Being an improvisational medium, role-playing games necessarily have much in common with jazz. I couldn’t help but reflect on this when my friends wrote about their recent games. Brian Renninger says things went off the rails when he dropped the characters into a Legends of the Flame Princess adventure module. Alex had plans of dropping a party from The Lost City into The Isle of Dread via a magic carpet, but oddly enough this situation also marked the point were his game flew apart.
This is how we do things, of course. My Prime Directive Campaign went from the adventure from the back of GURPS Humanx to an old J. Andrew Keith Amber Zone. And if you dig through the game blogs, you’ll see the suggestion that game masters drop Caverns of Quasqueton into Keep on the Borderlands. Others say replacing the dungeon from X1 with Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. And so on.
Adventure design typically follows an approach that S. John Ross calls “the string of pearls.” Individual scenes can be played out any number of ways, but the overall sequence of how they are composed can largely be planned in advance. Campaign design follows a similar model with one adventure following another– an approach the goes back to Gygax’s G-D-Q series and which continues to be the dominant form in computer games today.
Things were not always like this, however. First and second wave rpgs were designed on the assumption that the best resource for game mastering was an eclectic mix of pulp fantasy, myth, and even war games. There were no module series then. And as Rob Kuntz has pointed out, the early modules were not meant to impose a structure onto people’s campaigns, but were more of a pedagogical tool; they were worked examples designed to show game masters how they could go about constructing their own adventure situations.
To produce the sort of play experience that the early games were designed around (and which companies like Judges Guild supported), you will have to fight the urge to drop into a comfortable module. If you try it, you’ll find the tools you need to referee the campaign will be different. Rules sections you ignored as extraneous or silly are liable to become a central part of your game sessions. Adventure design approaches and elements that have largely been repudiated as being unfair, incoherent, and/or overly facile will be seen in a different light.
For a lot of us, this type of play is hard to get into. In a lot of cases, it’s not even what we think we want from an rpg. And I don’t know anyone that doesn’t think they can improve on OD&D, classic Traveller, and 5th edition Tunnels & Trolls. That’s part of the charm, really. But the old games aren’t quite as broken or incomplete as they might appear. They just have more in common with rhythm changes than they do with tablature.