Sunday 16 March 2014

Between Gygax and Greenwood

Here is a representative treasure description written by Gary Gygax. It's from Steading of the Hill Giant Chief.
The jade coffer is worth 5,000 g.p. and contains 6 healing potions. The crown is begemmed and worth 25,000 g.p. The small sack holds 276 p.p., 29 base 10 g.p. gems, a scroll of 7 magicuser spells (pretend to roll, but they are all 1st and 2nd level), and a map showing a location several hundred miles away which supposedly has a rich treasure (it is a fake, naturally).
(I love that "naturally". Whaddya expect? A treasure map for free? This is the guy who invented the ear seeker! Suck it up!)

Now here is part of a vampire's hoard, published by Ed Greenwood about 13 years later, from Ruins of Undermountain.
Also in the sack is a small (5"” × 5"” × 2”" high), flat, plain ivory box (value: 7 gp). Its lid slides off in grooves to reveal the contents: a black silk garter and a coin-sized plate of human bone, carved and polished into the semblance of a staring eye. These items are actually a band of denial and an eye of aiming, respectively; both items are detailed in the Magical Items chapter. 
There is also a stout book, of parchment pages locked with iron hasps between two pieces of black, smooth-polished slate. It is a spell book, the spells recorded one to a page; the book has six blank pages at the end. Thearyn'’s spell book details the following spells: [long list] 
There is finally a leather drawstring bag, heavy with coins (43 cp, 21 sp, 36 gp, and 18 pp), and a small copper coffer (worth 5 gp) which contains satin wrappings. Within the satin folds are a tiny ivory statuette of a mermaid (worth 4 gp) and gems: six 5000 gp rubies (deep crimson red, crown cut); and four unusually large sapphires, each worth 4,000 gp (clear blue, cabochon cut). DMs are urged to modify this hoard to fit the individual campaign.
Of course, the differences between writers may be exaggerated - there are Gygax treasures that are more unique and Greenwood treasures that are more bare-bones. But it's no exaggeration  that Greenwood got his start in the hobby by elaborating on what had before been left generic, through his eye-opening treasure and ecology descriptions in the Dragon magazine.

"The skull belonged to a jester, Yorick..."
Still, looking back, the descriptions seem less magical and more self-indulgent. Can't the DM just determine how small a small box is, or that a spellbook has parchment pages? Are we required to study the terms of the jeweller's art? Old School writers today have to navigate between these two poles. Some are kinder to the Greenwood way, some less so, but the general agreement is: you need to make descriptions interesting, but do it efficiently. Here are some guidelines for doing that.

Information has to ultimately be of use to the players. It has to give them information useful in problem solving, evocative descriptions that create an atmosphere, details that add to the sense of discovery and piecing things together.

  • Don't write about what the characters can't actually discover. The classic example is the room in an early draft of Dwimmermount where "There were plaques, statues, and other similar ornaments all long since looted and removed to other parts of the fortress." There's a tiny example in the vampire's hoard, too: the disk of "human bone." Boy, that's going to put a chill down the players' backs when they get the DNA results back from the lab.
  • Detail for the sake of detail may give short-term interest, but detail that supports top-down discovery pays off better in the long term. In the page or so that the vampire's hoard takes up, there's no hook to larger discoveries. You'd never know that "He is searching for a way to augment his magical powers so he can master the creation and control of gates," his main motivation from earlier in the description.
    Does he deal and trade with other powers in the dungeon? Why the hell is this vampire living in a dungeon, anyway?  That last unanswered question makes clear that beneath all the clever traps, combat situations, and treasures, Undermountain is still at heart a monster zoo.
At the same time, it's also a mistake to think of the DM as an invisible conduit through which information should flow from writer to players. The DM is a person who wants to be entertained by creating entertainment. A lot of advice on adventure writing focuses on making the descriptions easy to read in play, on describing things in a logical order. That's good, but not enough.
  • A description should involve the DM actively, while saving space, by leaving to the DM things that can be easily imagined. The dimensions of the box, how its lid opens, the ordinary material the bag is made of: none of that is necessary to describe unless it challenges the players or contributes to a larger meaning.
  • This means that description should be reserved for things that can't be improvised: details of startling originality, or clues that support a larger process of discovery. I like how the nested containers and wrappings of the treasures give drama to the unpacking of the vampire's trove, and the basic descriptions of the items are certainly original. So, the first paragraph can boil down to: "Also in the sack is a small flat ivory box worth 7 gp. It holds a black silk garter (a magical band of denial, p. **) and a carved bone eye (an eye of aiming, p. **)."
  • Writers should keep in mind that a good DM will want to fit the adventure into their own world. That's another difference between Gygax's wide-open Greyhawk world and Greenwood's detailed Forgotten Realms. Let's suppose that the vampire's hoard gave some clues to his former life as "an 18th level adventurer-wizard, once of Lantan." Perhaps the box has a Lantanian design, or the gems are an unusual type known to come from there. That description would still only be good in a world containing Lantan. A better way to go is to make Lantan generic, describe it as "a far-off land of scholars to the south" and give appropriate descriptions to some of the goods and treasure. 
  • Too much time describing the history and set-up of the adventure in loving, campaign-specific detail is also useless to a DM with their own agenda. "A baroness wants evidence of her past crimes erased. She has tracked down all copies of an executed historian's book, except one, traced to a wizard's tower in the wilderness which swears fealty to a different law. She needs deniable agents to go get that last book by force." That is all the DM needs to fit the adventure into their own campaign.
It's because of the need to involve the DM that I have a certain tolerance for bare-bones descriptions like Castle of the Mad Archmage's. Yes, there certainly could be more, but what I have to fill in during the course of play takes on a life of its own - almost like writing my own adventure, with very little preparation needed.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and useful. I disagree on a couple of points:

    - sizes of chests? Yes, please. I don't know how big it should be. You show me how long the corridor is, you can tell me how big the boxes are. I can improvise, but I can improve a lot - monster names, descriptions, room sizes, map directions, etc. I use publish stuff so I don't have to do that. There is such a thing as too much, but the example you gave of a chest size? Not too much at all.

    - what's missing and can't be discovered? If it's important for me as the GM to know that to run your published work in the way intended (assuming I choose to do so), then tell me. It doesn't matter if the players don't know it's human bone on sight or if the statues in room 1 are now in room 123, but it does matter if I, the GM, know.

    The bit about paring down the background is gold - even so-called "old school" adventures often come with pages of background I don't care about and a setup I don't need. You can generally do it in a paragraph, and I'll adapt it to my particular group.