Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, September 2, 2011

How Not to Write an Adventure

As I prepare to kick off a new campaign starting in September I've been giving a lot of thought to adventure design.  In general, I don't use published adventures and never have.  It isn't that I'm opposed to published adventures in principal; while I do prefer to create my own, tailored to my specific campaign, there are times when I'm really pressed for time and would appreciate having something to 'plug and play' with minimal preparation required.

The problem is that I've very rarely ever seen a published adventure that was any good.  My long-time aversion to modules began with my very first D&D game back in 1980, when I attempted to run Keep on the Borderlands.  The session was a disaster, which probably owes more to the fact that my friends and I had no idea what we were doing, than the quality of the adventure.  Nonetheless, at the end of the session one of my friends said, "That sucked.  You should just make up your own adventures."  And I have ever since.  I still bought modules from time to time, suckered in by a neat looking cover or a cool sounding teaser, but I always came away disappointed and, since I had very little money to spare as a teen, feeling a bit angry and ripped off at having purchased something I could have done a better job of myself.  After a few years I'd amassed quite a collection of unused adventures on my bookshelf.

Now, I don't envy anyone who writes adventures for publication.  It can't be easy to come up with an idea that is generic enough to be used by a wide audience, but unique enough to get that same audience to buy it.  But it was never really the ideas or concepts themselves that I found unappealing, it was the way the adventures were written and laid out.  As far as I was concerned they were, and still are, useless as game aids.

So here's the type of adventure structure that I would find useful, and if anyone ever wrote such a thing I definitely be inclined to buy it:

1. Lead off with an abstract.
An abstract is a complete, yet concise summary of the contents in just a few paragraphs.  All scientific papers have abstracts, which fully describe the contents of the paper, including the conclusions.  I don't read 90% of the articles in science journals - I just don't have the time.  I only read the full papers devoted to my immediate area of specialty.  For all the rest I, like most other scientists, only read the abstract.  The abstract tells me everything I need to know.  The rest of the paper is devoted to the details of the experiment and presentation of data, which is only important if you're interested in the nitty gritty details.  Similarly, in a module I would like to see a complete synopsis of everything that happens in the adventure.  Most adventures have teasers, which don't really tell you anything.  There seems to be some fear of "spoiling the ending" by summarizing everything up front.  But guess what?  I'm the DM, I need the info.

2. Dramatis personae
Borrow a page from Shakespeare and give me a list of all the important characters in the adventure right there on the first page.  When I write my own adventures I always include a list of characters as an aide memoire that includes what each character knows in case he is questioned by the PCs.

3. Random Encounter Tables
These are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the adventure.  They transform a series of static encounters into a dynamic and believable setting.

4. Timeline of Events
If the adventure includes a villain with an evil scheme, it should also include a timeline for the implementation and execution of that scheme that assumes no interference by the PCs.  There is absolutely nothing I hate more in an adventure than the set piece where the evil villain is poised with dagger raised above the sacrificial victim, the final passages of the incantation of summoning on his lips in perpetuity, just waiting for the PCs to enter before beginning the downward stroke.  Here's the thing: players are easily distracted by shiny objects.  They might head back to town for R&R halfway through the adventure and then get distracted by a side quest.  They might even decide, as has often happened to me, not to undertake your planned adventure at all.   Unless the main villain in the adventure is Heinz Doofenshmirtz, if the players don't show up the evil scheme will now go off unopposed creating a potentially even more interesting situation.  Mwah ha ha.

5.  Maps
I really miss the detached maps on the inside module covers from the old TSR adventures.  These days maps tend to be scattered throughout the adventure in a devious scheme to drive me into a berserk rage by forcing me flip back and forth between the keyed areas and the map they describe.  Now, I know that the detached maps of old probably aren't easy or practical to do anymore, but FOR THE LOVE OF ZEUS'S BUTTHOLE don't scatter the damn things all over the place.  If the adventure is saddle-stitched, put the maps in the middle so I can pry up the staples and remove them.  Failing that, at least put them all together at the back of the adventure so I can find them quickly.

6. Keyed Areas
In my opinion, read-aloud text boxes should be forever excised and consigned to the lowest pits of Hell.  I can't imagine a more useless and demeaning contrivance.  Descriptions to keyed areas should be kept as brief as possible, and should never, ever, be used to introduce important characters.  I should not be meeting Ilbar the Terrible for the first time in the description of his throne room.  I should already know all about him and what his deal is from reading the dramatis personae back on page one.  The only thing I want to see about Ilbar in the room description is his stat line and the goodies the PCs will get when they loot his body.  Likewise, I never want to see plot developments unfold in the keyed area descriptions.  That should have been laid out in the abstract.  The ONLY thing that should be included in this section is a short description of what is in the room.

If an adventure were written in this format I could run it with less than five minutes of preparation.  With just the map, the overall plot line, a list of characters and random encounter tables I'm good to go.  All the important information is laid out up front and easy to access.  Adventure modules are not epic fantasy novels, so why do so many authors insist on writing them as if they were?  This is the difference between an adventure that I can use at the game table and one spends the next thirty years gathering dust on the shelf.

