Modules + PbtA?

Castle_X_Fellowship

There is a tangle of issues that I am personally grappling lately, re: PbtA. For example, there is a notion that writing modules for Powered by the Apocalypse games can be difficult. Is this true, and if so, why?

So, our prompts for this topic are:

  • In a recent video interview, @yochaigal, expressed a similar sentiment, that writing modules for PbtA is difficult. Which is totally fair, but maybe we can unpack that a little here just to see where everyone intersects?

  • Cauldron members such as @Tam and myself – we have had great experiences using or adapting OSR modules with PbtA systems (often variants of DW or John Harper’s World of Dungeons). What, I wonder, makes something more or less compatible?

  • I’ve included the cover of Fellowship above, but this topic could apply to Dungeon World, Avatar Legends, Apocalypse Keys, Stonetop, and so on.

  • Let’s please limit the discussion to specific modules and specific games. And let’s avoid generalizations about Powered by the Apocalypse, at large. (Simply defining what PbtA means is an oft-disputed topic. It’s an interesting conversation :slight_smile: … but beyond the scope of our topic here.) Thanks in advance for sharing!

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I can expand on what I meant, certainly! Some backstory:

  • I GM’d or played Dungeon World, Worlds of Adventure (which I co-wrote) and One Shot World (my own hack) for about three years, probably 200+ times.
  • I ran original creations for the most part, many of which were written out as Adventure Fronts. Here is an example of a random starter I wrote.
  • I also ran actual modules (Magpie Games made a few) as well as Dungeon Starters, and I tried to convert some OSR stuff too (ooh I should find some of those modules and see how they’ve aged).

And let me tell you: it is hard to write for that system. I’ll take you through my thoughts.

  • Let’s put aside compatibility for the moment. Yes, having a shared framework of rules (rounds, old school/retroclone assumptions, etc) can be very helpful, but it’s more than that.
  • Let’s agree to put aside the genuine philosophical treatments like “PbtA games have more of a shared worldbuilding between the players and GM than other games” or “player skill vs character” and all that.
  • Finally, let’s also assume that we aren’t including the overall “culture” of the OSR community, which frankly can be just as gatekeepy as PbtA/story games.

My fundamental issue with writing for PbtA games are actually pretty fundamental, as they concern the dice system and the rules (especially for DW).

Dice
Having a tiered system of 6-, 7-9, 10+ makes creating obstacles in adventures quite difficult to write!
Yes, obviously you can apply a granular failure/success mechanic to non-PbtA games, but in PbtA games it is hard-coded, as important as collaborative worldbuilding and player-focused narrative arcs.

If I’m writing an obstacle for an OSR adventure (say, climbing up a tower) I know that there are 2-3 ways for the PCs to get around this problem. I can also generally anticipate what a GM/player will come up with and how those results might interact with respect to everything else in the story. This helps immensely as in playtesting the adventure I can make tweaks to it, knowing it will likely go the same direction for most of the GMs later running it (even if they describe the players later doing something totally unexpected).

In a game like Dungeon World, creating a similarly reproducible encounter is basically impossible.
Sure, you can write something and “hope for the best” but when a DW GM comes up against an obstacle that results in a 7-9… it’s a bit hard to always be coming up with ways players “half-solve” problems without the entire And if you do, how does that fundamentally alter the way the dungeon/adventure is run? How useful are all those other obstacles and prep when the mere tossing of the dice causes the GM to have to invent new fictional elements on the fly with every roll?

Don’t get me wrong: I truly enjoy making it up as I go. Running DW for years will make you get good at that. But it does mean that using prepublished stuff is a bit difficult, as is writing for it. Have you ever looked at some of the larger modules written for DW? The Last Days of Anglekite - something I read and ran through to the end - is mostly Adventure Fronts, not dungeons. Because they are damned hard to write for DW. I feel like there is more here but this part is getting overly long and I don’t want to test anyone’s patience!

Rules
A bigger difficult for me personally is that the DW rules run fairly counter to writing traditional dungeon obstacles. The player-success-leaning dice rolls + higher HP + Last Breath Moves + “Be a fan of the characters” GM Move all add together to make the game… not very lethal. Not very dangerous. I’ve never had a TPK in DW. I’ve gotten close, but again the Moves favor the PCs surviving. And that’s fine! But for the players to feel that overcoming an obstacle is imperative they need to have a sense of its danger to their characters. And DW has just way to much plot/rules armor to allow that. To many ways out. To many ways to do violence without thought, violence as sport. This does lean a bit into the philosophical differences with the OSR but let’s be real: for what systems are most dungeons and adventures written? Even the year I spent running 5e games resulted in at least 2 TPKs. DW just doesn’t deal well with third-party content that is designed to harm the PCs because they can… shrug it off.

