The module problem pestered my mind while I slept. It was still here for me when I got up this morning. It lay dormant while I played video games, mapped some more dungeon for my current campaign, and read this morning's newest fanfiction (bad habit, working on breaking it). But just now, and I mean just now, I realized what I must do.
Wow, blogging into the silence of the big, empty internet really can be therapeutic!
Okay, so in my first entry, I pointed out that adventure modules aren't adventures, they're just booklets that describe places (dungeons and such) where an adventure might take place, if the PCs decide to go there and shake things up. This whole concept interests me like watching mauve, taupe, and beige colored paints dry and then trying to explain the difference between them. So I probably ought not to be writing the typical sort of adventure module.
On top of that, Engines & Empires is pretty explicitly a plot-driven game, and that doesn't lend itself well to the sandboxy sort of adventure location where the PCs are expected to go in, explore, retreat when they run out of resources, delve again, lather-rinse-repeat. I should stop trying to apologize for this and just write material that supports the play style I want to promote. In fact, I feel another boldfaced statement coming on, kind of like when Jake Blues saw the light and started turning handsprings:
Just because I'm in the OSR, that doesn't mean I have to like sandboxes, mega-dungeons, swords & sorcery, or any other point of newly-minted old-school "orthodoxy".
We're hobby gamers. We do things our own way, and we do it for ourselves, by ourselves. This resurgence in old rules is a great thing, but it's great to different people for different reasons. For me, the increased popularity of B/E and BECMI (or should that be B/X and BXCMI?) means that I'm able to run a rules-light game that doesn't bog down in needless details. This leaves more room for plot and character, which is what I get out of playing and reffing. That's my payoff, acting and narration. For others, it might be exploration or puzzle-solving or trying to reconstruct the home campaigns of Gygax and Arneson with a bit of text-aided archaeology, but not me. I say, "to mine own self be true." I'm done apologizing.
So, what form will E&E modules take? They won't be adventure locations. They'll be plots. But before somebody shouts, "Dragonlance! hiss!" and starts reaching for the crosses and holy water, hear me out. I don't mean plot-based adventure modules or anything like that. I mean, books of plot elements that referees can draw upon as they please: plot hooks, plot twists, characters, locations, scenes, and the occasional bit of crunchy game material (new class, monster, item, whatever). Like a periodical or a magazine, slanted toward my E&E setting but still useful to anybody who likes gaslight, steampunk, and science fantasy. I can already envision what I'm going to write now, and that hasn't happened in months.
So, you know, yay for blogging. It worked. "Write two posts and call me in the morning." "Sure thing, Doc!"
This comes up all the time on forums (which really just proves that I should avoid most forums), this idea that if your game isn't a sandbox, it's a railroad, and so "you're doing D&D wrong". I call it nonsense, because there's always pre-planning and linearity in games. Even the most wide-open world, with the most detached and impartial DM, must pre-plan some of his dungeons, his locations, the potential adventure hooks, and so forth. Sometimes, when pressed for time, it even behooves the beleaguered referee to prepare a "backup dungeon" and then just drop it bodily into the game world, right in the path of the traveling PCs, a kind of delaying tactic so that they don't get to the next region of the world before the DM can develop it. That's really just a kind of railroading, but the players will never cry foul because they'll never know it couldn't have been otherwise (i.e. that if they'd gone east instead of west, the DM might still have to place this dungeon in their path). What the players don't know can't bother them.
Railroading so that they players never find out can hardly be called a crime. In fact, it's a fine art requiring much subtlety. The problem with railroads is not that they compromise the players' agency; problems arise only when players come to believe that they're being railroaded, which is the result of a ham-fisted referee bludgeoning errant players back onto the main track. This is the mistake that creates the fallacy, "railroad == badwrongfun". Yes, that's a fallacy, because the truth of the matter is simply "bad railroad != fun". A good railroad keeps the players entertained and always keeps up the illusion of verisimilitude (same as a good sandbox, really, but with different tactics and goals involved).
On a forum once, someone whittled the question down to a dichotomy. Either you're for sandboxes or you're for railroads. I said that since plot-free sandboxes tend to bore me and my players to tears, I must be for railroads. The only question at hand is whether the DM is the ordinary sort of railway conductor who lets passengers get on and off at their intended stops, change lines, switch tracks... or is he some sort of demon engineer, straight out of an Old West ghost story, who keeps his passengers trapped in a pointless limbo for eternity? That's the difference between a bad railroad and a good one.
Okay, time for this morning's Farscape quote!
Aeryn: I'm sure your world has no force so ruthless, so disciplined.
Crichton: Oh, we call them linebackers. Or serial killers, depending on whether they're... professional or amateur.
—Episode 1.3 "Exodus from Genesis"