Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Why I Don't Often Review Modules (Trying Something New)

 You know, I've built up a pretty big stock of adventure modules over the last few years. Thanks to Humble Bundle, Bundle of Holding, jams, and that absolutely bodacious sale Jim Raggi put on last year, I probably have enough to keep me in review content for years without breaking a sweat or spending another dime.

The fact is though, I only discuss modules for the most part when they also do something interesting mechanically or culturally:

The Hill Cantons Quartet had the incredible Chaos Index tool, weird monsters and a sense of humor that made it a joy to play. It was the quartet of creations that put The Hydra Cooperative on everyone's map.

Sailors on the Starless Sea helped redefine a genre and set the unique tone of the most popular OSR game ever made.

Cha'alt and its companions have an innovative game woven into its pages, and tons of mechanics for things like mutations, capricious gods, and a totally different way of approaching magic. Not to mention being a prime example of gonzo style play.

Islands of the Purple Haunted Putrescence for its sheer scope as a hexcrawl, and willingness to toss genre an pop culture into a  lender and set it to frappĂ©. 

Into the Demon Idol is a favorite example of a one-page dungeon.

Frostbitten & Mutilated with its dice scatter tables, clever handling of time travel, dark and twisted character classes, and serving as a prime example of the unique design principles of Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Hot Springs Island a massive, stylish  system-neutral hexcrawl that exemplifies setting design, and has a truly amazing way of presenting NPCs.

The Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, is a book that is beautiful and supremely imaginitive. It takes the concept of the pilgrimage and makes it into a rich and surreal experience.

ArĂȘte is a great example of mythic D&D at its best. And I used it to experiment in solo play.

DNGN Issue #1 was an interesting experiment in presentation. 

The Winds of Madness was sent to me by a reader and was an absolutely stunning romp through the Far Plane with Githyanki and Spelljammer ships that did a better job of the Spelljammer setting than WotC did. It is also a great case study in the differences between the way adventures are designed in OSR and 5e cultures.

The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall I reviewed mostly because I wanted to encourage a first-time writer who was being dogpiked by asshokes on Twitter who didn't  care for his cover. I  thought a little honest feedback might help him out and keep him from being driven out by cancel-culture asses.

Each review was there because the module was an exemplar, a talking point, or a tool for developing my ideas, as much as it was a review of the product itself. I wanted to explore something that the specific setting had to offer.

I also have played most of them. Some of them twice.

My collection, which includes around forty DCC RPG adventures, a dozen Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules, a modest collection of classic D&D adventures, a shocking number of Blue Rose books, the Alpha Blue THOT trilogy, most of the early Necrotic Gnome OSE modules, Rappan Athuk, Highfell, The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, Nevin Pendlebrook's Perilous Pantry, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 1e's Enemy Within series pretty much the entire 1st and early 2nd edition PARANOIA libraries is brimming with adventures good, bad, and extremely weird. I have a lot of thoughts I could share on almost all of them.

But I really hesitate to do so. For a simple reason:

There's just too many ways to use them.

I have run quite a few modules over the years exactly as written. Others, I have stolen the map and a few treasure hoards, or maybe I grab some useful mechanical ideas, monsters, or traps. How you use your module will make some modules more valuable than others. If you are looking for a traditional campaign to run, Hot Springs Island, The Temple of Elemental Evil (especially combined with the Giants and Underdark series) are probably the best bets. If you want to run a long game that doesn't fit that traditional mold, you might be better off considering The Ultaviolet Grasslands and Black City or Cha'alt. If you are just looking for a few good ideas to pillage, the Hill Cantons quartet is a fertile ground for plunder. If you want a very finite game that will liast seven sessions or so, A Red and Pleasant Land or The Islands of Purple Haunted Putrescence are great. Need some ideas for your PCs after they took a sip from a hag's cauldron? Grab Narcosa or Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom. Need something you can run right now? The One Page Dungeon Compendium or almost any level-appropriate DCC module will do the job. Looking for good fodder for a solo crawl? Rappan Athuk, all the way!

I can definitely give a good factual rundown of a module's properties and major strengths and weaknesses. But I am not sure it would make for interesting reading.

Honestly, the best way to review modules is probbaly something like the best way of reviewing movies: you need to cultivate a persona that grabs one audience, and then  recommend books to that audience. Bryce Lynch over at 10ft. Pole, for example has perfected the angry, disaffected GenX DM who just wants to run the game, not spend all day planning shit. His audience are GMs who want to run something without tweaks, as written, and not spend their time or energy on something unless it has a twist.

Which isn't me. I love prep. A module has to be really special for me to want to run it "as is" out of the box. I'd do it again for Hot Springs Island or Highfell, and one day I would love to run Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. But, on a whole, I want to plunder a  module for good ideas. 

Often I want something I can put somewhere on my sandbox after modifying it to suit my needs, like I did for Into the Demon Idol in my article on how to use one-page dungeons. This may well be my favorite way to use modules. And because of it, I suspect that adventures that would be poorly reviewed on 10ft, Pole as humdrum or underdeveloped might receieve a kinder review here. And some of the modules he finds interesting hold little appeal to me, as they are not really compatible with my style of play.

There is another issue as well:

While Modules are fun to read, collect, and plunder, I prefer to home-brew.

Modules are a frippery. You don't need them. Most of the ones I have collected, I have done so purely because I am a fan of the module, or I am curious about the module after seeing it teased out on a YouTube channel like Questing Beast. Or it is in a bundle along with a game that I really want to review.

At the end of the day, if you want to be the best GM possible, learning to plan efficiently is one of the most important skills you can hone.


As I have thought long and hard on this topic lately, I find myself wondering: would my sandbox-play and rules-hacking approach be valuable if I started adding more modules to my rotation?

Or could I develop a more casual structure to share my thoughts on some of the cool modules in my collection that doesn't take me ages to write as I do when reviewing a game? It bears some experiementation...

Over the month, I am going to compose a few different styles of short article to discuss some of my favourite modules. I hope one of them might land with my readers. Please let me know when one does.

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