Preparing To Run A Commercial Module
From Jared Hunt
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #202
Commercial modules can be great tools for a busy GM by supplying a ready-made story line, challenges, and NPCs. The best way to get the most out of your module investment is thorough preparation. The following process is a combination of a few different study techniques applicable to roleplaying I’ve used over the years. Once you’ve used them a few times you’ll find that they will allow you to get very familiar with your material in a minimal amount of time.
Before you start reading the module, take a minute to mentally prepare yourself. Eliminate distractions and grab your favourite chair. Take your mind off work, school, and other unimportant things. Open your mind to the story that you’re about to read and get curious about the material.One of the most common complaints shared by GMs is a lack of time. Taking a brief minute to reach the right mindset can make a huge difference in the amount of information that you can retain-and retaining information translates into less time for preparation and more time for roleplaying!
Skim The Module
Do a quick scan through the whole module. Your goal in this step of the process is to get an idea of what the story is about and how it develops, so don’t try to read every word at this point.
- Take particular note of titles and sub-titles, pictures, side-bars, and other highlighted features.
- Keep an eye out for lengthy encounters as well–those are often important.
- Use your hand to guide your eyes as you scan. Some people prefer to “slalom” back and forth across the page while others prefer to just let their hand and eye slide down over the lines.
- Question what you’re reading to keep your curiosity level up.
- Who’s the person in that picture?
- What does this heading mean?
- Why did they name the temple that?
- What purpose does this encounter serve the story?
- What are the motives of that NPC?
Skimming material before reading it in detail prepares your mind to absorb information. It raises your level of curiosity and interest and it starts providing direction for further preparation. It also helps to have the beginning and ending of something in mind when trying to memorize the middle parts.
Query What You’re Reading–Anticipate What You’ll Need
- What are the names of the main NPCs in this story/encounter?
- Who does this NPC report to?
- Where are they taking the princess after this encounter?
- How did they get from the market to the church?
- Why didn’t they just kill this guy?
- What could the PCs do to stop them from finding this?
Read the summary of the plot provided in the module. Go back through the module and compare your overall impression to the summary. Are there any discrepancies between your impression and what was written? Make a note of those discrepancies.
- Try to generate at least one question for each encounter.
- Use Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How to help generate questions and make sure you understand everything.
- Keep your players and their characters in mind when generating questions. Where will Ken get to indulge his hack n’ slash tendencies? When will Pete’s wizard get to use his divinations? What about some political intrigue to satisfy Craig’s deep-immersion roleplaying needs?
Narrowing your areas of curiosity and interest into specific questions is a great way to focus your attention. Rather than leaving yourself with vague impressions, you can figure out exactly what parts of the module you grasp easily and what parts you need to put some extra time into.
Most modules take several sessions to get through and it may even be several days or even weeks between the time you first read the module and the time you run it. Writing down the questions you come up with generates a useful review tool that you can use to get up to speed very quickly when it’s session time.
Read The Module
No matter how many clever techniques you use, there is no substitute for an in-depth reading of the material. Go through the module thoroughly, reading everything except the stat blocks, and paying particular attention to finding the answers to the questions you raised in your query.
- Plot hooks
- Story twists
- Major NPCs
Review The Module
How much did you get out of your reading? A great way to test yourself is to use your own questions. Going back and picking out important bits of information after a complete reading will help cement those details into your brain.The review stage is also a good time for details. Read over the stat blocks, rules, and other specific game-related details.
Pay particular attention to:
- NPCs and creatures/traps/items/vehicles you haven’t used in your game before. Even if you have, take a close look at how it’s presented in the module text. The author may have changed or added something and you’ll need to decide whether to stay with your version or use the one in the module.
- Unfamiliar rules and situations presented. If there’s a car chase in the module, make sure you refresh your memory on vehicle rules. If a plot point hinges on the results of a grapple, review the grappling rules now so you’ll be less likely to have to refer to them during the session.
Put the module aside and pick up the list of questions generated in your query. See if you can answer all of them without having to pick up the module. If so, you can be confident you have a good grip on the overall story. If not, go back over the area you had trouble remembering and re- read it.
In addition to answering the questions you generated in your query, you should aim to be able to recite:
- Basic plot points
- Names of important NPCs
- Names of key locales
Though you’ll have the module with you when you run it, being able to run things without constant reference to the text will make the session flow much more smoothly. Reciting the material in advance is a good test of how thoroughly you understand things. If you can’t remember how the plot advances now, chances are you won’t remember at the table either.
Write About It
Once you have the story line, major characters, locations, and game rules firmly in mind, set aside some time to take notes on key aspects of the module.
- Try to highlight areas where you can allow each of the players and their characters to shine.
- Identify areas that you expect the pace to slow down and jot down some ideas about how to speed things up.
