Since I don’t know what to write in an Afterword for my releases, I tend to ignore the story behind the scenes of many of my Dungeon Masters Guild releases. Modrons, Mephits & Mayhem was an absurdly long time in the making, however, and as such it accumulated a bit of a tale that I feel is worth telling, especially since it reveals my adventure-writing process.
So strap in for a short but revealing ride down 18 months of love and heartache…
…it’s not really that sappy. Trust me. But all the same, here it is.
To see Modrons, Mephits & Mayhem reach position #42 on the Most Popular DMs Guild Titles after only a couple days in the wild is extremely gratifying, and a bit humbling. It’s my first adventure release on Dungeon Masters Guild, and — for the business nerds out there — I released it on a Friday, which everyone on DMsGuild tells me is a great day for releases but has notoriously plagued me. (I’ll actually never do a Friday release again for the foreseeable future.)
What’s more is how damn long it took for this adventure to see the light of day. Not because I’m a slow writer (I kinda am) or because it was particularly hard to pull together (in many ways it really wrote itself) but because it is both the culmination of a long-standing love of two properties — the Planescape campaign setting and the Myst video game franchise — and was the victim of a hard drive crash that killed the first almost fully completed draft of the game. That sounds silly in this day and age of automatic backups, but it was just a dumb oversight: I legitimately thought I’d backed up the files. Lesson learned.
I use one and only one thing as the springboard to adventure writing: a list of underutilized monsters. That’s it. I refer to that list, pick a couple random monsters that I haven’t seen enough of in a while, or that I haven’t used myself in the most recent campaign or two, and start researching those monsters with my patented 2-step process:
- I read the Monster Manual entry (or whatever appropriate book they come from).
- I google the monster. I don’t always stick to strictly D&D resources.
After about 2-3 minutes, inspiration of some kind strikes and that’s what I go with. Often, that means just adding to an incredibly long and growing list of adventure “elevator pitches.” Modrons‘ was:
Modrons create a facility to experiment on flumphs, come face-to-face with the moral quandary of wiping out a tribe, and abandon said facility, leaving its elemental defenses with nothing to do. That’s when the githyanki arrive.
Once I have the elevator pitch, I think about something that will keep me focused: a direction. It’s one thing to have an elevator pitch, which to me is like having a goal, but it’s another to have something that tonally matches what I’m looking for. It gives me more of a visual esthetic to shoot for, which is going to inform how I describe the region or dungeon and what sorts of challenges I’m going to place in that playing field.
I keep bringing up the Planescape campaign setting and the Myst video game franchise with regards to Modrons, Mephits & Mayhem because that’s what informed my direction. Specifically, I wanted the elements of those two things that sang to me the most.
Factions. From Planescape I wanted to involve complex factions: groups that weren’t always clearly aligned any given way, and often had competing goals even when they were aligned against some common threat. You’ll see this in the titular modron and mephits:
***SPOILER*** Roguelike the rogue modron thinks he can get back into Primus’ good graces by leading a band of chaotic mephits out of the Prime Material Plane and back to the Elemental Chaos, thereby restoring some amount of order to one small section of the multiverse. The mephits, of course, don’t exactly see this as their goal, and instead use the modron as a means to cause havoc along their journey to facility XK-247. For instance, the magma mephit Iggylack burns down a barn, and then there’s Canker the smoke mephit who is secretly aligned with the githyanki. ***/SPOILER***
Puzzles That Encourage Action. I’d played Myst once before, but my main interaction with it was all 9,000 hours of Dilandau3000’s Myst-related Let’s Play videos on YouTube (I’m kidding: it’s more like 90,000 hours). I could go on and on about those videos, but the points that struck me were that there was so much history to uncover in a desolate wasteland of archaic ruined technology, and that no matter what you pressed, pulled, or pushed, there were results that didn’t automatically end in death, or even combat. Ever. So I created a ton of control panels, machinery, and interactions within the facility that really no one currently knew how to deal with, but that could drive the players to alter the landscape, set traps for their enemies, create new chokepoints, unleash rampaging elementals, or create new hazards to mask their movements and slow their enemies. And if the players don’t figure it out, the facility’s defenders certainly will and even the githyanki might!
