Monday, 27 August 2018

[BLOG] The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box: On the Scope of Module Design


The inspiration for writing this post has been Pookie’s review of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02. Positive reviews make you feel good inside, while critical reviews make you rethink the things you are doing, and why you are doing them. Something Pookie has criticised (in a point he has also brought up WRT issue #01) was the apparent purposelessness of the adventures in the zine: that is, the lack of strong plot hooks and background information to get the player characters involved. This is a fair point, but it is something I do entirely on purpose (sorry!), because I believe it ultimately makes the adventures stronger, and more suitable for others’ home games. Our disagreement lies in our ideas about what should go into the module text (what should be its scope) – except we may not actually be disagreeing at all.

The purpose of adventure modules is to assist the GM in setting up and running a home game. This much is obvious, even if many people use them for loose inspiration for home games they are or aren’t running. At the end of the day, they are a combination of a reference document and inspiring material – a module communicates an idea about running a game, something which can’t be faithfully replicated, but which can be recaptured and created anew through our collective imagination. It is both “the” Keep on the Borderlands and your own Keep on the Borderlands. Adventures are personal and products of the moment, while modules are fixed in terms of both intent and time. Good modules recognise and accommodate this contradiction as an integral feature of role-playing games, something which separates them from literature and drama (I will not consider here the failed forms of adventure design which try to imitate either). They create the potential for action and adventure – we could say the module is the question, and the game around the dinner table is the answer. Much has been written about why some adventures work so well in creating memorable game experiences and some don’t; this post focuses on one aspect of published modules – the relationship between their scope and purpose

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Against the Giants
In my mind, there are two main approaches setting the scope for published old-school modules: we could call one the tapestry and the other the mosaic box. There are no clear boundaries between them, and both encompass multiple different sub-types, but the basic distinction is present. The tapestry is what we would consider a mostly self-contained scenario. In this case, all the necessary information you might need to run a home game is presented in the text, in a more or less set way. TSR’s classic module line is a prime example of this design approach. These modules, many of them originating in tournaments, have a fixed premise (from “stop the giants” to “explore the Ghost Tower of Inverness”) and assumed boundaries of play, which suggest the scope of the described material. They also have set structures; the way the bits and pieces in the adventure connect together are decided in advance. The module is “complete” with its elements already in place – like a colourful tapestry, it has been woven together, and the threads are there to hold it together. This approach gives the adventure a focus which makes them straightforward to use and rewarding to play: the players are motivated, the action flows well, and the conclusions are memorable. 

You are not going to make friends with the giants. Theoretically, you could (it is a valid solution to convince them the drow are probable oath-breakers and using them as disposable cannon fodder against human kingdoms who will eventually hunt them down), but you probably won’t. The adventure works from this assumption, and sets out to describe what you need to run the adventure. There are possible courses of action and probable outcomes – dungeons, for instance, can be described as flowcharts, and flowcharts have more or less likely paths in them, as well as beginnings and end points. At the end of the day, either you or a lot of giants will be dead, you may or may not have discovered why they are raiding the human lands beyond the lulz and plunder, and you might have found a few bothersome details which present a greater mystery behind the giant clans. The module is over for most intents and purposes, and you may move on to the next one. 

These adventures are not closed systems. They are adaptable to different campaigns and circumstances; they are sometimes considered generic, but what campaign world doesn’t have a place for a bunch of evil slavers to kill, or bands of rampaging giants to stop? They also offer up interesting and worthwhile choices which can lead the participants to different (anticipated or entirely unplanned) conclusions. The boundaries which exist in presentation are permeable in play; the module’s scope is not rigid. You can expand, repurpose, and in a way, “break” these modules, from exploring the unwritten parts of Descent Into the Depths of the Earth to flipping Keep on the Borderlands on its head, and breaking the great piggy bank that is the keep itself. These choices exist as unwritten potential due to both the adventures’ focus (they describe what they need to describe) and flexibility (they leave open what they don’t need to describe). The possibility is there if you need it, although in most cases, the players won’t cross the module’s planned boundaries. Many will head into the ogre cave or the minotaur lair in the Caves of Chaos; fewer will choose to seek out the Cave of the Unknown on the edges of the wilderness map, and very few indeed will set up a deal with the denizens of the Caves to lead merchant caravans into their ambushes to split up the resulting loot (and, this being D&D, the easy XP!). You are not running the module wrong if only the first one happens, although it can be very cool if all three do. 

