What are modules?
Modules are typically books or booklets released by sources such as Wizards of the Coast or produced by independent D&D fans and hosted on a variety of sites. A traditional module is one that is intended to be used for a full campaign, or carry players to a higher level (usually level 10 or higher). Modules such as Curse of Strahd are released in full book length, with long descriptions, NPCs to utilize, tables for creating additional flavor and NPCs, maps to copy or use on the table, and a variety of other important aspects to a campaign.
Smaller modules can encompass one-shots or short quests that are designed to level players up. A lot of these shorter modules are popular for DMs in the early stages of campaigns, where lower level characters are a bit too easy to kill off. One shots can also be used for single play use for irregular groups, or can be incorporated into long-standing campaigns depending on the levels of the characters.
How do you use them as a DM?
Modules can be incredibly useful for a starting DM, or even to one that doesn’t have the time to structure a campaign by themselves. The module books will lay out the story, its main characters, and any number of factors that play a role in the plot. They also include descriptions, images, and even maps of the setting that make setting the table easier.
A shorter module will usually feature one map of the primary location, where you are meant to draw the characters so they can encounter the main event of the story. There may be additional images and descriptions that are helpful, and for a medium sized module with multiple potential encounters there may be more than one map. Often in a shorter module, only a few NPCs are given (stats and description, typically) due to the lack of need for more. There is usually a single overarching plot that characters can play with and potentially create new elements to. Treasure, item descriptions, and stat blocks for enemies are generally provided.
A longer module is, naturally, more complex. For something such as Curse of Strahd, which has a rich history in the D&D community as well as a lot of work put into it, the module will have everything from a detailed history of the world for the DM to understand to a variety of potential encounters that may be missed altogether by the characters. For these, as a DM it’s important to read and study everything included. This is because in these longer modules it’s easy for important details and exposition to be lost in the shuffle and the characters to be left out of the loop. As the DM sometimes you have to insert exposition somewhere else because your players don’t know the layout of the module. If they skip over a quest that reveals important information, you can’t force them to go back and complete it so instead you have to be comfortable enough with the module’s story arc to insert that exposition somewhere your players do go.
How do you play them as a player?
As a player, modules can be tricky. First and foremost, long term modules absolutely do not work unless all the players are on board with them. This is because once locked into the story and setting, there isn’t really a way out until things have reached their conclusion. If you decide you don’t want to play in a campaign full of vampires, Curse of Strahd isn’t a viable campaign for you anymore.
Part of approaching modules is determining how your game will be. Will the DM be strict about what conforms to the module’s world? Will your character be based on some of the features of the module (such as unique backgrounds and class options offered)? When I began a campaign playing Curse of Strahd as a player, the situation was unique. I was playing with the DM and no other players and so each of us were creating two characters to form a party of the recommended size. As a result, I got to dictate the direction the party would take and chose to make an evil party. The DM agreed to these terms and adapted aspects of the module to fit an evil party as opposed to a good one.
On another occasion, I attempted to join a module for Waterdeep. The DM was very strict about their interpretation of the rules and the nature of the module. Since the module primarily took place in a city, they refused to allow us to make characters that had a background in nature or the wild, insisting that such characters just wouldn’t work. Additionally, we had to adapt our characters strictly to the lore of Waterdeep which didn’t leave a lot of room for creativity. They also refused to change any rules, situations, encounters, or characters in the original module thus putting us into an encounter in our first session that was over our level as a party and resulted in my character being brain-wiped and functionally dead. It was an unpleasant experience for me as a player and I promptly left the group.
Once the players have agreed to a module, it’s important the as players you look into what you’re allowed to on that module. The setting and history of the area will absolutely impact your character and if you are dedicated to playing the module experience, it’s important your character actually fit the setting. That being said, it’s also important that the module play is fun. If the DM or one or more players don’t seem to be able to adapt to the module in a way they enjoy, it might not be the module for the table.
Modules can definitely be useful and fun! As a DM, I’m looking forward to running a module soon and I’ve definitely utilized single play modules to help move stories along in my campaigns. I haven’t had a whole lot of luck playing modules, but I know that really it comes down to a table and a DM that work together well to make them successful. Modules are particularly useful for DMs that don’t have the energy or time to construct long, thought out campaigns on their own. It absolutely still requires the DM to be creative and utilize the module to its fullest! Modules can also provide valuable information such as stat blocks, pre made NPCs, drawn maps, and more. Ultimately, modules are a useful tool if one wants to use them.