Saturday, July 31, 2021

I Made a Module: The Robo-Yakuza of Hammer Street!

Before this post begins: if you're a Swede who runs Firefox on a Mac... leave a comment please? You know who you are.

I was halfway through reviewing and editing part 2 of Oni Mother Okawa when I became altogether disillusioned with the project. I wondered if 5e shovelware adventures were worth the effort. I wondered if the whole genre of linear one-shots should simply be cast into the pit. 

I reconsidered, and found that it was a little too harsh. For sure, the quality loss from pumping out one-shots at top speed is unavoidable, but linearity does not a bad adventure make on its own, especially for a beer-and-pretzels one-shot. Those modules have a place in the RPG marketplace, and while it's not a high and glorious place, like those occupied by bespoke RPG books like Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth, or by impressively terse and functional books like Melan's Castle Xyntillan, it's still a place of value.

Goodness knows that they can provide inspiration, and when you've got a weekly game coming up and don't have anything prepped, a good one-shot can be heaven sent.

But it's undeniable that the market is flooded with products of poor quality. Some are bad because they were made on a minimal schedule. Others just had minimal effort put into them. Some are by designers who could make good stuff with extra time, while others are by designers who've fallen into design cargo cults (as Melan pointed out here) who lack basic understanding of design structures or what GMs need at the table. Yet others aren't written for use at the table at all, but rather as fiction, for GMs to fantasize about running the game. 

This flood does call into question what a good one-shot of this sort would look like. A linear, combat-focused, altogether unsophisticated one-and-done adventure. It'd have to be concise, easy to use at the table. It would use read-aloud and boxed text, but intelligently and in moderation. It would be evocative. 

I resolved to write such an adventure, to demonstrate that higher standards should be held for the genre and to show that I'm not just a blowhard critic.

So I did.

An unrelated pulp cover for the thumbnail
Looks awesome though

I took my notes for a pulpy, combat-focused one-shot I ran months ago, and in the course of a few days turned it into a 3 page module. You can download it here

Is it publishable? No. At least, not to my standards. The formatting is amateurish and done with a free website, and I definitely missed a typo somewhere. I've only playtested it once. There's no artwork, and the statblocks are in plaintext. 

I'm looking to fix all of those, get some more eyes on it, some art, more playtesting, and eventually publish it. But even without any of that, I'd confidently place this draft against most published modules in the same genre. 

It knows what it is — linear pulp schlock — and seeks to excel as that. It is



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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa Part 1

Some months ago I published a 'review' of a 5e module I'd received as a gift from one of my players, Ship of the Damned. The module variously disappointed and mystified me, and I tested out a new tone for the blog by aping the 'angry rhetorical questions' style exemplified by Bryce Lynch. The reaction was so-so, though I found it very cathartic to write. 

Now that same player has gifted me another module by the same author, and again this one was featured on the front page of the Roll20 marketplace. 

I'm going to dive back in, but this time with a style more my own, as a script doctor, imagining I was handed this text shortly before release and tasked with improving it with minimal changes. I'm going to select bits and pieces of read aloud and GM text, mostly looking at the writing, but occasionally at the design as well.

Oni Mother Okawa is a pair of one-shot adventures surrounding the same villain, designed to be used in sequence or standalone, for a party of level 4-5 PCs in D&D 5e. I'll be looking at part 1 today.

Read-Aloud 1
‘Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
'Trudging through the snow, neither experienced travelers, weary adventurers nor determined traders find the trail to Okawa's Bathhouse easy. Even worse is the rushing wind that might cover a demon's approach at every step. But now you find yourself in a beautiful wooden building hung with shining lights, where you cast off heavy winter coats and scarves and reveal your faces once more.'
Here we've cut 3 lines by eliminating redundancy and stitching sentences together. We still hit every beat in the original, trudging through snow, rushing wind heralding demons, the difficulty of the trail, relief of tension, a description of the bathhouse and a focus on the PCs. Those second person action descriptions, 'you cast off heavy winter coats' are appropriate when setting a scene, but rarely elsewhere, so look out for them.

We've also cut down from eight sentences to 3, from 126 words to 63, exactly half, though the average word count of each sentence is longer. I find that a smaller number of long sentences are easier to swallow at the table, especially if they're focused and don't ramble. This is more than I would advise for a room description, but for an introduction to the adventure it'll do.

