Friday, November 14, 2008

Guide to Adventure Writing

One of the projects I was working on over the summer was a guide to adventure writing. Since finishing projects, instead of having 3284723949384 in various stages of development, is probably a good idea, I think I'm going to put this one to rest. But... here are some things I'd like to share from that work:

Success and Failure

The most important thing to remember when constructing an adventure is to not assume that the PCs will succeed at any point during the adventure.

As a referee, your job is to be completely impartial during game play. You have absolute power at the game table and can bequeath success or mandate failure at any time. Doing either of those things ruins the game, as both give no incentive to play well.

Do not fudge the dice. Ever. Luck is a part of the game, and the dice are there for a reason. Resist the temptation of sparing characters that fail or even die due to “bad luck” or a “stupid die roll.”

Would it be acceptable to tell a player that just rolled a stunning success that you’ve decided, just because it’s more fun, that the die roll doesn’t count and he instead failed? I don’t think so. So why would ignoring the dice in the players’ favor be acceptable?

Good game play will tip the scales of fortune and those that rely on pure luck deserve what they get – either way. At the same time, if an incredibly lucky roll derails the entire adventure and gives the players a quick victory, it should stand. It needs to work both ways. When the dice go badly for the players, they should be thinking of how to not let a roll of the die be the sole determiner of their fates. And when the dice go a little too well for the players, the referee should note what he needs to do to prevent a single die roll from determining the course of an entire adventure.

Traditional games are all about the players (and referee) learning to play better over time. The characters’ experience gains are secondary. Demand and reward player excellence and the game will be more challenging in the long run.

So what are the consequences of deciding to play this way?

The party is just lost and sitting around because they didn’t find the secret door that leads to the next section of the dungeon? Tough. It goes unexplored.

The party missed a vital clue and has no idea where to turn next in a murder investigation? Tough. The killer gets away.

There are too many options to choose from, and the players are disorganized and can’t agree on an option and look to the referee for guidance? Tough.

This only works if the referee is willing to realize that sometimes, all his work on an adventure is going to be wasted. The players are sometimes going to be unwilling or unable to see it all. The referee must contain his ego and resist the urge to introduce some way of being able to show all his work off. And the referee must not take the unused, unexplored parts of his adventure and plug them in elsewhere, as this negates the choices the players have made that led to them, intentionally or not, failing to explore the areas in this particular location.

Playing this way also means that the game can “stop” at any time because a battle wipes out the PCs, or some other disastrous result that means the mission will come to an abrupt end. Oh well. Of course success is always more fun than failure. But if failure is not an option, then the success is but an illusion, it’s fake, it’s a lie. And by taking the attitude that the end result determines the fun of the game, then suddenly the process of playing the game is not fun in and of itself.

I don’t need to say anything about how stupid that is, do I?

Deadly Situations

Every adventure must have situations that directly and truly threaten the lives of the characters participating. If there is no true threat, it is not an adventure, it’s a tour.

I'll go so far as to say there should be situations designed specifically to kill characters. A monster that's way too tough. A trap that's going to claim a victim. Save or die. These sorts of things. Every. Single. Time. The key is to put these "expected death" situations in places where it isn't necessary to encounter them. The players must choose to engage in these areas and situations.

Teach them that the game world isn't scaled so they can kill everything.

Choices

Every adventure must have meaningful choices that the players must make, and these choices must significantly alter the flow of the adventure for them to have any meaning.

The absolute key to good gaming is the ability of players to choose their character’s actions. Any adventure which dictates what a character thinks or feels or does (barring magical enchantments, of course) is a terrible, terrible adventure.

The choices made must be real choices. “Floating locations” of the “Well, whichever inn they stop at will be where the adventure happens” sort is not a real choice, it’s a mere illusion. This is worse than railroading because it is dishonest in its methods.

Choices should not only be offered, but forced: Things are happening, and the players have to do something, and none of the options seem to be all good. Of course, if they choose to not do anything, they’ve still made their choice and the consequences should be different (and more severe!) than if they’d done something.

Rewards

There are two standards that adventure rewards must meet: They must be enough, and they must be not enough.

Enough that everyone involved doesn't think that they've completely wasted their time... and not enough to leave anybody really satisfied with what they have. They need more! Where next to plunder?

Note that concealing the rewards well may wind with the players not finding it. Tough. As a referee, just make sure it's there. Don't help the players to actually find it.

