There are two types of modules…
A number of years ago I came across on online forum where they were discussing video game design. I was skimming through the comments when one line in particular caught my eye. I didn’t consider much of it at the time. But since then, I have found myself thinking back on it again and again. The line was this:
“There are two fundamental approaches to video game design – either the designer sets out to fill the player’s time or the designer sets out to waste the player’s time.”
Filling vs. Wasting
I used to work with this young guy (early 20’s) who still lived with his parents. He told me that on a typical day, after work, he would go home, and pretty much right away start playing video games. He would then usually play until after midnight. And then on weekends he would play even more. He literally played video games more than he worked. This was someone who was looking for video games to waste his time.
I, on the other hand, have all the demands of the real world to deal with. In a typical week I am sometimes lucky to have even an hour or two to set aside to play video games. My time is not only limited but very precious to me. Therefore, I hate it when a video game is obviously just trying to waste my precious time.
Quality vs. Quantity
One aspect of this is the old quality vs. quantity argument. Now I’m sure the majority of people would say quality is more important. But if you look at most video game reviews, first and foremost as a point of criticism is almost always the length of the game. “This game has over 100 hours of gameplay!” “I was disappointed this game was only 10 hours long!” Only of secondary consideration seems to be whether any of that content was actually interesting or fulfilling.
Pointless Busy Work
Some builders put in their modules meaningless FedEx quests and large, meandering areas that serve no purpose other than to keep their players busy. Consider this actual example I once encountered. The cook needs my 7th level paladin to fetch a cup of flour from the pantry. And the pantry, rather than being located right next to the kitchen, as logic would dictate, is inexplicably located on the opposite side of this palatial mansion and on a completely different floor. And the cook, while obviously knowing where the pantry is, never bothers to tell me that useful bit of information. So, my paladin is then forced to wander aimlessly around the building, searching from room to room, until - eventually – he finds the pantry. And the mansion, while supposedly someone’s home, is laid out in labyrinthian fashion. Making going from point A to point B both confusing and tedious.
The only way any of that makes the slightest bit of sense is if the module builder thinks the whole point of the game is to try and waste as much of the player’s time as possible.
Mindlessly Repetitive Combat
But by far the biggest offender when wasting players time is mindlessly repetitive combat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a module for an hour and a good 50 minutes of that consisted of nothing more than fighting the same few monsters over and over and over again.
This especially offends me as a module builder because I understand just how cheap, facile, and unimaginative it is. All one has to do is lay out a large, empty space and then put down the same monster encounter again and again – like a child with a rubber stamp.
Now that is not to say combat doesn’t have its place in a module. Because it definitely has. It just doesn’t need to be so repetitive.
I remember when NWN first came out. There were only available a few different area tile sets and a handful of monsters. So, every other module involved entering a cave and fighting a bunch of goblins.
But this one module I played was different. (I wish I could remember what it was to give credit where credit is due. But this was 20 years ago.) In one area a couple of goblins with crossbows ambushed you as you tried to cross a bridge; in another there was a worg trainer with his pet worg; in another there was a room filled with goblins – all weak but numerous; in another there was goblin champion – alone but powerful; in another cave was a goblin shaman spellcaster; and so on.
The module still involved entering a cave and fighting a bunch of goblins. But it was obvious that the designer had put thought, effort, and imagination into making each encounter individualistic and interesting.
Video Games vs. Pen and Paper
What complicates matters further is that NWN is an adaption of pen and paper Dungeon and Dragons in a video game format. So, it often can look and feel like a video game – to the extent that some designers set out to design their modules just like video games.
In standard video games it is normal for the player to be attacked by wave after wave of the same enemy. This has become so prevalent that it is now a long-established trope of video games, and everyone accepts it as normal. Part of the reason for this is that in the early days the system power and memory were very limited. So, a typical game could only have a handful of different enemies overall.
But another reason for this is most video games test a player’s hand-eye coordination along with their endurance. So, an effective tactic is to throw wave after wave of enemies at them to try and eventually wear them down.
By contrast, D&D is a game of statistics and probability. And if you can defeat one monster of a particular type – than in all likelihood you can defeat other monsters that are identical to it.
Video games are a physical activity - while pen & paper D&D is a mental one.
Trimming the Fat
Way back when, back when I was a teen, and first learning to play D&D, I read what advice I could find from experienced players. And one of the best bits of guidance I found about dungeon design is that if you can take something out, and doing so will have no effect at all, and no one will miss it – then it doesn’t belong. It is just fat that needs to be trimmed. And I have carried that philosophy over to my module design in NWN.
Whenever I create a module for NWN, I try to imagine acting as Dungeon Master, playing it as a pen and paper version with a player, sitting around the table.
The thing is – when I play someone else’s module - I tend to think of it the same way. And too many times I imagine the scenario would play out like this: “You throw open the door – and inside the room you find… a group of orcs completely identical to the groups of orcs you fought and defeated in the previous nine rooms!”
The reason for this rant is that I’m constantly hearing that my modules are short. For me, they are just as long as they need to be – and no more. Of course, I could always pad out my modules to make them longer. Simple enough – just add in some meaningless side quests, some large areas for the players waste time crisscrossing back and forth, and, naturally, a whole bunch of repetitive encounters.
But as I would not want to play a module myself that sets out to waste my time – I would not build a module that waste others time.