can find them. Creativity is a sponge, not a microscope, it involves opening yourself up to new ideas and inspiration wherever it appears.
If all of this hasn’t convinced you of the value of running modules, not exclusively, or even predominantly, but cannibalizing them or altering them to fit your game, then I would suggest listening to the advice of Gygax on this issue.
Gygax made it clear that the DM must tailor the game to their campaign. He recognized that every gaming group was different, and built in a lot of “empty spaces” to the game that you were expected to fill yourself. AD&D was very much a skeleton for you to build upon.
And his modules all said this explicitly. That you would have to do substantive work to tailor these adventures to your game.
Here are the bones of the adventure. You must breathe life into this framework after you flesh it out. (Descent into the Depths of the Earth)
As Dungeon Master you should enliven the module with as much of your own creativity as you wish, and then add your personality to interpret the cold lines of print and make them come alive. The details of how the party was gathered should serve as a reasonable starting point. (Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth)
There is considerable information contained herein which is descriptive and informative with respect to what the players see and do. Note that this does not mean that you, as Dungeon Master, must surrender your creativity and become a mere script reader. You must supply considerable amounts of additional material. You will have to make up certain details of areas. There will be actions which are not allowed for here, and you will have to judge whether or not you will permit them. Finally, you can amend and alter monsters and treasures as you see fit, hopefully within the parameters of this module, and with an eye towards the whole, but to suit your particular players. (Against the Giants)
You get the idea. The originator of the game, the guy who designed it and made it for you to enjoy, the guy who WROTE APPENDIX N, that guy, he thinks you should use modules, but that you should make them your own.
Good advice, I’ll take it.
Here’s a second piece of advice to consider. You should just ignore the advice you are given on Twitter, or take it with a TON of salt. So many people posture and put on a show for you to generate outrage and clicks. It makes me somewhat sad, as there are a lot of accounts on Twitter that have great ideas and are very creative, but they feel the need to TELL YOU WHAT TO DO all the time, and argue that THEIRS IS THE TRUE WAY TO PLAY D&D.
These people aren’t trying to help you, they aren’t trying to make your game better, they aren’t coming to you in good faith. They are saying these things to create outrage and pushback from some people, and to build a following of like minded people amongst others who will agree with them without question and pile on to anyone who disagrees.
My suggestion, and do what you will with it, is to mine them for interesting ideas you can use in your game but otherwise just ignore the noise. They aren’t going to show up at your gaming table, and they don’t have any investment in helping you to enjoy the game.
If they did they wouldn’t be telling you, “you are doing it wrong”, they would be telling you, “I love this game, here is how I play it”.