Talkin' "Usefulness" in Module Design

I’ve been reading tons of modules lately with wildly different approaches to page layout, visual design, and general presentation of information. This got me thinking about what the “ideal” module should do–for GMs during prep, for GMs during play, for players, etc. What is a module’s job, and how does it excel at it?

On one end of the spectrum, I’ve read a couple 5e and Trail of Cthulhu modules. They’re primarily interested in telling a complete story, with some flexibility of outcome and approach due to player actions. To use them, the GM needs to read them completely, internally digest them, and likely make lots of notes for running the thing in real-time. They exist to provide a big idea, story beats, and in 5e’s case, encounter design. They’re all-in-one narrative packages, but seem to require the same amount of GM effort and thought as creating an original adventure, just focused differently. They are functionally worthless at the table; what they provide, they provide during the prep stage.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve read the new bunch of official OSE adventures, which are laser-focused on at-table use. It feels like they’ve been platonically designed to shave milliseconds off the flipping and searching you’ll need to do between the moment a player announces an action and the moment you need to respond. Like most OSR stuff, they’re environment based, favoring player agency and creativity. There are pleasing bits of background narrative that can reveal themselves in play, or not, depending on what your players are interested in paying attention to.

So, the first kind of module, for me, is nigh unusable. They might have some clever ideas to glom onto, but the amount of work required to run them means I’d rather just come up with my own thing. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I could sit down at the table, crack an unread OSE module, and run it just fine. BUT, I think the table-focused, box-of-usable-tools approach that OSE seems to be a pure distillation of lacks something, which is the SPARK of inspiration and excitement that makes me want to run something in the first place. By condensing the module into its most usable form, things can feel dry and workmanlike.

For me, the platonic idea might be something less purely utilitarian, even if it requires a little more effort from me. For example, I’ve been reading Silent Titans, which is a bit of a mess from a visual presentation standpoint–it uses bullet points in such a way that I would prefer just regular paragraphs, which are usually the bane of module design for me. It’s weird, oddly organized, and requires a decent amount of buy-in ahead of time from the DM. But it’s massively interesting, and gives you information lots of other old school modules usually eschew–tone, desires, and useful table-techniques for NPCs. I’d rather struggle a little bit with an unwieldy beast that feels full of possibility rather than have a perfectly organized set of tools that fail to inspire. (Note: I really LIKE the OSE modules, I just am not sure the house style lends itself to inspiration and imagination.)

ANYHOO. This is a long-winded way of getting here–my list of module essentials, ranked by importance.

  1. A module should inspire wonder in the DM
  2. A module should give the DM useful tools to transmit this wonder to the players
  3. These tools should focus on the fictional world’s reactions to the players’ actions rather than the pre-defined narrative in the DM’s head

What is your “perfect” module? What should a module do?


I agree with you entirely. I don’t like to run pre-written modules so admittedly I’m coming at this from a different perspective, but all the same, I am much more interested in reading a module to inspire me than to be “usable” per se. Especially given the kinds of settings I run and the way I like to do things, it’s rarely feasible for me to embed a pre-written module into my games anyway.

I will say though, after writing the Module for my game Maximum Recursion Depth and trying to turn it into something that others could actually use, it definitely gave me a deeper appreciation for module design and the value of modules. I tried to do something a little different with MRD, both with the setting but also in the way that the Module itself is structured, with an emphasis on Social Intrigue, where much of the encounters are just a sandbox, but then there are tables to actually construct the narrative / Intrigue part, rather than even that being pre-designed as is often the case.

It is by no means perfect, but tbh I’m hoping to eventually receive feedback on how other GMs with parties unaffiliated with me at all run it and what they think about it. I’ve had a lot of success with it personally, but that only tells me so much haha.

I think there is room for different kinds of modules than currently exist and I’d like to see where people take these kinds of ideas, especially around things like Social Intrigue or TTRPG as Performance Art, or other kinds of even more “out there” ideas.

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Check out B10, Night’s Dark Terror, by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher.


I generally focus on location based stuff, but I think even there it’s dangerous to fetishize or formalize utility too much. Different adventures demand different types of utility and a big part of it is the authorial vision and ability. Does the usability and design fit the adventure? Does the author understand how it work? Does the author enjoy it even. Obviously there’s a baseline, and certain tricks but so much is adventure soecific even beyond the larger playstyle.

The new OSE adventures are a good example. All but Holy Mountain Shaker use the OSE house keying style and some conventions that are Havin Normans House style. They are a good set, for exploration focused location based adventures written by Gavin Norman.

Compare Incadescent Grottos to Halls of the Blood King. Halls of the Bloodking is a good, usable adventure with amazing art … but … it’s also a social puzzle adventure on a tight timeline. Within the limited space its design focuses treating the Halls as a series of keyed locations to explore, not the relationship web that is the core of the adventure. Players are unlikely to approach the Halls on a search and loot basis, and more likely to sneak about in disguise sorting out the social complexities. The format is clear enough, and laudable in its proper context, but doesn’t support Halls in the way a relationship web, timeline and social bestiary might. Even an order of battle should the players get into a seige situation is missing.