Pacing

A player-driven adventure challenges the now-common philosophies of good adventure pacing. Common wisdom today states that if the action has slowed and the players either don’t know what to do or don’t want to do anything, the referee should make something happen to give the players something to react to. I declare that this ruins the pro-active element in traditional gaming, causes the referee to be biased towards character action, and creates a disincentive for players to control their own destiny.

But what do you do if all the obstacles described in the Success and Failure chapter actually stop the party?

You do nothing.

If a player complains that he’s bored and that nothing is happening, look at him and say, “I agree. So are you going to do something or not?”

It is not the referee’s job during a session to provide excitement for his playing group. His job is to administer the setting and resolve character actions. If the characters are taking no action and are not interacting with the setting, then the referee has literally nothing to do. The players are wasting his time.

Other common standards of pacing become obsolete when dealing with a player-driven adventure. Traditional games commonly feature a “retreat, rest, and recharge” element of play, and in fact almost demand such a thing. This creates a bit of difficulty in trying to structure an exciting adventure if the party is going back to rest after every fight of even slight challenge.

Don’t let the players turn the game into a series of “Scout out the next room, ambush the beasties, collect the loot, and then retreat back to camp and get all the spells back.” Or don’t let them complain of monotony and boredom if that is what they choose to do. There are a variety of ways to prevent this, although some may seem heavy-handed. Cave-in traps or other methods of blocking exits can be useful, once, before it becomes a crutch instead of an idea. Pit or slide traps that dump a party to a lower level and teleporters that move a party somewhere unfamiliar are old tricks that might be acceptable a time or two. Missions with time limits are another possibility, but the meticulous planning needed to make an adventure just challenging enough will tend to cause the referee to become too invested in the adventure outcome.

The first reliable way to control this is through the proper use of wandering monsters. Never skip a wandering monsters check, and never hand-waive the results. Do this for the area that the PCs decide to rest as well. If their recuperation is not just a matter of saying, “We go back to camp,” maybe the players won’t be so quick to do so.

Keep a strict record of time! This wisdom was presented in bold in a major publication and has been laughed at ever since. But it’s excellent advice. Endless searching for secret doors and traps takes but a second to roll for the players, but a good deal of time for the characters. How long does that torch burn? And that lantern? So many referees simply make sure that there’s a torch or lantern present (and if the referee is on the ball, he might make sure that somebody with a free hand is actually the one carrying it) and then ignore it. Players will pick up the pace if the torches and lanterns keep going out… and keeping close track of encumbrance means they can’t just buy a hundred flasks of oil, either. These oft-ignored rules aren’t there to be a pain the ass, they are there to push play along in a system that otherwise rewards characters moving at a snail’s pace.

But when the players go looking for adventure… you’d better have some for them to find.

Dungeon Design

You’ve been given a big pile of philosophy concerning adventure design, but now it’s time to put it together into a coherent adventuring environment. As a nod to this hobby’s traditions, this environment will be called a “dungeon” here, but this remains true if the environment is a dungeon or not.

The first thing to remember when creating an actual adventuring area is to forget the idea of “encounters.” The “encounter” has become known as the standard unit of “excitement” in an adventure. It’s an awful terminology, and it influences adventure design in an adverse way as referees stop to think of adventures as a flowing, natural sequence of events and more like a flowchart where players travel along boring lines in order to get to the “encounters.”

Never place a secret door that you intend to be found.

Never place a trap that you do not intend to be set off to its full effect.

An important factor in designing a dungeon is allowing for the fact that under the guidelines presented in this book, characters will die. Perhaps often. Replacement characters are often rolled up very quickly, but there needs to be an in-game explanation for how to introduce these replacements.

Create challenges for every primary class in the game, especially those that are not present in the player character group.

Spellcasters, particularly clerics, always have a number of spells available to them which they simply never prepare. This is due to referee laziness; off course they are never chosen if they are never used! Create situations where such spells easily solve the issue at hand. They’ll gripe and moan at first when they realize they have to come back to the situation the next day with the proper spells (and complain yet again that they are doing so at the expense of “useful” spells… you know, the type used in combat), but a referee being diligent in this course will remove the idea of “useless” spells from his campaign altogether.

Interaction versus Combat versus Traps versus Tricks

It is usually better to present an encounter with a greater number of enemies than it is to give the players one opponent at a time. It's attrition versus “The Big Fight.” Make smaller, less threatening opponents the order of the day, so that the decision to continue on or stop and rest is actually meaningful. If every encounter is a big one, then continuing on is stupid. This is advice that I really have trouble with in my home games. I can usually eyeball a Single Big Monster for suitability against my group. But there get to be a lot of dynamics when it comes to group encounters. It's a bit difficult with groups of creatures, because for all the "kill 'em all and sort the character sheets later," tone all this advice takes, the ultimate goal is to challenge, not annihilate, the players and their characters.

