Ballistic’s Report: How to Write Adventure Modules that Don’t Suck

I backed the Kickstarter by Goodman Games promising a collection of essays entitled “How to Write Adventure Modules that Don’t Suck” out of genuine interest and curiosity in the subject matter. 

In the first place, advice and considered thought on how to write adventure modules (which I’ll refer to as adventures or scenarios interchangeably in this review) can only help me consider how to make my own adventures should I put on my GM’s hat athwartships again.

On the other hand: I’m a game publisher now, with one in the can (Dungeon Grappling), two on the way (Venture Beyond and Dragon Heresy), and at least one or two more under consideration. All of those will need support in one way or another, and adventure support, while seemingly universally less profitable than core books on a per-unit basis, is taken as a strong sign of a vibrant well-supported game line. A good adventure showcases the rules, engages players, and generates conversation and “buzz” about the game that is way better than abstract reviews or other considerations.

So, I backed it with interest, and received the hardcopy a week or so ago.

Look, Feel, Production Values

The book itself is slightly oversized in the cover, for the first. It gives the appearance of being quite a bit more square than the usual DnD or GURPS hardcover. It is not “quite a bit” more square but the hardback cover is a bit larger than either book. This isn’t a problem; it will, however, cause the book to not line up neatly on a game shelf. I suspect this is by design.

The dust jacket and exterior cover are designed around the conceit (I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion) that the book in hand is a college composition notebook. It’s got the classic mottled black and white look. The dust jacket is black and white with metallized doodles on the front, outlining monsters and unhappy adventurers in gold, and using black and white for the interior and highlights.

The cover art is deliberately crude and cartoony, resembling more a John Kovalic Munchkin design – it’s not Kovalic, though. The cover design is by Lester B. Portly.

It gives it a fairly “old school” feel, as if this were a book of noted taken from a series of lectures on the subject – and since that’s the way the book is laid out, containing essays and worked examples from 25 authors, that’s not too far wrong.

The title occupies the entirety of the spine; the Goodman Games name is not found there, though it is subtly included on the front-cover graphic (in faux handwriting), and of course the full logo appears on the back cover of both the dust jacket and book cover proper.

That cover is glossy laminate in black and white, and lacks the overlay art of the dust jacket. The interior of the cover has a color drawing in a much, much different style than the cover, Doug Kovacs did the end sheets – they’re striking, and done in a much more realistic/detailed style. The implied message, if there is one, is that the book will cover from the simple to the complex, from brush-strokes in gold-paint magic marker to more fine-tuned details.

Either that or the folks at Goodman just liked both styles, with no more message than that. Either is good!

The book is 160 pages, and the interior printing is black and white. The cover price for the book is $30 ($29.99), which in line with what you’d expect for a hardcover book of that size.

There are clear evidence of sewn signatures for the binding, and the entire book comes clear of the spine with the signatures sewn into that binding. I’ll have to get a better line on what kind of binding this is; my impression was that “smyth-sewn” was closer fixed to the spine, but it’s definitely at least a step above perfect bound, which is very nice. It also has a ribbon bookmark in black, which is a nice touch (though one I don’t particularly value, it does represent a commit to increasing production values of the book).

The interior feels like matte paper of roughly 85# quality. It’s not 105# I think, but I do think it’s better than 70# stuff. We’ll see! The interior background image, such as it is, represents just enough print to continue the look of a wide-ruled composition notebook.

They didn’t take this much farther, though. The text is an easily-readable serif font of good size. The two-column format is left-justified.

The titles and section heads are a block-text Small-Caps that is meant to look like inked handwriting.

When art appears, it tends to be placed squarely in the middle of the right-hand (recto) page in most cases. Not all cases, though. There are maps and illustrations and text boxes that either break across columns, fill the page, or go right where they need to. The center-right placement of the art was noticeable on flipping through it but not distracting, and is not repeated so universally per spread that it detracts.

The art itself (that isn’t game-aid based, such as maps or handouts) are “Cartoon Illustrations” (that’s the listing in the credits) by Chuck Whelon. They give a very AD&D feel to the book (“Whaddaya mean we have to talk to this Lynx? The last monster we tried to talk to ate half the party!”)

Field Strip

As noted, this is a collection of small scenarios and essays by 25 contributors. Each piece thus averages a bit more than six pages in length, but some are more, and some less.

The Introduction lays out the purpose of the book, stating that the contributors are among the finest game designers, with example encounters offering up the best in cutting-edge game design. James Ward (the primary Developer in the credits) that he’s had a very successful 40-year history in the industry, and sold a lot of product based on this and similar advice, and notes he has learned a lot from compiling and reading the book.

