Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's an Adventure Worth

Commercially, adventures are a paradox. When you talk to people about what game products they want (especially older gamers who are more likely to be pressed for time) one of the first things they'll say is "Adventures". But, historically, adventures really don't sell well. A recent breakdown from Black Diamond Games runs some numbers that illustrate this pretty well, and also give a decent breakdown of why this is. The biggest reason is obvious in retrospect - in a group of 5 people for a random system, you probably have 4-5 copies of any "core" books. Supplemental books have one likely purchaser (the GM) and usually at least one other likely purchaser (other GMs in the group, or people who dig that particular topic). Adventures have an audience limited entirely to the GM, and only some GMs will buy any adventure for a host of reasons.

Given that adventures are also usually smaller and less expensive, that makes them low-volume, low-margin products. Plus, (and this is more 4e specific) they compete with free material from sources like dungeon magazine. At first glance, that may seem like a reason for an independent person to bother with getting into, but I'd argue that the reality is the opposite for two reasons.

First, while the market for PDFs is not universal, I think people are a lot more open to trying electronic products for things they consider "disposable", like adventures. Second, while a larger company cannot reasonably consider producing a three to five dollar product and still making their nut, a lone enthusiast can do that and make a fair return. The appeal of the 4e[1] market is that even a small slice of it is pretty large on the scale that small game publisher's operate on. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but the point is that as a small publisher looking to publish electronically, the "adventures don't sell" adage is less of a barrier than you might think.

But if you are looking at publishing an adventure there's a lot of baggage to get rid of. There is an idea of a "Standard adventure format" that almost everyone who has played D&D is familiar with. It's a few pages of backstory that may or may not ever come up in play[2], then a map or three with a number key and each room detailed as an encounter. Add in perhaps one transit zone (an outdoor map with, like, 4 encounters), a random table or two, and an appendix with stats for monsters and treasures, and you're done.

This. Is. Crap.

At this point there are decades of habit attached to this form, and it's easy enough to do not-badly that we will probably never be rid of it, but man, if this is what you're planning to do for your adventure, then just stop for a second and think. Consider the differences between 4e and first edition D&D. Consider the differences between how you play now and how you played back when you started gaming.[3] If it's apparent to you that things have changed drastically over that time, then ask yourself why the adventures haven't.

Now, this is not entirely fair. There have been interesting adventures that have really tried push the boundaries of the form, but they exist primarily as one-offs and oddities. Sometimes this is because the alternate solutions were not very good (remember adventures coming packed with sound effect CDs?) but more often it's because it's a lot simpler to stick to a template, and none of the deviations from the template were such great commercial successes to demand change.[4] And, of course, some of the adventures in this classic format have been genuinely good. Even more of them have been made good through the talents of committed DMs and excited players and that muddies the waters a little.

The point at the end of this is simple: do not feel bound by the structure of traditional adventures as you create your own. Look at your own notes and preparation and consider whether you could make an adventure that looks more those. Look at the things you need to copy or mark up in an adventure and ask yourself why they're not right there in the module. Make the adventure that would be useful at your table today, not at a table in Wisconsin in 1979.

To that end, here are a few points to think about.

Kill Boxed Text - seriously. This is a terrible legacy of the days when it was critically important to mention that there were exactly 7 torches on the eastern wall. Every time I think we're past this particular chestnut, it springs up somewhere else. Instead, consider using that wordspace for something that's actually useful to the GM's and the players. Use it to frame the encounter as a scene, giving the GM an idea of how it's expected things will unfold, and ways it will probably go wrong. This might take the form of tactical advice, or it might be a description to the GM that is actually interesting enough that he doesn't need boxed text.

That's the real kicker of course. Things which actually grab the GM and player attention don't need boxed text. Boxed text is a way to convey the boring stuff. And you gotta ask: if it's boring, do you really need it in your game?

Take Advantage of The Format - If your PDF adventure looks like a book that hasn't been printed, you've wasted an opportunity. You aren't bound by the need to make a specific page count or to conserve whitespace. Consider that a PDF lets you do something as simple as put each encounter on its own page so the GM can easily reference them at the table. That's HUGELY more convenient. In fact, if you assume that people might want to print the useful parts of the PDF, you can go a step further and make sure to include space for notes, tracking damage and anything else. Include handouts because, dammit, if you're printing stuff out anyway, then handouts are AWESOME.

And hell, if you've got the technical chops, make the PDF have a few bells and whistles too. Note sections, checkmark boxes to track monster hit points and power use. This isn't mandatory, but it's certainly a nice bonus.