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Verbosh
Let us move on to the other approach, the mosaic box. This is a much looser and more probabilistic way of giving you playable materials, and it should come with a standard warning: “Some assembly required!” Mosaic box modules are as notable for the content they choose to exclude as they are for the material they have. They come as loose frameworks of disparate components whose connections and place must be decided by the GM, or even spontaneously “discovered” with the group over the course of play. These frameworks are incomplete because they invite further input to make them work; they are also open to all sorts of use and abuse. This approach was pioneered by Judges Guild’s early products: not always ready-made adventures per se, but play aids which could range from “adventure construction kits” to “adventure components” (the original meaning of the word “module” – an interchangeable component you can insert into our own design!) It also crops up in TSR’s output, most clearly in The Secret of Bone Hill, a multi-purpose adventure kit if there ever was one, but also in The Lost City and other looser site-based adventures. 

These modules have a different take on information design, and a different scope. Some of the high-level information is not present on purpose. Many of these modules have no pre-determined goal or even a set way to engage with their content: there are easy guesses but no universal answers. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor never tells you how to approach it (not even in an out-of-game way like Gary’s classic “Realms of Man” intro to B2), even though it easily could. The owners of the titular fortress are bandits and other assholes who maintain a slave market on the premises; the dungeon is half their hideout and half the headquarters of an evil cult, separated by a level containing a cluster of super-deadly dragons. You could do a lot of things in and around this bizarro universe Keep on the Borderlands (or its one-page cousin, Huberic of Haghill), and the way your GM integrated it into his campaign would probably set the stage for the way you ought to approach it, but there is no firm premise like in the G series. Interestingly, even the lines between good and evil, friend or foe are less clearly drawn. 

Portals of Torsh
It goes further. The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor, Tegel Manor or The Secret of Bone Hill present a fairly systematic, organised playground to explore and have fun with, but the outlines, relationships and boundaries can become even more blurred. Hex-crawls, city supplements and other sandbox settings (even those which don’t present physical settings but, for instance, social relationships and interpersonal conflict) are truly mosaic-like in that they are composed of several bits which may or may not be connected by a network of pre-set relations. The pieces can connect virtually any way, since there are so many of them and they are typically linked in a fairly loose manner. Perhaps there is a war going on between the island-kingdom of Croy and the city state of Warvik; perhaps the nearby islands are connected via a smuggling ring the characters might come into conflict with; and perhaps the assassins’ guild from Zarthstone is fanning the flames of conflict from the background. It could, however, also be that Croy and Warvik co-exist in an uneasy alliance against the smugglers, descended from a group of freedom fighters the characters may team up with; and that the assassins are minding their own business while doing stuff for the highest bidder. Which piece goes where and how is your responsibility, but they will prove useful either way. 

The eventual purpose of the material is created by the GM, or the GM and the players working together and surprising each other. This kind of module is a framework to insert your own adventure scenarios into, and a puzzle where the pieces might fit together in a dozen different ways. Some uncertainty is actually fairly helpful in this situation. Ideally, not spelling out the connections lets other GMs discover their own, and leaving some things mysterious evokes a sense of wonder which is conductive to personal imagination. We can actually see this well in tapestry-style adventures: the most intriguing and speculated-on parts of the G-D series involve the role of the Elder Elemental God and his abandoned temples, while the Caverns of Tsojcanth leaves open the mystery of Iggwilw. Leaving those doors open is essential for less deterministic scenarios! In the case of the mosaic, presenting a complete pattern (as opposed to a vague outline or a departure point which can lead in several possible directions) would defeat the purpose of handing you the box of pieces, just like LEGO has been reduced from its early universal sets to highly specific, expensive collectibles. 

City Encounters
There are multiple possible scales here as well. We could bring up JG’s less known Verbosh (a complete mini-setting complete with wilderness, dungeons and multiple towns, which are sufficiently described to serve as adventures), Portals of Torsh (a self-contained alternate world reached through magical gates, again containing multiple towns and adventure sites), or the more recent Vault of Larin Karr from Necromancer Games (a mini-setting describing a valley, its communities and dungeons, all connected in various ways). At the end of the line, we could have the likes of the now sadly OOP City Encounters, an excellent 600-entry city encounter table which is a full-on toolkit and has very little explicit structure. And yet, City Encounters does have rhyme and reason: through a myriad unrelated encounters which might take place, it presents a certain idea of a grand city, sinful and dangerous; generating conflict, adventure, and even links between the different entries through the table’s consistent application. You could run a city campaign with nothing more than this supplement, a good map, and perhaps one or two pages of background. 

