Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Module Writing Grind

"Self Organization" Sculpture by Courteny Brown (C) 2020.
Currently on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Right now I am putting together my first module for publication. I am using a dungeon that I built both to coach players in OSR thinking and put ICRPG Core 2e through its paces. 

I have another one coming fast on its heels, and, while the articles need editing, The House of Amber Lanterns is also in process of being put into module format. A fourth DCC RPG module needs one more playtest and some art.

Up until now, I have had  the luxury of just using scribbled bullet form notes and mind maps when playing D&D. My Temple of Elemental Evil conversion is the closest I have ever come to writing a module. 

And in spite of having played D&D since 1986, I have very little experience using them, either. I grew up in the country without the benefit of a FLGS or Comic Shop. If I wanted gaming matetial, I had to find an excuse to go with my parents into the city 50km away on a weekend, which might have happened once a season most years. I couldn't get modules to run. My version of the Mentzer boxed set didn't even have a pre-written adventure in it. I have always homebrewed everything.

Before last year I can list the number of modules I had run on my fingers and have some left over:
  • The Terror Bears by Erik Wujick in 1989
  • The Crypt of Istaris (AD&D2e vers.) by Richard Fichera in 1990
  • Under Illefarn by Steve Perrin in 1991
  • Wrath of the Immortals (Adapted for 3.5e) by Aaron Alliston in 2006
  • Adventures in Blackmoor (Adapted for 3.5e) by Dave Arenson in 2006
  • Temple of the Frog by Dave Arenson and David J. Ritchie (Adapted for 3.5e) 2006
  • White Plume Mountain (3rd ed. vers.) by Lawrence Schick in 2008
  • The Temple of Elemental Evil (Adapted for D&D5e) by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer in 2014
This year, I intentionally started a campaign using modules in order to get experience reading and using them. Thus far it has let me add three more to the list and hopefully several more soon:
  • Sailors on the Starless Sea by Harley Stroh
  • Into the Demon Idol by Jobe Bittman
  • Please Go to Sleep, Arthur Cobblesworth by Niklas Wistedt
And I have played in even fewer:
  • Red Hand of Doom by James Jacobs and Richard Baker in 2007
  • Eyes of tbe Lich Queen by Nicholas Logue in 2008
  • Masque of the Red Death by Anne K. Brown in 2012
  • Sailors on the Starless Sea by Harley Stroh in 2020
  • The People of the Pit by Joseph Goodman in 2020
At the same time I have played well over 8,000 hours of home brewed D&D, and doubtless written over 1500 adventures for my six favourite game systems.

The incredible difference in the skills you deploy when planning adventures for a home game and when you create an adventure. There is yet another skill set for reading, assimilating, and running a module. I have found the learning curve in taking the notes I write and translating them into a module pretty steep.

When you run a home made game - especially using Theatre of the Mind, you do a lot of improvising: you don't need to know what a specific room looks like beyond a bullet point or two; you know the vibe of the dungeon and can make stuff up on the fly. NPCs don't need stats or spell lists: you can eyeball it. You don't even really need a map: a flow chart will do. Taking a bunch of bullet points and notions from your head and transforming them into something someone else can run is a daunting task.

The name of the game in module writing is constantly parsing out what is going on in your head (or what probably would have gone on in your head while improving) into reasonable packages of information that other people can absorb. I might know that every room in the Cavern of the Ice Imps glitters with rime, that there are naughty words traced in the frost, and that the main cave is piled high with junk that is obsessively stacked and organized just because that is what I imagined. If I want you to know it, too, I have to work damned hard to show you. And I have to make it overt for every room.

Maps, Art, NPC stat-blocks, character notes... they are all suddenly necessary when I never would have bothered with them before. I don't think I have spent this much time looking at the ICRPG Core manual in the last 40 game sessions running it.

When I was young, I didn't appreciate modules very much. They were something that kids who lived near comic shops - or at least had a public library - could use. In my arrogant teen years I imagined that they were something of a crutch. In my 20s and 30s they were something that some people needed or wanted and I just didn't.

Now that I am in my 40s and have little kids, however, I have come to really appreciate them. Playing these games is hard enough without having to plan every session out. Especially when your time is rarely your own. Modules have let me draw family and friends together for games more often even as I spend a lot of time and energy on my two wonderful, crazy, busy boys.

So, module writers of the TTRPG world, I salute you! The difficulty and complexity of your task far exceeds the work of a regular Dungeon Master. There is far more going on in these pages than most people realize.

Hopefully I can officially join your ranks soon... If only I can stay awake myself through the baby's naptime...


  1. Keep plugging away and I'm sure you will succeed. (Send me your mailing address and I'll send you a print copy of Into the Demon Idol if you need one). - Jobe (

    1. I will absolutely do that! I would be a fool not to.