Monday, April 5, 2010

Well, Hell's Bells.

It seems that just about everybody else in this here OSR is starting up a blog. I might as well get off my backside and join the, *ahem*, polite and always enlightening conversation.

The problem is, I suffer from severe, chronic writer's block. They say that a writer ought to get in the habit of writing a thousand words a day, so that it becomes rote habit to write even when you don't feel like it. That's why I'm eager to start a blog: it might prove therapeutic. If I can write a few hundred words and toss them out on the ol' web 2.0, maybe then I can also unstopper the floodgates keeping back my more creative endeavors.

Problem is, you see, I'm being pulled in so many different directions. I have school work, essays and such that I really ought to be writing first; adventure modules for the E&E setting that I really should have started a long time ago; and fiction projects, those half-dozen unfinished novels that all writers have but few complete, that I really should get back to before I forget how they end.

So, I'm going to start blogging. I'm going to start spewing my opinions into the void again: random ditherings about role-playing and game-mastering and video games and whatever oddball topics happen to come up. Stuff I like to talk about, like, why is it that after all these years and so much improvement to our computer technology, that Nintendo can't bother to release an arcade-perfect version of Donkey Kong that doesn't omit the 2nd level (the cement factory with conveyor belts) like the NES cartridge did? What the crap is up with that? I look forward to your comments.

Lately, one thing has been sitting in the forefront of my mind like a ten-ton ACME safe just waiting to be opened up from the inside, so that the smushed and broken Wile E. Coyote of my thoughts can stumble out of it. I was wondering, why am I so writer's-blocked on adventure modules? It seems like they should be an easy thing to do. Map out a dungeon, key the dungeon, write up all the descriptions and stat blocks. Easy peasy. It should hardly take any mental effort at all, especially if (like me) you're not out to change the world with some kind of brand new and stylish adventure format. Well, I presently have about zero desire to write RPG materials right now, and I think I know why the creative impulse is so lacking.

I've never had a good experience with an adventure module. Never, ever. Especially when I GM, adventure modules seem to be about worthless as a gaming aid. They're not a time saver (I can whip up a dungeon of my own faster than I can read someone else's, and I'll run it better because I know it inside and out). They're a pain in the arse to use at the game table, flipping pages and looking through stat-blocks and map keys. They've been, at best, a source of one or two good ideas, plus another thirty-one pages of useless crapola. And maybe, I've thought to myself once or twice in the past few days here, I've just been subconsciously reluctant to add to the dung-heap.

This is not to comment on all of the new materials coming out of the OSR, by the way, because I have to admit that I haven't read practically any newly published old-school adventures yet. I'm talking about the old TSR stuff weighing down my bookshelf: D&D modules B1 through M5, plus the odd AD&D or Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure here and there. All of it, taking up space and not doing a thing for me. They've been the source of some of the most boring and poorly-paced campaigns I've run in the last few months, and it's all because I didn't realize something very, very important until just a little while ago. Most of you, wise and sagacious old-school gamers that you are, probably already know this, but it's a new revelation for me, so I'm going to point it out in boldface and italics:

Modules are not adventures. Places where an adventure might take place, perhaps, but still a far cry from the adventure itself.

Seems obvious to those of you out there who already knew what you were doing, doesn't it? But to a schlub like me, who's only been reffing games for a dozen years or so, it's taken me a while to notice.

Let's start from the empirical evidence: my players and I have fun when I've created the adventure from scratch, but they fall asleep when I run out of a module. Scientific experimentation ensues, double-blinds and control groups and data collection and statistical analysis and yadda-yadda-yadda, conclusion is, either I'm running modules altogether wrong, or they're all just complete crap, or both. How do we solve this dilemma?

Let's apply some simple logic and see where it takes us.

P1: Modules are fine, I'm just running them wrong.
P2: Modules are crap.

If proposition #1 is true and proposition #2 is false, then I'm doing something really wrong, such that when I run modules, I don't enjoy the same warm and fuzzy experience that other old-school gamers get from running, say, Keep on the Borderlands. Normally, I would have the module with me when I ref the game, hidden behind my little DM screen. I'd use the maps to tell where the PCs are going, and I'd use the keyed entries to describe those locations and find out what monsters are there. And for some reason, this just never works for me. It doesn't matter how many times I've read the module beforehand, or which details I change or leave alone. I cannot seem to create a fun experience (or any sense of drama or verisimilitude) when DMing under such conditions. It's impossible.

So maybe I'm supposed to be doing something radically different, like reading through the module a dozen times to nearly memorize it and then running the game off the cuff, or only taking away a few shining bits of inspiration and then taking the adventure in a completely different direction. Either of these cases would doubtlessly create a more engaging gaming experience, if only because I don't have to keep flipping through a booklet every ten minutes. But then I'm either not using most of the module, or I'm going through it so much (and wasting so much time) that I might as well have just whipped up my own adventure and run that. So what was the point of having the module in the first place?

That's the heart of my inquiry here, because I'm not going to go so far as to claim that proposition #2 is in any way true. Other people do clearly have fun running modules, but I just for the life of me can't figure out how they do it. This is a cry for help. How do you, out there, all of you OSR arch-magi, make use of modules? Give me a few good ideas, and I might just be able to create something interesting and useful. That's really the root cause of my writer's block, you know: the fear that I'll publish something useless to gamers. I don't want to create useless. I don't want to write module U1: The Yawning Caverns of Generic, module U2: You Too Will Never Play This, module U3: Pointless Temple of the Irrelevant Unknown. Tell me what modules are for, and I'll write them for that!

Whew, okay. Now that I've finished my first full-blown tirade, let's end this post the way I think I'm going to end all of my blog posts: with a beloved Farscape quote.

"Don't move! Or I'll fill you full of l... little yellow bolts of light!"
—John Crichton, episode 1.1 "Premier"

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