We'll also be replacing or deleting 'large' and 'small', aka the two most boring descriptors in writing. If the size matters, you can find a better replacements with comparisons. Usually it doesn't, and you can use a different class of descriptor. If you want to bring across the relief of taking off a winter coat, you can emphasize its weight, bulk, the sweat which has accumulated underneath. But 'large'? As my old choir director was fond of saying in a nasally voice, "We don' need it!" If you can't find a replacement, let economy of language guide you instead.

GM Text 1
An evil spirit and trusted ally of Okawa, Mayeda deceitfully maintains herself as the person at the front desk. She offers nothing but grace, calmness and welcoming. She is also the one in charge of making sure Okawa knows of everyone who comes in.
Mayeda manages the front desk with grace, serenity and hospitality. Through her, Okawa knows of everyone who comes in.
Mayeda, in fact, does not 'deceitfully maintain herself as the person at the front desk.' As far as the adventure makes us aware, she is the person at the front desk, all the time. She's deceitful in other ways to be sure, (she's a succubus after all) but by George, as a desk manager she is impeccable!

Also, 'grace, calmness and welcoming.' Calmness is also a noun, and therefore a grammatical choice, but can be substituted with 'calm' or even better with 'serenity' to keep it from tasting awkward. 'Welcoming' is a gerund or participle, not a noun, and is best replaced with 'hospitality,' though figures of speech such as 'open arms' also work, just not as well in lists like these. From 44 words to 19, from four clauses to two.

Read-Aloud 2
‘Lowly croaking from their pond, you observe two seemingly innocent toads, both of which are looking at you with an intense look, though it is also filled with frog-like indifference.’
'Croaking from their pond, two toads fix you an intense look.'
A bunch of confusing choices here. First, the toads are 'seemingly' innocent. This author uses seeming as a crutch, as noted in the prior post, but here it raises too many questions. First, I dare you to find a group that will accept anything as 'innocent' after their GM describes it as such. Second, what could it mean for the toads to only seem innocent? This is read aloud text in which the GM serves as the PCs' eyes and ears, so this indicates the toads' innocence is a façade through which the players can see. Third, there are no innocent toads, just as there are no innocent ducks.

Fourth, another instance of a second person action, 'you observe.' This might seem innocuous. You're telling the PCs what they see, after all, and the injunction against second person actions exists to prevent GMs from assuming player agency. But in fact, it should still be avoided in this case, as the GM is meant to be the players' eyes and ears, to give as accurate and relevant an understanding of their environment as possible, and not to draw attention to this fact, thus creating unnecessary distance. 

Is that petty? Yes, incredibly so. Finally, the last bit about 'frog-like indifference' just sounds ridiculous when paired with an intense stare, though if you really wanted to you could keep it in. Just replace it with 'toady' or 'froggy' indifference, which highlights the humor here. From 30 words to 11, demonstrating that even the shorter descriptions can be dramatically cut back with little loss.

Read-Aloud 3
‘Majestic and yet frightening, the back of this large courtyard gives way to a gigantic skull, the nature of which you are unsure, but it is most likely demonic. It seems to lead way into a dark, deep cave, but you see it has mostly been sealed off with well-placed rocks and planks of wood. Yet, some small cracks are ever apparent, to such an extent that you can see a bat resting at the top of the skull. You are unsure what it’s waiting for, but it is there, ever-watchful.’
'At the back of the snowy courtyard stands a house-sized demonic skull. The cavernous mouth is sealed off with rocks and planks, yet small cracks poke through. A bat rests atop the skull, ever-watchful.'
'Majestic and yet frightening' are conclusions for the PCs to come to themselves, our old friend 'seeming' returns, and, most strangely, I can't tell for the life of me how the small cracks in the mouth seals have anything to do with the bat which rests atop the skull. And again, 'You are unsure what it’s waiting for,' is a conclusion for the PCs. 

Also worth noting, the skull as shown on the map is almost the size of the bathhouse itself, and really ought to be mentioned when the party first enters the area, preferably in an overview. From 91 words to 35.

Read-Aloud 4

‘As you lay waste to the final remains of the demonic presence around you, you begin (sic) the rapid sound of sandals stepping on stone and snow. From behind you, you notice a beautiful female figure. Despite her age, there is no doubt this woman is still within her prime. A mane of beautiful silver-white hair descends upon her shoulders and her stunning, perfectly-symmetrical face. She comes towards all of you with a concerned look. “Are you alright?” she asks, visibly frightened. “I am Mother Okawa. Are you hurt?” She says, looking around frantically.’


'As the last of the demonic host is destroyed, a beautiful, silver-haired woman rushes towards you. She is doubtless in her prime despite her age, and a concerned look mars her perfectly symmetrical face. She looks around frantically and asks, visibly frightened, "I am Mother Okawa. Are you hurt?"'