Make use of terrain and “set pieces” when coming up with encounter areas.

Kill Them and Take Their Stuff – Complicate it! Vary what the treasure is, hide its value, make it inconvenient to transport.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are a wonderful tool. They keep players from ever feeling secure about their position in an adventure location, they can turn tense situations into complete chaos, and they are just good all around fun. Never fail to create a random encounter table for your adventuring locales. While most of the random encounters should not be major battles, there should be at least one possible encounter that will be a roughly equal, major fight, and one entry which will probably be too much for the party to stand toe to toe with.

Note that many old modules poo-poo wandering monsters by advancing the idea if a random encounter depletes the party too much or detains them from their final goal, the encounter should be ignored. This sort of thinking is drenched in the notion that the game is somehow a failure if the characters do not reach the pre-scripted conclusion in just-so condition so that they can deliver a satisfying climax to the adventure the way they are supposed to. Isn’t that the sort of thinking this entire essay is trying to avoid and prevent?

Take care that the random charts make sense within the adventuring environment. These creatures roaming around will also be coming into contact with the placed creatures. Why aren’t they killing each other? If they’re random monsters, it’s a good bet their lair isn’t keyed on the map. Where do they live? How do they get from there to the dungeon? If the party is closing doors behind them as they go, many creatures won’t be able to “randomly” appear.

One solution is to make random monsters connected to a keyed area. This can happen in several ways. The first is to just assume that every (or most, or whatever’s appropriate) keyed area’s inhabitants have an extra member or two running around the environment.

Also, not every random encounter needs to be a battle. Adding in neutral or friendly encounters into the table can provide an unexpected twist. The encounter need not even be with anything living. A cave-in, flash flood, or other random event can easily fill a random encounter table slot.

Traps

Think before placing traps. Really, there is no quota for placing traps and they should never be thrown in there “just because.”

Three things must be thought through before placing any trap. First, what triggers it? Second, how do people who are supposed to be in the area avoid the trap? And third, why hasn’t the trap been triggered by all the wandering monsters (and regular nearby inhabitants)?

In instances such as a tomb or mad wizard’s lair or some such, these are easily answered. Nobody is supposed to be there, period, and it makes sense to booby-trap the living hell out of the place. Locations with living inhabitants, not so much. But each trap should have a clear purpose.

Be descriptive about placed traps. It should be possible to detect and disarm almost any trap without making a die roll. In fact, if the proper way of dealing with a trap is nothing more than a couple of thief skill rolls, then the trap is boring and no good. You can do better.

“Gotcha” traps keep players on their toes, but are also detrimental to game play. Merely entering an area shouldn’t be enough to trigger a trap. There should be some specific action that triggers it. Poison needle traps are a perfect example here. If a character does not attempt to open a chest or pick its lock, they have no problem. It’s only by taking a specific action that they put themselves in danger.

Not that this is a screed against pit traps and the like. They have their place – especially if nobody is bothering to use a ten foot pole anymore. The problem with such traps is that they are often in areas where many creatures travel. Not even the most diligently trained or fiendishly clever beast will walk amongst traps unless there is an ongoing siege or hostile information. Any “triggered just by standing or walking right there” trap that does more than sound an alarm is simply not going to be found in areas where people, or creatures, ever go.

Obvious, no-roll-needed-to-find-them traps are simply awesome. They dare the players.

The last consideration to make is whether this trap is effective. Too many referees place traps as “obstacles” in their adventures to be “overcome.” Traps should be placed with the full intention of being triggered. Whoever set the trap was certainly aiming to kill (or imprison, or immobilize, or whatever) whoever set it off, and certainly trying to keep people out of a specific area, so it must be able to do what it sets out to do or the whole thing’s worthless. If you’re going to place a death trap, set it up in a way that will kill, and count on a character dying from that trap during the adventure. When (if!) the traps are discovered and bypassed, it becomes a real accomplishment (even if it was dead easy and the players don’t understand what might have happened), and not just something that happened because it’s “supposed to” in these types of games.

(in addition to the comments below, there are a good deal of comments and discussion on this article at RPG.net, ENWorld, and Dragonsfoot that may be of interest)

24 comments:

  1. "This sort of thinking is drenched in the notion that the game is somehow a failure if the characters do not reach the pre-scripted conclusion in just-so condition so that they can deliver a satisfying climax to the adventure the way they are supposed to"... even though I'm a 4E player/DM, this is I think one of the biggest problems with much of the newer 3.x and 4E edition stuff. The players are more actors in a scripted play, than sharing in the writing of the story.

    excellent post. Added to my google notebook. thank you!

