The Building of an Empire (or “How to write a module”)
by 
Rich Staats


Copyright 1995 by Rich Staats

	The applause lifted Jane and buoyed her up.   One by one each player stood, and there was not a 
dry eye in the house.  They laughed.  They cried.  Again and again Jane bowed and attempted to stem the 
ovation.  What was this?  The party leader was giving her roses!!!  This was the most successful 
RuneQuest session she had ever run!  *BZZZZZZZZ*  The obnoxious, metallic buzz of  the alarm clock 
jostled Jane unpleasantly from a most enjoyable dream!

	Every gamemaster dreams about running a session as successful as the one experienced by Jane in 
her dream.  Although we may never realize that dream, there are things which we can do to make the 
gaming sessions more enjoyable for the gamemasters and the players.

	In this article we will examine tricks and techniques for constructing modules which will make the 
task of gamemastering more enjoyable and fulfilling.  If you are a novice gamemaster or a player who is 
considering running a couple of sessions for the first time, you will find this article a useful source of time 
tested tips.  If you are a seasoned GM then there will likely be one or two tidbits in this article which you 
may not have tried before, or the methodology might appeal to you.   

	We will assume that the readers are comfortable with the language of role-playing (e.g. PC, NPC, 
d100, etc.)  There are a few terms used uniquely within this article which require some clarification.  By a 
session we mean a single period of gaming.  Typically a session lasts between three to six hours.  In this 
article, an adventure is a role-playing session or series of sessions using the same characters throughout 
with definite beginning, middle and ending. A campaign is a series of connected sessions where the 
characters accomplish something which could not have been done in one adventure. A tie-in connects two 
plot threads or regions which were not previously related.  A maguffin is a plot device or thread 
specifically designed to incite player interest.

	Modules can be divided into two categories, one-ups (or stand alones) and campaign modules. A 
one-up is a module designed to be played singly without any forethought to connect it with any other 
modules from either the past or in the future.  Frequently the GM supplies the players with pre-generated 
characters for a one-up.  Nearly all tournament modules are one-ups.  Sometimes the players are common 
between one-ups; you will find this in Troupe style role-playing groups (i.e. groups where all the players 
take turns GMing).  

	A campaign module is a part of a greater whole.  The module might be just a portion of a single 
adventure, or the module might be a morsel of a grand campaign.  The campaign module can perform 
many functions.  It might be a maguffin to spur the players’ interests.  The module might be designed to 
develop a particular NPC and allow the party to know this campaign lynch pin better, or the module might 
be designed to give the party the key information or equipment it needs to perform some greater good in 
the future.

	Consider a one-up to be like a short story while a campaign module is like a chapter in a novel.  
They are both about the same length, but the approach used in each is radically different.  A one-up must 
have a very definite beginning, middle and end whereas a campaign module can take much for granted.  A 
one-up has more latitude in what the GM is allowed to portray and do though.  In the campaign module the 
GM must be ever mindful of maintaining some level of consistency between earlier modules and making 
the proper tie-ins with what is yet to come.

	Typically the GM knows in advance whether he is preparing a one-up or a campaign module, but 
no matter which kind the GM is writing, both types of modules have some common elements.  Modules 
must have plenty of descriptive words.  Noted game designer Sandy Petersen says that he tries to include at 
least three senses in each session.  He does this through his descriptions.  A common adage in the business 
of professional writing is “show, don’t tell.”  Consider the succeeding two descriptions of the same room.

	GM:  You see something horrible!
	Player:  What do we see?!?
	GM:  Something ghastly in a room.  It is so bad you just want to run away!
	Player:  No I don’t!  Sigfried draws his sword and marches boldly in!

Contrast that with the following.

