Changing Courses: Most Influential Scenarios

If we are all the sum of our predilections as filtered through our experiences then I suppose it stands to reason that the early modules and scenarios we ran as kids just starting out in the hobby have played a significant role in the GMs we are today. With that idea in mind, let’s explore a little bit of the road behind us shall we? Call out if you see something cool that I miss!

Basic D&Dintroductory dungeon level

Not technically a scenario, module, or adventure I want to include this here as my first forays into the idea of being a GM were definitely affected and irrevocably shaped by the question which bloomed in my mind as my test characters dealt with the cave spiders and rust monster in this sample dungeon: “Why are these things here?”  Among my fellow gamers in those early years in the 80s my homemade dungeons stood out for having bathrooms, and means of sustenance beyond the nutrients supplied by hapless adventurers.

That question, hardly ground-breaking in nature, is still important as it tends to be one of the indicators of player and GM type. While it might be nice if we could all ‘just get along’ – clearly, we cannot. Vive la différence

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – A2 The Secrets of the Slavers Stockade

This is, if I remember correctly, the first printed module that I purchased. It was also the very first I saw in our local bookstore, along with a handful of Dragon Magazines. It wasn’t the first one we used in our group, nor the first printed module that I ran, but it was the first that I bought myself.  Apart from being the first one I owned, it had a long-lasting effect on me in one aspect of running games: the villains – in particular Icar, the blind, ember-throwing, fighter memorably visualized by Jeff Dee. Prior to encountering this dramatic and memorable villain, my own NPC villains were just evil versions of characters, notable more for what they could do, or were trying to accomplish than for any particular or dramatic traits of their own. Icar helped me move from 2D NPC characters to more full-figured ones. While this would eventually go too far in subsequent years, it was a very important step in learning to realize a game world that could engage and entertain on more than one level at a time.

Basic Dungeons and Dragons – B2 The Keep on the Borderlands

Although I played bits and pieces of this module over my first years as a gamer, I did not get to read it until my last year of high school. I had been playing and running my own games for about 5 years at that point, and was still very much unsure of why some sessions felt right, and others were just an annoying slog. One of the clues was in the layout of The Keep on the Borderlands. Although I had been experiencing what is now called sandbox play in my friend Doug’s games for a while, and had been building a setting of my own along similar principles, it wasn’t until I saw those principles in print that I really recognized what it was that had been clamouring for my attention. My ideas would not coalesce into a personal style of scenario creation for a few more years, but what I took away from this module was that it was not only okay to not have a pre-planned story, it actually worked better to have pre-planned settings and see where the players went. Of course, in those days that meant plotting out huge areas in painstaking detail, and supporting them with random charts, and rumours tables, but it was a start~

Call of CthulhuMasks of Nyarlathotep

As I have said many times, the game that really let me find my voice as a GM was Call of Cthulhu. One scenario of note in the impressive line-up of pre-printed adventures offered by Chaosium is the truly amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep. So beloved is this session that I have purchased it in every version I could get my hands on, and still have players asking to complete it (none of my groups ever has) up to and exceeding 20 years after the last characters were buried or committed.

This campaign influenced me in many ways, but the most important of these was again a question: “Who the Hell is Jackson Elias?”  By the time I got to preparing Masks we had only played CoC twice. I had only read the scenarios in the core rules, and glanced over Shadows of Yog Sothoth, but it still leapt out at me that if we were to play this game for any period of time, the issue of investigating because of dead friends would be a huge barrier to belief and immersion. As I did hope to make this one of our staple games, I did not want to start by driving nails of cliché and convenience into what I hoped would be a very comfortable coffin. The result was that I wrote two scenarios to come before Masks which first introduced the characters to each other, and planted either the name or the personal acquaintance of the soon to be deceased Jackson Elias, and introduced them to the idea of occult-based investigations versus cult-like operatives. Incidentally, Masks would wind up being one of the last printed scenarios I would ever run, but was among the first that built my growing collection of them.

ShadowrunFood Fight!

As a GM, until I was introduced to Shadowrun, I used to find combat to be a chore. It is still not my favorite thing to ‘just do’ (I need my reasons), but this fun little scenario which I first encountered in the back of SR’s first edition, changed all that by its very entertaining use of exploding food. This was one of those “Duh!” moments which I try to remember as a guideline to keep focused on constant development of skill rather than just being satisfied with my games as they are. Being just one person tasked with representing an entire world, there is no way that I can think of everything. What this scenario gave me as a big slap in the face was the need for truly real and usefully interactive environments in any aspect of game play – no matter how mundane.

AberrantAberrant Worldwide: Phase 1 – Angel of Wrath

While this is a later entry, and was more of an icing on a cake experience than a seminal one, I think it communicates the point well. While this scenario, notable for its inclusion of the storied battle between two major characters in the game’s continuity, is decried mainly for being the quintessential example of the failure of metaplot-driven games (Now you too can roll up a character to stand around and marvel at the antics of super powerful NPCs!) what I took away from this was a little different.

Being old, I had already had to wrestle with having players wind up feeling inferior to NPCs, or feeling more like spectators than active participants at certain stages of a campaign. Being interested in sandbox style scenario design, I had also become very familiar with the struggle such freedom represents. The world needs to be in motion on its own in order for the characters to have something with which to genuinely interact, but a significant number of players come to the table trying to win, or worse waiting for a cue for what they ‘should do.’ If you have events designed to inspire action, you run the risk of having players have their characters just stand around watching things transpire. Who needs that?

When I came to read the contents of Angel of Wrath, I took it for being a well-detailed backdrop to what was important in the story: whatever the players would be doing. I was planning to take the end days of Aberrant in a slightly different direction, and as mentioned above, had left using preprinted adventures behind decades before, but was still very much in the habit of reading them for insight into how the world could be described, and little snippets of background detail and minutia I could use to add colour to my own sessions- particularly for news reports, headlines, and water cooler gossip. When the gaming community reacted so strongly against the titular scene in the scenario where the two godlike NPCs go at it to a foregone conclusion in which their beloved characters could play no part, I was quite surprised. Even though the scenario itself was all about choices, and in no way about wrestling with the metaplot baggage brought in by the NPCs making noise in the background, that became the whole focus. The lesson I took away from this was to accept once and for all that a campaign or session is not what I think it is as its GM. It is wholly and entirely that which the players perceive it to be. Again, perhaps not a groundbreaking or eye-opening revelation, but one which has changed my gaming for the better.


PS: As I posted this today, I noticed a post on most influential games over on Dice Monkey. Should I conclude that I am receiving imperfect mental transmissions from the other side of the Earth? I guess the only proper thing to do is to write another post answering the challenge posed in that post.

3 Responses to “Changing Courses: Most Influential Scenarios”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    Man, I hear you on this. I’ve written about it before but I do think we’re shaped in our gaming by the gaming we’ve done.

    I know that Keep on the Borderlands, In Search of the Unknown (B1), and Isle of Dread (X1) were big influences for me.

    Harkwood (a GURPS Fantasy adventure) and Caravan to Ein Arris (GURPS Basic Set) were also huge influences. The sample dungeon in the Holmes edition of D&D was also a big thing.

    Probably one of the most influential things I ever read (and I still dust off the scenarios in the books from time to time) were the adventure seeds in the 1e/2e Greyhawk Adventures hardcover. The shipwreck and the Ren O’ Star kidnapping are two scenarios that have a lot of pull for me.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I did not go for GURPS, so I do not recognize the scenarios (Harkwood and Ein Arris) that you mention. What was it about those two that infliuenced you?

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