- Is there an area of the module that calls for increased tension? Make a note to remind yourself to dim the lights or turn on suspenseful music.
- Social interactions are one of the GM’s biggest challenges. Most game systems have a set of rules by which the players can simply roll some dice to determine whether they bluffed their way past the guards or convinced the mayor they’re friendly. While there’s nothing wrong with that, preparing a bit of banter for each social situation can add a lot to the session. After all, even if combat is usually decided by the dice, it’s the descriptions that make it exciting and social situations shouldn’t be any different.
Other things to consider:
- Statistics. Many modules group stat blocks in appendices at the back of the module. Flipping back and forth from appendix to encounter text is tedious and a sure tension killer. Consider photocopying the pages of stat blocks for easier handling at the table.
- Maps. If the module makes use of location-based encounters you’ll need to consider how to deal with mapping at the table. Most groups already have a convention in place to deal with mapping issues but a published module may have different requirements. For example, if your group uses a 1 inch = 5 feet convention for mapping and the module has very large maps you may want to plan out what sections to draw and what to just describe. Alternately, you might decide to change the scale of your drawing to accommodate.
Thanks for the great tips Jared! I especially liked the question list technique. I can see that being a great, multi-use tool for analysis, module tweaking, and review.
Does anyone have module tips of their own to share? Personally, I use them often, in whole or in part, and I’m always keen to learn new ways to analyze, prepare, and run them.
Send your tips to [email protected]
A Brief Word From Johnn
That’s it for 2003. I’m away for a couple of weeks, so next issue will be January 11, 2004. I’m one of those nuts who likes making goals and a new year seems like a great opportunity to “start fresh”. I wrote a tips article about this ages ago. Even if you don’t enjoy making goals, take a few moments before 2004 begins and imagine what your gaming life will be like over the next 12 months.
Feel like you won’t have enough time to do all the gaming you’d like? Well, now might be a great time to think up some solutions–you never know till you try. Jared’s article this week tackles optimizing planning time– so maybe this is a great place to start your GM plans for 2004. Have a great holiday season! Cheers,
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Renaissance Festival Link
For pictures of people-as-characters or just for the links page, it could be useful for ideas.
Gaming With Children Tips
From Hayley Hummerston
I found Cris Brown’s article the best one I have read on the subject of gaming with children. I thought I would make two comments from my own experience with children:
- Avoid making the fantasy world too complex or using too many medieval terms. Children don’t understand how the real world works – they are going to have trouble with the subtleties of government, commerce, and trades in a fantasy world.
- Keep the game moving as children are not very good at waiting for their moment in the spotlight. I found a tip in an earlier newsletter, of starting each session with combat, worked very well to get my children involved from the beginning. Action doesn’t have to mean combat – but it certainly keeps most children involved! Even my youngest son, at 4, understood that rolling a dice well meant he cut a goblin in half!
Retiring High Level Characters
One of the biggest problems I have as DM is retiring my players’ characters. After working on them for some time they don’t want to give them up. The problem is your players are getting bored because your world is quickly running out of evil dragons, orcish armies, undead wizards and other big time threats. You can’t use the same world again for the same reason. All your (and your players’) hard work down the tubes? Not so. The answer…kill the characters.
Bear with me on this one! Set up one last, big time threat that is composed of all of the above: goblins, undead wizards, dragons, and anything else that could form an army. But this time, good does not prevail. The characters die heroically in the process.
Now your world is legitimately re- evilized, your players’ characters go down in history (make sure to have tales, stories, or songs about them) and now, with the players at first level and the same if not more powerful evil still in existence, there’s absolutely no chance whatsoever that your players are going to be bored for a LONG time.
Organizing Media Files For RPGs
From [email protected]
My own methods are:
- When prepping my adventure notes I hyperlink the text to the related files (just like a web-page). For many word processors (i.e. MSWord) this is as easy as right-clicking on the desired text and selecting “Hyperlink”.
- I put all my MP3 game music files into labeled subfolders that are organized in order of intensity: “1-Peaceful”, “2- Moody”, “10-Combat”
- I’ve obtained a huge amount of mood music and sound effects from my computer games. Often, the component sound files are stored in a big game file that just needs to be ‘unpacked’.
- I use a chart rolling utility that allows me to make or add charts (this can save a lot of time if you roll on charts often).
- For pictures, I print them out (sometimes on various interesting paper types) beforehand to give to the players. This gives them something solid to refer to later (or peruse when they are idle).
- I prefer spreadsheets for making characters. These are often available on-line (pre-made) and can look pretty good when printed. They are especially good for speeding up character-generation calculations, or emailing.
- Game related files can be stored on-line. I especially recommend Yahoo-groups for organizing your files, members, messages, etc.