|Recent modules I have read and enjoyed.|
Your interpretation may vary.
If your module is on this list and you don't like where I put it... tough.
Modules as ArtHigh Density of Ideas
High Browsing Enjoyment
The "art crowd" of False Patrick/Arnold Goblin/Scrap Princess/etc. Their books and ideas are beautiful and inspiring and crammed full of thought-provoking ideas... but they aren't designed for ease of use. You can't easily buy a copy of Fire on the Velvet Horizon at 4:30 and run a game with it at 4:45. But chances are good that, if you buy a copy at 4:30, you'll be thinking about the ideas inside by 4:30 the next day. Painfully high signal-to-noise ratio.
Modules as ManualsLow Density of Ideas
Low Browsing Enjoyment
This is where I like to work. I have the soul of a washing machine designer. Modules are tools, designed to be used and carefully tested and crafted for maximum utility. There's only so many new ideas an average person can digest while running a module, so the density of ideas needs to be lower. The trick is to make a module simple without making it boring.
Modules as NovelsLow Density of Ideas
High Browsing Enjoyment
This is where most bad modules come from. The designer wants to tell a story or describe a world, and they write with that goal in mind, neglecting both usability and density. These modules can be fun to read but are rarely well suited for actual play. While they might contain a few interesting ideas, layers and layers of pointless padding often obscure any brilliant points. I like to think of modules as tools to tell stories. The more story you put into them to begin with, the less story there is to tell.
If you're a big established game company with well-entrenched rich IP, your gamebooks can become storybooks.
Accidental vs. Deliberate Design
Some people write modules by just... writing a module. They don't have a particular ethos or goal in mind. They want to write about a tomb with some traps - cool! Here's a tomb with some traps. Some people have deliberate design goals and methods, and set out to tell a story or write a manual or create art. In the diagram above, I've grouped modules based on what I think the designers were doing. This might not actually be the case. It's very subjective and possible unfair.
Both techniques can produce good results, but I'll always prefer to have a goal and a metric for success.
The Art of WritingFirst, what is Art?
Oh boy. Here's my take on the oldest subject in the book.
First, here's a lousy, vastly oversimplified, and probably wrong lesson in neurology.
Art gets to skip the step where your brain figures out what it is and goes straight to the who/how/association steps. Emotion without cognition. Evocation without analysis.
Here's a very competent drawing of a toad. It's not art (to me.)
Here's another drawing of a toad. It is art (to me.)
And that's about the best I can do to explain it. Shouts of "you are wrong!" will be answered with "ok".
Having "It".Some people seem to have the secret sense of how to draw a line or a curve or an eye to completely skip several steps in cognition. Some people can write a sentence that makes no sense but somehow conveys a precise and perfect meaning. You might as well call it "soul", because it skips the conscious brain and goes straight to the poorly understood inner workings. Maybe "it" can be learned... but I'm not sure. The end result of "learn to draw" books and writing courses seems to be competent work, but it never seems to be art. Technical improvement isn't enough.
I don't think I have "it". I can turn a passable phrase and pound out purple prose, but I don't think I have that special brain-skipping soul-touching genius. I'm perfectly happy to work towards Jane Austen instead of Franz Kafka.
Having "it", the mysterious insight, seems to be associated with misery and mental illness and never getting anything done. Poetic souls are rarely happy souls. Seeing beyond the ordinary has its downsides.
The Craft of WritingIf you want to write modules as manuals, read manuals.
Seriously. A good technical writing course is invaluable. If -> Then statements. Flowcharts. A clear progression of ideas. Indexing. Precise terminology. Clarity of layout and flow. Testing and retesting.
There are a lot of bad, lazily produced manuals out there; read those too. Figure out where they went wrong and how you would rewrite them.
Read cookbooks. Read instructions for building decks, landing aeroplanes, and milking cows.
Every page needs to justify its existence. Can you turn 1,000 words into 100 words? 100 words into a table? A table into a single line? Is everything you are describing of vital importance to the GM as they are running the module? If not, get rid of it. This might be difficult to do if your editor or publisher says, "I want 2 columns on Dwarf armour polish", but if you're self-publishing, you have no excuse for padding and filler.
And above all else, read criticism. Before you start working on a new project, skim hundreds of reviews for similar products and look for common complaints. Ensure, from the start, that your module does not have the same issues.
It's easy to get carried away while writing - just look at this article! It was originally supposed to be about how The Beseeching Parliament is a very good module and how you should buy a copy.
The Joy of Writing
If you've got a really good idea, write about it. Publish it. Tell the world. But be careful. An RPG module might not be the best vehicle for your idea. Sure, it's familiar and comforting. You've read modules for years. You can definitely write one.
But if you think you've got a novel in you, don't staple a statblock to it and put it up for sale as a module. Write a novel.
In SummaryIf you're going to make art, make the best damn art you can.
If you're going to write a washing machine manual, write the best damn washing machine manual you can.
If you're going to tell a story, tell the best damn story you can.
And above all, figure out what you want to do before you start doing it.