Thinking Outside the Shrink-Wrap


Remember when LEGO sets came in one big box? With no more guidance than a few pictures on the lid and a bit of creativity, you could build a house, or a tree, or a dinosaur, or a plane. The building blocks were simple, standard, somewhat abstract, and made sculptures tending toward the representational. Today, LEGO comes in little kits with specific instructions and specialized pieces that let you make a single item: Windsor castle, a Corvette, the space shuttle... The final product is interesting and intricately detailed, but the kit really only makes that one thing. Once you've built it, it often goes up on a shelf like a model airplane and you go shopping for the next object. In many ways, this is a lot like RPG modules.

In the big box of imaginary LEGO that builds a campaign world, published adventures are the kits that make a single object. I'm not saying modules are evil, or lazy, or that you're a horrible GM for ever having used them. They are great for one-shot sessions, conventions, and spur-of-the-moment, let's-get-a-game-together instant fun. Rely too much on shrink-wrapped creativity, though, and your ongoing campaign can end up choppy, disjointed, and sterile. It will be, in a word, typical--and since you're visiting, typical is not what you're after.

Ironically, the Achilles heel of modules is NOT a lack of creativity. Pre-packaged adventures are often gems of originality, polished until nothing contradictory or superfluous remains. They can contain memorable foes and intense conflict set against cinematic and vivid backgrounds. But what they don't do--and can't do--is supply the philosopher's stone that transforms a series of adventures into a living campaign: consequences.What happens after the marauding band of giants is eliminated? Did that evil baron have anyone who cared when the PCs chopped him into julienne fries? In life every action has consequences, for good or ill, whether perceived or not. And though we roleplay in part to escape the real world, those Newtonian principles inherent to our existence nag at the back of our brain: thermodynamics is not just a good idea, it's the law.

Modules run the risk of breaking that law, because by definition they stand alone. Discrete. Unable to affect anything outside their cardstock covers. They cannot recreate the throughline of conditions and connected events that define our lives, and consequently (pun intended) the campaign seems lifeless and "unrealistic." Incorporating consequences into a campaign is a relatively simple process, but takes a bit of work from the GM. Fortunately, such work does not involve laborious cross-referencing of monster stats or a graph paper masterpiece: all it takes is a bit of deduction--nothing more than saying, "What if...?"

Every encounter, every mission, and every action taken by the PCs is another potential adventure. What if killing the orc chieftain and his elite bodyguard means the tribe recognizes the party as its new leaders and swears allegiance? What if that +1 mace the cleric got last session is the ceremonial weapon of an enclave of githyanki? And they want it back? The enterprising GM need not even stop there--consequences can have consequences, too. In the above example, suppose word of the orc tribe's new loyalty reaches the ears of the duchess who funded the PCs mission to exterminate the humanoid menace. Now she believes the party has turned from the path of good, and hires a paladin and his entourage to bring the PCs to justice. What if that paladin was the same straight-laced do-gooder that the PC bard had ridiculed in the Crown and Thistle tavern two missions ago?

By examining the consequences of the characters' actions, an instant plot has sprung to life--an adventure in which the players are emotionally invested, because it feels like they created the problem. And what's more...they're right. Roleplaying is cooperative storytelling. By letting the players participate in the story of the campaign rather than dictating their lives through boxed text, the world of the PCs comes alive. The players begin to "know" recurring NPCs, have tangible stakes in the world events, and even develop their own agendas. The GM will find that rather than needing a new module to provide a plot hook, more stories are waiting to be explored than there is time to play them.

So what happens when you have five or six great consequence-related plots waiting to be developed? Which do you start first? All of them. Or at least two or three. Real life cannot be divided into neat little modules, and not every event in our lives is related to a Master Plot. Life is messy. Published adventures try to simulate this with random encounters: events and challenges that crop up that have no relation to the main story. In a web of consequences, however, your "random encounters" can simply be other story lines that ripple back and forth across each other. Let the PCs figure out what relates to the task at hand and what doesn't. If it all feels important, good. Life doesn't have a rule book, and RPG life should be no different.

Trying to plan out every detail of every consequence is an impossibly tall order for a GM. But remember, crosscurrent plots don't need to be fully developed before they are introduced. NPCs are not necessarily driven by a master plan, any more than the PCs are. Try dropping in a brief encounter based on a repercussion from a PC's prior action, especially if the scene is unrelated to the current goal. That encounter will itself become a source of further consequences, until the resolution of that story line becomes the main focus of the party or dies away of its own accord.

Start thinking about consequences, and you'll never lack for material: stories grow and develop with every game session and PCs move seamlessly from adventure to the next. Players will marvel at the complexity of the plots, and the GM can sit behind the screen and smile enigmatically, letting the players continue writing them.

Excelent article, Ballestra, and I was always wondering what was it that made pre-made adventures so artificial. You're right, and you not only make a good point at it, but you also correctly remedy it. Personally, I try and avoid pre-made, or I read them and then adapt them a month later from what I remember, substituting most NPCs with my worlds usual organ-grinders.

Well done and good luck with your next one.

A very good article. The usefulness of character caused stories I've long appreciated, but I hadn't really considered the trouble with modules, I think the way to run a module is to read it and decide how to make it fit into your world, instead of the other way around.

(You also put it into words better that I expect I would.) :)

I really enjoyed this article. Halfway through the RttToEE module as a first-time DM, I'm already getting bored with the plot. I'm doing my best to spice it up and make the enemies more interesting than "X is completely insane and attacks anyone who enters the room." When we eventually finish this module, I might actually feel confident enough to run my own campaign.. *hyperventilates*


Sounds like you're already on the right track toward becoming a fine DM. Keep in mind that you can start working your own campaign ideas in almost immediately. I had a friend who ran the first installment of TofEe (which dates me), and his players ended up building and fortifying a stronghold near the temple then using it as a combination basecamp/magic shop where they made a profit selling the goods and maigc they gathered from the Temple! Instant reason to keep going back for more, and a fine reason for some retributive strikes from the Temple denizens.

Food for thought,


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