The challenge, to my mind, is this: can you make your adventure so the GM doesn't need to bring any other paper to the table? Can he print out what he needs, use it for notation, and be done? Consider all the things that you, as a GM, keep track of during an adventure[5], and what that would suggest. It's daunting, but amazing once you realize it's doable.

Play With Structure - Dungeons are great, but they're only one way to make for good adventures. Look at things like rich locations (Hammerfast), Flowcharts (White Wolf's SAS, 3e's SPeaker in dreams), Hard & Soft Points (Alderac's 7th Sea/L5R adventures), Plot Points (Savage Worlds), Three Fight Scenes (Feng Shui) and many more for ideas of ways to present information. And this leads into the next point:

Steal Good Ideas - Read adventures from games you don't play. It's an amazingly informative thing to do, because in the absence of an understanding of mechanics, the heart of the adventure is laid bear, and sometimes wonderful and sometimes it's just embarrassing to see. There have been a lot of good ideas in adventure design in a lot of different places, but not many of them have trickled back up to D&D adventure design. This is an opportunity for you. Companies may trademarks terms (Pinnacle has apparently trademarked "Plot Point Adventures") but the general method of presentation can be reused freely, just call it something else.

Repurpose Existing Tools - There are certain classic elements to an adventure like the overland map, the hometown, the random encounter tables and so on that are not bad ideas, they just have been treated badly in the traditional format[6]. Fleshing out any of these elements in unexpected ways can bear unexpected use.

Consider Usage - How many good fight scenes can you get in over the course of one session? Me, if I want them to be really good and compelling, we're talking 2, maybe 3 in one sitting. Certainly I can squeeze in more if they're just gimmicky little fights, but I don't like even bothering with those. Plus, if the non-fight stuff is actually going to be interesting, that chews up time too. So with that in mind, how much use do you think a 47 room dungeon is to me? Deferred reward is nice to a point, but something like that is going to take me weeks to go through[7], and I promise you that in several weeks, my players expect a LOT more. If one of my games were to go 6 weeks without some sort of major turn, I'd have a mutiny on my hands. 6 weeks in a dungeon? Hell no.

Now, that's just me. Maybe you go through fights more quickly. Maybe you're more comfortable with small, fast fights rather than big setpieces. it doesn't matter. What does matter is that people actually need to play this adventure, and that's going to take time. With that in mind, consider each encounter: is this awesome enough to merit me spending my time on, or is it just a speedbump between me and the good stuff? There's a completist urge to put a monster in every room, to make the player fight every inch of the way to the end, and that's got its place, but I don't need to pay you money for a mediocre, time-chewing experience. If it's not going to make the adventure more awesome, just skip it, no matter how much you feel it "needs" to be there.

1 - I'm couching this primarily in 4e terms because it's easier than speaking generally, but a lot of this will apply to any other game as well. Some things are different - I'd be very leery of publishing adventures for a non-open game system, for example, because of IP issues - but the broad strokes are the same. Plus, there's a nice law of inverses at work - other games have smaller markets, yes, but they also tend to be proportionally hungrier for adventures.

2- And if it does come up, it may just take the form of an infodump from an old sage or the like. That is not a meaningful improvement over "never coming up".

3 - If not, the old school renaissance is probably more up your alley. Totally cool if so, but that's not something I can offer much insight on.

4 - That said, man, I am hoping that 4e's new Adventure Site model sells well. Most interesting shift in published adventures since White Wolf's SAS.

5 - When I was running exalted (a white wolf system that uses lots of d10s) i did all my prep on special paper that I'd prepared by printing in advance. I created a left hand sidebar that was 10 characters wide and filled it with random numbers. Since exalted required a lot of die rolling, I used the paper to save myself headaches - if I needed to roll 5 dice, i could just cross off the next 5 numbers and use those as rolls. Something like this for 4e would be a little trickier, but still totally doable.

6 - To this day, I think that X1: The Isle of Dread, is one of the most brilliant adventures of all time, which is absolutely GUTTED by the necessities of presentation.

7 - And going through it will reveal that it's 10% awesome and 90% filler. I'd rather have a 4 room dungeon that's 100% awesome and be done in 1 or two session, simple as that.


  1. giving the GM an idea of how it's expected things will unfold, and ways it will probably go wrong

    So few adventures do this... the Giant's Skull was one where reading all the room descriptions was pointless because the alert system ended up bringing all the monsters together in one room. And the druid's "pet bears" turned out to be the biggest deathtrap in the module -- I went in excited and went out astonished.

  2. This is a subject near and dear to my heart - I'm in the middle of an adventure writing spree.

    95% of boxed text is useless, but it still has its place occasionally. i use it for transitional cut-scenes, and Robin Laws introduced the concept of 'stock footage' (little nuggets of well-written descriptive prose) in one ToC book.

