Modular Modules


I wasn't a big fan of modules in my early days of role-playing. Being new to the RPG experience, I wanted to plant my own flag, so to speak. I wanted to make my own dungeons and use monsters I was interested in. I wanted my own story arcs, my own set of villains, and my own home-grown NPC's.Of course, I was 14, didn't have a job, and had nothing better to do with my summer vacations.

I wasn't a big fan of modules in my early days of role-playing. Being new to the RPG experience, I wanted to plant my own flag, so to speak. I wanted to make my own dungeons and use monsters I was interested in. I wanted my own story arcs, my own set of villains, and my own home-grown NPC's.

Of course, I was 14, didn't have a job, and had nothing better to do with my summer vacations.

I was also pretty judgmental about the modules I'd seen. I had dabbled with West End's Star Wars for a bit and was impressed by the sourcebooks, but was traumatized by the modules. For a system that touted the name Star Wars, the modules sure didn't feel like Star Wars. They were for the most part, bland, unimaginative, and derivative. On the D&D front, I was less impressed. I had been exposed to Zeb Cook's Ruins of Adventure, which was based off the Pool of Radiance computer game. Frankly, the computer game was much more interesting and was a VERY combat-heavy computer game, which doesn't speak well for the module. There's also the infamous Throne of Bloodstone module (which was "designed" for 100th level characters, and is a huge red flag) that had rooms where you walk in on 100 liches. 100 liches? How can you take that seriously? And, if you defeated all 100 liches, you get the Hand & Eye of Vecna (two old skool D&D artifacts). Of course, the module doesn't state why 100 liches would have these artifacts nor what they were trying to accomplish with them. They just had them.

I had seen the world of modules and I was not impressed. I was a fairly creative kid and hung out with some fairly creative folks. For my money, we didn't need other people's modules. To coin Triple H's catch phrase, we were that darn good.

As I got older, I found my free time became thinner and thinner. The creativity was still there, but the energy wasn't. If I'm tired, it's hard to get my synapses to fire off in terms of making an interesting dungeon scenario. I could still come up with good story arcs and all that, but I didn't have the time to get my pencils out and draw a multi-layer maze. I had time to read the new Monstrous Compendium, but I didn't have the time to figure out which monster would be best suited for the torture chamber. I didn't want to admit it, but I needed some help in making my games. But, I was a stubborn boy and stuck to my guns. I still turned my nose against modules.

A few years ago, a friend bought me a fair chunk of D&D material for Christmas. This was how I was introduced to the works of Monte Cook, Bruce Cordel, Chris Pramas, and all of those crazy folks. I started thumbing through the modules with some reluctance, but quickly found my snobbish attitude was misplaced. These guys knew what they were doing. I'm talking about modules such as A Paladin in Hell, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and the Apocalypse Stone, and others.

Now, some of these modules had some of the old failings. First, there was a severe lack of background information, which is often sparse and generic in modules. A Paladin in Hell is one of the best dungeon crawls I've ever read, but its singular fault is the set-up isn't very involved. Something bad happens to a local church and the module assumes the players will care about this (I'm purposely skewing some details for those who may want to read/play this later on). It pulls the typical "pretend one of the NPC's is an old friend of Player X" routine. But, looking past that, this module lays out a deadly, well conceived "dungeon" for the players to explore and bash. The traps aren't randomly annoying, as they are in old skool D&D products (I'm thinking about the original Tomb of Horrors). They're logical and they're imaginative. The villains aren't lurking in a cave just because. They have a goal, a purpose. Sure, it's a dungeon bash, but there's some thought behind it. And A Paladin in Hell isn't alone. Other modules, such as Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Apocalypse Stone provide meaty, yet somewhat cerebral adventures for you to use. I had finally discovered there was such a thing as a good module.

This was a fortuitous discovery. At this point, I was about halfway through a chunky campaign I had designed, but was completely bereft of what to follow-up with. I had some time for research, but no solid ideas. But lucky me, I now had a handful of modules I could employ. As I mentioned, A Paladin In Hell didn't give the players much reason to care about the plights of the churchmen featured in the module. But now, I had time to introduce said churchmen into my then-current campaign and actually make them part of my players' history. I had time to plant some seeds.

The domino effect was in place. I started poring over the modules I had. I then went and bought modules by Cook, Cordel, Pramas, and others. Were they one-trick ponies or were they consistently delivering the goods? Like anything else, some are the real deal, some are hit or miss, some are one-hit wonders, and some should be put to pasture for all time. Anyway, I was intrigued and went out and bought some modules by other folks. Again, I got a variety of results. So it goes.

