Just so we’re clear, I enjoy a quality on-the-rails linear campaign. I think they hold up well against players who aren’t paying attention to the quest, or players who like to break immersion and flow. They’re also easier to write, and have the power to keep the dungeon master / game moderator on track.
Linear games are usually written from quest to quest, wherein a town or dungeon can’t be left behind until a secret is found or an objective is met. The objectives are presented to the player one after the other, so the direction of the game is always clear, whether it’s a heist, a fight, or a puzzle. This is not the kind of game I am addressing.
This is a Linear game:
As opposed to most Modular games…
In a modular game the GM/DM presents the players with an open world (more or less) where it’s up to the characters to decide where they’ll go and what they’ll do. After the players make their choices the game moderator will reference a pre-designed module for that part of the world, complete with maps, monsters, dungeons, puzzles, etc. If all goes well the players will win the day, collect their loot, and head to the next location, which is usually hinted at or marked on the player’s map, much like an open sandbox video game. And if your experience with the modular RPG framework goes this smoothly, I’d like to know how in the unholy hell you pulled it off.
There are as many types of modular game as there are all-you-can-eat buffets. And just like Izzy’s Pizza, left unchecked your players will overindulge on content until they’re bloated, make themselves sick and dizzy, and vomit all over your game. Both players and game moderators inexperienced with this format may flounder in a game where there isn’t enough story to bind two cities or quests together. The party, left rudderless, may wander off the map, away from your neatly drawn towns, and into the loving arms of the Dark Ones. Or if they’re like my old gaming group, left without a blinking green arrow above their heads to guide them, they may return to the last town they visited, which will henceforth be known as “the scene of the crime”.
Without going into specifics (yet) the two tiny pieces of advice I can offer for starting a modular campaign are as follows:
1) Always Leave Them With Options
It doesn’t matter how the last quest wrapped up, give them options. They could have skipped every clue, avoided maps like they were full of Satan’s moody poetry, and clubbed any NPC who opened their mouth to offer directions. They may have left a path of destruction so wide and bloody that the tale of it could only be told by those unlucky few who spoke ferret, and were tasked by the forest goddess to spread word of the party’s deeds third-hand, in tiny snipets lest the villagers hearing of it vomit uncontrollably. Even if the phrases “no survivors” and “razed to the foundation” are the only ways you can recount their stay at Pleasantdale Village, it should still yield some indicator of where the party might go next.
As a game moderator, if you have all of your map filled in, I.E. you wrote all the questlines and descriptions available for each unique location, then let your players find a map along the way. Or have them encounter a wandering bard who praises the house special at the Lusty Glutton Inn, which is conveniently located at the next unsuspecting town. Or if it’s cyberpunk, they could hack the terminal of a police cruiser for a map of recent criminal activity. Even if it’s as simple as seeing smoke on the horizon, don’t leave your players in the dark. Let them choose between the next village, the big city, or the Dungeon of a Thousand Screams.
2) Separate the Questline from the Over-arcing Plot.
How your players accomplish quests should have far-reaching consequences. If they don’t feel like their actions matter in the grand scheme, they may as well stay at home, skim through the monsters manual, and roll some dice to see if they could statistically cut the teats off three goblins in a row. Without an over-arcing plotline, this is how most modular games feel. They turn into a series of short scenarios. A slog of mathematical probability, loot tallying, and inventory organization.
Make sure the players feel the ramifications of their decisions. Did they let the princess get killed during the siege of Harm’s Deep? Be sure the next enemy they encounter isn’t a band of Orcs, but a band of knights who witnessed their cowardice in the face of the enemy hoard.
I ran a game in which the players were forced to battle sentient sea-cucumbers on floating docks in the middle of the ocean. Their Final Solution for the problem at hand was to poison the water. This also destroyed the oceanic farm the docks had been built around. It also happens that the nearest island was dependent on food from the farm in question. Needless to say there was a small famine, and it was four sessions later when the players returned to find there had been a shift in power in the region.
But it isn’t necessary to change your main plot, either. The grand, sweeping story of a modular campaign can be as engrossing and detailed as a linear campaign, but there must be reminders in place. Foreshadow the darkness that’s sweeping across the land, preferably once per session. Drop hints that there is something larger in the works than the next dungeon crawl, or the next bank job, or the next act of kinky buggery (just assuming here). These glimpses at a larger tapestry are the elements that tie a modular campaign together.