Analyzing Adventure Modules
Adventure modules are a GMs best friend. Well, they are MY best friend, at least. Having a pre-made adventure can really help with inspiration and cut down on the GM’s workload.
Talking about adventure modules is kinda like talking about movie genres. When I say I like “science fiction”, that could mean I like spaceships (Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica). Or I could mean I like exploring aspects of humanity (West World, Ghost in the Shell, Ender’s Series). Or it could mean a mix of both or neither.
To avoid confusion, I’ll be discussing adventure modules by their main focus. I’ve narrowed it down to three:
- Cinematic. These adventures tend to provide a more linear experience with big, flashy moments and solid story arcs.
- Location. This category includes dungeon crawls and open sandbox adventures. Each room or section might contain a small story or conflict, but player freedom is the main goal.
- Seeded. More barebones than the rest, these adventures tend to offer “threads” for the players to pull on. It’s up to the group to flesh them out and add detail.
As you’ve noticed, these categories are not exclusive. Most adventures can be a combination or two or even all three categories. I’ll be listing examples that tend to focus more on one category or another. In case you haven’t realized, this post is mostly an excuse to talk about some of my favorite adventures. Let’s take a look!
There’s been a backlash against cinematic adventures recently, often labeling them as “railroads”. Some groups place great value on freedom and agency, which is fine. But there is something to be said for a growing tension in the game. Watching a detailed and beautiful story arc reach fruition in a big climax is great! It’s how almost all other media handles epic stories.
As long as your players know that they are participating in a more linear adventure, then it can be a real blast to watch everything unfold.
Let’s take a look at two examples.
The Devil’s Spine
Clocking in at 100 pages, this is a monster of an adventure set in the distant weird future of Numenara. Devil’s Spine aims to provide a cinematic adventure while allowing some player freedoms. The adventure is cut up into smaller mini-campaigns that can be played in different orders. It will never be quite the same for any two groups.
Unfortunately it does become heavy handed at times. At one point a character suffers from a kind of disease that they can’t avoid. This forces player motivation in ways they may not want in order to tell a coherent story.
Because the adventure is already cut up into pieces it’s easy to modify. Yank out the stuff you don’t like, and keep the rest. It’s a beautiful adventure with lots of interesting ideas and details.
Ravenloft (1st edition)
A classic adventure, Ravenloft takes the cinematic pieces and scatters them across a map. There are a few dungeons, with one big one at the end. Tasks can be accomplished in multiple orders, and a light puzzle/mystery keeps players engaged.
Set in the gloomy shadow of Castle Ravenloft, the players must puzzle out who controls this weird town and rescue it from the maniacal vampire. The adventure has a few hokey elements to keep players within the map (killer fog around the whole valley). But within the valley there is a lot of freedom in where players go.
As things escalate the players draw closer to the heart of the mystery. The final dungeon contains some impressive battles and memorable locations/puzzles. There is even some initial options to make the game a little different each time you play. Nice touch.
This adventure was ahead of its time, and struck an excellent balance between Location and Cinematic styles.
We tend to think of dungeon crawls for these, but open hex sandboxes also fit this mold. The adventures encourage exploration and danger, daring the players to take risks in spite of great dangers. These adventures must juggle player freedom against possible outcomes (and GM prep). They can be very tricky to get right, but allow the players to move at their own pace in their own directions.
I can’t pick just one, so I’m going to gush about the a bunch of adventures from Michael Prescott. Here are my three favorites:
Every adventure focuses on a single dungeon or area drawn with a cutaway perspective. Adventure seeds are scattered throughout the area, encouraging players to use them as a jumping off point. His adventures are an excellent blend of Location and Seeded adventures; the best of both worlds.
All of his adventures are free on his website! If you enjoy them, I highly recommend supporting his Patreon and tossing him a couple bucks each month. I want him to keep making these!
This category is a bit fuzzy, and is something that may be a personal preference. These adventures contain a lot of “hooks”, “threads”, or “seeds” that a group can grab and run with. I was introduced to this idea through Dungeon World Fronts, but many games use something similar.
Being more barebones, it’s easy to think that these adventures are somehow lesser or simpler. But there is an art to writing an interesting hook, and knowing what to include or leave out. Maybe the examples I pick will help explain what I mean.
Built for Dungeon World by Marshall Miller, these often don’t take up more than a page or two. Instead of setting information each starter includes a list of questions. This pushes players to fill in the gaps themselves and build their own world. Each starter also has a few characters, some monsters, and some nebulous impressions.
There is no stated goal or purpose. No quest line or story arc. Instead, these are more like ingredients for the GM to use. I find them invaluable, and their lack of definition fires up my imagination more than a fleshed out world might.
These adventures are not for everyone. But they are often exactly what I need to springboard my own adventures.
Joe Banner Adventures
Yay, more gushing! I’ve been support Joe for a while, and it’s been a pleasure to watch his adventures get better and better. Although his adventures are built for Dungeon World, they are easily adapted to any system. Here are my top three, but there are so many!
Joe’s adventures are somewhere between the Dungeon Starters and a full cinematic adventure. His adventures provide several goals for the players to choose from, a basic map or location, NPCs, and one or two set pieces. His initial setups can be detailed, but they rarely feature an ending. Once the adventure hits the table, anything might happen. The secret is that different factions are given their own motivations and then set loose in the world.
It’s up to the GM and the players to discover what happens and how situations are resolved. These adventures are great for GMs who like organic and spontaneous play.
If you like these, you should definitely support his Patreon!
This was a sloppy and biased analysis. But I had a blast! And hopefully you found an adventure or two that will be useful to you. If you have any suggestions, post them below! I’m always glad to find new adventures and creators.