Coming right after combat, this read aloud is liable to give the players whiplash. I know Thanatos and Eros are kissing cousins, but I don't think this is what Freud had in mind. Give your players a break before foisting your MILF NPCs on them, please. The dialogue is also so on-the-nose and generic as to be unintentionally hilarious, but I'm not expecting much more.

But since I'm trying to stick as close to the original as possible, stitch the clauses together, cut filler, and use forward dialogue tags, you'll be fine. 93 words to 49.

Read-Aloud 5
‘With a quickened pace and a gentle step, Mother Okawa takes you to the side of the main building you had made your way into originally. She unlocks a sliding door, before leading you inside what you instantly recognize to be a small kitchen. The smells are intense and poignant and there barely is enough room for one person, let alone the whole lot of you. Despite that, she locks the door behind you with a sigh. “I feel much safer talking in private. I no longer know who to trust and who to be weary (sic) of. I must show you something.” She utters those words, before she begins searching around frantically.’
'Mother Okawa leads you to the side of the bathhouse and into her cramped kitchen, smothered in intense and pungent scents. She locks the door, sighs, and searches about frantically. "I feel much safer talking in private. I no longer know whom to trust and of whom to be wary. I must show you something."'
Calling the smells 'poignant' isn't actually incorrect, but it is an archaic use of the word, so I would still replace it with 'pungent.' Overly lengthy and awkward phrasing abounds. You really don't need as much exposition as you think you do. Also, it's 'whom to be wary of', not 'who.' Quick test: Who did it? He did it. Whom do you trust? I trust him. 112 words to 55

Read-Aloud 6
‘You push through the harsh weather and feel the distant storm approaching. Due to the clouds, you’re unsure if you’re close to nightfall or not, but what you are sure of is that soon enough, a storm will come, so you have to push through before it catches you out.’
'The weather grows harsher and blocks the sky. A storm is coming.'
This read aloud is repeating itself to hide that there's almost nothing here. The storm is getting closer and you can't tell the time of day. That's what 50 words get spent on. The directive to push through before the storm catches the party out comes from the GM as GM, not the GM as player eyes and ears, and should not be in read aloud. Also, there's no choice in how to proceed, no consequences for choosing to push on or take it slow, it's just a trigger for saving throws. 50 words to 12.

Read-Aloud 7
‘As you continue on, you begin to hear the wind picking up. You see as icy fog gathers around you and the only things distinguishable in the darkness here and there are icicles of sorts, set up almost like outcroppings which one could hold onto to push themselves forward.’
The wind picks up and icy fog gathers. The world is dark and indistinct except for icicles here and there.

This is pretty heavy handed. The icicles are actually ice mephits, and the GM wants to bait the players into grabbing onto them, so that they can have a 'gotcha!' moment. Though the ice mephits attack immediately anyway, so, again, there's no choice here. Show me a group that falls for this and I'll eat my shoe. 49 words to 20. 

GM Text 2
In order to find the cave, the party must now make a final push through the storm. They must all make a DC 16 Wisdom (Perception) check. If at least one of the party members succeeded, they notice a large outcropping of rock, which seems to indicate a cave entrance akin to that which Okawa described. 
GM NOTE: In the sad situation where all your players fail this check, simply have them make another DC 15 Constitution saving throw, taking 2d8 cold damage on a failure. Then, allow them to try the check again. Repeat the process until they succeed. Hopefully this won’t take too many tries, or someone might die.
I know I said I was going to stick to just criticizing the writing, but this sort of design is galling. It's thankfully permissive, as only one party member needs to make the check, but that doesn't make it good design. If you're deliberately making the check so easy that only the unluckiest parties will fail more than a couple times, why require the check, let alone call for repeats? Ah, there's the angry rhetorical questions creeping back in.

The answer is that the author has seen this sort of thing elsewhere and feels compelled to add mechanical elements at every stage. It's the RPG design cargo cult rearing its ugly head.

Here's my alternate version:
As the party makes the final push through the storm and searches for the cave, call for a DC 16 Wisdom (Perception) check. If at least one succeeds, they locate the entrance. Otherwise, the lowest-rolling PC breaks through the ice above the cavern, and must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or fall to the floor below and take 2d6 bludgeoning damage.
I'm still not happy with it as a piece of design, but it limits the punishment to the party and allows failure to move the game forward in a humorous way.