Whoo that was a lot longer than I anticipated. I actually have a nearly-finished blogpost about all this that I could share but I think it might be repeating myself a bit to much. I think a much stronger critique of Dungeon World would likely not involve any of the problems I’ve described here, but rather with player/PC motivation due lack of lethality. But that is for another post and another time…

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Very cool. Your thoughts are much appreciated!

Now that I think back to all the PbtA “modules” I’ve collected … I can see some possible reasons for frustration. I think the focus on “fronts” and toolboxes (such as the ever-famous Perilous Wilds) has tended to overshadow the use of traditional modules. That could be one factor, as well as the nature of the dice themselves. The core resolution mechanic of 2d6 with mixed success – is this a “feature” or a “bug,” when it comes to designing content for these systems?

Some exceptions have included: location-based expansions (like the city guides for Urban Shadows 1st ed., Halcyon City for Masks), optional content for Bluebeard’s Bride, etc., and the furthest outlier City of Mist – which *really tries hard to package its premade mysteries a lot like traditional modules, some of which connect together into multi-mystery campaigns of play.

But yes, these aren’t very common.

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If I may add a question:
If I am wrong in my assertion that it is difficult to write procedural adventures for PbtA games, then why are there so few? There are a lot of systems and hacks on DTRPG but actual adventures are few and far between. /r/DungeonWorld has nearly 14K subscribers, and the DW Discord has 2,600 members (and is very active)! OSR forums like /r/OSR have a few thousand more subscribers, but they encompass way more systems so that isn’t very impressive.

PS: as a sanity check, it’s good to remind ourselves of just how small we are. There are 2,484,721 subscribers to /r/dnd, 532,140 in /r/dndnext, and 314,237 in /r/criticalrole.

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Adventures/modules can take many forms and some of them are probably better suited to the more fluid style required of PbtA gms. I believe Yochai that a dungeon wouldn’t work well for most PbtA games.

However, I recently ran the adventure from the Avatar Legends quickstart and I thought that was pretty good. It contained an in media res hook (the PCs are stuck in jail at the Fire Capital for a botched heist, when a turncoat Fire Sage shows up offering them the scroll they were trying to steal), and then an adventure location with 1) a loose map, 2) a handful of factions & NPCs, and 3) a timeline of likely escalations as the characters try to escape the city. Then it’s up to the players and the GM to find out what happens!

This isn’t so different from “adventure location” style OSR modules I’ve seen! I think immediately of A Pound of Flesh for Mothership, which also has a location, npcs, and a series of escalating events that the players can interact with, as they so choose.

I know that Magpie Games is planning to make several additional adventures for Avatar Legends as part of the kickstarter.

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My experience of “adventure modules” in PbtA and adjacent games is that they provide, at most, a seed for play.

Let’s take Masks, by Magpie Games. There are official “playsets” for the game that majorly change the assumptions of the setting. So in Iron Red Soldiers, for example, the PCs are the resistance to an alien occupation that has already captured the adult heroes. A juicy set-up, rife for exploration in play! But there’s no built-in “adventure” or “dungeon” or anything like that. There are new mechanics that represent the power of the alien occupiers and the careful work the PCs have to do to work with the human resistance. But individual missions and challenges are still up the GM and players at the table. Which makes sense, since in Masks those things should be responsive to the character choices players have made and the complications that arise from their die rolls.

Now, that’s kind of a “campaign-level” module. But even for “session-level” modules, what’s provided is usually a fraught situation for the PCs to get mixed up in, rather than a worked-out-ahead-of-time adventure. My wife wrote up a Masks module for the fan supplement The Fan Favorite. The module is about a prison transport carrying the villain Cold Snap, which the young heroes have been tasked with escorting. The transport is attacked by the antihero vigilante (and former AEGIS operative) Carbine, who aims to break Cold Snap out, with the ultimate goal of executing her. Cold Snap has a whole sympathetic backstory she can share if the heroes engage with her. So do the heroes focus on repelling Carbine? Do they try to let Cold Snap slip away in the chaos? Do they come round to Carbine’s point of view on how dangerous Cold Snap is? Or try to convince Carbine to return to the AEGIS fold?

The module offers advice for the GM pegged to a number of choices the PCs can make. But it can’t be exhaustive, and the GM has to be ready to adapt and improvise at the table as their players surprise them. And I expect this will be the case in modules for many PbtA games, including Avatar: Legends. The module offers interesting hooks and prompts for the kickoff of a story. But the story structure beyond that is radically open to being shaped by players’ choices and GMs’ reactions.

