Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reviewing How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck (part 1)


In my considerable time involved in the roleplaying game hobby and industry, I've both received and given a lot of advice.

I picked up the Goodman Games 160 page, 25 author, hardcover book at Gary Con earlier this year.  There was so much to see and do, I didn't spend an overly long period of time standing around booths, perusing various books that caught my fancy.

So, I picked up How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck without giving it too close a read.  Why bother, I thought, since the title alone summarized everything I wanted!

This blog post examines the first 30 pages of the book.  Hopefully, my analysis is both informative and entertaining...

The cover is weird, but I love it - part English 101 journal notebook and part High School doodling of weird and funny fantasy characters and creatures.  The interior cover pages (I can't remember the correct terminology for that area right now), are colorful and badass!  There's also a black ribbon attached to the book's spine - which is cool.

The Autograph section is cute and fairly useful (assuming you go to RPG conventions).  The introduction by James M. Ward is serviceable. The interior pages are lined like actual notebook paper, which I thought was a nice touch - though, the essays, from what I've read so far, aren't edgy, gonzo, or filled with the awkward passion of an amateur adventure writer.  So, there's a bit of disconnect between how the pages look and how they read.

The first essay is about adventure context, fluff, and crunch.  It's mostly a blog post about what the author, Jobe Bittman, thinks about the dichotomy and that some adventures give the GM just enough info to run an adventure while others give the GM quite a bit more.  He prefers the former.  And then the essay is over.  It's followed by a one-page adventure that has virtually nothing to recommend it.  It's about deep-sea diving and finding a lost ship.  It's so short that there's not much besides the meager setup and the encounters themselves.  It's pretty much worthless, and not an example of non-sucky adventure writing.

The second essay is by Mike Breault and I'm going to quote the first sentence which should give you a clue to what it's about, "For my money, nothing kills a gaming session faster than a game master who isn't dedicated to engaging and entertaining his or her players."  That sense of predictability and slight boredom you got from reading that sentence?  It continues throughout.

The essay points out "The Four Types of Gamers":  achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers (which the author got from another dude in the video game business).  It basically boils down to the following - not all gamers want the same things and the GM should provide a variety of encounters to suit everyone's tastes.  Good advice, but so obvious that in 2017 it just seems more annoying than bland.

The accompanying adventure (do they all have one?  Holy shit, they do!  Oh man, I have a feeling this is going to suck...) is a trek through the forest with very little payoff, aside from finding a castle with a couple undead encounters.  It's not impressive in the least.

The third and last essay I'm going to be talking about in this post is from Anne K. Brown.  Basically, she thinks that GMs should bore their players to death with voluminous descriptions about everything under the sun.  Ms. Brown literally takes a paragraph of flavor text and keeps telling her readers to elaborate until they've perfected their short story which can then be read aloud to players so that no actual adventuring gets in the way of story time!  I was literally screaming NOOOO! while reading the book last night because that's pretty much the opposite of my preferred style.  And I objectively believe her advice is going in the wrong direction.

Later, the essay switches to something more palatable - show, don't tell.  Again, super obvious.

But then, she talks about her stint at TSR and gives us a taste of freelancer submissions.  Ms. Brown points out two "miserable mistakes," two phrases that kept showing up over and over again - "impossibly huge" and "wicked-looking blade."  She slams these phrases for not being precise, because it makes people guess, rather than knowing exactly what the author meant.  But you know what?  It also forces the reader/listener to use their imagination, to create their own reference points, and deliberately vague phrasing is not only suggestive, but mythic.  What sounds better to you?  An impossibly huge dragon or a dragon that's 30' tall?

The essay ends with a plea for GMs to use all 5 senses.  Fair enough, but still within the realm of no-brainer.

The following adventure is for reals a short story, while Anne actually narrates what the PCs are saying and doing!  I shit you not!  Is this part of the reason why TSR began to suck so hard with the railroading and super-long flowery descriptions?  Jesus Christ!

Yeah, I need to stop here and take a break.  So far, this book is both boring and bad (from an advice standpoint).  Oh no!  I was just googling the title so I could find an image of the cover (all the ones I found were from the KS mock-up, which is actually far inferior to the actual cover that came to be) and saw that this was a Goodman Games Kickstarter!  And it made over $125,000.00!?!  Hopefully, I stumble over some worthwhile stuff the further I go...

Until the next installment, check out my own How To Game Master Like a Fucking Boss.  And if readers are interested, I'll do a series of blog posts delving into the fundamentals of adventure writing that doesn't suck - crafting a worthwhile scene!  So, please let me know in the comments if you'd like to see blog posts of that nature.

Venger As'Nas Satanis
High Priest of Kort'thalis Publishing

p.s.  Almost forgot - I just announced a brand new Kickstarter this morning for The S'rulyan Vault II.  Back it if you love dungeons!