Back in my 2E days, I used to almost never run modules. The only module I can remember using was this Ravenloft module RA3 Touch of Death. But I’ve been using modules more recently, and the experience really is quite different than writing your own scenarios. My current 4E game was my first experience as a referee using the system, so to begin with I wanted to use a module to get a sense of how the system was expected to be used. I ran part of Seekers of the Ashen Crown (really, I just borrowed the first dungeon and discarded the plot railroad). This was before I had discovered the OSR, and I was just getting my feet wet after having not played for upwards of 10 years.
Since then, I have run Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom and Tower of the Stargazer (a B/X one-shot unconnected to my current campaign). Both of these were very successful and I feel like I’m getting the hang of making a module my own, but the utility of the traditional module format is not very good. As artifacts to use at the game table (either PDF or hard copy), different kinds of information are jumbled together and page flipping is constantly required. Many new school players talk about innovation in game design and how we should not be slaves to nostalgia. Like in computer engineering, they say, sometimes you need to break old interfaces (and discard compatibility) in the service of progress. When I think of actual progress in game design though, the first thing that comes to mind is the one page dungeon (OPD) format.
I wrote before about some techniques for module preparation. Basically, boiled down, that post amounts to annotating modules by separating the different types of information. During play, one should not need to digest large blocks of text, as that slows down the flow of the game. My recommendations in that past post do help, and the process of summarizing (much like taking notes when reading) also helps to assimilate information. It is a way of reading actively rather than reading passively. For those of us without photographic memory, this can make a big difference regarding retained knowledge.
We can still do better though. For my next adventures, I am planning to translate the modules into the OPD format for use during play. Some might object that the work required is almost as much work as creating a scenario from scratch, but I disagree. Such a position undervalues the underlying creativity required to create a really engaging scenario. Of course, I haven’t done such a translation yet, so we’ll see how much work it takes. Of the published modules I have read so far, I feel like Stonehell Dungeon comes the closest to my ideal format (it uses a two page facing variation on the one page dungeon) though the OPD pages don’t have many memory cues for descriptive elements.
There is a place for detailed textual descriptions like are standard in traditional modules, but I feel like the optimal referee play-aid should almost never require a context switch (i.e., page turn). So, for me, a perfect module would be a textual overview followed by detailed descriptions of areas and NPCs. In addition, there would be an OPD for every zone which would include short-form stats and basic reminders about details. A facing page (or on the reverse) could include extra details for encounters with more moving parts (like a potion rack with lots of different possible effects or a puzzle). In addition, there should be a map-only version of the zone OPD to facilitate restocking. The best tool for getting the feel of a location is not the best tool for actually running that location. Think about the difference between a novel and a script.