Usability doesn’t depend on a specific formula or system of design. It’s part of the creative process and recognizing how the adventure will play. Too much formalism, especially without understanding the purpose of the formula risks messing it up.


I have heard this several times recently and maybe oughta do just that.

I think a lot of what constitutes “ideal” has to depend on context. It sounds like you have a good idea of what you need to tell stories in your style, and that you’re moving toward a personal aesthetic in terms of usability for your skill level and style of processing. That same approach, however, might not work for a different sort of Storyteller. I know some people who find a lot of detail really rewarding, and like to prep; others who want as brief an approach as possible. Format matters - some people want art-punk inspo and some get off on technical manuals.

I like your 3 principles! They’re very focused on creating particular types of fun for both the Storyteller and players (my sense is what you’re asking for is discovery and fantasy). I think for me, #3 isn’t necessary - it has to give me enough to create ways to deepen or lengthen narrative as a Teller, and ideally give the players the ability to as well (though that’s highly system dependent).

I think a really interesting approach has been MOSAIC Strict, which Paul Czege has gotten deep into. The “modules” are more tools. The recent “checklist NPC” style pieces have been particularly impressive: they give a system-agnostic approach to creating NPCs that give Tellers real ways to deepen emotional engagement and extend any plot.

So yeah. I guess I’d add “gives tools to deepen engagement and lengthen narrative.” And the caveat that everybody is gonna want a different style, so other bits n’ bobs may vary depending on audience.

Hope that was useful - just a great topic, and digging everyone’s thoughts! I’m off chasing everybody’s links, now - cheers!


I mainly look for complete adventures that either work as one-shots or describe entire campaigns. I don’t like stitching unrelated adventures into one campaign—the seams bother me, such that I’d rather design the adventures in the campaign from scratch if it means they’ll feel like they belong together.


Oh man, I LOVE the seams. That’s where my creativity happens.

  • In Winter’s Daughter it establishes that there are saints and makes some allusions to a catholic-ish religion
  • Later playing some Rakehell content players get a Helio-Papist mummy as loot
  • Even later playing Slumbering Ursine Dunes we learn that the sun god eats pagan gods and that people can ascend to herodom or godhood

Oh, I guess that in my setting the main religion is a xenophobic cult of the sun god that has many powerful saints lead by the Helio-Pope.

I want stuff that is easy to use and filled with weird little tidbits I wouldn’t have thought of. That way I get to play the game where I figure out how it’s all connected. The weirder and more evocative a module is the better.

But it better also be easy to use at the table!


This is my first time having it recommended and forgot I had it (somewhere). It definitely looks great and mineable!!

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I totally agree with pretty much everything @Michael said above.

I know I am an outlier on this forum, as I generally prefer other games and other styles of story than what is dominant here. BUT for me what you have laid out and what works for you, wouldn’t work for me.

For me, the stories I want and care about are centered on the protagonists, not the locations. I really like seeing character change over the course of the story. To me, this means the protagonists (not players) need to be challenged on their beliefs and ideals.

What I really want are:

  1. A tense starting situation, where protagonists can have clear ideals, goals, and agendas to be involved in. Straight up tell me what the themes and problems are. It’s likely going to be political. Because to me, you can’t take politics out of stories. Even if it’s just there is a drought and food is scarce, yet some how the rich still seem to be managing to eat lavish luxuries. That’s still political.
  2. Support for all the non protagonist entities, whether that’s other characters or factions or whatever. Support in the way of THEIR goals, ideals, and beliefs, so that I can extrapolate and figure out what might do given the ever changing dynamic situation. Other support could include stuff that makes them have more depth, not just a plot point, but the fact they care for their adopted kid brother, that they really like noodle soup, etc.
  3. I really like loaded questions to ask the characters, so we can figure out how they are already involved in the situation. This could also just be questions that you might try to discover the answer through play. Something that can help lead and guide play.

Dang, Yoshi. Yes to all of this!

I think the question hinges on what kind of fun you’re looking for - what drives the narrative. You’re interested, it sounds like, in Expression, Fellowship, and Narration - a focus on characters, relationships, and exploring those through play. A lot of classic TTRPGs (“old school,” to use a perhaps over-used term) focus on Challenge, Fantasy, and Sensory pleasure (minis, maps, etc.).

I’ve been finding myself trying to use the latter to access the former. I think perhaps the reason DnD has such primacy in the market has a bit to do with kids, who get cultured into the idea of “characters” in fiction being what I jokingly call “kitchen implements”: piles of superpowers and abilities with zero personality (they dice, they slice, they julienne fries!).

