OSR: 3 Types of Modules

I think people write RPG books in three very different ways, for three very different goals.
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 Art

High Density of Ideas
Low Usability
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 Manuals

Low Density of Ideas
High Usability
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 Novels

Low Density of Ideas
Low Usability
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 Writing

First, 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 Writing

If 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.

The Joy of Writing

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.

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 Summary

If 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.


  1. Kinda hard to tell where the bottom three fall on the chart; I assume Serpent Kings is the one in the middle since it's pretty much a manual for how to run an adventure. The position of Flower Kings is interesting; you have it on the border between Art and Novel, almost, and I think that's where Kabuki's other stuff would fall - it's very evocative yet fun to read. Would the perfect module (whatever that is) fall in the middle, or would it lean one direction or the other?

    1. If it helps, imagine the 3 zones as "sour, salty, and bitter". The perfect flavour isn't an exact blend of all 3. That would be silly.

      I put TotSK a little more towards the "Art" side because it has some vaguely ambitiously artistic bits, both in the illustrations and in the writing. KtA is solidly in the middle - it's nothing but a manual, and it's got a design guide built in. Vaults is closer to the novel side, though not by much.

  2. It's interesting that most of the examples on your chart tend towards "art" or "manual" rather than "novel". Obviously it's all subjective and only a few examples, but the fact none push deep into the novel axis suggests, to me, that the purpose of an RPG supplement is to either be interesting or useful. Art is pretty, we like looking at it, and it gives us ideas for our own art; manuals are useful, giving advice and tools to use when making that art.

    I don't think I've *ever* run something out of the box without changing it, even if only slightly. Things that tend towards the novel side don't interest me, because I'm trying to tell me and my players' story, not someone else's. I wonder if that's the takeaway from the conceptual density post you linked to: that too much detail for the sake of detail is fun to read, but means nothing for actually playing the game and can, if anything, make it harder to do so.

    1. It's also what I tend to buy - the chart isn't a random or uniform selection by any means, and definitely shouldn't be interpreted that way. For a closer to random slice, check out Bryce's reviews: tenfootpole.org and you'll see a lot more Novel-tending modules.

  3. art is often defined as "serving no other purpose" or at least its own existence being purpose enough. And in that sense, Veins of the Earth and Velvet Horizon aren't meant to be art in that sense.
    There was a lot of thought and effort (with mixed results) thinking about Okay but how can someone use this idea in their games.
    Nothing is in them with (maybe some of the appendixs in Fire On The Velvet Horizon) the idea that it's just interesting by itself. Everything in them is thought of as potential useful to d.m.

    The use however is weighted way more for imagination fuel or conceptual charge than the other , equally important aspects such Ease of use or other utilitarian focus.

    1. I disagree with the "art must be useless" thing because a) it excludes somethings like video games that theoretically have a purpose but are also art and b) it doesn't really cover literature or music. The Master and Margarita clearly has a purpose other than mere existence. Does that make it Not Art? Not even slightly, in my view.

      Art does that brain-skip thing I described above. That's the only criteria. And both FotVH and VotE are /primarily/ designed (as far as I can tell) to do the brain-skip evocative thing. There's an index, sure (and it's a very good index), and it is designed to be useful to a GM... but the main utility /comes from the brain-skip-idea-generation/ bit.

      Also, from a utility point of view, the book has an index... but one of the creature entries is a poem! A poem! Madness!:D

    2. "art must be useless" isn't my position nor exactly the position I was mentioning, it's more like when someone asks "why is something.." and the reply is "oh because it's art" and that's the end of conversation.

      A rpg that is pure art (in this sense) is HoL aka Human Occupied Landfill. It's fucking useless and everything in it serves the purpose of being object for its purpose ; the art rpg.

      You can go to any modern gallery and find endless works like this. They "communicate ideas" , and "evocative feelings" but determinedly try and make this as esoteric and difficult as possible. So their purpose is better described as art , than whatever the blurb says on the side.

      This is not the only definition of art and it's one that awkwardly clashes with art; as used to describe something intensely evocative or immersive , or elegantly and surprisingly done .
      I.e Art as used to refer music, art as used to refer to a traditional function craft.

      soooo in conclusion I think "evocation" is a better word than art to use in the diagram, as the parasites of academic art writing have corrupted the word.

      And "rpg products made to be art" look significantly different to "rpgs products made to be evocative"

    3. I'd lump "rpg products made to be art" and "rpg products made to be evocative" under the same heading... but I only list the ones I like or the ones that have some kind of utility-as-art.
      Much like Humpty Dumpty, when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. :D