	GM:  The door slowly swings inward with a loud and piercing squeal of protesting rusted hinges.  
Any hope of stealth was lost, but the screech of the tortured metal pales compared to the ghastly contents of 
the room.  A fetid stench assails your nostrils.  The torches you are carrying wane and flicker in the fouled 
air.  The dark within the confines of the room seems to waiver and pulse.  Wisps of black and charnel gray 
quiver and seem drawn toward the party.  The basalt flagstones begin to fade as something, the darkness, 
begins to surge forward.  A harsh whining sound emanates from the center of the darkness.  It seems to be 
calling your names.  The song is a hideous parody of the lullabies sung to you on your mother’s knee.  It 
beckons you to come forward.  The dark fears not your steel, and an icy chill grips the air as it surges 
forward faster and faster with the certainty and promise of death.  The comforting light of the outside world 
seems far, far away as the first tentacles of night reach out to embrace you.
	Player:  We run!
	GM:  But, the room, don’t you want . . .
	Player:  Are you DEAF!  WE RUN!  EVERYONE RUN!!!

	The second key element of any module is that there must be some type of reward for the players.  
The amount of reward should be proportional to the amount of effort the players are required to expend to 
get to the reward.  Here campaign modules and one-ups vary.  In a one-up, the GM knows exactly what is 
required to get to the prize when he writes the module, and it is fairly easy to judge the proper award.  In 
the campaign module though the GM might offer a reward for a relatively modest challenge  if the PC’s 
have had a relatively difficult time of it getting to this module, or the GM might want the party to have to 
truly prove itself if the past modules proved too easy for the party.   Unfortunately there are no golden 
formulas or easy methods to describe what is a reasonable reward.  The GM must use good common sense 
and attempt to determine the consequences of giving the players the reward planned.  For a one-up, the 
ramifications are less critical than they are in a campaign module.  It is easy to err on the side of over 
indulgence.  What might the results of everyone becoming immortal or becoming a godling? 

	Reward comes in many varieties.  It might be a scrap of yearned for knowledge, but it could 
equally be the favor of an influential noble the PC’s have long sought.   Certainly, gold and treasure have 
their place as awards, but a glass of water is much greater reward in a blistering desert to a struggling 
character.  Love can be an award of sorts as can the clearing of a name or the gaining of allegiance.  The 
nature of the awards is an area of great creativity for the GM.   Ensure the awards will be understood by the 
party.  The best types of rewards are those that offer some immediate gratification to the weary party, and 
then the rewards continue to grow in value or import as time goes on.  The book that the old man gives the 
party is a sign of friendship, trust and respect, but it also ends up holding the spell that will release the great 
champion three sessions later.  

	As one last note in this area, attempt to reward the players as well as rewarding the characters.  If 
you know that Anita Jones has wanted her PC, Claude, to be the champion of Schmealville for an extended 
period, it is a reward to Anita as well as Claude to give him the honor.  Try to determine what is most dear 
to the players, and then use this information to give meaningful rewards.

	Hand in hand with rewards goes the third major concept in module design of conflict or challenge.  
In a tournament module, time is nearly always a challenge for the players as much as it is for the characters.  
There is a sense of racing against the clock.  Time limits are one type of challenge, but the list of potential 
conflicts is endless.  Rivalries between the party and another group is an excellent challenge.  This is 
particularly true if the rival band becomes more skilled as the party does.  Nature and natural obstacles are 
superb challenges, because the players will be able to visualize the conflicts the party faces.  Conflicts are 
best if they must be overcome in stages.  The conflict should require the party to show ingenuity or to have 
to grow in wisdom or prowess to overcome.  Multi-part challenges work well where the party discovers 
like a Chinese box puzzle that the difficult part is yet to come are great for keeping interest high.  On the 
other hand, facing a series of impossible challenges soon becomes passé’.  Although you do not want the 
conflicts to be too easy, you do not ever want the party as a whole to lose hope.

	A time tested challenge is that of the distraction.  Offer the party a chance to be side tracked.  The 
offshoot might well offer some sought after reward, but it puts the party in the position of having to decide 
between multiple courses of action all of which appear to be of  tremendous interest.  A cleverly placed 
distraction can be the motivation of a whole plot element in a campaign.

