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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Titan in the Playground
     
    Yora's Avatar

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    Lightbulb Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    While preparing for my next campaign, I've been reading a lot about adventure design over the last weeks. Asking around in forums what people consider to be great adventures and reading some of them, looking up articles in which people explained their oppinions on how an adventure should be written and run, and so on.

    The standard types of adventure modules
    As I see it, there are basically two main types of adventures, when it comes to published adventure modules. Plot-based adventure ("Paizo-style") and site-based adventures ("Gygax-style"). Both come with a number of advantages and disadvantages.
    First, let me say a few words about "plot". A plot is a sequence of events that are put into a logical order that forms a chain of causes and effects. This is not the same as a story. A story can be made up as you go, with new and unexpected things happening and no real idea how things will turn out in the end. When talking about plots, it means the entire chain of events from the beginning to the end. The term "plotting" is often used to mean making a plan, and in statistics it means making a graphic representation of data points (events). In either case, a specific outcome is desired, or the events have already happened and can now be analyzed. When you start reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game, the entire story is already determined and the outcome set, which is why the terms story and plot are used interchangably.

    Plot-based adventures
    In what I called the Paizo-style adventure, the entire is already plotted out. "PCs get their quest from that NPC, go to that location, fight that monster, find that clue, follow to the next location, fight the villain, stop his evil plan."
    There is one big problem which usually goes by the name of Railroad. There really is only one possible outcome. At the end of the adventure or campaign, the PCs will be in one specific room where they will fight the main villain, and almost always kill him. This will happen, in exactly this way, regardless of any choice the players ever made. Which means all those choices were effectively meaningless.
    You have an adventure that says "the big door at the top of the tower is guarded by a big monster. Behind the door is the wizards lab and on the desk is a letter that mentions the location of his masters base". The PCs have to fight their way to the top of the tower. The PCs have to kill the monster that guards the door. The PCs have to get through the wards that guard the lab. The PCs have to kill the wizard. The PCs have to take the letter. The PCs have to go to the base of the Big Bad." All these things have to happen and the have to happen in that order.
    They have to fight the guards in the tower, and they have to fight the monster, and they have to fight the wizard. That means they all have to be defeatable. The players know that. Also the players know that the GM does not want a total party kill, so they know when things turn back, the GM will intervene to have them succeed regardless.
    It still can be a fun and enjoyable adventure, but I think it could be so much more.

    Site-based modules
    On the other hand, there's the Gygax-style dungeon module. There usually are many entrnaces into the dungeon and there is no set order in which the PCs have to meet all the encounters and discover all the rooms. Some treasures or even rooms might be hidden and the players might never find them. Since many of the monsters don't have to be killed to enable the PCs to explore the rest of the dungeon, not all monsters have to be easily defeatable. In fact, the PCs might even lose some fights and hope that at least some of them can flee with their lives. Those are descisions the players have to think about, and they have actual consequences.
    Unfortunately, as written, most of those classic modules and many recent retro-clone modules seem to be aimed at tactical wargaming. They don't have a story. "There is a dungeon with monsters and treasures. You are adventurers. Go into the dungeon, fight the monsters, take the treasures." If you get lucky, there's an additional "Monsters from the dungeon attacked local villages. The villagers asked you to kill the monster." And very often that's it.
    Again, people have been having huge fun with it for decades. But again, it could be so much more.