The format of the book has an essay on a particular topic followed immediately by an encounter (not a full adventure in some cases) to illustrate the point.

Covering some of the highlights then.

The first essay, which will for most set the tone of the book, is “Adventures in Context, ” by Jobe Bittman. In it we are told that adventure writing is not fiction writing, that it’s important to give that which is necessary for the GM to run the scenario and have it make sense, and no more. He provides examples of low-context adventures (old Judges Guild material) and high-context ones – more modern Adventure Path type scenarios, which he finds repellant on both a narrative and contextual level. Contextual because so much is scripted in the background that it’s more akin to fiction writing, being akin to the classic “railroad” imprecation (that being said, a roller-coaster is totally pre-scripted, and still thrilling) and leaving no room for the GM to improvise. Narratively, such paths are also horrible about player agency. He then briefly discussed fluff and crunch, and then works into an Encounter/Example: Dead Man’s Chest. It’s a 1st level design built around what looks like old-school D&D rules in general (full ability score templates are not given, so it would be suitable for instant use with Swords and Wizardy, for example).

The encounter itself I find interesting because of the vertical and submerged nature of it – a series of undersea caves. The issue of light, pressure, and oxygen are quickly dealt with by some magical items, and then the map and encounter areas are detailed. There are seven – but only six are listed. The seventh, which seems rather important, is left out. Not sure if this is “GM Agency!” or “Oops. Ran out of space.”

In Players Make Your World Go ‘Round, Mike Breault starts out by noting an important bit of obviousness: games where the players aren’t engaged suck. As the book’s mission is avoiding this, he presents a framework borrowed from video games stipulating four types of gamers, while noting that any individual gamer may well be (almost certainly is) a combination of the four. Each one has a particular thing from which enjoyment is gained, and the general bit of actionable advice here is making sure that – especially in a published scenario where you can’t know in advance the composition of your group – everyone has something to do. Obvious? Perhaps, and yet thinking about how different types of entertainment can be had is worthwhile, and will likely help the writer help a GM anticipate unexpected directions the players may take (“we talk our way past the orc war party!” “We challenge the minotaur lord to a drinking contest!” “We give Death a wedgie!”)

As with all advice, there’s potential danger in taking things too far. Give players choices of ways to solve problems? Great. Four hours go by and the players are still arguing over what to do? That could be a game killer, and the GM (and players, for that matter) should be prepared to push the pace a bit. Still – and Breault makes this point – a good, detailed description of (say) potential combat scenario that pokes for intense interactions between players on how to best tackle the situation under time pressure is a good way to create an at-the-table environment where players and the GM have no choice but to be engaged.

The encounter doesn’t really sing as well as the advice does. A village with no compelling reason to go there and in decline. Rumored treasures in an ancient fortress in a cursed forest but you need to get that tidbit out of hostile and morose villagers. A three-way choice that nonetheless links back to the only choice that really works, though with different risks and rewards (unknown and unknowable) for each. Random unsatisfying PC death on a bridge if the dice come up badly (though only a 1% chance of that), and if a bad decision is made on that same bridge, a TPK may result. Quantum Ogre in the form of a wolf pack.

The article emphasizes that there should be something for each type of player to do; the example doesn’t highlight it very well and seems to be a pretty linear, bog-standard set of encounters with little of the opportunity to tackle problems in different ways that the article by the same author successfully makes the case are needed for good adventuring that doesn’t suck.

Listen! Do You Smell Something? By Anne K. Brown hits on some really good tips for ensuring that key bits of description are used properly to attempt to create in words what would be, if the players were actually in the situation, available for consumption by the five senses acting in dynamic concert. That is, you walk into a tavern. Great. Ah, but as you walk in, there’s great bustle and laughter. The room smells of good ale, hearty food, and furniture polish. As you walk across the floor, the floorboards resound with a solid thump, and a variety of open and shut windows provide ample light and shadow. Piles of coin belonging to the patrons lie mostly untended, but several obvious bouncers, and several not-so-obvious ones, give the reason why the patrons feel so unconcerned about their personal property – as demonstrated by the competent, quiet, and quick apprehension and removal of a would-be thief.

It’s good advice, and while one doesn’t have to hit all five senses and a sense of the “show, don’t tell” dynamics of every single 10’ square of a dungeon or adventure map, going down the list of senses – and broadening them past five given magical capabilities to detect power, alignment or origin, and other glamours – makes for a much more subtle way to convey information than “you detect orcs.”

