Tobold's Blog
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Changing the world

If you follow the journal of my D&D campaign "The Favorites of Selune", you will know that we are currently playing the mega-adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. But if you already played through the same adventure as a player or DM, you will sometimes come across details in my journal where you'll think "but that isn't how it went with my group" or even "but that isn't how it is written in the adventure". To just give an example, the previous session ended with the group opening the back door to the keep in which the orc chieftain resides. Only that in the adventure there is no back door. I added it. In small details like that my version of this adventure will be different from any other version other people play through. And in this post I'm going to talk about why I do that.

Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a game of interactive story-telling, mixed with a strong second part of tactical turn-based combat. Players enjoy the two different parts to different degrees, and we do have sessions which are mostly about combat. But overall I am trying for everything to combine to a strong and interesting story, which means I have to strive for verisimilitude, making things appear realistic and logical, even in a world full of wizards and dragons. Now when we play an adventure, the story creates itself out of two major parts: A planned part, which is either invented by me in advance or written in the adventure module, and an unplanned part that happens in reaction to what the players decide to do. Now one could be excused to think that the written part of the adventure was fixed, and doesn't need changing. But in practice it happens that the actions of the players move the story in a direction where some modification of the written adventure improves verisimilitude.

To come back to the example in my campaign, the keep in Gardmore Abbey has three floors. The lower two floors form one map with a 3-dimensional fight involving a balcony level. The door on the balcony level then leads to the third floor on the other map. But if you imagine the whole thing in three dimensions, you realize that the maps don't fit. The map of the upper story encounter is 100' long, while the lower part of the keep is only 80' long. The doors on the two plans don't line up, even after turning the upper map by 180 degree. And if you consider the surroundings of the keep, the main map clearly shows the keep having a front courtyard and a back garden. But there is no access to the back garden other than walking out of the front door and around the keep. Basically the designers mainly took care to create two interesting encounter maps, and didn't worry much about how the two maps together would form a realistic keep.

Having scouted the layout of the abbey from the top, and thus having access to the player map of Gardmore Abbey, my players had decided to approach the keep from the back, through the garden. There is even an encounter foreseen in the garden, involving a skill challenge and giant spiders. So once they got through that and reached the keep, I realized that telling them that there was no back door was kind of stupid. Who builds a garden behind his house with no way to access it? For the encounter in the keep it didn't matter from which side the players came. And while by adding the back door there is now a chance that they will never see the encounter in front of the main gate, to me it seemed that for my version of the adventure it would make more sense if there was a back door.

I had mentioned before that many encounter maps in Madness at Gardmore Abbey are supposed to be built using the official D&D Dungeon Tiles. I'm not a fan of tiles, they are ugly to start with, take time to set up, and are prone to shift in relation to each other when played upon. So I rather create and print my own maps with Campaign Cartographer / Dungeon Designer 3. Now fortunately we ended the previous session just as the players had opened the back door, before I showed the battle map. So between sessions I now could add the back door to the encounter map. And as I was already at changing that map, I decided that I'd fix the other problems of the keep at the same time. So now the lower floors of the keep not only have a back door, but are also the same size as the upper floor, and the doors between the floors line up.

That is just one example of changing my campaign. I also did some bigger changes, like removing a defensive large scale battle against the orcs, which would have been too similar to the defensive large scale battle my players had in a previous adventure, Reavers of Harkenwold. I found it more logical and better for the flow of the adventure to give them a quest to kill the orc chieftain in the keep instead. By not sticking too strictly to the adventure as written, I hope that I can make our individual version of this adventure more coherent and fun. And as the world of a D&D campaign only exists in the heads of the players (aided by maps and handouts), sometimes it is easier to change to world to fit the story than the other way around.

Anyone who runs modules 100% as-written should probably read thru this post. It has all the reasons you need to modify and sculpt your modules to fit your group and your game.

Modules are meant to be a box of tools, not one single tool, and the only time I can think to running them "as written" is when you're running an official tournament.
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