	The area of plot development is the fourth major element in module design.  There must be some 
type of coherent story line in the module.  The players are going to want to know “why the lizardmen are 
continuing to attack in droves?”  As the module designer, you must have some rational reasons why events 
take place in the module.  In the campaign module you have the additional challenge of having to be 
consistent across the adventures.  Players will seize onto differences between sessions, remembering details 
you may long have forgotten (e.g. “Hmmmm...that lizardman is wearing a red bandanna, he must be the 
leader” whereas you just added this for flare this time).  Plots must have definite beginnings which are 
coherent in the context of the game world.  The plots must have middles where challenges are presented 
and met, and the plots must have clear endings where the conflicts are resolved.  Volumes could be written 
on plots and plotlines, but we will just caution the module designer to understand what is going on in the 
module before he writes it. 

	Point of view is the fifth key point in writing modules.  Remember that you must always describe 
things in the module from the players’ collective viewpoint.  Don’t give the players a bird’s eye view of a 
village if there is no way they could know that information.  (Note,  a bird’s eye view is certainly 
appropriate if the PC’s are familiar with the town or have some way of knowing the information.)  Try not 
to shift view points in the middle of a module.  If the party starts suddenly getting information from a 
previously untapped and unknown source, there must be some explanation.  A linkboy should not suddenly 
be spouting information which would be known only to a master wizard unless there is a good explanation 
for it, and the players must be convinced before such an occurrence is introduced.  For example, you may 
have previously dropped hints that there was something unusual about the lad.

	You must be able to weave these elements together, and the loom for doing this in the module is 
the scene.  Something important should happen to the PC’s in every scene in the module. A scene should 
have some element of conflict, and every scene should offer some type of reward.  The reward can be 
something as mundane as the joy of defeating a foe, or it can be as extreme as saving the universe, but 
either way the award must be present.  The PC’s must face a challenge to get to the reward. A scene should 
have a clearly defined description for the party (what you want the players to know) and for the GM (the 
encompassing view which explains items the GM needs to know to keep the scene in its proper context).  
Generally, the description of the scene should explicitly state or at least hint at the physical surroundings, 
the possible hazards and the potential rewards available.  

	The plotline, conflicts, rewards and scenes are the building blocks for modules, but how do they 
fit together?  In the next section, we will explore a methodology for putting these elements together in an 
enjoyable and beneficial way.

	The first step in designing a module is to determine whether you are doing a one-up or a campaign 
module.  If you are doing a campaign module, make a list of the previously encountered NPCs and areas 
the party will encounter in this module and determine what types of circumstances these encounters will 
arise under.  Be especially considerate of situations you can use to shed new light on a place or person to 
flesh out them out for the players.  

	The next step is to determine the genre you are going to use for the module.  Is it going to be a 
creepy thriller, or is the module going to be a playful romp through the fairy woods?  The genre will 
determine the tone of the module.  The tone in turn will influence the images you describe (e.g. dark and 
gloomy or light hearted and gay).  Some plotlines are more suited for some genres than others.  For 
example, a visit to the Smurf village would not be a good place to use the stop the hideous disfiguring 
plague motif.  (Although it would be *interesting*  ;-)  )

	At this point, you need to carefully determine what you want the desired outcome of the module to 
be.  What items do you want the party to have gained or lost?  Is there a particular piece of knowledge you 
want the party to have acquired?  Do you want the party to better understand an NPC or an area of your 
gaming world?  Would you like to introduce a new PC into the group?  Would you like this to be a break 
from the normally tension filled campaign?  There are hosts of desirable outcomes.  It is important to 
backwards plan the module to accommodate the outcomes you have in mind. 

	Next, establish your major scenes and determine a time frame for the session.  Decide where the 
big finale will take place.  Ascertain where the key NPCs, items or fragments of knowledge will be gained 
by the party to allow them to prevail in the finale.  Spend most of your time in the module design process 
on this step.  A good rule of thumb is two major scenes per hour of game time for the session.  So, if you 
are planning a three hour session then it would be wise to figure on doing between five to seven major 
scenes.   Use the elements of description, plot, challenge and reward to craft each scene.

