In Living campaigns, there exists an interesting and a bit strange phenomenon.
Living campaigns are based on pre-made adventure modules distributed by a central authority, in Living Greyhawk’s case the RPGA. This means there are a limited number of adventures available at any given time.
In Living Greyhawk, character advancement is tracked by a special form, the Adventure Record, that is unique to each adventure. They track the acquisition and expenditure of experience points and gold, as well as any permanent curses, favours and conditions that may apply to a later module. ARs are a decent way to accomplish this; the Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns that RPGA also runs work on an online character tracker system, which, like pretty much every other online application or computer program that Wizards of the Coast is somehow responsible for, sucks ass.
ARs also have the coat of arms of the locale they take place in. These are cool.
This gives rise to a certain spirit of completionism, where some players feel driven to play every module available. Characters need to get to certain levels to play certain modules, module series must be played to their conclusions, and so on. It’s a lot like Pokémon, really, except the monsters are less cute.
Occasionally, though, you run into a module that is exceptionally bad. Or even several modules.
How to Cope with the Suck
There are ways to deal with bad modules. One way is to unsuspectingly play one and only during the game realise that the writer must have been high or drunk or stupid. This is not recommended, and to this day I hold a grudge against Maya Deva Kniese and her module TSS5-02 Seeds, for costing us a good player. In its megalomaniacal length of over a hundred pages, complete lack of encounter maps and concepts like the text “Immortal” on the chest of an earth elemental, an amorphous creature, to signify it must be beaten unconscious because you can’t kill it, this is the worst adventure module I have ever read, for any game system or campaign.
Another way is to just run them as fast as possible, generally together with a module that’s actually worth anything. This works, but tends to feel unsatisfying.
And then, yesterday, there was Shit Saturday.
It was an event that originated from an ill-considered promise to run the module COR6-17 Something of Value, by Sam Weiss and Rick Miller. It’s probably the second-worst module I’ve seen in Living Greyhawk. It’s incomplete as written, mischaracterises a number of canon NPCs, represents all authority figures as Keystone Kops contrary to their earlier portrayals (and to the guidelines of good writing in general), is one big railroad without any reasonable explanation and worst of all, is written in an adversarial fashion, for a game of DM (or in this case, module writer) versus players. This never results in good gaming. However, the encounter design didn’t actually take into account the capabilities of player characters at the module’s levels. The big bad is a glass cannon who gets his surprise round and then dies miserably.
In a refreshing change of pace, though, I couldn’t spot any glaring stat block errors. There’s something to be said for using stock Monster Manual content. Additionally, it seems that several NPCs in the module are caricatures of prominent users at Canonfire, a Greyhawk fan site that both I and the writers are members of. They’re not entirely flattering.
Anyway, I promised to run it after having erroneously ordered it from the scenario database some time previous (I confused it with COR6-20 Shades of Grey, a very good module). Upon reading it, I concluded it’s crap, I didn’t want to run it and that the group would not want to play it. Except they insisted.
The idea of Shit Saturday was then formed, and the suggestion was made that a selection of known bad modules would be offered on a Saturday, along with cheap beer.
The solution worked admirably, and much fun was had, despite the modules.
The other modules we ran were both work of one Tim Sech. They were COR6-12 Calm Before the Storm and INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned, a pair of modules that, like the rest of his work that I’ve seen, are playable but not enjoyable and do not quite follow the rules of either English grammar, basic logic or Dungeons & Dragons.
The good thing here is that neither of them has a plot as such, and therefore I can’t spoil it. There are just railroad tracks that lead to weird places in defiance of common sense and geography – among others, a scene where the party first walks some 70 miles to a river. At the river, they meet a sea captain and his large sailing ship. Yeah, no idea why or how they’re there. The party is expected to return with the ship, because it’s “more comfortable and safer”. However, by ship, the journey would be nearly 2000 miles, some half of that through enemy-controlled territory. The encounter stats are also wonky, and barely a sentence of module text goes by without a typo, a grammatical error or a stylistic mistake.
INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned is significant in other ways as well. It, along with its equally execrable predecessors, INT7-01 Ambition’s Folly, INT7-02 Trial by Fire and INT7-03 A Dead Man’s Job, is part of the introductory series distributed to retailers with the WotC retailer’s kit. These are the first Living Greyhawk products to see print in many years, and they’re crap.
I could write a better adventure in a day, and, indeed, have (and no, I don’t deem it good enough to be distributed in public). They’re illogical, badly structured, again grievously misrepresent canon NPCs, and the writing is barely intelligible. It occurs to me now that none of the four credit an editor or playtesters. It can be an honest mistake, or they really weren’t edited or playtested. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if the first drafts were the final ones.
Here’s a selection of the immortal prose of Tim Sech, completely unedited by me (or anyone else, for that matter):
“A letter, with big bold inscription states ‘Open Immediately’ on it, has been sent to you each of you with the seal of Aramis on it.” – The first boxed text of one of the modules. It certainly sets the scene for the rest of the adventure.
“By the looks of it he appears to be built like an ox […]” – The Head of the Department of Redundancy Department.
“If the [enemies] are captured they refuse to speak and if coerced only speak lovingly but very vaguely about their master. They do not know who he is, but it is clear of his hold over them.” – Considering even the DM isn’t told, I don’t think it’s clear at all.
“Hello there! Humanchi says his hello as well. He wanted us to get a ‘feel’ on your thoughts about a few things but we would rather just beat you to a pulp first.” – You have bad honour against me. Now you will must die.
There are others. Ritual of the Damned, especially, reads like the Eye of Argon. For some reason, the modules also fluctuate between referring to gold crowns and golden orbs as the currency of Greyhawk, but that’s a minor detail. (The latter would be correct, however.)
As stated, though, these all became quite agreeable in the proper state of inebriation.
The Root of the Problem and its Solution
I feel the quality of RPGA has been steadily declining over the past couple of years. The good adventures, when we get them, are still awesome, but there are less of them. The bad ones are getting worse, and they’re getting more frequent.
Part of this is likely because quality takes time. You need to concentrate and think about what you’re doing when crafting a complex intrigue in the vein of Chris Chesher’s and Greg Marks’ Rallying Point for the Bright Sands or an open sandbox like Jason Bulmahn’s Key to the Grave, or a great epic such as Pieter Sleijpen’s Broken Chains series or Pierre van Rooden’s Trust or Treason series. Stuff like Sech’s Core Introductory modules can be farted out in a matter of hours.
Also, I think there’s been a failure in quality control. I don’t know exactly whose job it is to make sure that Core modules aren’t complete drek. Judging by the results of their work, I’m not sure they know either. At that level, people get paid for their writing. RPGA should have an expectation of quality, but it evidently does not.
Public reviews of modules are not available due to the fear of spoilers and there is no centralised website to host them all. Nyrond.org is the best we’ve got, and it’s not much. Without actual, verbal criticism, the stars have no context. Module writers get no direct feedback and there’s very little public discussion of adventure releases except when they’re either something truly hideous or utterly magnificent and worthy of an ENnie. The system lacks transparency, which allows low-quality material to get through again and again.
RPGA now has a chance to change that, with the advent of the Living Forgotten Realms campaign. The system can be retooled from the ground up. Demands of quality must be stricter. At the very basic level, plots should make sense, the rules items should follow the rules and the module text be written by someone literate.
In LFR, one would also hope that the writers retain creative freedom. While I am sure that with the brand recognition comes a pressure from the above to cater to the largest audience, one should never write for the lowest common denominator. A campaign of cookie-cutter dungeon crawls would drive away those players who like their stuff with a bit of depth and would get boring for the rest sooner or later. With the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms being what it is, care should be taken to keep what few players there will be left. Especially the ones who also write modules, unless they’re planning to start paying professional rates. The North Europe Point of Contact has already stated he is disinclined to write adventures, and there appears to be some confusion with our Event Coordinator as well.
It does not bode well. Unless RPGA pulls its head out of its ass and quick, I see little hope for its future.
It’s a pity. It used to be fun.