Module Writing 101

Module Writing 101

By Craig Jarvis

1. Name the module

This is one of the more important steps in the creative process. The name allows you to discuss the project with others, and helps solidify the concept and story behind the module in your mind.

2. Date to run and module length

Can this module run at any day and time? Does it run best during the day, or does it require the gloom of twilight for the full effect. Can you run it in snow, or rain, or temperatures in the low nineties? Will the NPCs need extra time to prep garb and makeup? Will you need time and helpers to dress the module area, and run rope walls, or (my preferred method) black plastic walls? Pick the ideal time, but be ready to run whenever the GMs decide.

3. Synopsis

Jot down the central theme, the key NPCs, what they want, and why. Try to fit it all in one paragraph. We’ll expand on it later. If there is a VITAL player, skill, prop or idea, without which the module falls apart, mention it here. In bold italicized text if necessary.

4. Hook

How will the PCs get involved? Will an NPC run into town asking for help, or will he stroll into town seeking to hire a handful of able adventurers? Will the hook appear in the Quill, or will the module marshal just walk across the field, teleporting PCs into the dungeon? The Hook will help define how many players you want, and should give a hint at the power level of the module. A farmer’s wife begging for aid against the kobold in her barn can be an intro to a newbie module for two to four players. A wealthy landowner trying to hire six warriors to clear orcs and goblins out of his hunting lodge might be a mid level module. The Prince’s Spymaster issuing orders to the nobles to assemble a fast moving party of eight heartless and merciless killers to “handle” a problem with an ogre tribe and its new Ogre Magi chieftain… not a low-level module.

5. Linear vs. non-linear

A linear module moves from one room to the next in sequence. It is usually simple and straight-forward. The module marshal can set up the first one to three encounters in order, depending on the number of NPCs available, and as NPC are defeated or bypassed they report back to the marshal or his assistants, to set up the following encounters.  The main branch can have side rooms and forks, but there is only one “correct” path from beginning to end.

A non-linear module is more free-form, requires more prep, but can be much more fun for the PCs. A one-day in which the PCs start in a “ruined town”, and have to find the rare flowers somewhere within the nearest 40 acres. Scatter roleplaying clues around the land, a hermit in the “abandoned elven village” that knows the flowers grow near a hidden shrine. A band of goblins of the “missing teeth tribe” that avoid a cursed spring to the north. You know the flowers are in Trapper’s Camp, guarded by a chimera, a pit trap, and a Potion of Curse that must be drunk to safely pick the flowers.

6. Number of encounters

How long do you expect to entertain the PCs? Even a short module takes time to set-up, collect NPCs, herd PCs, and run the encounters. Count everything as an encounter. Each set of NPCs, each trap, puzzle, or “skill check”. I recommend against delineating roleplaying/combat encounters. Every encounter is a roleplaying encounter. Even mindless undead and giant slugs should roleplay their hearts out. My wildly inaccurate rule of thumb is that each encounter will take about five minutes. That being said, I’ve planned long combats with multiple waves of NPCs get steamrolled in under a minute, and I’ve had a thirty second conversation before the “boss encounter” last over an hour. Be flexible.

7. NPC Stats and briefing info

Give your NPCs as much information as they can handle. Even the tenth wave of level 1 skeletons should have something special about them. Give one a pronounced limb because his buddy is wielding his foot. Keeping the module fun for the NPCs is just as important as entertaining the PCs. I follow a condensed NPC info format.

NPC name, NPC level, class or type, Body, Armor, Damage
Special Attacks, Defenses or Abilities
Description and Roleplaying Notes

For instance:

Bazagdula, 10th level Orc Warrior, BP: 60, AP: As worn, Damage: 5/5 or weapon +3
Critical Parry Shortsword Rt Hand, Critical Parry Shortsword Left Hand, Resist Charm x2, All Unit Tactics

You wear platemail armor, and bear many scars from early childhood to now. You are a Warlord like few seen in ten generations. You speak with command and authority. You are more concerned with winning the war than with winning individual battles. You are not afraid to sacrifice troop for a victory, but each death hurts the Cause. If overwhelmed, fall back and regroup. Your life is to be protected at all costs. 

8. Props and Rewards

A couple of nice props can make a world of difference. Make or buy your props weeks in advance. If you don’t have time to find the rare magic flowers yourself, delegate to an assistant. Give them a few bucks and tell them to get anything that looks like a flower from the dollar store. (Take your receipt to the TM, GM or the BOD) Spruce up an old boffer with red tape for Bazagdula’s favorite sword. Steal a 4x4 from another house and use it as the balance beam trap. Get NPCs to play non-vital decorations, tables, chairs, desks, a fallen chandelier, stalagmites. Trust your assistants to perform last minute set dressing. 

Figure out what the PCs can gain from this module. Will the monsters have coins in their pouches, or in a small stash at the end of the encounter, or no? Are there cool magic items, or rare and valuable objects d’art? Potions, scrolls, alchemies, toxins, armor, herbs, weird stuff? If your loot needs tags, get your tag list to the Econ Marshal well in advance. If the “loot” is intangible, make sure the PCs know that. If the reward is a boon from the local noble, a rich merchant, or a poor hermit with some obscure knowledge, write a thank you note to the PC from that person.

9. Skills

Grab a rulebook, turn to the skill tables. Look back over your module. List EVERY skill that might be useful in identifying or explaining something in the module. Racial Lore: Kobold for the farmer’s wife module. Orc and Goblin Languages for the Hunting Lodge, plus Terrain Lore: Forest and Wilderness Survival. Heraldry: Human, Forgery, Scribe, and Urban Lore: Yardsmith for the Spymaster, Culture Lore: Orges, Read Magic, Mystic Rune, Symbol Lore and Planar Lore: Negative for the Ogres and Ogre Magi. Flora Lore and Terrain Lore: Swamp for the rare flowers, Alchemy 8 for the Potion of Curse, Terrain Lore: Mountains OR Subterranean for the Chimera, and Locate Trap 3 for the pit. 

Write Most-but-not-All of the Skill Info down on a one page briefing sheet. Give it to the PCs and tell them, “If you have the appropriate Skills, you will know this stuff when you see the <kobold, orcs, goblins, Lodge, Spymaster, ogres, ogre magi being played by Travis, bright purple plastic flower>.” Save one or two pieces of info for explanations on-the-fly. “Also, if you have Mystic Runes you realize that the Ogre Magi’s armor is useless against cold and water spells.” “If you have bardic ability you’ve heard rumor that the Chimera’s lion and goat heads will pause if they hear a lullaby.

10. Follow up encounters and after action report

Your module write-up is not complete until the module has been run, and you’ve written the last section… what happened? Were the PCs successful? Did any of the NPCs escape? Did any of the loot get missed or left behind? Is there a follow up module? Include the names of the PCs that went, what they did, in general, and how well they performed. This will help you and the GMs for future encounters and modules