By this point, I was starting to amass a small library of modules. The big question now was: what was I going to do with them? Obviously, I was going to use them. The big question was how? For some folks, the answer is to just sit down with them, one module at a time, and go through them all. Well that's not my style. I like for my games to flow as a story might. I don't want my players to bounce from Dungeon #1 to Dungeon #2 without some sort of underlying story and continuity. So, now, the real question is how to pull that off? My answer was to keep planting modular seeds.

While most modules seem to lack beefy background information, they at least have something you can build off of. A good module doesn't necessarily have tons of background information (too much can be great, but it can also be cumbersome), but it does have a good hook for player involvement -- it has a seed to be planted. Suppose a module calls for the players to take on a band of slavers and suppose you want to run this module a couple of months down the road. In the meantime, you can have your players bump into George the NPC who can relate some rumor he heard about these slavers. In the next game, the players can overhear Henry the bartender talking about what a bunch of no-good curs these slavers are. And in the game after that, the players can find out from Simon the slavers are being financed by a secret organization -- it doesn't really matter if Simon is telling the truth or not. By this point, the players have heard enough to know these slavers mean business. So, if Jane asks the players to free her brother from the slavers, you don't have to go through the messy business of introducing a fresh set of villains to the players. They've already heard the rumors and they've already absorbed some of the lore and maybe they already have a vested interest in this sordid affair.

I've found planting modular seeds in advance makes the actual module much more fun when you get around to playing it. It takes a bit of patience; in fact, you may have to wait a few months or even a year or two to see the fruit of your labor, but I think it's worth it in the end. A good module will give you a detailed, well-thought adventure to run, but it won't be so rigid that you can't include it into your gaming world. Some can even be broken up and intermingled with other modules. If Module X has 3 distinct adventures for the players to endure, you don't necessarily have to play them in sequence. You can play part 1, do something else, come back for part 2, then do a couple of other things, and finally finish up with part 3.

Some modules, however, take a lot of work, and some are almost completely beyond hope. Last year, I took two hopeless modules and combined them into one because it's the only way I could think of to make them interesting (and get my money's worth). I took the physical layout from Module A (great dungeon, silly plot), made it the last leg of the journey of Module B (mildly interesting story, horrible dungeon), and incorporated one of the villains from one of my old campaigns (you guessed it, Moloch). Sometimes you have to make lemonade.

Okay, not everybody is the module-phobe that I was. But for those of you who have your reservations, take it from me, making modules work can be done. I'm not sure there's an exact science to making them work since modules come in all shapes and sizes. But, I've learned the best thing to do is to research the module up front and figure out how to make a smooth segue into your new adventure/campaign world. There are some pretty decent products out there that will make this easy on you. Others will take more work. However, I have now come to the point in my gaming career where I think any module can be made to work. All you gotta do is figure out how much tailoring you need to do.

Hm, call me a Module-phobe (or someone who hasn't got a job yet, but university isn't _much_ better), but I think it usually takes the same amount of time to properly root a module in my campaigns as to write it myself. It should be added that I hate dungeons, so traps and monsters is nothing I usually have to worry about... The only use I have for them is a quick story for "winging-it" and reading them to prevent other GM's from running them for me :-) If haven't read the ones you mention BTW, so maybe they _are_ better than "The Forge of Fury", "The speaker in Dreams", "The Sunless Citadel", "The Standing Stone" and "Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil" (the ones a fellow GM had laying around and can't use anymore, because all of his players, including me, have independently read them and concluded "abominable" :-)


I used to be anti-dungeon myself. My group went years without really doing dungeon crawls. Now, we're going through the phase where we want to bash a few dungeons...but, we don't want mindless violence (well...some nights we do, but...). I wouldn't want every gaming session to be a dungeon bash, but I don't mind them now and then.

I'm a little surprised that you didn't like Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. If I recall correctly, that was desgined by Monte Cook who tends to be one of the better module designers.

Monte gave us Hellbound (which is actually a boxed set), A Paladin in Hell, Vecna Reborn, Faction War, Dead Gods, and others. He's also a fair hand at designing resource books. I haven't absorbed all of his works...Demon God's Fane & the one you mentioned...but I've reviewed enough of his work to conclude that he's usually more hit than miss.

Same goes for Bruce Cordell, who I think designed some of the others you mentioned.

Oddly, I haven't read any of the modules you listed -- I'm still in 1st & 2nd Edition school and there's a small stack of old modules that I'd like to run before I even think about upgrading my world to 3rd edition.

However...I've heard through the grapevine that the modules put out by Wizards aren't as good as some of the current competition -- meaning you might find better products from Sword & Sorcery, Green Ronin, or the like.

