As every veteran Dungeon Master knows, there’s a huge difference in running a published module and a homemade one, and almost all DM’s I know alter and change the published modules they run for their groups. The reason is to simply make sure that the module fits the group their playing with, for every group has their own playing style. When and if you decide to write your own module, and even publish it on sites like dmsguild.com, there are a few things and advice that I have found helpful.
Ever since I started running D&D I’ve written my own modules, along with running published ones. Just as every other DM out there, I’ve made more errors and mistakes than there are scales on a red dragon wyrm! But, fortunately, I’ve picked up a few things on the way, or so I’d like to believe. I’ve published a couple of modules, which are available on dmsguild.com, and have received good reviews, at least so far.
The Golden Rule
The first, best and, probably, the only advice any DM needs is quite simple: Make sure everyone has fun! The people at encounterroleplay.com call this the Golden Rule. And it really is! Roleplaying is about having fun, it’s not a competitive game like chess, where the players are white and the DM black. It’s a co-operative playing session, which evolves around a good story, where the players are the main characters. This means that they share the spotlight, and they, each and everyone, need to have a chance to shine.
Every character therefor should have a place in the story where their set of skills or talents become especially handy or helpful to the group, so that every character gets a moment in the spotlight. The social character gets a chance to investigate and mingle with the locals, the scholar needs to bring out her glasses and dig into some old lore, the warrior needs to draw his sword to defend his friends and the survivalist forages some food for the group. The story should offer every type of character to bring something of value to the table and feel meaningful and even heroic for a while.
No matter what module you read or play, each and everyone has the same groundwork. Something shakes the status quo and it’s the PCs’ job to restore it. The unhinged status quo can be as trivial as someone loosing a key to their house and asking the PCs to find it, to some world or even planar shaking events, such as an over-god having the Tablets of Fate stolen from it.
The characters need to learn how they can restore the status quo. This means that when writing the module you need to incorporate to your story means for the PCs to learn about what caused to changes, how they affected either the PCs or the NPCs and why the status quo needs to be restored.
The module Hoard of the Dragon Queen opens up in media res, where the PCs begin their quest in a small town under the attack of the Cult of Dragon. They learn immediately that the status quo has been upset and as they investigate the source of the attack, they soon learn that reason for all this is something far more sinister and dangerous than a simple cult attack. All the campaign, both HotDQ and Rise of Tiamat is centered about that restoring that status quo and denying the Dragon Queen entering the Realms.
The objective in every story is therefor to restore the status quo, the fact that the PCs become the heroes in their own story is because they recognise that the status quo is upset and that it needs restoring.
Villains are something that I often feel overlooked in many modules. Evil villains who do evil for the sake of evil are not only boring and predictable, but also hard to relate to. A villain that has a good backstory and reasons for her actions are on the other hand both interesting and compelling adversaries.
Think about the villain of Curse of Strahd, Strahd von Zarovich, and the vampire’s rich backstory. Not only is it one of the oldest and most popular villain in D&D’s history, but also the one who has the greatest backstory. Strahd’s story is a sad one, a story of love and how envy pushed the lord down a dark path. A story that almost all PCs and players can relate to.
A great villain has something that the PCs can relate to, it has some human factor that the PCs understand. An orc chieftain that attacks a village for the glory of Gruumsh is almost a cliche, but an orc chieftain who attacks a village because his tribe is starving is far more interesting.
Let PCs control the flow of the story
Writing a module is different from writing a story. When you’re writing a module you have no main characters, since the players will provide them. The PCs are the main driving force of the story and it’s your job to create the setting, the NPCs and the scenes. If you read through published modules you soon discover that most scenes are triggered by the PCs actions, e.g. they enter a room in a dungeon or discover a hidden scroll in a library. This makes the player feel that they are the acting partner of the story.
On the other hand the story also must evoke the sense of urgency in the PCs. A classic and overused cliche in films is showing a ticking clock, e.g. the timer on a bomb. To ensure that the players are on the edge of their seats in the grand finale, they need to have invested in the story and feel that what they are doing is urgent and important. That their actions matter and have consequences. That they need to complete their objectives or something horrible will happen.
The module or the story itself is a framework, a frame that incorporates all of the above without making the players feel railroaded or powerless to make a any difference. If the PCs feel empowered they will march on, even against great odds. That’s what makes them heroes and that’s the magic feeling that many, if not most, players strife to attain through roleplaying D&D.