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OSR play are very focused on spaces, time, and detail. In order to do that well you kind of need a module or some prep. Most PbtA games are much more interested in drama.

OSR modules often provide a lot of stuff that isn’t necessary to get to that drama. On the other hand PbtA modules lack the details that OSR wants.

You can totally play OSR modules in a PbtA way if you are willing to adapt them. Fear of a Black Dragon often has good advice on how to do that.

I have also run Johnstone Metzger’s Dungeon World material in an OSR way using OSR systems. I’ve found that doing so well requires a lot of prep.

It’s not so much that PbtA modules are hard, they are just a completely different beast than OSR modules. I think that recently Trophy Gold has done a good job of bridging that divide with some of the better incursions.

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I am not a PbtA person. I’ve read a few rulebooks and such, but don’t have a lot of knowledge of the system/culture of play. I would like to think I know a bit about writing adventures though - specifically location based Classic ones.

Something that strikes me in watching Jason’s play throughs of my own location based Classic adventures using a narrative system - Trophy Gold, not PbTA is that in order to adapt them he needs to reformat them and refocus on what’s important to the narrative game rather then what defines Classic location based adventure. Spatial complexity, puzzles as obstacles and faction intrigue, what I’d argue are the key elements of classic adventure design are almost unimportant in in a narrative system where the adventure is scene based (though as with Trophy Gold locations can be regionally subdivided into Scenes), mechanical appeals (dice rolling) is usually done prior to describing how the problem is solved and players usually have purely mechanical and narrative control ways to interact with NPCs.

This isn’t a value judgment - it’s just an effort to point out that when I’m designing an adventure for a location based dungeon crawl I don’t need to include, indeed often shouldn’t include, the things that will be most important to a PbtA game and I understand the opposite to be true as well. This is what interests me about Trophy Gold. As much as its a rules-lite narrative system, it’s more specifically a set of conversion tools for taking procedural dungeon crawling/location based design and converting it to narrative play/design. Obviously those conversions are possible, but I do wonder how useful they are and how much they’re something one could produce as a adventure?

Ahhh. I see others already made most of these points. That’s what I get for half writing things and coming back to them.

I do wonder, when looking at narrative adventure design, how contemporary traditional (5E/PF) style play grapple with the same adventure design issues as it seems to increasingly evolve to be character focused and narrative except for tactical combat. Obviously the encounters themselves benefit from adventure design, but how will the narrative structure around the encounters evolve? Likewise, looking at Lancer briefly I see a similar design choice - but there’s also something jarring about breaking play into two very different rules sensibilities one for grid-combat and one for narrative-non combat.

The grim part of this observation is that it’s very unlikely that procedural dungeon crawling will be popular any time soon.

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Interesting! (And yes, these are definitely the type of perspectives I was hoping to hear. I don’t think your comment was redundant.) When you mention that play-through of your adventure using Trophy – was it Prison of the Hated Pretender or something else?

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Hated Pretender and also The Bruja, The Beast and The Barrow – one of my Crystal Frontier mini adventures.

Here’s the play-throughs.

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@GusL

I think his videos are a really good example of both how to write/adapt adventures for narrative play as well as the difference berween OSR/classic play and narrative.

I’m going to think about 5e adventures and perhaps start a thread because I think they do neither of those things and are something else entirely. I also feel like 5e adventure design is undergoing a bit of a shift or identity crisis as trad designers struggle with the new wave of player preferences.

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Fingers crossed they’ve all read Neverland.

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I agree on both counts there. Jason’s written adventures “Temple of the Peerless Star” being the one I’ve read (for Dungeon World and now Trophy Gold) are a good example of how different adventures look for narrative vs. Classic systems.

For 5E it is interesting where things might be going. I’ve dug through some of the more recent WotC adventures and it’s a weird space. In the 3rd party space it looks like Runehammer (despite some poor practices with art attribution) is looking at what the 5E community wants play to look like and I know others are as well. I think for WotC it’s complicated as they are trapped within the D&D brand, and have to slap on all these vestigial rules while also producing very homogeneous content that doesn’t allow much variation in play across tables for an audience that can be incredibly literally minded (E.G. becomes confused/upset by slight changes to the format of statblocks).

At the same time 5E and its community have gravitated towards “Actual Play” and specifically the Critical Roll style of performative play based around character while the system itself was written and conceived prior to the real rise of this sort of play, but can’t really be changed too much due to both expectations about what D&D is (vestigial mechanics) and its audience’s investment in having learned the system. Nor have I really seen a game that is well optimized for Actual Play. It will be interesting to see what 6E looks like…

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WotC adventures are pretty mixed in terms of being “neo-trad” or whatever. I think that the more popular and highly recommended DMs Guild products are actually a better representation of the scene. Things like Wild Sheep Chase or Kelsey Dionne’s adventures seem to be good examples of adventures written for that style.

