Friday, 22 April 2011

Reminiscences 3: Getting Better

More high school art.
Exiled from the DM chair, I went back to playing my fighter in Dave's campaign, giving him a gritty reboot from "Newt Ralgood" to a Saxon-styled warrior known as Stansceaft (which means "stone spear shaft" - funny that I knew Old English but was ignorant both of psychoanalysis and blaxploitation). I was still writing campaign material in my room, but this time I was also reading published adventures in Dragon magazine and various modules.

And my writing got better. The monsters in each adventure had a theme - no more zoos! The layouts were more spacious, after my library encounter with the Holmes sample dungeon. I didn't get to run those adventures and the notebook where they were is long since gone, but I could still rebuild from memory the abandoned silver mine inhabited by a foul being and its servants, the temple to the Toad God shaped like a colossal toad, the forgotten underground wizard's lair on a volcanic isle. I also created a new campaign world - Antellus - that wasn't based on random terrain and city rolls, and wrote a lot of Greyhawk Gazetteer-inspired entries for it.

As much as people write and read procedural advice for making an adventure or campaign, there is still nothing like a good example. If you are publishing a game, the sample adventure is critically important, and it should be the "practice" for whatever you are trying to "preach" in design. If you are getting started as an adventure creator, then reading other people's material, just to see what works and what doesn't, is better than reading a long-winded essay that can't possibly capture all the important elements.

I'll go even further and point out a further development that so far nobody's taken up yet: the commented adventure, to teach the art of running from notes or a module. This could be a podcast of an actual run through the module. Or, it could be a commentary track or designer notes. The idea is to follow up the example of good design with an example of good play. Without cluttering up the actual reference notes for a play session, the commentary could address some of the things that players typically try to do, ways to turn the pressure up or down at various points, things that came up in playtest, and rationales for your big design decisions. Anyway, it would be something great to offer as supplementary material or premium content.

In the years after high school I kept thinking about gaming and roleplaying off and on, but my actual activity dropped off. I don't think I ever ran or played in a sustained campaign for more than a few sessions, but I was reading a lot more, learned the value of improvisation in one memorable run, and absorbed a lot of ideas. When the Legend of the Five Rings franchise ensnared me, roleplaying was part of that, and I did a little writing that got published in the "Secrets" sourcebooks, a little playing in games here and there, but nothing too sustained.

So this past year, starting the game has been a real renaissance for me, not just of an old-school approach but the exhilaration of preparing, improvising, and being constantly surprised by my players and my world. I think it all turned out okay ...


  1. I love the squiggly swords. Everybody had squiggly swords back then!

  2. You don't know the half ... I must have been inspired by this guy who was one of my first miniatures purchases. Thanks for pointing that out and jogging that memory!

  3. For the commented adventure, here, here! So often, I'm reading someone's post-play report and straining to sift information about how the events they've turned into a narrative happened. Where the rulings were, where the players were doing something intentionally unwise for fun, etc. I think, usually, the post-play narratives are to show how fun was had, not to show how the DM practised the art.

    I would much more likely buy a module if it had notes from the designer than not. I can make my own adventures, I want to learn from someone with experience.

    But I realize now, that I'm talking about two things, designing adventures and running them. I'd like to see both.

  4. Those goblins are awesome.

    I agree that a commented adventure is a good idea. In that vein, maybe it's time we got serious about an excellent idea that Raggi (IIRC) had a while back: a bunch of people all record running the same adventure and compare notes afterwards.

  5. Yes, I think it would be interesting to see some annotated adventures, I think those would be much easier to pick up and run than your typical wall-of-text adventures.