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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and the Strange Absence of the Adventure Module

posted Sep 17, 2016, 12:58 AM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Sep 17, 2016, 12:59 AM ]

Looking at the product catalogue for Dungeons & Dragons 6th Edition to date, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that Wizards of the Coast has given up on the adventure module. They’re still publishing pre-fab adventures, but they’re entire campaigns unto themselves — book-length, published as hardcover books at a relatively high price point, and for the most part designed to take characters along the entire length of the development curve. They’re soup-to-nuts GM solutions, not modules.


Adventure modules were a staple of the D&D product line from AD&D through 4E, ever since Gary Gygax wrote “Keep on the Borderlands” as a way of familiarizing players with the rules and assumptions behind the game. “Keep on the Borderlands” had narrative completeness — a reasonable sense of beginning, middle and end. But it wasn’t meant to be the beginning, middle and end for the player characters. It left it to the DM to pick up where it left off. Even linked series of modules, like the now-classic Slavers series (A1-A4) and the Giants series (G1-G3) were not conceived as alpha-to-omega campaigns.

In those days, the prevailing assumption was that a campaign was the DM’s to design. An adventure module was supposed to be exactly that — a module. You could insert it into your own campaign, plastering over the rough edges to make it fit. Or you could play it as a one off. Flexibility was part of the concept, because how you used the product was ultimately up to you. However, one could deduce that WotC has concluded that this is not what the modern D&D player wants, that what the kids want nowadays are products that remove all creative responsibility from the DM.

Is that it? Is that hoe people approach D&D these days? I don’t know. I have finally reached an age where I can’t pretend to know everything that’s going on with the generation of gamers coming up behind me. I’m probably a year or so away from shaking my fist and yelling at kids who have discovered that my lawn os a Pokemon GO node. But I can’t bring myself to believe that the adventure module as we knew it is completely irrelevant all of a sudden. This can’t possibly be so, not in an age when you can keep a huge library of cheaply-bought PDFs on a tablet.

I don’t think that WotC believes it, either. Instead, I suspect that they have concluded that modules are still useful, but because their price point is relatively low, the profit on each unit is not enough to make publishing them worth their time. Furthermore, I suspect that this conclusion led to the 5E OGL and the even bolder move to throw open the Forgotten Realms setting to third-party writers. WotC decided to enter into a symbiotic relationship with third-party writers and publishers who have nimbler business models and can shoulder the risk and labor of creating modules more easily. In return, we get to attach ourselves like remoras to the Dungeons % Dragons brand, and even bask in the glory of its most popular campaign setting.

Wait, did I say, “We?” Well, I did write a bunch of stuff that was published under the 3E OGL, mostly for Alderac Entertainment Group, and I had a blast doing it. There’s no point in pretending that it hasn’t occurred to me to et back into the game, now that the 5E OGL is good and official. All I will say for now is that plans are being laid for Ramen Sandwich to branch out from selling t-shirts. Stay tuned for further announcements.