Module Writing Tips

A Module is the most dense possible package of what’s great about LARPing. A good module is a complete LARP experience, including story, challenges, team work, role play, and rewards. When players talk about “what happened” during an event, they’re often recalling a module. For many players, modules are the closest contact they will have with the game plotline and the staff members which run it.

In my opinion, the goal of a module is to create an exciting, memorable shared experience. When players leave the module, they should have some good stories to tell about the adventure they just had. A good module challenges players in a variety of ways – they may need to use mental, social, or physical skill to complete the adventure.

The Snapshot Method – One way to design an adventure is the “bottom up” or “snapshot” method of module writing. First, think of a cool moment, then design the module around creating that specific climax. If the moment is a frantic search for a ward key as monsters trickle into the room, try to come up with ways to make that more exciting. A fog machine can make it difficult to search the floor. Tense music and the sound of a ticking clock will set the mood. Or perhaps there is an NPC present who is constantly reminding the players of their task and the consequences for failure.

This snapshot moment might involve props, puzzles, a choice, realization, panic, or an atmospheric element (horror, suspense, mystery, etc). Do everything you can to heighten the experience of this moment.

Challenges – what are the players doing during the module? Most modules involve a challenge that the players must complete in order to advance or succeed. It’s important to design interesting challenges for the players to overcome. Many modules simply pit the players against several waves of combatants – this is effectively no different from any field encounter. In a module, combat should only be one element of the challenge. Players might need to find an object, use a certain item at a certain time or place, navigate a physical hazard, solve a puzzle, communicate with an interesting NPC, or use unlikely game skills.

A good challenge should have the opportunity for failure. The players should be able to “lose” the challenge if they don’t think fast enough or work together. If the fight seems to miraculously end just as the players start to lose, they may feel that they’ve been cheated out of a meangful victory. Give the players concrete objectives and allow them to creatively meet them.

Frame the Challenge – Make sure that the players understand the challenges they are facing. It’s frustrating to be told you ran out of time when you didn’t know you were on a clock to begin with. Odds are, some of the players on the module know what’s going on, but unless you’ve been really explicit about what the module is about, some people won’t be properly filled in. Before the players enter the module area, make sure everybody is aware of any special mechanics (such as jumping stones or trap tiles) and game effects.

Time Limits – When given time to think about things, players will often examine every possible lead, spending too much time discussing and not enough time acting. A time limit is a good way to ensure that the players stay on task and don’t get distrated by errant hypotheses. But be careful – impose too short of a time limit, and players may miss important treasure or information along the way.

A time limit doesn’t have to involve a literal ticking clock. The players might be aware that they have to escape the cave before the volcano erupts, and you can warn them that it’s coming by playing rumbling sound effects at increasing frequency/volume. With recurring modules, you can require that the module is completed a certain number of times before a certain hour. This way, when players take too long, they’re basically stealing time from other teams.

Choices – Requiring the party to make choices is one of the best ways of challenging them. It can be argued that unless players making decisions based on game information and character concept, they are just passive characters in the story. Sometimes players go with the obvious course of action because they believe it’s what’s expected of them. Make it clear that they have a choice to make.  The players may not know that attacking the first orc they come across will instigate a tribal war. Prime them for that choice by suggesting diplomacy as an option during the hook – but ultimately them let them make their own choice how to handle the orcs.

An interesting choice isn’t a simple decision between good and evil. Complex choices force players to use game information, group dynamics, and their character concept to arrive at a conclusion. Some interesting choices might include, “Should we trust the goblins who are offering us advice?”, “Which elemental key should we buy before entering the dungeon?”, and “Should we allow these people to build a home in our barony?”

  1. #1 by phiend on June 23, 2009 - 3:35 am

    Here is a quick module helper i came up with a long time ago. It’s based, not on just randomly throwing pieces together, but more so on some of the brainstorming techniques I learned in writing classes. I take the basics of a story line, a person/group has something happen to them by the antagonist and needs help resolving it, and place campaign relevant “functional roles” in the blanks. Below I have the 5 “blanks” that need to be filled in.

    NPC (Person/Group)
    Personalities (Description/motivation of NPC)
    Hook (What happened to the NPC and by whom)
    Location (where it happened, or where they must go)
    Resolution (How the module is resolved)

    So with your campaign in mind, you can start filling in these blanks with lists of generic types. It’s best to not be specific, this is meant to help jumpstart the imagination, not replace it. Below is a list I used for a generic fantasy game.

    • Farmer
    • Miner
    • Woodsman
    • Craftsman
    • Townsfolk
    • Merchant
    • Visitor
    • Sailor

    • Good Natured
    • Shady / Bad Natured
    • Dim Witted
    • Trying to Trick the Players
    • Has psychological disorder
    • Annoying personality
    • Obsessed

    1. Has Lost/looking for
    o Special magic item
    o Money
    o Heirloom
    o Person
    o Creature
    o Supplies
    o Mundane item (map, key …)
    o Person with ability x
    o Information
    2. Is being attacked/hunted by
    o Monster
    o Group of monsters
    o Bandits
    o Pirates
    o Person
    o Collector
    o Acquaintance
    o The law
    3. Has/claims to have found
    o Weird magic
    o Trap
    o Treasure
    o Ruins
    o Unique item

    • Their residence
    • Work
    • Place in town (back alley, storehouse, docks …)
    • Outside of town (woods, cave, swamp, open water, island …)
    • Distant land
    • Homeland
    • Defeat antagonist
    • Solve puzzle
    • Retrieve item
    • Protection

    So generally to make a module, you pick one item from one of the categories (NPC, Personality, Hook, Location, or Resolution) as the focus of the module. So for example I take the obsessed trait from personality as my focus. The module will focus around an NPC that is obsessed with something. Now I fill in the blanks.

    Focus idea. Obsessed with x. (Personality)
    Ok, we make our NPC a craftsman, he makes jewelry. (NPC)
    He is obsessed with a certain jewel he has heard rumors about. (Personality)
    He has found a map (Hook, Has)
    He tried to go there once but it is guarded by a creature (Hook, Is being attacked by)
    The map leads to a cave. (Location)
    The PC’s must retrieve the jewel. (Resolution)

    So the module is a jeweler that has been obsessed with a jewel he heard about a long time ago, he eventually found a map to its location but when he tried to go there he found that it was guarded. He needs the PC’s help to get the jewel. You can fill in the specifics with more detailed info from your campaign, like the NPC’s name, where he’s from, where the cave is, and on and on.

    Here’s another one.

    Focus idea. Ex-Girlfriend (Hook, hunted by)
    Townsfolk, blacksmith, recently moved here. (NPC)
    Good Natured and Dim Witted, likes to help people, but is easily taken advantage of. (Personality)
    He is being hunted by his Ex-Girlfriend (Hook, hunted by)
    Who is from his homeland (location)
    Needs PC’s to both protect him and to find his ex and convince her that he is no longer here. (Resolution)

    Most of the time this whole process is just done in the head, and in fact it really is just a printed version of how I generally develop a story or plot line. Sometimes however, when you get stumped it’s good to have a list of non specific story ideas lying around.

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