And then...bad modules seem to have always been around. I recently bought Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an old Gygax module from 81 or so...and I'll be darned if there isn't a space-ship in it with stats for laser guns and the like. It was one of those ideas that was better off as a "what if" -- no physical manifestation was needed.

I actually once, just before the days of 3rd Ed, resolved to use the, at final count, 103 modules I had aquired and never ran. I set about figuring out how to tie them all together and ended up with a campaign arc that was really interesting. The grind came around 14th level when the modules really started to get repetitive. The problem is TSR had an adventure template that most modules were built from so they got kind of annoying but with a little tweaking they were still fun, even the crappy ones like Thoughts Of Darkness for Ravenloft.

So yeah, I had to go grocery shopping in the middle of a post. There was another thread where the viciousness of dikey girls was discussed so I don't believe I need to restate it here. The whip was crtacked so I went running, I AM the housebitch after all.

Anyway. The afore mentioned 3rd Ed modules really do suck with the exception of Return To The Temple Of Elemental Evil by Monte Cook, I actually really liked that one. The other Wizards modules pretty much suck too, Deep Horizons wasn't bad but definately not worth spending any money on.

As an interesting aside I have paired The Return To The Temple Of Elemental Evil with the original Temple Of Elemental Evil in a multi-generational D&D game. The way the levels work out it's just about right. It goes like so. Everyone makes 1st level characters in Greyhawk, or any setting really, and go through the original module. Then the second takes place twenty years later so the players can choose to play the same characters 20 years older or the children of their old characters. The original module does suffer from some of the failings of adventures from the time, too many magic items, etc. but on the whole is a well written adventure.

I am currently undergoing the proscess of updating the original Temple Of Elemental Evil to 3.5 Ed as per the OGL guidelines. I will have it posted for free on my website whenever I get around to finishing it.

Random And Senseless
Any excuse I can find to shamelessly plug my site.

For my personal taste "Return..." was still too much of the old "here's the bad guys, go into the dungeon and kill them". I have never enjoyed a scenario where a character has to decide to actually go inside something to get rid of some "evil" (ehatever that may be). I guess I prefer characters with more sense of self-preservation than "for good"-attitude *shrugs* I enjoy good plots, sometimes a bit "applied archeology", but as soon as someone says "You know, there's monsters inside that ruin" my characters tend to reply "And why haven't you called someone who is capable of taking care of that? I don't wear a sign that says 'me'".
I've yet to see a module (at least for D&D, for KULT there are a lot online...) that doesn't assume the characters are interested in making the world a better place (not a worse one, either, I don't particularly enjoy playing "evil" as well)... Maybe such a module does exist, but the only one I found mildly interesting is Monte's "Somethings Cooking", which, at long last, displays some of the wackyness magic can cause :-)


I have the same time problems as you. The way I get around it is to have a detailed campaign ( created by me, but it could have been bought eg greyhawk ). This gives me a solid base. I then let the players drive the plot, they have enough imagination to keep things interesting, and then I improvise. Its not that difficult to scrawl down an orc lair in 15 minutes. If I need longer I can delay a session.

This is where modules become interesting. If you have half a dozen modules that the players hacen't done, then you can plug them in to the regular plot at short notice. I give you a real example below:

The players had had an item stolen from their castle. I initiated this. They decided to follow the theif. I put in a short sea voyage so they could have a couple of sea encounters, then I decided to use a stand alone dungeon I picked up free from Dragon magazine. It was a lighthouse on an island for 1st to 2nd level players, so it needed beefing up . Add in a few high level undead, a necromancer, his followers fighter and thief and a zombie galley, and you have a ready made lair. The players have a real good time, all with minimum work by myself, and I get to fill in a little island off the coast of my campaign.

The coolest plot twist I experienced in a game was as follows...

An evil tyrant loots, pillages and burns my hometown. My character is beaten to hell and starts the game off with amnesia. As I level up, I slowly regain my memories and in the end I realize...that I AM the evil tyrant. I've spent the entire game tracing clues and travelling across the land to avenge my village and family...only to discover that I DID IT.

I'm a REAL bastard...apparently.

And so was my GM.

Its just sad because I NEVER saw it coming. Once I DID infact realize this, I noticed that EVERYTHING pointed to me being the culprit, anyway. I felt so dense.

That's a good one. I've never done the PC is actually the bad guy scenario but I have done the PC benefactor is actually the bad guy thing as few times. I'll have to try that some time.