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  2. your writing style is impressive,
    easy to read and direct, but not simplistic.

    have you considered a more lucrative outlet for your talents?
    (i.e., contemporary fiction)

    this compliment is sincere
    as I disagree with much of your personal preferences and tastes
    (but I do love Iron Maiden).

    accolades and wealth is very hard to acquire in the "insular and inbreed" gaming community

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  3. My last attempt to write fiction was a little more than ten years ago. I still have some of the stories on my computer.

    It's quite embarrassing to read. :D

    I'd post some of it to prove it to you, but if anyone read that they'd never take me seriously (I almost added "again" there, but who am I kidding? :D ).

    Nah. I like reading stories, not writing them.

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  4. Especially the part about traps, and not having them be triggered by simply being somewhere, is excellent. Thank you.

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  5. When I think traps, and triggering/avoiding/disabling/surpassing traps, I think of Indiana Jones. I also think of The Tower of the Elephant. Great traps there.

    I very rarely think of bomb experts sitting there trying to figure out which wire to cut to disable the bomb.

    I don't like to sit there and have a thief roll over and over again to try to disable a trap. But the thief skills can still come in handy even in the context you described (such as slipping notes to the thief on things that his character notices, but not alerting the entire group. But I'm guessing you are against this as you generally seem to dislike character ability scores being used to solve problems, other than combat/action related dice rolls).

    Great writeup. I recommend you further it over time and publish more of your thoughts.

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  6. Do not fudge the dice. Ever. Luck is a part of the game, and the dice are there for a reason. Resist the temptation of sparing characters that fail or even die due to “bad luck” or a “stupid die roll.”

    Would it be acceptable to tell a player that just rolled a stunning success that you’ve decided, just because it’s more fun, that the die roll doesn’t count and he instead failed? I don’t think so. So why would ignoring the dice in the players’ favor be acceptable?


    I'd like to tell you, in the most manly way possible, that I love you. Seriously, I share the same exact outlook as you in this respect, and I find that sadly, the art of non-fudging is a dying one. The dice, and the randomness and chaos they inject into the game, should remain sacred. My feeling has always been, if you're going to fudge the dice, you may as well move to a diceless system for your RPG experience*.


    * - I don't think there's anything wrong with diceless systems, either. They're usually just not for me.

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  7. Yah the fudging the dice was a great point. Though, admittedly, I've done it in the past as a newbie. I've also added gimpy ways of resurrections to a party. Though when I did that it was after the first time they had ever played with me that I introduced a beast that was way way too powerful for them, some fought, one ran away. The one that ran away got bonus exp that night.

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  8. This is your best article, period. It is full of stuff that all DM's, regardless of experience, should remember while planning.

    My hat off to you!

    RIP

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  9. Great article! I'm someone who has never been disciplined enough to sit down & write a module - never have been able to after 17+ years. I'm great at the conceptual, but not at the concrete (on the fly with a few notes is about as detailed I get - the rest is on the fly). I'll take your ideas given here & see what I can do. Thanks!

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  10. James, that's a great essay with which I agree almost 100%. I have one question about this part:

    "It is usually better to present an encounter with a greater number of enemies than it is to give the players one opponent at a time."

    How do you square this with your Random Creature Generator and the advice therein to make most monsters unique? One option is to have most opponents be humans are normal animals (wolves, lions, bears, etc.). Any insights?

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  11. Oops. In my comment above I meant to type "humans AND normal animals", not "humans are normal animals".

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  12. > Don’t let the players turn the game into a series of “Scout out the next room, ambush the beasties, collect the loot, and then retreat back to camp and get all the spells back.” Or don’t let them complain of monotony and boredom if that is what they choose to do. There are a variety of ways to prevent this, although some may seem heavy-handed. Cave-in traps or other methods of blocking exits can be useful, once, before it becomes a crutch instead of an idea.

    How is this not railroading? Same as having the tavern the characters are in just happen to be the one adventure intro kicks off?

    And doesn't it fly in the face of "player driven adventure", letting(forcing) the players to be proactive, make choices and have those choices be meaningful? If they choose to “Scout out the next room, ambush the beasties, collect the loot, and then retreat back to camp and get all the spells back.” and you make the tunnel cave in to prevent them that is EPIC LAME DM fiat, manipulation of the worst kind. [your other suggestion of teleporters and pit traps to 2nd level are better but those seem to contradict your "no trap for just being there"]

    I agree with most of your advice but only when running a certain style game. I very much disagree that this is *the one/only* way.