    The specter of video games
    Now to get a bit controversial, but hear me out: I first started with looking into RPGs when playing the video game Baldur's Gate back in '99. And I think that actually makes me belong more to the older crowd than the younger crowd here and since then there have been large numbers of incedible video game RPGs. Now while I would not say that it is the fault of video games that "younger players and GMs" play "dumbed down" pen and paper campaigns, I certainly think that they are one of the major factors that make Paizo-style adventures so popular. I think they have dominated the market for at least the last 15 years. When people like me first encountered pen and paper games, video game RPGs were the primary reference we brought and the baseline for what we are expecting from any RPG.
    When we look at the old-school Gygax-style dungeon-modules, we ask "where is the plot? Combat is fine, but we really want to have a plot!". And when we look at the more recent plot-based Paizo-style adventures, we get just that plot and feel content with it. And when the adventure says the PCs go into the room of the wizard and take the letter from his corpse that tells them where the next dungeon is, then we don't think anything about it.
    That's how we're used to it. That's how it goes. Right?
    In a video game, that's a neccessity. In a pen and paper game with a GM, it is not. In a pen and paper game, the players can decide to set up an ambush outside the door and wait for the wizard to come out. They can set fire to the foor stores or scout the surrounding countryside for outposts and destroy them to lure the wizard out of his tower. In a video game, this is not possible, and I think way too often we unconsciously skip coming up with any such ideas in a pen and paper game as well.

    Task-based adventures
    It's certainly not the golden way for everyone, but I think the ideal campaign would be one in which the players shape the story and in which the descisions of the PCs steer the course of events into entirely new and unexpected directions. And I think the best approach to do that, is the task-based adventure.
    In a task based adventure, both the PCs and one or more groups of NPCs have a goal. For example, an evil wizard wants to blow up a town to get at the artifact hidden beneath it, and the PCs want to prevent the destruction of the town. The GM decides what class and level the evil wizard has, how many goblin and ogre minions, and how many bases they have, and what contacts in the town the wizard has. Based on these information, the GM thinks of the wizard as his player character. He makes a plan to send the goblins to steal explosives, order the ogres to attack outlying farms to lure away the militia, and researches old maps of the town to find the entrance to the underground tunnels. Last, the GM sets up a rough timeline how long it takes the villains to accomplish these things if everything goes as planned.
    Then the actual adventure begins. For example the PCs hear that ogres have been attacking farms and manage to kill a bunch of them. Once the session is over, the GM once again assumes the role of the evil wizard. Some of his ogres are dead, now he needs to find a replacement and also find a way to get rid of those adventurers. Maybe send some of the goblins to get their allies from the mountains, but that means the stealing of the explosives has to wait for two more weeks.
    Next session starts and the PCs hear about goblins being seen in the forest. Maybe the think it's nothing and keep searching for the lair of the ogres. Or maybe they think it could mean trouble and they leave the ogres alone and try to track down the goblins. Or they hear about a mysterious old man haging around the library at night. Who knows what plans the players could come up with? The important thing is, the GM doesn't know either. The outcome is entirely open.

    In the adventure I've prepared for my next game
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    an ancient aboleth is imprisoned under an old ruin. A naga learned about it and wants to awaken the aboleth to get at his knowledge. But a group of elf sorcerers heard about their arch-enemy being up to something in the ruins and want to take whatever he's looking for first. At the same time, the aboleth uses its special mind-powers to enslave some nearby villagers.
    The aboleth wants to be freed and return to the underdark. The naga wants to force the aboleth to give up his knowledge. The elves want to keep the naga from succeeding. The villagers want to be freed from the mind-control.
    The PCs are thrown into that situation, and what they will do, I have no idea.

    I think this should be really exciting for all of us.

    Publishing Task-based adventures
    When I was reading through adventure modules that people often cited as great classics, I noticed one big thing. Since I want to run the adventure in my homebrew setting, I have to discard the backstory for the locations and NPCs and replace them with something setting appropriate. Some creatures don't exist in the setting I want to play in, and often the adventures are for a different game or written for a different level than my current group of PCs, so I have to ditch the encounters and replace them with creature appropriate to the setting and the party level. Treasures have to be adjusted as well. And actually, quite often I'm not a big fan of the maps either, so I replace those with a creation of my own, too.
    So without backstory, encounters, treasures, and maps, what's actually left of the original module?
    Answer: The villains plan.
    Making encounters and placing treasures is easy. The really hard part about writing adventures is comming up with interesting personalties for the NPCs, motivations, and plans.
    WotC recently released their first adventure for the transition to D&D 5th Edition, which I havn't seen myself, but apparently is kept edition neutral. It simply does not include stat blocks for encounters. And in one article I read, the writer mentioned a forum post in which one user sad when writing adventures, backstory and setting should be completely left out.