	Then you must link the major scenes.  You can use verbal shifts, smaller scenes or chases to get 
from one major scene to another.  An example of a verbal shift would be “the party spends the next two 
weeks in the library poring over moldering tomes to determine how to send B’thakchlunaga back to his 
own infernal plane.”  A smaller scene could be a minor tiff while traveling or a “chance” meeting of a 
minor NPC.  Chase scenes can work well in action or adventure genres or close to the big conclusion in a 
horror genre.  Avoid abrupt changes as they tend to prevent the suspension of disbelief.  It is especially 
important to be gentle with scene changes after major conflicts in the plotline.  For example, try to take 
breaks in the gaming session during minor scenes or verbal transitions.  

	Last, flesh out the villains and major NPCs.  Ever major NPC should have at least three 
characteristics that make them unique.  Examples could be: unique dress (do ALL your villains where 
black?), a peculiar speech pattern, some unusual hatred or phobia, a weakness or some lovable foible.  You 
want the players to see the NPC in their minds as they play through the session.

	Modules should start off with blockbuster openings!  You should grip the attention of the players 
as well as the interests of the PC’s.   Begin with lots of vivid description.  If you have hand-outs, try to give 
some of these to the party right away at the beginning.  Appearances by major opposing NPCs are very 
useful for opening sequences.  You are trying to establish the reasons the party wants to explore your 
module.  It must hold some interest for the PC’s.  There must be some clear objective laid out.  This could 
be money, power, love or any of the other rewards we have discussed.  There must be some semblance of a 
methodology the party can use to reach the goal (e.g. the party must slay the dragon, the party must 
discover the powder of Ibn Gatiz in the Dreamlands, the party must drink more beer and pretzels than any 
of the competing fraternities).

	If possible, before you run a module for record, do several playtests of it.  While you write the 
module you will be thinking of things the party could do to ignore or circumvent the plotline or of things 
that could potentially cause the party problems.  Unfortunately, if there is a flaw in the module, the party 
will find it.  There is no way to predict what mischief the party will get into once they start the module, and 
it is assured that you will never, ever have had the slightest clue this would happen.  (Time for a personal 
insight on this one . . .  In one module I introduced a circus into a town.  It was just designed to be a little 
added color.  The circus came up to one of the party members who was a minor noble asking for his 
patronage.  The party decided to go to the circus.  We were still OK.  One of the acts was a knife throwing 
act, and the patronizing PC was an expert knife thrower; so, the player decided to have his PC demonstrate 
his prowess to the audience.  Unfortunately, the PC screwed up and sliced the Duke’s wife apart.  Ouchy!  
The party was accused of an assassination attempt which they later overcame, but the circus was driven out 
of the country in disgrace.  Several months later in real time, we were having a session where the party 
noticed a group of clowns observing them from the shadows.  You guessed it!  The circus ran across the 
party quite by accident, but the circus performers were determined to have their revenge.  Tiola Moldre will 
never be the same!  There were literally times during the session where the ten of us were laughing so hard 
we could not go on.)

	When you playtest the module, be willing to kill your “children.”  By that I mean, be willing to let 
your neat and keen ideas pass if they cause problems for the group attempting to go through the module.  
Perhaps by giving the party better prepared, you can overcome the difficulties, but never overlook the 
possibility that your idea just won’t work in the context of the module.

	On the other hand, be firm with plot consistency.  Do not be so willing to change that the module 
becomes an unguided miss match of ideas and images.  In particular, look for reasonable ways of gently 
guiding wayward parties back to the main scenes of the module.  Modules do not have to be linear affairs, 
but there are main scenes, and somehow you must ensure the party reaches those or at least gets the 
rewards it requires to overcome the obstacles it does face.  

	If you have done a good job laying things out in the opening, the rest of the module should flow 
fairly smoothly.  

	Jane wearily stretched.  Well, at least it was Saturday, and she had gotten to sleep in a bit.  This 
afternoon she had a module planned.  It was going to be great!  There was this one villain . . . he had kind 
of a limp, and he spoke with . . .

[Let the games begin!!!]

:-)