I have a love-hate relationship with adventure modules due to the often strict plotting—railroading, in gaming parlance. At its worst, it feels restrictive and takes away the benefits a pen-and-paper game has over other media like video games, film, and books: the ability to go wherever you want and (try to) do whatever you like. The old White Wolf ones were far better at advancing the metaplot than being good entertainment for the players, forced to sit there and watch important NPCs do everything. Same goes for many of the TORG modules, though at least several of them were good enough to consider running. And not only did CthulhuTech learn from the White Wolf school of adventure design, it also railroaded such great sequences like the one time players all get raped by bio-engineered anthropomorphic humanoids.
But at their best, a pre-packaged/canned adventure has numerous advantages. In the case of a GM just getting started or with limited free time, picking up a canned adventure may be the way to go. In many cases I’ve found skimming adventure material is a great way to understand how the developers intended the game to be run. There’s also a lot of solid adventure books out there. D&D is rife with classic adventures, but there are many in print today. Fantasy Flight does a ton for its Warhammer and Star Wars lines; Savage Worlds slaps a plot point campaign in each hardcover; and Paizo’s Adventure Paths are legendary. Some of the most fun I’ve had gaming involved taking modules from old TSR games—AD&D and Top Secret—and playing them using a modern system everyone was familiar with.
The thing is, modules require a certain mindset and buy-in. There’s a certain expectation that players will follow-up on plot hooks and adventure seeds more than in a freewheelin’ homebrew game, since the GM went out of their way to buy the module itself. Sure, you can do other stuff in a module, but if you paid $120 for all six Adventure Path issues, it’s kind of a burn to jump the rails. A big draw to using a module is that the GM doesn’t have to overly plan the plot, just tailor it to fit the group, which is great for GMs on a time-crunch or who need to run a side-game.
Therein lies the rub: you’re buying an adventure to run the story it contains, losing some freedoms in exchange for a plot and NPC stats presented to you in a neat and colorful way. Adventures need to straddle the line between allowing every gaming group’s party free will while still telling that same prepackaged story. Every now and then you can end up with a point where the plot and characters are ready to jump off those rails, and either go full-bore over the edge, or hesitantly back off of what the characters want to do to follow what the players want to do—or, at least to follow the expectations they had to continue the adventure plot.
The big example that jumps out at me was in running Legacy of Fire for Pathfinder, about halfway through the campaign arc (the third book, I believe). By this point, the three characters—a druid/ranger, a paladin, and a cleric, all of Sarenrae—had realized that the druid/ranger hosted the incarnation of a fallen champion of Saranrae. They’d also figured out that the magical scroll they’d unearthed in the bowels of an evil ruined temple turned gnoll lair was the prison that held one of that champion’s greatest foes, an evil Efreeti prince. Their natural instinct was to guard the scroll with their lives, spending every coin from adventuring to build some kind of deathtrap dungeon or something (what else?) to safeguard it, in case somebody used it to release the Efreet back into the wilds.
That would have made for a fascinating campaign; they already had freed a trade-town from gnoll occupation and restored an ancient monastery, and I can see building a game around their efforts to strengthen the region, using their accumulated wealth to build their own deathtrap-dungeon (or fortify and renovate one of the existing dungeons in the region) to house the scroll in. There’s plenty of source material and inspiration in them there hills, and having spend all that time to liberate that town, they had plenty of investment in the area.
However, the plot had a wildly different angle; the next module required the scroll must be read so that they’d be sucked into a pocket-plane, which lead to the next module, a jaunt to the City of Brass, which was one of the selling points for the players. Literally, the pitch to me was “buy this, you should run it, I was reading the back and we go to the City of Brass.” (My response was something like “It’s an Arabesque adventure that’s almost a homage to the Al-Qadim setting of yore? Sold!”) And speaking of expectations, I’d once had plans of using it to segue into the Necromancer Games City of Brass box set as a follow-up.
All told, the issue led to the awkward situation where everyone went along with the unveiling and reading of the scroll, even though it went against all of their characters’ motivations and best interests. While the following modules were a lot of fun, I have to wonder if following the characters instead of the plot would have made for a better game. On the flipside, since this was when I was driving three hours to my Alma Mater and running marathon weekend sessions every few months, I probably would have just burned myself out trying to work on a plot. There’s a reason I was running a canned adventure rather than a homebrew one, yo.