The thing about a D&D module is that it’s written with no understanding of who the characters coming to deal with the dungeon are. That’s a really serious challenge for a writer, and even with the narrowing of scope provided by a level range, it still seems like the range of possible characters should be impossible to plan for.
Thankfully, the structure of D&D provides a lot of help for this. Some of it is obvious – characters of a certain level will not have access to spells of a certain level – but much of it is a bit fuzzier. The range of things a D&D character can do (with any mechanical support) is actually pretty constrained. There are oddball spells and items that can expand that range, but even that tends to be fairly tightly limited. And, in fact, those exceptions are viewed as an expression of creativity, so even if they introduce problems, they are largely welcome.
The thing is, these limitation are things that we often speak of as weaknesses of D&D, especially older editions. The lack of any kind of diversity of skills or abilities is held up as a problem. And it totally can be. But it also makes it MUCH easier to design an adventure that can work for a wider range of groups. Yes, you can still have the occasional mismatch, but it’s rarer.
This is an important lesson for any would-be adventure designer. The more free-form and diverse your game is, the harder it is to write an adventure for strangers.
We’ve seen the fruits of this in lots of places. White Wolf got a reputation for railroady adventures, which seems harsh, but consider the context. The range of capabilities of the average Vampire group was much broader than a D&D group, so they needed some way to address that. Railroads and sock puppets may not be great techniques for play, but they’re very solid techniques for publishing.
At the other end, I’ll point to things like the Fate adventure Patreon. There’s a reason that a lot of these are more like minigames than classic adventures. Fate is just too open ended otherwise.
There is, I think, a somewhat romantic notion of an adventure not needing to be tied to a particular system. If the fictional setup is interesting and the required action is clear, it really shouldn’t matter what system you drop it into, right? That feels like it should be the case – after all, the bulk of fiction has no “system”, right?
Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold up well in practice. See, system does not only tell us how a problem will be solved, it provides us a lot of answers about why these characters are the ones to solve it. Even if that answer is somewhat generic (it’s an adventure, and they’re adventurers!) it’s still a hook, something that a generic adventure won’t have.
The trick is that adventures for a specific system give me a ballpark for where I expect the hooks to be. In D&D, it will probably be a dungeon that I can drop into my world, even if I need to tweak some details. In Vampire, it will probably involve clans and power structures I’m familiar with. In a generic adventure, I have no such starting point.
Not to say it’s impossible to write generic adventures, but if you’re looking to write for strangers, then it’s a lot harder than targeting them.
- Or, more often, pseudo-generic. A lot of “generic” adventures are D&D or other popular games with the serial numbers filed off. ↩