She covers overdoing it too, and why that can be silly, which ties into the first piece: if your players can’t or won’t use the information, it can be cut.

The encounter is here a set piece that highlights the ways descriptive prose can be used to make a setting come alive, but is not an encounter as such. It’s a set-piece bit of fiction that would have to be pulled apart with decision points for players to be made useful. It’s deliberately over-written, I think, to show how each particular sense or “show don’t tell” can be engaged, but again: prose fiction, not a real adventure that can be played – it’s the setup to “you wake up naked in a dark room.”

Logical First Contact: Inventing Intelligent Science Fiction Aliens, by Timothy Brown is as useful for monsters as it is for aliens. It gives a step-by-step set of questions to ask to make sure that your creatures aren’t yet another humanoid in a rubber mask. The nice thing about Brown’s approach here is that it’s very “what matters, matters.” You don’t need to give your creature 2,745 years of pre-history. You need to know where it comes from, what its purpose for the story, what it’s good at, and other key adventure-driven questions. This is a tightly-written piece that provides some good guidance for ensuring that your creatures or aliens fit well into the scenarios planned for them, with many WTF?! moments ruled out by simply considering them ahead of time. The encounter, Feeding Time, has a novel threat, multiple solutions, and is written well enough that it can be dropped into many different types of starfaring campaigns with different game systems.

In There Are No Empty Rooms in the Wilderness, Stephen Chenault makes the too-frequently-forgotten point that simply crossing through wild terrain is an adventure in and of itself. He provided five key ingredients that a GM (he uses the phrase Castle Keeper, from Troll Lord Games) can easily deploy to keep a party on their toes, as well as providing details that will bring such a trek alive in the minds of the players. This short article is perhaps two full pages of text, but it hits the key highlights.

The sample Castles and Crusades adventure, Four Arrows and a River Running, has the party challenged to retrieve some special arrows from a body. I particularly enjoyed the setup here, because it’s ridiculously modular. A patron tells a story of a battle and of some prized possessions abandoned on the field. The adventure has at least a couple portable Quantum Challenges (things that can be easily ported from one location to the next) that have to do with terrain and wilderness being, you know, wild. There’s also a separate challenge that affords multiple solutions in the form of a not-too-bright monsters with goals that conflict with, but aren’t directly opposed, those of the players. This quick scenario is exactly the side-quest it seems, but is well executed and showcases one way that that wild terrain itself can be engaging.

Making a Villain, by Casey W Christofferson, offers up a variation of the theme that I heard recently with regard to Spider-Man: Homecoming – that a hero and a story is only as good as its villain. I discussed this at length in a prior post, where I apply the business framework used by General McChrystal to bad guys and organizations of bad guys. Christofferson covers some of the same ground, with a few particulars that are worth noting, especially in a magical context. There is one point where I’ll differ from the proffered advice in part, which is that no, the bad guy shouldn’t always be able to be defeated by the players – at least not immediately. When Inigo Montoya first met the six-fingered man, he was completely outclassed. The entire party of kidnappers: Inigo, Vicini, and Fezzik, was outclassed by their own personal boss monster: Wesley, as The Man in Black. Having a chief villain be in a different weight class than the players can be an outstanding plot device – and Christofferson states this outright as well (“A great villain doesn’t always have to be the “boss” character”), so my dissention is a matter of emphasis of this particular point – know your players proclivities and ability level, know the motivation, goal, strategy, tactics, and will/won’t of your bad guy, and set the disparity in power deliberately. But don’t feel that they have to be equal (that being said, as a GM you’d best signal that to the players, lest they walk into a TPK with no foreshadowing).

The example scenario, Honreed Duclaigh: A Dinner with Death sets out to use the previously delineated tools. The title has a typo: Honreed vs Honreet, the version with the ‘t’ used for the rest of the scenario. The scenario itself is what it says on the tin: it uses the advice from the main article to set up a villain, and presents a situation in which the players create their own enemy by either attempting or actually foiling the villain’s plan. The author covers the primary eventuality (the villain gets away and vows revenge on the PCs), but also acknowledges that players will be players and sometimes the bad guy just gets killed. A solid worked example.

The long-titled Raison D’etre – “Or Why Everything in Your Adventure Should Have A Reason for Being There” by Christopher Clark starts on a solid premise in the title alone: No Random Crap.

He sets up The Cave of Really Bad Adventure and then walks through reasons why it makes no sense. He then lays out ways of changing things that enhance verisimilitude (long a favorite topic for this blog and for GURPS and Dragon Heresy as systems). His focus on location or adventure rationale (which he also calls backstory) is to provide a skeleton of sensibility – the seeming of being true – that is key to not rip players out of the moment due to being mugged by incongruity.