And Rob, I have the same beef with modules. My players tend to be self serving pricks...... I maean my player's characters..... really. Anyway, they seldom care what may be going on in a far off villiage or whatnot unless they're getting paid, and handsomely too. When I did the big module campaign I told them I was running modules so they should try not to derail them too badly and accept the bad writing. Once they did that they enjoyed them, excpt for Thoughts Of Darkness. Man that module sucked so bad.

Tends to disturb the "Suspension of Disbelief", doesn't it? :-)

I was always more of a 'combat strategist' as opposed to a 'greedy-unmotivated-cheap-ass'

I'd gladly go to that far-off village to keep the game rolling, and to keep the GM level-headed...

I'm with Ass, if the GM wants me to go off to the village, off I go.
I feel a certain social obligation to not go out of my way to screw up the GM plot. Of course the GM has an obligation to let the players know what kind of game he'll run too.

If the party is supposed to be well intentioned do-gooders who run off to save every threatened village, I play Patrikus the Pea Brained Paladin. If we're supposed to be hard driving, heart hearted mercenaries, then its Max the Meanspirited fighter, etc.

It's a social game after all, so it helps to work together.


Good article Rogue. That's exactly my approach to prepared adventures. I tend to link them up ahead of time.

There's a lot of crap out there. There's a few gems. my personal recent faves are the Sunless Citadel, and The Heart of nightfang Spire.

I weave these into an ongoing plot, and give them a place within the geography and ongoing events of a campaign world.

"It's a social game after all, so it helps to work together."

I'm gonna plaster that on the cover of every game book I own. Maybe then my players will take the hint. Probably not though.

Yeah, would they're mentality possibly be...


"SIR! A killer...YES SIR!!!"

Playing games is a bit of a handshake. GM's shouldn't throw out options that always fluster the players...a good GM should design an adventure that his / her players WANT to play.

By the same token, the players should help the GM out. If a lot of hints are dropped about Dungeon X, then maybe they should go check it out and see what's what.

I agree with helps to work together.

Other thoughts...

Like Mo, I sometimes alter the true purpose of a Module so I can plop in into my world. One example is The Eternal Boundary, a Planescape module. I needed a "fort" for a villain to reside in...didn't want to take the time to build I lifted the "fort" from this module (which wasn't really that interesting and wasn't well-suited for my 10th level players). The only changes I made was that I beefed up the number and power of the villains in the fort. In my mind, that gave me my $$$ worth for the module.

The Eternal Boundry was a cool module. It was a good into for a Planescape game. I thought the story was well written and it did a good job of introducing the players to Sigil without cheesing out like alot of low level modules do.

I lifted my copy from my former friend Jeff when he stiffed me for alot of money. I got alot of cool gaming stuff from him, like Dragon Mountian and some decent condition 1st Ed stuff.

The Eternal Boundary is probably better than I give it credit for. By the time I acquired it (5 years after publication), I was already pretty well versed with Planescape, so the "introductory" aspect of it seemed to academic.

I did like the "fort" layout and the NPC's. I've been using the NPC's here and there as minor villains (a guy named the Shadow cool is that?) -- some have gotten themselves killed...some are still out there...riding magic carpets and whatnot.

Boundary is by no means the WORST module I've seen. That honor, right now, goes to the adventure in the Menzoberranzan boxed set. For a product that was supposed to give players a shot at the famed Drow city...this one was pretty stinky. The so-called adventure "hook" was laughable -- a merchant asks you to travel with him as a, why would YOU say yes...or, that's right, he's going to a dangerous Drow city and that's supposed to be your hook...your player is supposed to WANT to go to a dangerous city that he/she probably shouldn't even know about.

The logical progression of the adventure was actually pretty illogical. Your employer gets killed half-way through...before you get to Menzo...but, out of the kindness, the players are supposed to carry on for this guy -- the module even says something like "at this point, the players will probably decide to carry on." Why? They've already been paid. The module assumes that the players have read Salvatore's books and that they'll want to go to Menzo just because they can. Hoo-kay...

Then, the Bregan d'Aerthe show up for no real reason other than to get a token cameo. It'd be like running a Star Wars game where you bump into Boba Fett "just because." I've seen authors / designers do things like that, thinking that they've added a "cool' element...but, it's just bogus nonsense.

Sorry...didn't mean to rant, there.

A rant is not only allowed but at times encouraged. So it's all good Rouge.

