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- Modular Adventures and Call of Cthulhu
So I'm going to put a little essay up here about modular adventures, so we all understand them better. Simply put, a modular adventure is a story that contains many one acts, which are played one after the other. You might recall a one act is a little self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end all happening in 10 to 15 scenes usually. The modular adventure structure just binds a lot of related one acts together to create a coherent story with them. In some cases that may allow players to explore specific locations, each with their own one-act adventure, or to experience distinct legs of an overall journey, a trek across the mountains, or a ship ride across a sea, and have them all form into one larger tale.
The modular adventure is therefore wonderful for creating big sandbox adventures where the players are controlling where they go and what they want to do, or for creating long journey adventures, stories where getting there is really supposed to be half the fun. Each piece of the story is easily contained within its own act, waiting for you to get to it.
While that pretty much covers the basics of it, I'm going to quickly go over my favorite three modular adventure examples so you can see some of the specific options you'll have when making your own. All three examples come from Call of Cthulhu the roleplaying game, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and Horror on the Orient Express.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is widely regarded as the best of the three, and is a big sandboxy adventure, leading PCs on a pulpy thriller all across the world in an attempt to stop the plans of an evil God and his numerous minions. And each of the six locations where the PCs can go is its own one act adventure. In fact each one follows a remarkably similar pattern if you outline them, a 10 to 12 scene main plot, always ending with the players sneaking into an enemy "base" of some kind, along with two diversionary subplots that PCs can get into if they or the GM wants. The author Larry Ditillio seems to have found a working formula and uses it to good effect in each act. Which I think experientially shows us that it's perfectly alright to use a tight, well defined structural design, over and over again if you need to. Save your creativity for the parts of the work that the audience can actually enjoy.
Of course you could design your one acts however you wanted, I imagine in a lot of adventures you'd want to vary the design to match the theme of the one act's storyline. In MoN the PCs are basically pursuing the same goal everywhere they go, stop evil cultists who already live there from doing what they're doing. If you did a different type of adventure, say knights wandering through a big enchanted woods, you might have very different quests at each stopping point: the Elf King may need some diplomatic help, while the goblin camp may require you to free some prisoners before they're eaten by goblins. And the flow of the scenes in those acts would be quite different, with different types of finales.
Beyond the Mountains of Madness meanwhile is an epically long journey from New York, New York to the middle of Antarctica. This isn't a sandbox adventure, you have to follow the route from point A to point B, but each piece of the journey is split up, so you can experience it in, generally, one self contained episode. BtMoM isn't as structurally certain as MoN either, when you start the adventure you have a handful of one acts centered around notable incidents, really they seem like extended scenes or scene groups, without a beginning, middle and an end. But the labels are all arbitrary, so you can organize up things however you want.
I won't spoil too much, but there are troubles all along the way, from the the hotel in Manhattan to the horrible discoveries awaiting across the Mountains of Madness. The one acts feature little episodes of danger and panic, more mundane work, and opportunities for socializing and fun, again not organized out in a formulaic way. The writing process seems to be to start with what would actually occur in an arctic expedition in the 1930s, then adds in the events and challenges for PCs to get into. Which turns it into a unique adventure.
Horror on the Orient Express is another linear adventure, this time on a train! This adventure is a little bit like a combination of the two above, it's all scheduled along a path, but the acts themselves are all about performing an overall mission, it's not really an important journey in and of itself, the way an antarctic expedition is. This adventure seems to get the most grief in reviews, it's a railroad on a railroad, written more like the author was thinking of a novel with the PCs as characters in events he already thought up and worked out. The individual scenarios themselves don't always fit together either logically or thematically, either, so people take issue with that.
But that brings up some good rules to remember when writing your adventures! Remember, there's a difference between writing an RPG scenario and writing a story. An RPG scenario sets up events, provides places and NPCs to interact with, and even sets a timeline of events for those NPCs outside of the PCs interactions. But then the PCs can show up, learn about the setup, go to those places, meet those NPCs, and drive the story forward themselves. You can of course expect them to drive it in certain directions (if your Call of Cthulhu investigators don't want to solve paranormal mysteries and refuse to get involved in the plot hooks you provide than they can't reasonably expect to have any story waiting for them for the rest of that campaign), but don't pre-arrange events and turn gaming sessions into something more akin to script readings.
Then also, tend towards unification whenever you write a story. If you're writing a modular adventure, try to make the action of the entire story, the central purpose for your PCs being there, loom large through every act. Where novels and plays worry about themes, you should worry about atmosphere, the feel, the emotion of your adventure and try to maintain some constancy, or at least some purposeful design. I sort of like to think about atmosphere like you might think of color theory in a painting. You can have warm colors and you can have cool colors contrasting, but don't have multiple shades of a warm or cool color mucking everything up and looking disjointed and unreal. Because if you don't do those things, people just don't seem to appreciate your work as much.
This was a quick look at how modular adventure design can work for you and your stories, but hopefully it is enough to get you started. Having a good design framework that you trust in frees up your mind to focus on the real work of making fascinating situations and memorable characters that let your scenarios shine.
Until next time,