He then turns The Cave of Really Bad Adventure into the example encounter, The Overlook, with notes on what was changed and why.

Know (and Love) What You Write gives Michael Curtis’ advice on how (and how not) to bring areas of interest and knowledge from your personal experience to the realms of adventure. As is a common thread of the entire book, the details you can bring from that knowledge to make the world seem immersive and tangible to the players (while retaining verisimilitude!) are the key. Curtis then turns to how to repel your players with that same interest in order to show the traps inherent in too much lecture and minutia where a few solid, tasty details and inspiration would do. He then gives the example to this, drawing on interest and knowledge of frontier American wilderness trading posts to plunk one down at a convenient level of a megadungeon in Denkin’s Trading Post and Rarities Brokerage. The things that need to be there are present (stables, lodging, healing, food), and the obvious is taken care of (why they’re there, defenses, escape routes). It’s a well thought out location that makes sense in an “if A, then B” kind of way: if you have a megadungeon, it would make sense that you’ll have a supply post close to it – as close as feasible. Why not inside the dungeon? Well, if you can get away with it . . . but it would be equally feasible to make each room or room cluster a building, drop a palisade around it, and stage the trading post a day’s journey to the megadungeon as well, with “town” a day or two in the opposite direction.

Breaking down an adventure into a set of encounters is common, and Chris Doyle goes fractal on you with How to Write Encounters that Don’t Suck.

I can see where this one will nicely divide several schools of thought. Doyle writes “first, it goes without saying that encounters need to be balanced for the adventuring party.” I’d look at this in two ways: the first is in the positive, in that if I purchase an adventure module for (say) D&D5e that is supposed to cater to adventurers of level 4-6, and there’s an encounter in there that is Challenge 18, that might miff the players a bit. On the flip side: no, encounters don’t need to be balanced. So long as there’s enough information or foreshadowing to prevent “rocks fall, everyone dies” events, having a “challenge” be to avoid the hell out of the five-headed dragon (with one head of each color type) holding court in a giant, ornate room if you’re a bunch of low-level schlubs is fair game. Knowing when to avoid a situation is a challenge – I remember a game in high school when we said to a bad guy “If we fight, we don’t know who will win here!” and he only replied “is that so?” We were so ridiculously outclassed, and we didn’t even know it. That’s a legit encounter. But proceeding on, stipulating that the encounters in an “adventure module” presumably will have guidance on the type of player characters is suitable for. They will either be level-appropriate or at least have enough warning to let a party know they’re about to step in it up to their necks. This doesn’t hold in a sandbox or open-ended campaign, where the players can merrily drown in their own folly.

Doyle hits this explicitly in the closing paragraphs of what might be considered the introduction to his essay: the assumption that the encounter is part of an adventure being written for sale, or to be run by other folks without author interference.

The key check-boxes he lists for an encounter are sound stuff. You get advice on initial impressions of the locale (“read-aloud text,”), description and details, stats, how a critter fights, treasure, and finally consequences and developments from that encounter.

Two bits on this: One thing that might be implied but could be made explicit. When describing a location or writing read-aloud text, ensure that priority of information is kept important. “Room detail, musky odor, furniture, mosaic on the wall, GIANT SLAVERING OGRE!” is not the right text. Door opens, musky odor wafts out, “GIANT SLAVERING OGRE is moving through broken furniture . . . “ and the rest can be dealt with after the party has survived the immediate threat. So use newspaper conventions – big details that are right in your face up front, and details later. In fact, Juan Ochoa gave me that advice about giving him art direction, and it’s good for read-aloud text and descriptions both. If you can give this general priority order in terms of high level to low-level detail, then the more your party searches, the more paragraphs can be read.

The second bit is a compliment on the bit on developments – what happens due to the noisy fight in Room 404? Spell it out. It’s good advice, and if there are options, provide them. As Doyle notes, that’s just good adventure design, and actions have consequences.

A two-page worked example follows, The Deadly Crevasse. It provides for a challenging encounter for a group of 8-10th level delvers. It has all the elements listed from the prior article, though not quite so set-piece literal as implied in the essay itself (this is to the good).