Dunno if this makes me a cheater, but I steal maps (legally; I use the word “steal” loosely). I can’t draw maps for squat, don’t understand real-world scales worth beans, and generally couldn’t recall the layout of any sort of building from memory even if a gun were held to my head. So when I’ve got my inspiration and my direction, I simply sort through online resources to find maps that make sense and shoehorn whatever ideas I’ve got into that.
It’s cool because the maps are (hopefully) already good, so in a way they add to the inspiration and provide further direction for me. It’s sometimes tough because it means I have to change or kill an idea because it no longer makes sense within the confines of whatever maps I can find. But hey, there’s other adventures to write, so maybe those ideas will resurface again. Or you could ask people to draw you a custom map for some money, and I’ve done that, too, but it often requires a lot of back-and-forth and direction that is tough when you are directionally- and scale-challenged like me. Best to just use what already exists.
At the end of the process of forming the outline for my adventure, I tried to leave the adventure wide open for innumerable permutations. I failed to spell out all the possibilities in the adventure, but in a way I’m okay with that because I’m hoping folks that play through this adventure discover dozens of ways to proceed through it, or to continue it beyond the confines spelled out within its pages. I’m really hoping people surprise the hell out of me, just like my players always do when they’re at the top of their game. That’s what D&D is all about to me.
But this article would be all reminiscing and self-gratification if it weren’t for the fact that I can reveal some of my thoughts on the permutations of this adventure. For the DMs who like replayability or who want a truly different experience from a published adventure, I’ve got a few gems that might inspire, or might lead to even better ideas than what I’ve put out into the ether. Here’s a couple:
Changing Allegiances. In this module, there are the titular modrons and mephits, who aren’t really allies, but neither are they enemies at the moment. Then there are the defenders of this mountaintop facility. After that there are the githyanki interlopers. Finally, there’s the adventuring party caught in the middle of it all. Everyone has their own motivations, and DMs can use this to add endless replayability to this adventure by simply altering who sides with who and at what time. Or giving each group different knowledge of the facility’s defenses.
Using the Monsters. This module is filled with bizarre personalities, so it can also be much more of a stealth mission or roleplay scenario for the PCs: lower level characters who are better equipped for stealth operations can actually hold their own quite well if they work with Tama-Hanesh and the other facility defenders (the treant is another one) and use the various control stations to move boiling water, aquatic monsters, elementals, and other creatures around the facility. You could even have the players run the monsters during fights with the githyanki forces, keeping the players’ characters themselves out of harm’s way but not losing out on all the fun combat situations of the adventure. There’s a potentially limitless supply of fire elementals; just sayin’!
Total War. Get the githzerai involved to a greater degree, and/or the flumphs. There’s talk in the module of how to get some of the githzerai to join the party, but you could easily get the flumphs to join up, too. There’s so much going on that you can turn this module into a full on wargame scenario where the githzerai and flumphs assault XK-247 to kill the githyanki, but the defense mechanisms of the facility (controlled by the couatl Tama-Hanesh) indiscriminately kill both sides. The PCs could just be a crack team of infiltrators hoping to shut down the facility’s defenses or turn them against the githyanki while battle with the residents of Margrim Abbey or the flumph village rages outside.
Establish a Kingdom. Old school D&D had a whole “end game” where the players build strongholds and rule their kingdoms; it’s a part of the D&D experience that at times falls by the wayside and often gets turned into either an accounting game or a “how does the DM destroy our castle this week” scenario when the group gets sick of sitting in thrones for weeks on end. But how cool would it be for the players to make a stronghold of this facility with ancient machinery, and lure goblinoids and orcs from the High Moor to die in its halls? Or kick down the elevator and take the flying castle section (Level 3: The Sky Lab) for a spin across the continent of Faerun?
Shake It Up!
These are the sorts of things that this module can open up to your players. Not to mention the possibility of flooding a huge section of the Forest of Wyrms region, or burying Boareskyr Bridge under a million gallons of Elemental Plane-sourced water. If you really want to shake up your Forgotten Realms campaign, this module’s got you covered.