This question is for game designers: Do you have scenarios or "adventures" for your game that are available to your customers (whether for free download or for purchase)? If such a thing is possible within the context of your game, I believe that you should.
In 2000, when Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, we saw a renaissance in modules. It seemed every RPG company under the sun was releasing adventures for the new game. It wasn't very long, however, before the modules started disappearing from the store shelves in favor of setting books, or products that featured new Feats, Prestige Classes, and the like.
Why did modules flower and then die on the vine and why am I insisting that scenarios are still a good idea? Well, a little simple math ought to help us understand the module phenomenon. Only a percentage of the people that buy your game are going to also shell out money to buy a supplement for your game. That holds true whether the name of your company is Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, or Burning Wheel. At BWHQ, our experience suggests that you should be able to sell a top-tier supplement (i.e., one that holds appeal to all types of players, whether GM or not) to about 25 percent of your installed base, give or take a few percentage points. If you've sold about 2,000 copies of your game to end users, you can pretty well count on being able to move about 500 copies of your supplement. Now our sample pool is rather small (we've only released one supplement that isn't also available for free download), so if anyone else has data that corroborates or deviates from our findings, please share.
Supplements have both pros and cons associated with them. On the negative side, you will sell far fewer copies of a supplement than you will of its core product. In general, you'll get less return for your time and effort, and your production costs are likely to be higher, especially if you are using traditional printing. On the positive side, if you are using traditional printing methods, you can gauge the size of an optimal print run fairly accurately. And that accuracy will increase as you collect more sales data.
The problem with scenarios is that they aren't even first-tier supplements. By their nature, scenarios tend to only appeal to Game Masters (assuming the game has one). In a game group of five players (one of which is the GM), a scenario product is only likely to appeal to 20 percent of the group (i.e., the GM). Still assuming you've sold 2,000 copies of your game, your addressable audience has dropped from 2,000 to 400 (or 20 percent of 2,000). If my numbers hold true, you can sell a scenario to 25 percent of those 400 users. In other words, you can count on moving about 100 copies of your scenario.
The numbers are grim. Unless your installed base is in the tens of thousands or higher, it's hard to see the financial sense in investing in such a product.
So why am I telling you that you should make them?
The answer is simple: Don't treat scenarios as products. Treat them as an investment in marketing.
Last year, Mike Holmes made a very interesting point. Basically, he said that in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, people learned how to play the game from the modules, especially stuff like Against the Giants, the B series, and Aerie of the Slave Lords. The core books taught them the rules, but not really how to apply them. While many later players were taught through apprenticeship, the early players didn't have mentors to turn to. Instead, they used the modules.
Scenarios don't just teach players how to apply the rules (most of our texts do a very good job of that these days), they teach players what your game is supposed to look like in play!
Our sales of Burning Wheel are good. We sold out of our first print run of Burning Wheel Revised in less than a year, and are already through a good portion of our second printing. But on our boards we saw a dramatic upsurge in questions and discussions clearly motivated by actual play after we posted a PDF of our scenario The Sword for download. The Sword accomplished two things: One, it showed our customers what to do with Burning Wheel; and two, it made it easy for people who purchased Burning Wheel to approach their groups about taking their cool new game for a spin without a long-term commitment. They could try it for a night and see what they thought.
Suddenly, the time and money invested in creating a scenario makes sense, even if you make it freely available! If you have created a good game and a good scenario, you will turn a percentage of the people that run it into evangelists for your game. They will run it for their friends, they will talk about it, and they will even run it at cons that you aren't attending.