I think a lot about communication. My MA is in a communications field, my day job is all about figuring out the best ways to communicate and organize information, I’m thinking about getting a Doctorate of Communications Design, and so on. I also think a lot about games. I mean, a lot.
Published adventures (or adventure modules, or whatever you want to call them) are an area that has always, always bugged me. That’s one big reason that I never really got into running them, and even today, I’m much more likely to hack them apart and steal what I want then run them out of the book (though I do have a few favorites.) A big part of the problem for me is that I want adventures that communicate everything you need to know to run the adventure with minimal prep time and minimal disruptions while running it.
One issue, at least with more modern games, is with components. Just as an example, the 4e modules by WotC include the adventure itself and a double-sided poster map, but don’t include a map for every encounter area, and they certainly don’t include miniatures for everything you encounter. Thus, there’s prep work.
The bigger issue for me is how the information is presented, though. Let’s look at the standard model for adventures. As an example, just a simple dungeon. You get an overview map with the interesting areas marked with a key. You can then flip to the areas listed when the PCs get there. Simple enough, right?
Except that since it’s a printed work, it’s linear, but the PCs progression through it is not linear. That leads to flipping around (which is annoying in and of itself) and makes it difficult to have the whole thing come alive. I can miss interesting opportunities for rooms to come together, and miss the consequences of PC actions elsewhere. This in turn limits the design of the dungeon as well.
Imagine a dungeon that shifts as you go through it, depending on the actions of the PCs. One set of switches leads to certain rooms being open, but closed at other times. This could be a nightmare to communicate to a GM who wants to run it, depending on how complex it is, since there’s the limitation that the reader has to understand it.
What’s a potential solution? Hyperlinked adventures, on a computer.
Just at its base level, it would help me immensely to have a screen that includes: the overall dungeon map, the map of the current room, description of the current room, and all relevant stats. I can then click on the overall dungeon map in each room to move to the next one. Plus, you’d have references to other rooms or objects be hyperlinked so I could easily pull up a new tab with whatever that thing is instead of having to flip back and forth between two areas.
That would improve the usability to me of a published adventure right there. But heck, once you’ve gone there, why not go farther? Hyperlink stats and glossary terms. Allow me to click to change “states” in the dungeon, like with the switches example above. (“Click here if the PCs pressed the blue button.”) When I hover over adjacent areas, show me what the room contains. Allow me to easily move things over from adjacent rooms. Going even further, encounters could be tracked within the adventure itself (or exported into some form.)
I have seen some steps in this direction already. Dungeon-A-Day is Monte Cook’s big idea for a reason in that it’s a grand mega-dungeon that exists in hyperlink form, drawing upon the most online-indexed RPG out there: the 3.5/d20 SRD. I also bought an adventure in PDF that had hyperlinks to attached sound effects to play at certain times.
I still don’t think the potential has been fully reached, and won’t be until someone designs an adventure from the ground up with this in mind. And likely, they wouldn’t make up their investment in sales, which is a reason it hasn’t happened yet (to my knowledge.) The other criticism is, at that point, why not just play a computer game?
What I want is all the good parts of DMing, being able to adapt on the fly to players and situations, without annoying fiddly bits that impede the presentation of idea of an adventure to my brain, and I want it to give me the tools to run it. The technology is out there: someone just needs to make it.