OOC: The Freedom Found in Adventure Modules
OOC is where the writers of The Only Edition are allowed to be earnest for once.
There is often a dichotomy presented when GMing. Either a GM has a set story they wish to tell, or they are able to go with the flow and roll with the punches the players hand them. The railroad vs the sandbox. Adventure modules are often seen as part of the railroad camp, and it’s easy to see why. Modules have the setting, the NPCs, the stories set up from the get go. And many go beyond that, including bits of dialogue, or whole paragraphs of text for the GM to read aloud that might be description or conversation. To many, this must seem like the tightest restrictions of all, not even allowing for the GM to be surprised by their own choices, let alone their players.
However, I believe that there is a freedom offered in adventure modules. The freedom of a safety net, or rather, the freedom to not have to think about all of the setup. My first game I ran with friends was a seat of my pants campaign with a vague idea of an overarching plot. And I ended each session a stressed and exhausted wreck as I grappled with players and my own understanding of the system (D&D 5e). I felt each decision that I had not accounted for, and every silence as I looked up a rule as a failure, and it led to the end of two campaigns in as many years as I found that I was dreading the next session, rather than looking forward to it. It didn’t matter if players said they were having fun, because I was not.
The refuge I found was in adventure modules. The fact that so much was laid out in front of me felt like a weight off of my shoulders. It allowed me to do a quick skim of what I thought I would come up in the next session, and then allow the more imaginative part of my brain to extrapolate from there. While my first few adventures were definitely more on the railroading side of the equation, experience has allowed me to use the adventure as merely the baseline. I can then tweak and change things to where I like them is what works well for me. And then when the players come along to ruin things, I’m much more prepared to take their changes in stride, either incorporating them into what I had imagined, or following their lead, glancing back at the module to find a place to slot back into.
It’s almost as if I’m a time traveler, who knows how everything is supposed to happen, but me and some others are dipping our toes into the timestream to futz with events further along. The general flow of events will largely stay the same, but ripples will be felt very heavily in the moment and in the immediate surroundings. And because I’ve read my history, I can make educated decisions based on what has changed, and see how that affects things further down the line.
I won’t pretend that my style isn’t more work than simply following the module, and might even amount to the same amount of work as a completely homebrew campaign. It’s also not lost on me that I might be able to return to a freeform campaign now after years of experience that will mitigate much of the frustrations that I faced as an entirely new GM. What matters to me in the moment is that because adventure modules offer me what might happen, I have the freedom to not get stuck in the mud about what is supposed to happen.