I havn't actually seen that particular module but it sound's downright shitty. The worst module I have ever had the privilidge to run is the Ravenloft classic Thoughts Of Darkness. The cover art is really cool with a picture of a Mind Flayer against a blasted earth backdrop. It seems so cool at first. The players will venture to the Illithid realm and take on the god brain itself. Even a cursory glance at the module will have things like the vampire illithid in the moster section just jump out at evil DMs. It did to me anyway. Then the story starts, that is, if you can call it a story. The players are conveniently transported by the mists the the Illithid realm, then they have to try and leave, which they can't so they might as well go to the big ass mountian and get their asses kicked by Mind Flayers, this is not a very intruging plot hook to many players, if any at all. From then on it's just a big ass dungeon where you can only progress along one path, literally there is only one way to go in the mountian so it's not even much of a dungeon. The players will then encounter pointless traps and uexplained monsters. At the end they will fight some Illithid bad ass just because he's there and then they get teleported to the god brain's lair where they fight it untill it gets low on hp at which time they are teleported out of the realm. The end. That's the entire story, there really is no more depth to it. None.

Of course I judge bad modules on the basis of what was around at the time, otherwise allmost every early module would be the worst. Like Tomb Of Horrors and Keep On The Borderlands. The Against The Giants series was pretty crappy too.

I could talk...well, forever about this kind of stuff.

Gygax's comments about how Tomb of Horrors is a "thinking" player's game amuses me to no end. Tomb is riddled with traps rather than monsters...but, in the end, it's still a somewhat randomly laid out map with a bunch of hidden traps to guard...oh yeah...that's right...the bad-guy doesn't really have anything worth stealing -- there are easier ways to acquire gold and silver. Anyway, what he means by "thinking" is that you check for traps every 10 feet and hope that you succeed.

I have a copy of Keep on the Borderlands, but never really read it. Saving it for a rainy day.

Against the Giants...and the sequels...are classic hack-fests. There's a lot of guys to kill...a lot of treasure to steal...and not a lot of plot.

Yeah...I've seen the Cover to Thoughts of Darkness, but don't have that one (my Ravenloft collection is somewhat limited -- I only have Vecna Reborn from the modules...and that's only 'cuz it's about Vecna).

I've found that the end days of 2nd Edition was the best era for modules. It's like they knew 3rd Edition was coming and they threw all the rules out the window. It was like all the restrictions had been lifted. Want to fight Geryon...okay! Want to fight Vecna...okay! Want to go to hell...okay! Want to go to all of those sacred sites that you were supposed to avoid...okay! Want to kill off some gods...okay! And, they weren't just hack fests...there was some wattage put into most of them.

Again...I don't own a D20, I'm not sure how the new brood fares.

Nice article RG, though I will comment on it with a bit of a tangent.

I have found that the problem with most all D&D modules is always the fact that the plots are 99% focused on excuses to fight. A good friend of mine made the analogy of writing modules is good training for writing a script for a porn movie, you have just enough plot to give an excuse for the action, and the more seamless the action is to the limited plot the better it works. I've seen players, even at major conventions, looking at rules when the DM is spouting flavour text because they don't have a remote to skip that bit.

This all isn't that bad of a thing as with D&D especially means all the players have combat skills so Combat is the universal language of the players, the single thing that any character class can participate in without being completely out of depth and if they have all turned up and made characters to participate in D&D with. But it does explain why sometimes it can be very easy to burn out on D&D and need a break.

What purchased modules I have read, played, or GMed, all could do with more stuffing to expand the plot of the material. Some mods you just have to make a plot to fit the situation, such as the original 'Keep on the Border Lands', which had a list of various monster stats for the people actually living in the Keep which is supposed to act as the PCs adventuring base, and only one NPC has any personality listed, a single adjective that from memory was 'jovial', and he is the secret bad guy SPY!

More recent mods seem to suffer from the failing of editing. Not the spelling or detail, they just feel to me that they had the guts slashed out of them to fit the number of pages. A current example for me is 'The Shattered Circle' which has the vague plot of an ancient artefact has been uncovered by a member of a race of ex-slaves of the Drow and it has the power to rejuvenate the dead, rebuild structures, and recreate monsters from bygone times, this all sounds good however all they use it for in the mod is a monster spawner and make traps reactivate. With a bit of forethought and elbow grease I am very happy with where I am taking it, but at first glance it was a hopeless waste of forty pages that felt like whole sections of plot had been removed.

Trent O'Donoghue.

The best modules that I've seen were the old school D&D 2nd ed "Challenges". Fighter's Challenge I&II, Theive's Challenge I&II, Cleric's Challenge and so on.
They were supposed to be short one-shot adventures for a single character of trhe appropriate character class, but I found that with only minor tweaking it could be used on whole parties of lower powered characters.
I wish I could find those again, they've been out of print for over ten year now...

"Live long and prosper... or don't."

slightly off topick here:
have any of you used adventures or scenarios posted on RPG Archive? (
if so, what did you think of them?

- have mercy on the newbie -