Monday, April 15, 2013

TSR Reprints: The Unexpected Challenge

When WOTC began to re-release their old materials, especially the modules, I was beyond thrilled. You see, I never really played modules when I was younger (say from 1979 to 1983) and then I took a break from gaming to get drunk and listen to lots of punk rock before starting to play again in the early 90s. When I was a kid, my family was pretty poor and I didn't really have a lot of money for anything but the 1st ed AD&D books and some dice. Even those took a while to buy. Modules, to me, seemed sort of superfluous. We just sort of played, making a lot of it up as we went and getting a lot of it "wrong," at least from a rules standpoint.

So, with that background, it was neat to finally get a chance to use these materials. But there's a bit of a problem. Unlike me, there are a LOT of people in the OSR community who have played just about all of these, even run them for other people. What's fresh and new to me is old and beloved (or be-hated?) to them. This creates a quandary: How do I go about getting some use of these modules without boring my players?

Approach 1: Re-skin the modules

This approach has the benefit of creating cosmetic differences without requiring a whole lot of work on my part to institute changes. Unfortunately, I don't think re-skinning a module is sufficient. It would still have the same narrative structure, and throwing a new coat of paint on it won't change it sufficiently. Nonetheless, I think at least part of the changes I'd make would involve some measure of this approach.

Approach 2: Combining the Old and the New

This approach is about me taking the old material and re-imagining it in different ways. The basic structure or theme of the module stays the same, but I would add new pieces, remove some sections, subtly change other pieces, completely rewrite others, etc. This is probably the approach I'd normally take, but it would take nearly as much work to do this well as it would to write my own material (one of the things I'm trying to avoid for the next little while due to time constraints). The benefits, though, are certainly there, as well. It would at least provide a skeleton for whatever other meat I'd add, and the basic structure would have been thoroughly playtested.

Approach 3: Bricolage

Bricolage is an artistic practice of putting in one work a variety of diverse elements (not the dictionary definition). If I took this approach I could put different sections of various modules together and run them as one thing. Clearly, this would require that I be very careful about which ones I choose to work with. Otherwise the weird juxtapositions might be a bit jarring, and not in ways that actually work well. I could see how doing so could create as sense of weirdness that would work pretty well, but it could also just not work well. It could, in short, be an obviously slapped-together piece of shit module (Nothing but giant rats and copper pieces all the way down, Bob). Doing it right would require a lot of the same work I'd have to do in the first two approaches. However, the results might work very well indeed, depending on the modules in question, and how much work I'm willing to put into the effort (not much, frankly).

Approach 4: Just play them as written

I'd really like to avoid this approach. I've had the experience of having to run through a module I've played in before, and being the only one in the party who'd done so. At the time, I just played dumb and sort of let everyone else make decisions about what the party would do. It wasn't a lot of fun. I mean, yeah, it was fun in the sense that I got to game with my friends, sure. That's always a good time. What was not fun was not being fully engaged in the game. I'm ADD enough, anyway, without having to disengage from what is supposed to be an immersive experience.

Approach 5: Just another knock-off

I could, I suppose, just scrap the whole idea and try to run something based on the idea of a module, but do it as original material. So, for example, I could do as +Zak Smith did in his recent series of "read a module and look for good shit" posts (which were very fun, btw, and you should read them). Then, however, I might just say, "Okay, I just read that. How would I do something like that?" So, read The Temple of Elemental Evil, but then do it up in my own way, and completely re-write the thing. I could certainly mine the original modules for things that I like, avoid the stuff that I hate, and end up with something works fine.

That said, if I wanted to go to all of that trouble, why not just write my own stuff in the first place? It really would be about as much work in the end.

Approach 6: Aww, fuck it!

In this approach, I just give up on running modules and write some new material, essentially abandoning my original plan. I could simply decide, for example, to write a dungeon crawl that has no story, no theme, but really just a bunch of rooms filled with monsters, traps, treasures, and so forth. This would be very simple. It's also quite possible, especially given the group I play with these days, that the story would just write itself. It may be that I'm putting too much pressure on myself to make something awesome, when my players will do most of that work themselves, because they do awesome things.

Unfortunately, I have the tendency (nay, the requirement) to fight ADD with OCD. This means that I'm a bit of a control freak about preparation. I really, really don't like to be unprepared for a session. It makes it a lot less fun for me. And having a bunch of random tables, or encounter generators, or whatever might work really well for most people, but that approach tends only to confuse and frustrate me. I'm very deliberate about that sort of thing and it would slow the game down considerably. I need some prior sense of what's what and why it's that way, so I can get it in my head, and really understand it as a gestalt. If I don't get the Big Picture, I get confused, things get mixed up, and my players inevitably notice, and question or challenge what I've presented. Then, I'm like, "Oh, shit. Well, okay, maybe it didn't happen that way." It may end up being fun and fine for everyone, but I still end up feeling foolish (which is not pleasant), and not having very much fun. Fun, after all, is the point of all this, even for the GM.

I'm sure that a lot of people reading this will say, "Well, you don't have to think about it that way. Just relax and have fun." Unfortunately, my brain just doesn't work that way. I get anxious. It makes me panicky. It sucks. This is why I have the OCD coping mechanisms that I have. They are safety and security, and they protect me from my worst tendencies. It is, for better or worse, how I roll.

So what now?

I'm going to have to think about it for a while. I'll probably do some reading, take some notes, sleep on it a bit, and Inspiration will strike. That's what usually happens. If not, then I think I'll just run The Emerald Enchanter  or ASE and call it good.