A few weeks back, I posted an essay contributing to the discussion around whether or not it was possible to run an adventure “as written.” I argue that it is possible to run an adventure module without significant alteration on the part of the game master. Frequently, it isn’t done but it is possible.
In this essay, I describe the main reasons why it often is not the case (particularly in the OSR) and some basic guidelines that adventure writers can follow to make it more likely their adventures will be played as written.
Most OSR adventures are not run as written.
In the Old School Renaissance scene, most of us are not running adventures as they are written.
An adventure can be good but something about it won’t fit our campaign or our game group. We like the adventure or the concept of the adventure enough to run it but with some alterations. This is typically how things go in classic adventure gaming. Part of the hobby is tinkering.
Interpreted charitably, this is the point that Luka was making in his post, Never as Written. His absolute statement that it NEVER happens undermined his argument. It is difficult, often doesn’t happen, but not impossible.
Old School referees often build their own settings. Those of us who make our own settings rarely use published adventures as written because some characteristic of the campaign has major implications for adventure scenarios. Referees mess around with player character classes, character species, magic devices, and monsters to such a degree that published adventures need some work to fit into the campaign. This is the primary reason why even well designed adventures are rarely run as written. That’s not a failure of the product or the designer.
Sometimes a well designed adventure doesn’t quite fit the party of characters or the particular group of the players. The concept might be great and even fit the campaign setting but some element of it wouldn’t be to the taste of the group so the referee makes some modifications.
What makes an adventure more likely to be run as written?
First, the adventure can’t suck. What makes an adventure not suck? That’s a whole other essay. Here is a good set of guidelines.
Assuming the adventure isn’t crap, there are some characteristics of adventures that can be run as written or nearly so.
The adventure fits the implied or stated setting of the game system.
The more an adventure fits the implied or stated setting of the game system it is designed for, the more likely it is to be used as it is written.
“Run as written” is probably more frequent in game systems set up for a specific IP. Game masters are less likely to modify an adventure if the the group is playing the Dúnedain of Arnor. If the group is looking to play in a specific setting by the canon of that setting, and the adventure is delivering that experience, tinkering will only mess it up.
In a game like Swords and Wizardry, a setting is not overtly stated but there are setting features implied by the rule set. S&W is more of a toolset than a ruleset. It’s a kit to make your own game. Even then, there are some basic assumptions about the multiverse (if you will) the game was designed to model.
Game masters and players like a system for some reason. Adventures that fit the conceptual framework of that system is going to be of greater utility.
I know. This is obvious. Some adventure writers don’t care and then wonder why their work fades into obscurity after it’s initial release. If you want someone to actually run your adventure, and tell other people what a good time they had so those other people buy it, run it and tell other people about it in a positive feedback loop; You have to make it fit the system and setting they want to run.
A good example is The Tomb of the Iron God. I’ve run it twice with no alterations at all. I dropped it into my campaign and the players ran through it without any need to make adjustments. Matt Finch wrote the adventure to fit the assumptions of Swords & Wizardry and it works great in that system. It would be fine in other old school systems that don’t deviate much from the assumptions of classic fantasy adventure gaming.
The adventure may take the characters out of their implied setting.
I ran the first installment of Through Ultan’s Door as part of my Kaladar campaign with no alteration. The reason I was able to do this is that its primary conceit doesn’t mess with the existing setting. The adventurers go through a portal into the Dreamlands to face unfamiliar dangers, meet bizarre NPCs, and acquire strange and unique objects. Because the location is not physically within the campaign world where the players start, it doesn’t matter that it is weird. I didn’t have to think about how a certain monster, or a faction interacts with the rest of the campaign setting because they are walled off from it.
The adventure may introduce something that doesn’t fit the setting as long as it doesn’t destroy it.
Another option is for the designer to introduce something from another world or plane to the setting but stays in a small area of the adventure location or has a minimal effect on the broader campaign world. If you put space aliens in a fantasy setting, the players will want to steal and use the tech to kill dragons. The designer has to account for that. Some referees will still avoid such adventures.
The adventure can’t break the campaign.
Adventures that wreak havoc on the campaign setting can work as one shot games but if they are intended to be part of a campaign, most game masters aren’t going run an adventure that have the potential to blow up their game. An adventure built around an artifact that make the characters the most powerful beings in the campaign world or an event that wipes out the setting is probably not going to be played as written (or at all) unless that is the central premise of the GM’s campaign.
Simple but difficult.
For an adventure to run as written, it has to have the foundation of being a good scenario that the game master finds easy to use.
The adventure has to fit the assumptions of the campaign setting and the rule set it is written for. It can’t break the campaign with items, characters, or events.
The adventure can be weird as you want to make it, as long as, the weirdness is contained to that adventure, works within the context of the setting, and won’t crash the campaign.
If you stick to those parameters, it is possible, however unlikely it may be, to write an adventure that will be played as written.