Modules

The Tomb of Horrors is one of the first D&D adventures, from Origins 1975.

Adventure modules have been a mainstay of roleplaying games since the beginning, but often get the short end of the stick. An important part of any system’s business plan, they allow designers to expand on and create ready to run adventures in a setting, and give the company a means of income that doesn’t rely on producing more sourcebooks (and thus more rules). But almost none of the groups I’ve played with use them, and I get the sense that’s more and more often the case. People are creating their own adventures, which is awesome, but I think there’s a lot of merit to modules. 

One of the big purposes adventure modules have always served is in creating a shared experience that you can’t find with homebrew adventures. As the night grows long and your thoughts turn wistfully to the exploits of your characters, there’s some value in knowing that the other people around you have been through those same occasions. Modules help you achieve that with complete strangers, because they may have played through the same adventures. If they lost a character to the Sphere of Annihilation in the statue’s mouth as well, they can identify with your experience. This is something games like D&D have drifted toward and away from in practice, though the most notable advances I’ve seen in it over the past ten years were Dragon Magazine’s adventure paths, and D&D Encounters.

Adventure paths like the Red Hand or Savage Tides were extended adventures published over the course of months in Dragon magazine, back when the license was held by Paizo. Spanning multiple issues, they created not simply a one off adventure, but an entire campaign. D&D Encounters adopts a similar approach, and couples it with organized play, so every Wednesday night, players all over the world sit down for the same adventure, along the same adventure path. It’s a really great opportunity that I haven’t been able to make it to enough, and gets people out into their community meeting new players and inside their local game stores.

The Tomb of Horrors is one of the first D&D adventures, from Origins 1975.I think there’s another facet of modules that’s really intriguing though. Modules can help us connect with the history of the hobby. For example, adventures like Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil, or those taking place in Undermountain don’t just create shared experiences, they have a special place in the culture of Dungeons and Dragons. Tomb of Horrors was first run at the very first Origins con in 1975, by Gary Gygax himself. It’s been converted into just about every edition of D&D since then, and republished several times, reputedly one of the most lethal adventures ever. And no matter what edition you play it in, you’re embarking on the same quest that hundreds of gamers have embarked on in the past. In 1979, the Village of Hommlet hinted at the existence of a temple of terrible power nearby, and the 2nd Edition Temple of Elemental Evil brought players back to explore that temple. Monte Cook wrote Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil in 3rd edition, a mammoth adventure where layers would save the world again. These modules create a shared experience as well, but one that’s cross generational, and that lets us go back and try to feel what people felt at the very beginning of rpgs.

In short, I love modules, and think they’re essential to the culture of roleplaying games. They also provide a great low-intensity adventure for groups. Try one in your next game, or use one to try out a new system. Head down to D&D Encounters and meet some new people. I’m going to start a Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil game pretty soon, so expect to hear more about that as things develop. In the meantime, thanks for reading!

4 comments

  • I do enjoy the shared experience that you mention. I like reading actual plays about a module that I have run players through. Tomb of Horrors and Keep on the Borderlands are probably the most common. Currently I enjoy reading about other players exploring the Barrowmaze.

    On both sides, it is interesting to hear how the DM ran the module or how the players played the module.

    I have never played Pathfinder, but I can see how these “Adventure Paths” would provide that same shared experience.

    We will just have to disagree about the value of D&D Encounters. ;]

    Thanks for the article.

    • I completely forgot Keep on the Borderlands, but you’re right, it’s a classic. I love reading about them too though, and lately I’ve taken to watching people play on Youtube (which started with watching the guys from Penny Arcade at PAX).

      What do you find to be the down sides of D&D Encounters? I’m quick to sing its praises as an idea, but I’ll confess I’ve only been to four or five sessions since it started, my Wednesday nights fill up pretty fast.

      • The idea itself, an event where you can participate in a game one day a week with no obligation, is awesome.

        My girls and I attended a few Encounters sessions. To be clear, the people running it were nice, helpful and it was not anything personal towards them.

        My problem with D&D Encounters is definitely related to my dislike of WotC and “their D&D”, if that makes it more clear. It helped that the girls wanted to play “real D&D” instead of Encounters without me having to bring up any edition war issues with them. They could care less about what I think about WotC.

        Even after almost two years of playing D&D/Labyrinth Lord, they are vaguely aware of 4E and have no idea about 5E. Not because I keep anything from them, but because WotC has no idea how to market. I am okay with that. =]

  • I’ve been playing a lot of Pathfinder Society (organized play) lately and it is a lot of fun. It’s a great system for pickup games at the local gaming store and at cons. Most of the scenerios I’ve played have been well written and very interesting. I’ve also played a few sessions of one of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, Kingmaker, and I was very much enjoying that…until our GM disappeared off the Internet. :(

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