Games that access Challenge and Fantasy are often very approachable for people in that mindset, but turn off a lot of early players who are more about Fellowship, Expression, and Narrative (I’ve had a kid explain she tried to get friends to play a VERY emotionally focused game about freshmen mythical critters, only to be told that RPGs were “all about fighting” and “for boys”).

You inspired me to think through my principles. You’ve given some AWESOME examples of how designers can provide to help what I vaguely lumped under the rubric of “tools to deepen engagement and lengthen narrative”:

  1. Emotional inspirations and entanglements that deepen or extend investment in characters as people.
  2. Nuanced situations, where there is no “evil” to be punched and situations require empathy and critical thinking over violence.
  3. Options for interesting, fun, or silly situations that the group can take or leave - things that allow for a bit of narrative range (get silly if it’s serious, get serious if it’s silly, and so on).
  4. Open-ended invitations that inspire players to invest in creating more of the world to explore.

I’ve been making and using all my own stuff for so long that it’s an interesting proposition to me to imagine using published material. I almost avoid reading too much because I’m worried it will stop me from moving with the narrative threads I generate, or shift what is brewing or ongoing in my games. I guess I’d say the three things above tend to be what I do, and those principles usually structure my approach (which is totally based on using games to encourage kids to write!).

  1. I’ll give the players someone to care about if they don’t have anyone, get them invested in that person or creature, and use that relationship to help the players explore who their character is (pull a #1).
  2. A #2 approach is what I do for drama; sure, the farmers are about to extinct the landsharks, but they’re scared and haven’t figured out that it’s the runoff from their new sewage system that forced the landsharks out of their habitat.
  3. A #3 is offering a party, or a goofy character, or an awkward situation to let everyone explore who their characters are when they aren’t “in the moment.”
  4. #4 is all about situation and context for world - the way it leaves space and freedom for the players to flex their creativity. An example: in Knights of the Microbiome, which I’m running for an amazing crew of kids right now, they’re free to design what the area of the Body their Knights hail from is like, the culture there, their ancestors and role in the defense of the Body - even fun stuff like the characters from their hometowns (my favorite so far is a goofy, buff microbe named Mighty Bear who lives in the Lush Caves of Stomacho, near the Crack in the World, and hurls “turd boys” out it).

Woof! Did not expect to get that involved! Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, all - this has really got me investigating what I do!


Is it a binary where we are either doing character focused drama play or player centered challenge play. Because in an extended campaigns I have found that players can have as much of both as they care for.

Of course! We’re talking about preference for what kinds of tools we want a source to have to make running the game more fun, and fun comes in different kinds, so that became a bit of discussion about personal preference. All kinds are great, if you and your group dig’em!

I absolutely don’t think it is a binary. I don’t think it’s exclusionary. You can have both. But they are different.

Neither of the two outlined model modules in the original post, would work for me. So for me it is not a linear spectrum, but much more multi faceted. Those might be the two extremes for a location based module, but if I know that a location based model doesn’t work for me at all, why would I be looking at that type of module.

Yes, you could absolutely have support for multiple play styles in a single module. That may work great, it also might become more cumbersome and harder to actually work with. Because to me, what I want is like 80% different than what someone who really likes location based modules wants. So the module becomes 80% bigger and more complex to support me (or to support the location based desire from my more protagonist centered approach). Totally doable, but for me I’d rather have the module that has 80% less stuff, but the stuff I want, at least for MY ideal module.


@yoshi I guess I would agree with that.

Do you have a favorite module in mind? Based on your post I am imagining something like The Sword for Burning Wheel.

Honestly, I don’t have a favorite module. For me many modules just aren’t that useful as many don’t actually support me in the way I want/need.

You are correct that some of the Burning Wheel stuff, like The Sword, are pretty close.

I have had a lot of fun with The Inheritance. Which is sort of a Burning Wheel module, slash it’s own larp game. But I think that is why I tend towards more single instance story games. A lot of the time instead of a module it ends up being it’s own game. Red Carnations on A Black Grave or The Price of Coal are both similar to Montsegur 1244, but are their own games and not modules of Montsegur.


It has been my understanding for some time that “story games” very rarely use modules. Sometimes I get to thinking you can almost define the difference between story games and other RPGs by their approach to prepared material (or lack thereof), but then, I’m far from an expert on the subject.

It’s good to have a reminder that what’s useful in one context or style isn’t useful in another.


Oh, I just remembered, the Root Pellenicky Glade Quickstart has a lot of the stuff I look for. It is by no means perfect. But it was way more useful to me than a lot of location based modules.

Interesting, personally I tend to run long campaigns that start out as OSR and then incorporate story game elements as we go. I think some OSR modules can give lots of opportunity for drama and allow for belief-play if they include interesting social and moral scenarios.

I think if you run one shots most OSR modules won’t get you there.

I’ve long been of the opinion that PbtA games don’t need modules because the GM and player moves generate a lot of the content that a module usually provides.

…and if you are playing in a true story game style with lots of player authorship and writers room play a module will just gum up the practices make that style humm.