The past few days, I've been thinking more about the subject of adventure modules and considered their uses, the kind of appeal they have, and the ultimate impact they have on our games. Some of this has been brought on by a couple of blog posts recently such as GROGNARDIA blog.
On a personal level, I appreciate them and I do get quite a bit of use out of them even if a lot of them don't immediately suit my needs. I like them well enough and an adventure module which is not tied to any particular campaign story arc has a lot more use to me than one that does. I, like many people who run or have run various campaigns don't necessarily want a huge world-shifting plot which may wind up having far-reaching consequences to your campaign story-arc. More often than not, if we decide to reach for an adventure module to use, we want to be able to just drop it, use it, and then just move on. A good adventure module may end up being nothing more than 'filler' and if it does, then that's great news!
That said, once you've being running a campaign with a group of players long enough, you begin to get to know their likes and dislikes. I know that, because of my present group, I've had to really cut and gut many an adventure module in order to transform the experience for them into a memorable one. A year or so ago, I ran 'Assault on Blacktooth Ridge' by TLG (for C&C)... it was much condensed and altered in one section to fit the needs of my campaign and tastes of my players. In the end, the spirit of it was very much intact but I know that others in the series I plan on running will require a bit more work. Some adventures are great as written and I've just inserted them without as much as a second thought. Others required a heck of a lot more work but, in the end, the effort was worth it. The thing is that, despite my fondness for using adventure modules, of all the ones I do own, I have used less than 10% of them. I prefer using module as a base simply because they are time savers -- a lot more now than they ever were. Between m 9-5 job, various obligations, and family, the time I purposely set aside to game is valuable.
Once upon a time, I would have considered modules to be more of an optional purchase than anything else. I would focus on buying rulebooks and the odd supplement for my gaming but buy a module when I was *really* curious or otherwise drawn to it. I was also in highschool and had all the time in the world to create my own adventures to use. I just didn't need someone else to write a module for me. Consequently, I never bought many of the earlier TSR modules. That isn't to say I thought they were worthless, there were some I did get and favored as a result such as the 'I Series' -- many of which I bought years ago. They were just a secondary consideration. When I look at other gaming lines, I didn't even bother buying anything other than rulebooks. Circumstances and priorities do change though.
In the past few years, I have become a lot more fond of published adventure scenarios though and some of it is due to the high quality output that certain companies have focused in bringing to market. I know there are some who think modules have always been a sort of 'cash grab' and, in one sense, they are correct. Compared to a typical rulebook, an adventure scenario is a lot easier and less expensive to put out. However, from a business standpoint, it's a terrible model to rely upon.
In a perfect world, the rulebooks could represent a 'razor' -- you put it out at a low price point to encourage sales of your game. But then you put out an array of adventure modules and rules supplements which cost less to put out but the profit margin ends up being higher. These would represent the 'blades'. Multiple modules and supplements specifically tailored to the game bring in a steady flow of income.
Now, in the business of razors and razorblades -- this works wonderfully well and has done so for decades and it's only the electric razor that shifted the scales. This model works very well if you consider video games consoles and video games -- the Sony Playstation and Microsoft XBox series perfectly reflect this model. These consoles initially come out as a loss for the manufacturer but the gap is closed by the sale of video games and accessories. Additionally, they will refine the manufacturing process of the consoles to lower the prices while continuing their sales of games and retain their price point on newer titles.
It just doesn't work for pen and paper based RPGs though. Once the person buys a rulebook and have dice, they don't need to purchase a single other item. Unfortunately for adventure modules, you have the additional problems of lack of re-playability with them unless you run the same scenario for a different group of people. Modules will always work best for new RPGs when people are looking for anything and everything that their new 'favorite' system uses. If you are looking at the long haul though, you need to stand out from the pack.
The d20 boom and bust brought way too much material to the market when the OGL and D&D 3.x was released. If we just look at adventure modules, there was still too much. WOTC was in on the game and put out some decent adventures as well as many other companies. At first, some people didn't give the Dungeon Crawl Classics more than an odd, quizzical look when they first came on the scene but that rapidly changed. Goodman Games was in it for the long haul and Necromancer Games also put out some stellar material back then Their modules and products captured the imagination which is why they've done so well.
It doesn't need to be necessarily 'brilliant' but it needs to stand out. More importantly perhaps is adaptability of the material. The DCC adventures did that very well by providing tips to either scale up or scale down the scenario and remain neutral enough to dump it in the GM's own setting if they wished. At the end of the day, there will always be some people (like me) who will buy adventure modules. If done right, even if it ends up being a 'meat and potatoes' basic style adventure, it could even become a classic in its own right -- much like many early TSR modules, or the earlier DCC modules which are still sought after today.