I agree that Runehammer is interesting but personally I see him as someone who is going his own way and not really plugged into any one scene.

I have a LOT to say about how I think Matt Mercer, Brennan Lee Mulligan, and the McElroys actually seem to run their games, what that says about the modern style or play, and what 5e players seem to be learning from AP… But I think all of these topics are moving beyond the scope of the initial topic.

Edit: To me Neverland and similar adventures aren’t really representative of where 5e is going. “O5R” is it’s own thing. As much as I would prefer Neverland to become the template, that isn’t going to happen.

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In recent years I’ve used Dungeon World or similar hacks (homebrew stuff, Freebooters, etc.) to run versions of:

  • B10, Night’s Dark Terror
  • X1, Isle of Dread … with the island tweaked to contain:
  • WG4, Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Advanced Adventures #35, Desert Shrine of the Sightless Sisters
    …along with a variety of other things, like my own encounters or keyed Dyson Logos maps.

I’ve also used pbta hacks to run some stand alone or really short mini-campaign stuff using non-prepped resources, too.

My own game group is on hiatus for a few weeks, but I’m currently running a Dungeon World hack in a Dying Earth-type setting, using a bunch of stuff like Trilemma scenarios or little mini-dungeon modules (ran Ben’s 1-page Alchemist’s Repose earlier this Fall, for example).

I’m finding the whole experience something of a mixed bag. I really, really value the DYNAMISM during action scenes that pbta resolution brings. However, the ‘relative non-lethality’ that @Yochai Gal mentioned has really started to bug me. I’m not a heartless DM and we’ve had great times, but I got sick of feeling like my monsters were always nerfed (ironic, for a pbta system infamous for its supposed GM-fiat powers).

In our current Dying Earth campaign, I told my players going in that I would lean a lot harder on some hard moves. In session 1, I softened a move at the last minute to prevent a TPK. In session 2, I ripped off the arm of a PC via sewer-ghoul. In session…3 or 4? … I killed a PC. All faithful to the dice, but I can definitely say that the fiat ability to lean on moves is certainly still there. But I miss the clinical precision of other systems, I think…

In terms of prep, I’ve had mixed experiences too. I can dump an awful lot of time into OSR-style prep even with a Dungeon World campaign. Something about the total-improv style wigs me out…actually, I’ll rephrase that. I think I would LOVE to run something with very minimal prep, like an Urban Shadows campaign, focused on big factional interactions in a relatively shared setting. But improv for an OSR-adjacent 'crawl worries me more.

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To follow up, these are the moments I MOST feel grateful we’re running a pbta engine:

  • during combat, when something wild and dynamic happens and the game-fiction interface can handle it without problem, and
  • during slower moments, when a really evocative character ability for interacting with the surrounding environment/society kicks in (like when a PC used a special psychic move to take over control of his own personal urban cult).

These are the moments when I tend to wish we weren’t running PbtA per se:

  • maybe everything else?
  • But especially combat, ironically. I love the dynamism, but regret the imprecision and constant hot-seat GM adjudication.
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Oogh, 5e adventure design is just a mess no matter what side you look at it from. Bad layout and information design too,

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Thats a very good point, I am myself only familiar with WotC adventures mainly, I should peek at community produced content more to get a better sense.

I actually enjoy/excell at this bit, and am grateful to DW for teaching me how to do it properly. And you can definitely run non-DW adventures in DW! Just don’t expect any real feeling of danger, not with all that plot armor (Last Breath, I hate you).

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Yeah, when we had a character die off in our last proper DW session, it was a culmination of a character getting isolated and in combat alone with some dangerous beasts (due to a teleporter trap), then making it back alive to the rest of the party thanks to a special playbook move, but then being kind of cocky and pursuing a fleeing enemy, then having some really poor luck two rolls in a row, falling to 0 hp, and actually blowing the Last Breath move. There were a LOT of buffers in between that character and death.

I like the improv stuff when I’m absolutely on top of my game, but when I’m not… :wink:
I declared a hiatus of several weeks after our last session, which was 100% improv and was absolutely the lamest game session I’ve ever run in my life. I’ve just been really braindead after a busy season of real-world professor stuff, and I just didn’t have the mental with-it-ness to run that way. But I have seen it go well, and yeah, it’s beautiful and elegant when it works.

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