The mosaic approach is fun but tricky. While we may correctly assume game materials made this way allow for a high degree of freedom, this freedom is not always easy to achieve, nor necessarily superior to a focused play experience. The absence of concrete hooks and boundaries can be immensely liberating, or it can halt a game right in its tracks. I enjoy the sandbox gaming they foster and accommodate, but also see a lot of online discussions describing dysfunctional or even “false” sandbox play: because the players are lost, because there is a communication problem between the GM and the players about how they should play in an open setting; or because there is subtle railroading going on (you can do “anything” but only the GM’s assumed adventure will be “real” or provide a fun play experience, etc.). This approach is neither universally applicable nor truly superior to the more focused tapestry approach. 

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Finally, where does this leave me? I have employed both approaches to adventure design, and don’t consider them an either/or proposition. I gravitate slightly towards the second in running a campaign, but my published materials are often closer to the first. It is generally easier to write a focused module because it lends itself to a logical and structured presentation. The mosaic box approach works more on intuition, making connections and leaps of logic; therefore, its design is often more impressionistic and reliant on imagery and loose association. This is always harder to do, so it happens less often, even if it comes fairly easy to me by the table. 

The House of Rogat Demazien
However, I also think that even more structured and precisely adventures are fairly easy to place in someone’s game with some forethought and adaptation, and that they benefit from keeping them reasonably open and a bit mysterious. This is why the majority of the adventures and campaign materials I have published in Echoes From Fomalhaut (and before it, Fight On!, Knockspell, and various places all over the Internet) are “missing” bits and pieces, and aren’t coming with strong adventure hooks and specific setups. I find it interesting that multiple people have singled out The House of Rogat Demazien from among my stuff as something they have used and enjoyed in particular. For some time, this came as a complete surprise, since Rogat Demazien was never more than a minor project, an afterthought to the much more complex city-state of Zothay; it was also directionless without offering more of an adventure hook than “it is there and there may be treasure involved”. And yet, it has been reasonably popular with people. And that’s my guess now: while a bit aimless, it is on the right scale, it is adaptable, and it is open enough for multiple different purposes. This has been my guiding philosophy for the materials I am releasing for the Isle of Erillion mini-campaign, too: they will make sense as pieces of the whole, but they will also be useable on their own (future releases from our City of Vultures campaign will be a bit more tightly integrated, but they will also retain a basic modularity and open-endedness). 

Make no mistake, this is not a universal solution, but it is the way that, at least to me, makes personal sense.

9 comments:

  1. An enjoyable read! Sometimes less IS more.

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  2. I find both the 'tapestry' and the 'mosaic box' notions fine but also flat, inert or static. I have read your exemplary modules and think it is a weakness not to have momentum in the manner of the early Warhammer 1e scenarios. The player group is just a handful of people. There should be so much going on around them that it doesn't appear that the tail is wagging the dog. There should be no inevitable events but the standard old school 'waxwork museum' should be avoided at all costs.

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    1. Momentum is an independent issue that does not really concern scope. It is, however, easier to integrate into play than put on paper - one of the spontaneous things which can be damaged by being too exactly described. Not an easy thing to put on paper in a systematic manner without breaking it.

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    2. Therefore, I think there is a gulf between a DM running his own material and presenting a static version to share, he can't really do that. And I think the better the DM the harder it is to share because momentum and events which are more real than static descriptions, cannot be shared without thwarting players. So what results? an inferior sort of DM with limited static imagination thrives and a standard evolves which is far below what happens at the originating DM's table.

      Until youTube is widely used to expose shallow foolish gamers D&D will persist in a proud delude miasma.

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    3. Also, thinking about gaming here I am being moved away from figures and terrain building as a seductive arty narrowing of what is possible, not just because of the time constraints but because of the wondrous fluency which opens up.

      Again, I think youTube is underused as a means of showing the superiority of in-mind-gaming over miniature-gaming.

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    4. D&D is a goob participatory activity and a poor spectator sport. Youtube is not going to change that, just expose the rift. YT let's plays attract exhibitionist players and an audience who aren't interested in good gaming, but fan-wank and "story". Case in point, Pundit's exposé on the Critical Role people and how a PC death lead to a small riot among the fans: https://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?39305-Video-CriticalRole-Reaction-Proves-There-s-No-quot-D-amp-D-Community-quot

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  3. Hah, Rogat's Manor even made it into the theme song from our campaign: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9mJT6UIYMM

    The players just now managed to bribe the councilman to transfer the property to the group.

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    1. I am impressed! Of course, in the end, it is you and your group who have invested Rogat's house with its significance, and made it much more meaningful than I ever could. That's RPG magic!

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  4. Magic it is! And I am a bit sad about the "fact" that few people who post online seem to be able to invoke it.

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