    So now I am thinking. What do you think about the idea of having "adventure modules" that consist primarily of the major NPCs, their motivations, plans, and priorities, as well as the kinds of minions under their command and descriptions of the important locations, like bases, lairs, and story-relevant dungeons?
    For example, a major NPC could be described as "naga sorcerer", but the GM who runs the module can also make him a yuan-ti wu-jen or a serpentman wizard, or maybe even a sahuagin sorcerer or a drow wizard. Whatever the GM considers to be the best fit for a person with these goals and motivations in the campaign world. The grimlock minions could be replaced by morlocks, or by hobgoblins, or derro, just as it feels best.
    And by descriptions of plans, I don't mean just the goals, but a sufficiently detailed list of what steps the NPC has planned and notes for contingencies if one of the steps might fail.
    The goal is never to to create a script for the GM to follow, but more to set up a "sandcastle". A very small sandbox in which something big is going to happen over the next week or couple of months. All the embelishments like the specific choices of monsters and loot, and the location of the area and such would be left to the GM.
    I think at least for me, those would be the perfect published product to use in my campaigns.
    We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on very tall tower of other dwarves.

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  2. - Top - End - #2
    Troll in the Playground
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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    If you're going to call one "Gygax-style" you should probably call the other "Weis/Hickman-style" ...

    I'm pleased with an approve of your definitions for "plot" and "story" and the distinction; it's how I usually use the words. A story is what you have after the fact, a plot is something that existed before play even began.

    I also very much agree with your model of the task-based adventures, although I find those are usually best built over a sandbox (possibly with adventure sites included and employed), since that allows a lot of freedom to the players. I've had an entire campaign based on creating timelines for various villains and having their plans roll along unless the PCs intervene.

    Turning them into modules is quite hard, though. I think it can be done, if you keep the scale very small and simple - rather like you suggest. I think there are some old (A)D&D modules that work off timelines, but not very many. I think the worthwhile thing to publish in modules anyway is locations - cities, dungeons, whatever. Including ideas for interesting villains and possible plans and plots is a good idea, obviously.

    I think what you describe is perfectly useful. The easier a module is to adapt, the better. A villain, a goal, some tools, some locations, and an outline of what will occur if the PCs don't intervene.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    I like your idea for task-based adventures and have tried similar adventures. I do agree with Rhynn about having other points of interest beyond the current mess. If the players decide, "screw this naga thing, let's go check out Northtown!" they should be able to do so.

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    Hey Yora! I think you gave a very good analysis of the type of games and modules out there. I Started playing in around 1990, and I think your premise of the "Paizo- style" adventures coming from the computer based RPGs is spot on. (Though TSR and Wizards of the Coast did that loooooong before Paizo did, just saying).

    When I came back to DMing a few years back after a long hiatus, I tried on the most part do what I think is "contained task based" adventures, mostly giving freedom, but with some firm ideas of reactions to certain plands of the PCs, and counter plans and so on. I won't lie, sometime I railroaded to this degree or another, but on the most I try not to. I do think task based adventures arethe way to go, since they make the characters actions matter.

    Ifthese were a published item however, I would like as a DM to have the publishers include a few versions of lets say minions or villains, and maybe include a few ideas for integrating these into main settings or themes. When I'm buying an adventure I like to have a major part of the work done for me, which is WHY I'm buying the adventure. Yes, I can change things, but many times I'll need to tweak but little stuff to make them workable, instead of redoing the stats and stuff from the start. (I don't have that much time for the game, and in D&D stats takes the most time for me). Plus- I love getting other ideas, which I may never gotten on my own. I like outside input.