The Best and the Worst
While I've never seen an adventure that was completely satisfactory as a ready-to-run adventure, the best I've ever seen were those published by Judges Guild, especially the ones written by Jennell Jaquays, who was the master of open-ended adventure.  The Caverns of Thracia is my favourite adventure module and the one that stands out as the most dynamic and exciting.  Jaquays accomplished this by her excellent use of elaborate random encounter tables to turn the dungeon into a dynamic and real place, with guards patrolling the halls, NPCs going to and fro, and escaped slaves desperately fleeing jailers.  This made the dungeon feel like a real place to me, and I've never quite seen its like ever since.

My vote for the worst publisher of adventure modules goes to Paizo Publishing.  I know, their adventures are very popular and they are considered by many to have set a new standard in rpg adventures, but I've bought a few of their adventure paths, and they violate every single one of my rules for good adventure design.

To give them their due, Paizo adventures are fun reads, but I have a whole basement full of novels to turn to when I want a good read.  When I buy a module I want a good game adventure.  Unfortunately Paizo's adventures come off as though they were written by frustrated novelists, not experienced game masters.  The plot lines are overly detailed, generally linear, and unfold gradually as you read the adventure, which is just about the worst sin that an adventure writer can commit.  The DM should not be forced to study harder to run an adventure module than he did for his doctoral defense.  The whole reason that I would buy an adventure is as a time-saving measure, and preparing to run one of Paizo's adventures is more work than creating your own to begin with.

The books themselves are perfect-bound and will not lay open flat on the table, and are densely written in small font size, which is difficult to read in a dimly lit basement - two more flaws that make them unusable in a practical gaming environment.  Furthermore they are printed in full-colour on gloss paper, which adds, unnecessarily, to the cost of the product.  An adventure module is not a literary masterpiece to be handed down from generation to generation.  It is meant to be used.  Probably only once.  What is the point of such a lavish and elaborate product, other than to needlessly increase the production cost?  My cheap TSR modules are still in pristine shape after several decades.

Likewise the maps, which are distributed helter-skelter through the adventure, are artistically rendered in full-colour, which is unnecessary especially since the DM is the only person that will ever likely see them.  Personally, I prefer a utilitarian black and white map that clearly illustrates the setting.

So, despite their enormous popularity, I hold up Paizo modules as the best examples of how not to write an adventure - or least how to write adventures that I'd never use.


Anonymous said...

Pathfinder is the opposite of the old school ethos, and i will never understand why so many old schoolers seem to support them. The modules are horrible, linear, lengthy in stats, and horribly illustrated with shit computer painting programs and anime-inspired characters. Bah

Shane Mangus said...

I am going out on a limb and declaring this as your best post. If not *the* best, it sure as hell is in your top three. This is all great advice, and I have taken it all to heart. Something like using an abstract is so head-smackingly obvious, but something I have never encountered in a published module. It is also something that will find immediate implementation in upcoming Hopeful Monster adventures.

jasons said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

Don said...

excellent stuff! I totally agree about the maps and glossy production. Utilitarian is the way to go for sure...

Sean Robson said...

@anonymous: I'm not a Pathfinder fan either. I'm not sure what the fuss is about, but lots of people really seem to like the system and Paizo's adventures.

@Shane: Wow, high praise! I've always had the feeling that adventure modules should be written to make the DM's job as easy as possible; instead they all seem to bury the pertinent information deep in the adventure's bowels, forcing the DM to put on a figurative latex glove and go hunting for it.

@Jasons: Thanks very much, I'm glad you liked it!

Telecanter said...

Great stuff. I'm a big fan of rethinking how to game stuff more useful. I particularly like your 1,2, and 4.

The real puzzler is why hasn't any of this happened sooner?

Anonymous said...

Amen, dude, I agree wholeheartedly. Like you, I don't use modules because they are not designed well for easy use (I'd use them, otherwise.) This was an excellent post, and I'd love for anyone writing adventures, especially those for old school systems, to read it and take it to heart.

I am particularly bothered by adventures that don't lay the story/character details out for the DM and make you hunt carefully through the text, and for those which physically are unsuited for use as a module... I'd like to be able to write with pencil in the margins, etc, and you can't do that on glossy paper.

Judges Guild - I agree they had the right idea, but I always found their layout to be quite difficult to read, unfortunately. I guess they never heard of two columns per page...

Paizo - whether you agree with the art styles, etc. of their modules, at least they have a "pretty" layout, easy to read. If there were usable old school modules that were clear and easy to read like that I'd buy a lot of them. I think perhaps some of the reason they are so highly regarded and popular today is that a lot of "gamers" collect full lines of products just to read and admire them, without fully using them in play. Yeah, I know some people run Paizo modules and the rest, but you just know a lot of folks are purely collectors, not players, too. Or that they have very odd ideas about what makes a RPG fun (railroad storytime anyone?)

Sean Robson said...

You make some excellent observations. I absolutely hate being forced to hunt for important information that's hidden in the adventure. I don't want to have to read the whole thing through just to get the gist of it.

I think you might be right about many of Paizo's customers being collectors rather than players. Their adventures sure have the look and feel of something that is to be read and admired, but not played.

Anonymous said...

Echoing what has been said above - an excellent post and valuable advice.

Ynas Midgard said...

This post should be a must for everyone who wants to publish his/her adventure.

Anonymous said...

Harn products by Columbia games had a similar format. When they did include scenario stuff they'd have more than one option and let the GM expand things. I always liked that.

The addition of the dramatic personal really makes it though.

Sean Robson said...

Harn is something I know almost nothing about. I bought Cities of Harn way back when, for the gorgeous city maps, but I've never seen any of their adventures. It's nice that they left the GM room to maneuver.