    What you outline is great advice for "old-school", player skill over character skill, avg-joe, low-fantasy type game.

    It's just as valid to run a heroic game were things (such as being in the wrong tavern at the right time) just happen to the players cause they *are hero's*. To push all the non-epic, non-heroic into abstraction and the background (e.g. time, supplies, inconsequential battles).

    It's also just as valid to run a story game. Where the players are weaving their way through a plot promulgated by the DM. Much like a novel or choose your own adventure.

    Even if all you care about is the first style of game. It's wrong and annoying to pretend your fav style is the only one that matters.

    I felt refreshed when I first found your blog a couple weeks ago after reading too much old-school forums and blogs opinion that was closed minded and black/white esp two-faced anti-Cargosa rants.

    The absoluteness of this post... Actually I guess most your posts are absolute, I just agreed with the absoluteness of the other posts. Meh, there's room enough for everyone on the Internets.

    At the very least you're the black side of black & white [I sincerely mean that as a compliment]

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  13. >>How is this not railroading?

    Note that I suggest trying such a thing once. Although I would suggest such a cave-in be something planned/keyed in advance and not something the referee does on a whim. "The third time this entrance is used, it will collapse," is a perfectly valid dungeon feature.

    As far as "no trap for just being there," as long as you're aware of what you're doing and why and never overdo it, no advice is absolute.

    >>I agree with most of your advice but only when running a certain style game. I very much disagree that this is *the one/only* way.

    Hammers drive in nails, and make no apologies for it. Yet you don’t yell at the hammer when you want a wrench. This blog is a hammer.

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  14. >>How do you square this with your Random Creature Generator and the advice therein to make most monsters unique?

    "*roll roll roll* Ah, what a weird monster! I'm going to say there are five of these things in this one room!"

    I did allow for "groups of unique monsters" in the Generator, if I recall correctly. :)

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  15. *hits forehead with open palm*

    Duh!

    I forgot about the passage in which a unique group of creatures counts as a unique monster.

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  16. Good stuff.

    Only thing I would add is "Do not hedge!"
    The biggest thing discouraging players to take pro-active action is lack of information. So when a player says "I'm trying to find out XY", do not mumble something about "Well, it seems to be a secret or nobody is likely to talk about it..."- use the opportunity of the player action to provide the group with whatever information they could reasonably gain and they will be off the map quickly, scheming and making all kinds of crazy plans (which might or might not actually work, whats important is that they are DOING something).
    Of course this means you have to have a reasonably good idea about the adventure background, NPC motivations etc., something which many old-school scenarios (being mainly descriptions of locations, without any kind of context) lack, requiring some thinking on the part of the GM to fiddle it all together.

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  17. great article. im starting to dm a campaign this week. its my first shot at the dm job and the majority of the players are first timers. ive played since i was 12 and know everything about the player but dming is a whole other ball of wax. lots of good advice. thanks!

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  18. Really great advice overall, and I ESPECIALLY like this passage:

    "if failure is not an option, then the success is but an illusion, it’s fake, it’s a lie. And by taking the attitude that the end result determines the fun of the game, then suddenly the process of playing the game is not fun in and of itself."

    Kudos!

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  19. "Never place a secret door that you intend to be found."

    I would add to this the notion that if secret doors are difficult to find then there should be some kind of payoff, whether it be a clue, a never before encountered monster, some sweet loot, ect,. When players begin to associate secret doors with fun surprises, they really get into searching for them!

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  20. Nice article, 2 comments:

    "Any adventure which dictates what a character thinks or feels or does (barring magical enchantments, of course) is a terrible, terrible adventure."

    I might add "even including magical enchantments". I had something similar in a published Paranoia adventure years ago, one of the worst gaming sessions ever. At the least, there must be a chance/choice to avoid said enchantment.

    "Keep a strict record of time!... How long does that torch burn? And that lantern?"

    Good in priciple, the tricky thing here is how quickly the "continual light" spell is gained in D&D, terminating the issue of depletable light by 3rd level or so.

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  21. I can only say, having encountered this article in issue #489 of Johnn Four's RPT, that I disagree most vehemently with every word in it, including "is" and "the."

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  22. What is your [the author's] take on secret doors vis-a-vis rolling to find 'em? In my game (Red Box Vancouver, http://redvan.wikidot.com/) we follow the Basic D&D 1 in 6 chance of finding secret doors. Do you prefer secret doors that the players "narrate" open?

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  23. I just re-read this post - good one.

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