    A great idea though, I'll be sure to try one of these adventures if it comes out. I'm sure there is fine tuning and refining to be done to see what the gaming crowd needs and desires, but it'll be worth a shot.

    Good article!

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    Thanks for reading!

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Troll in the Playground
     
    OldWizardGuy

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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    The DFRPG adventures on DTRPG seem to be *mostly* like this, as is Dinocalypse Now! for SotC.

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Titan in the Playground
     
    Yora's Avatar

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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    Yeah, Paizo didn't invent it, but they are really pushing that style both in their old Dungeon magazine adventures and now in their Pathfinder adventures and adventure paths.

    I am thinking about making clean writeups with explainations and commentaries of my campaign notes for my current and last campaign and releasing them as free downloads. Might be interesting to see what the response it, but that would probably still be some time, since I want to finish a Gray Box-length document of my campaign setting first.

    --

    Further reading:
    Don't prep plots
    The impotance of choice
    Meaningful choices in dungeons
    How game tutorials can strangle player creativity/
    Introductory adventeures
    Jaquaying the dungeon
    Player driven stories: How do they work?
    Last edited by Yora; 2013-09-14 at 06:13 AM.
    We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on very tall tower of other dwarves.

    Spriggan's Den Heroic Fantasy Roleplaying
    Hyperspace Opera Swashbuckling and Gunslinging Space Adventures

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    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    BardGuy

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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    I would agree with what you are saying. Something more tasked based and fluid to change is fitting. You want choice to mean something, but you also want to rein in the events to a manageable scale.

    I have tried to experiment with something akin to a puzzle/chart to map out how player actions would change the task at hand. What begins in my head as a basic A leads to B with a puzzle as a visual representation, quickly devolves to an internet meme worthy flow chart with multiple crossovers and a whole sequence of annonated footnotes to make sense of the chaos.

    It's tricky to translate a sandcastle where you have already envisioned the twists and turns and make it fit for someone else to pick up and run with. Crack that part of the code and you are golden.

    I like to reference Warhammer 40K when trying to picture campaign paths and task based events. Most 40K fiction revolves around multiple factions fighting for the same goal for differing ends.
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  8. - Top - End - #8
    Troll in the Playground
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    Default Re: Task-based adventures and published adventure modules

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Yeah, Paizo didn't invent it, but they are really pushing that style both in their old Dungeon magazine adventures and now in their Pathfinder adventures and adventure paths.
    I think it was the ONLY type of D&D adventure published starting in the 2E AD&D era (by TSR, WotC, and Paizo). Even material that should by rights have been sandbox modules, like The Ruins of Myth Drannor, Zhentil Keep, and the 2E Undermountain levels were full of railroad plots.

    Weis & Hickman's Dragonlance modules are often blamed for starting it. I don't think D1 is that bad, personally: it's got a wilderness hexmap with multiple leads the PCs can follow, and a dungeon they're supposed to find their way to. The only problem is that the connection from hook to dungeon is weak, but I didn't have to railroad my players at all to get them to the dungeon. As the modules go on, though, they get railroadier and railroadier. I still want to finish running them just to go completely wild and let the PCs kill off any villain or NPC they have a reason to, at any juncture they can, and see how badly they wreck things up.

    They weren't the first, though. There's lots of AD&D 1E and BECMI modules that are more or less plot-based and a bit railroady. It's an easy and natural way for people to write adventures.

    I also don't think it's anything to do with video games specifically on a fundamental level. The railroad module easily predates the popularity of video games (although there was a huge overlap between early computer games and their creators and players, and RPG players).

    Video games are just one of the ways we consume stories: movies and books are others. Modelling your adventures on any of those easy, popular resources that people naturally want to imitate (especially when they're young - in their teens - when many people started their GMing) is a bad idea, because it gets you a focus on plot over game/playability, and leads to railroads.

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