Turning from encounters that will be published to the publisher’s perspective, Joseph Goodman gives us A Publisher’s Perspective on Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck. It provides a smattering – a healthy smattering – of perspective on for whom you’re writing, and even more on why you’re writing. There’s a definite strain of “the right way is this way” to it, but I can’t argue with the premise: a good adventure is a fun adventure, and the way you determine that is to play the hell out of it and then write it for public consumption. If you’re writing to show off your backstory, your writing chops, or your game mechanics, in his experience, you won’t do as well as simply writing a rip-roaring skeleton of a scenario that’s fun to play.

Speaking of rip-roaring skeletons, Goodman’s Eye of the Storm encounter is quite interesting. It’s a neat scenario with a unique twist to it that reminds me of Peter Dell’Orto’s principle of conservation of Ninjitsu. It’s also an encounter where it’s entirely possible that the players will be entirely helpless to stop what is supposed to be happening – and Goodman includes a short and pithy text box on why that’s OK.

In another segment that is sure to raise hackles, Allen Hammack’s Keeping Encounters within the Capabilities of Your Players deals with exactly that. He not-entirely-jokingly suggests the subtitle here should be “Ways to Avoid Wiping Your Party.”

In general, things that happen to the players (“rocks fall, everyone dies”) are not fun, as they lack agency and also any sense of action/reaction. Things that happen because of the players (“we mocked and jeered and taunted a wandering one-eyed hermit. Turns out it was Odin. He killed us.”) are nearly always fair game. At least according to me.

But back to Hammack’s work. He lists 8 ways of pitting “fair” or “suitable” sets of foes against a notional group of PCs. Some of them are particularly interesting, and some will irk certain folks. As prime examples, I find his mention of keeping an encounter fresh (you don’t know what the foe’s vulnerabilities and tactics will be) to be spot-on – monsters that become rote become boring. His suggestion of dynamically altering the encounter balance in play will piss of a ton of folks, while others will shrug and say “well, yeah.”

His encounter The Goblinoid Differential sounds like a Ludlum novel. It may actually have been one, sandwiched between The Bourne Ultimatum, The Osterman Weekend, and The Jerome Maneuver. It outlines a fairly simple but annoying-by-design trap and how to scale it to the party in terms of spacing and distance, as well as damage.

Jon Hook then tackles Making Monsters Cooler, which is very similar to Peter Dell’Orto and my Dire and Terrible Monsters from Pyramid Magazine. It gives a dozen ways to buff up and differentiate creatures. This is great advice, because as Hammack mentions in the prior essay, keeping encounters fresh is a great way to keep the players engaged.

Not only does this section end with a chilling Eldritch horror, but All That Glitters Is Not Gold provides a really horrifying situation in which what seems like 100% awesome treasure is really 25% treasure and 75% “Greater Mimic.”

To Be Continued

That’s half the book thus far, and I’ll pick this thread up in a few days to continue the review. To the midpoint, then, there are some nuggets in here, and like much advice and education in a business course, once you hear it, many times you say “well, of course!” The best advice often feels that way.

A few places will drive certain folks into fits of pique – mostly the advice that takes as a given that the universe has arranged itself to provide only suitably challenging encounters for the PCs, rather than having the party be responsible for determining through roleplay and recon whether an encounter is survivable. The counterpoint there is that if I’m writing for sale a scenario that is supposed to be geared to level 11-13 adventurers, I’d better have written it with those capabilities in mind . . . so I think this guidance is on solid ground from a commercial perspective, even if not always a “life isn’t fair” one.

The essays are short and digestable, of 2-4 pages in length each. The scenarios mostly address the topics of the essays well, with a few exceptions to this point.

Overall, I’m pleased with what I got – and I also received a second book as part of the Kickstarter, plus a short pamphlet, both of which I’ll treat later. So was definitely worth the price of admission to me.

Part 2 of the review forthcoming!

7 thoughts on “Ballistic’s Report: How to Write Adventure Modules that Don’t Suck

  1. I doff my cap to your use of “athwartships”.

    I must now don it again at the first sentence, “I backed the Kickstarter…”, followed by many mentions of “it” and “the book”…

    Hm? What Kickstarter and what book? “How to Write Adventure Modules that Don’t Suck” – is that the name of a Kickstarter/book?

    1. Yep, “How to write…” is the book title. I will add pictures and other clarification is once I get to a place with actual bad with

    2. Yep, “How to write…” is the book title. I will add pictures and other clarification is once I get to a place with actual bandwidth

  2. I had the same concern. I couldn’t tell what this article was about at first, until I googled “How to write adventure modules that don’t suck.”

  3. Thanks, D, for the great review of the book (which I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise). I really like its concept: not another broad “how to GM” guide, but a deep delve into adventure creation. Lord knows I can always use good advice on that…

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