GM Text 3
Within every chamber, they can choose to inspect and look around with a DC 14 Intelligence (Investigation) check, but they won’t find anything like the amulet. If they choose to just perceive, they can make a DC 14 Wisdom (Perception) check, which will reveal a sound coming from the back part of the cave, like that of a consistent pulse.
This is bizarre in a number of ways. First, because the amulet is not hidden. It's in a puzzle room at the end of the cave, which is one of the chambers of course, and is mentioned in the read aloud for that room. The purpose of that sentence seems (because I do not have access to MonkeyDM's thought process, so seeming is a valid choice here) to be to instruct the GM that, if the party starts rolling Investigation checks in the rooms, they should not find the amulet. Because it isn't there. Which brings me to question why they would be rolling to begin with. Either this is written with the assumption that PCs roll their own checks whenever they feel like it, which is wrong and dumb and not kosher, or it is assumed that the PCs will want to search for the amulet in every room (a valid assumption) and that the GM will call for a check, with a DC set by the GM text, which nevertheless has no chance of success and does not uncover any unintended objects either.

And then, the party can actually discover something if they choose to perceive instead of investigate, as though, in this context, that's a distinction with any player-side difference at all. Which it isn't. And, by the way, the only thing they can discover is a pointer yelling at them to go to the end of the very linear cave. Which 100% of parties will do anyway. 

Read-Aloud 8
‘The moment you walk in, the first thing you notice is quite a large skull, bestial in nature, which looks to be picked clean of any muscle, flesh or anything of the like. Bits of it seem scratched and broken, but you are unsure of the source.’
Keep in mind, this is in the same room as the previous GM text, ie the first room the party walks into. This should have been in the previous read aloud. Here's how it plays out at the table: the party walks into the cave, get a mountain of read aloud dumped on their heads, get the whole business about a sound at the back of the cave, and then the GM says, 'wait, shit' and narrates the read aloud describing the first thing they notice in the room they were already in. I'm not even going to correct this one.

GM Text 4
Moving through, every creature must make a DC 14 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. On a failed check, they scratch themselves against the rocks and take 1d4 slashing damage. 
GM NOTE: The damage is low, but this will help ease in the dramatic tension of this tunnel being narrow and them not knowing what is at the other end.
That's not what dramatic tension is, and even if it was, you wouldn't want to discharge it on random checks. The mere act of describing a narrow corridor and not knowing what's on the other side does not generate tension at the table. Just cut this.

Read-Aloud 9
‘Past the tunnel, in a small, circular chamber, you find what can only be described as the remnants of bone marrow, the contents of which are leaking into a natural pool formed on the stone. You are unsure, once again, what creature has caused this, but the bones are incredibly large. Whatever creature calls this place its own, it’s not friendly.’
'Cracked bones spill their marrow into a pool in the center of the circular chamber.'
The creature, incidentally, is a winter wolf, and it must be the dumbest wolf I've ever heard of to leave perfectly good marrow spilling onto the floor. Is this conspicuous consumption? Was it planning to invite its wolf buddies over later and wanted them to know how successful a hunter it was? 61 words to 15. 


That's as much of Part 1 as I'm willing to go through. We reliably cut between a half and two thirds of read aloud text without losing critical information or texture, and found that GM text was often inconsistent or perverse.

If I was hired to doctor this module for real, would I run the reworked version at my table? Likely not, unless it's a playtest group. The hook and concept are basic, the adventure itself is formulaic and has little soul, and it contains no notable choices or moments for negotiation. Its conceptual density is low. It has... a convoluted puzzle? Quasits disguised as small animals? If you gave me the pitch, "An oni runs a bathhouse and manipulates adventurers," and told me to run my Saturday night game based on that, I'd likely hit similar beats. 

Again, it bears mentioning that this module was gifted to me by an active player in two of my games, who saw it featured prominently on the markteplace, assumed it was of good quality on that basis, and wanted me to have more resources at my disposal as a GM. This is the sort of content that reaches the front page. People clearly worked very hard on this, especially the artists and whoever engineered the inbuilt dynamic lighting, but the adventure it dresses up is not worth the effort. 

I suspect this exists for the sake of the cartographer more than anyone else, and they are very nice maps to be sure. I'd consider buying some of them for my own Roll20 games. But I'd rather not have to deal with the fiction that this is a coherent and worthwhile adventure instead of a map pack. That's also likely why these adventures get so promoted by the site, maps are porn for GMs

If you've stuck with me long enough to read this far down, heed my words. If you're making your own module, get a critical pair of eyes on your work. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I will do this if you ask me to, no charge. Hell, I am doing that now for a small 3rd party publisher. 

Demand more from your paid modules.