  3. I second Gareth on box text for things like cut scenes. It's silly for room descriptions, but it's great for say, describing the scene in a scrying pool. For futuristic games like Eclipse Phase, I like using it for clues like recovered video footage.

  4. I'll fully concede the 5% utility case for boxed text, but I feel the 95% crap case SO outweighs it that it's easier to ditch than fix.

    That said, perhaps it might be more apt to put it in the same category as wandering monster encounter tables - something historically done badly, but with the potential to actually be a good tool.

  5. I'd expand on a couple of your points, especially the one about how space is not a limiting factor in PDFs, and say that adventures need to include an explanation of how they are used. And I don't mean that boilerplate that is exactly the same in every adventure in a line. Really explain how this module should be used. Explain how to fit it into my ongoing campaign, which encounters I can readily tweak to insert an interstitial featuring my recurring villain, which artifacts are storyline items and which are macguffins that I can swap out for my own purposes. Importantly, don't offer me bland, uninspired adventure hooks, point out what the key elements of the adventure are that I will want to hook my characters to (in a way I fashion to appeal to my players) so that they will stay hooked for the duration. Importantly, help me understand how this adventure brings the fun, and how to adjust my play style to make it work better. If you expect the characters to consider non-combat methods of dealing with adversaries in a combat-oriented game, for example, explain to me how I can help the players see that, this time, there are alternatives when, in most published adventures, they aren't supported.

    I'm sure there are modules that do all of this in an intelligent and useful manner, but the only ones I know of that even come close are B1: In Search of the Unknown, B2: Keep on the Borderlands and X1: Isle of Dread, and they features glaring omissions on this front too.

    What I want, really, is an adventure that does, for its format, what Spirit of the Century, Dirty Secrets, Solar System (language and organizational issues notwithstanding) and A Penny for my Thoughts do for RPG texts: actually explain how to play them without assuming a bunch of play style elements from the oral tradition.

    P.S. Heather says "hi," Rob :)

  6. There is one big cost hurdle for adventures you don't mention: maps.

    If I was John Harper, I'd do nothing but make spiffy adventures for 4e. That would be awesome.

    But I'm not. And I can't. So I don't. Because buying maps from freelancers gets to be expensive.

  7. I think maps are one area where, by and large, the old school had it right. Spiffy maps typically suffer from poor usability at the table. Of xourse, like a lot of the things Rob mentioned, you should make the decision about shiny or functional maps deliberately based on the situation at hand, but the pendulum currently is too far to the shiny side for my money.

    Although, yeah, John seems to find a nice balance. Very few game cartographers are that good, alas. I bet he can find better paying work than gaming materials, though.

  8. Is there an actual definition for the "new 4E Adventure Site model" or is that just an informal title you're throwing around...

    I was able to find definitions on "Hard Points & Soft Points" but not on "Adventure Site"

  9. @Steven it's actually WOTC's term for what looks like a new product line of which only one product is out so far, Hammerfast. More than a straight up adventure, the design is more "An interesting place with stuff in it." There's another one scheduled for July, but that's all I know. I'll say it has the *feel* of an experiment.

    -Rob D.

  10. Maps actually touch on a point I meant to bring up. As much as maps that are crazy pretty are awesome (and John has doen some nice tutorials on making pretty maps), unless you're also publishing a poster, then it's still just going to be something drawn on a whiteboard or represented with tiles anyway, so erring on the side of simplicity is no great crime.

    To me, most important art in adventures is often maps, diagrams and flowcharts. Other art is nice, but disposable, and adventures are much more forgiving on the art front than other types of books. This is a bog bonus for a potential publisher - clip art (used well) is much less of a strike against in an adventure.

  11. What I want to see is something like Armitage Files for Trail of Cthulhu or The Kaiin Player's Guide for The Dying Earth RPG (both by Robin Laws) - adventure source material for players, that throws out hook and inspiration for the GM.

    Dunno how it'd work in 4E though - that's why I need someone else to make it, rather than doing it myself :-)

  12. I have to admit I miss the medium-sized campaign settings, like Chaosium used to produce for 2nd Edition Runequest. Ptolus might also be a good example of this. Most of the campaign settings you see nowdays look at the big "global" picture, rather than providing a setting that can be used to place your own adventures (and theirs). The small detail of most settings has been pushed into Adventures, which is where you don't necessarily want it.

    Although I do admit that if I ever did run 4e (unlikely), something like your random dungeon generator list would probably be the way to go (given 4e's reliance on pre-set battleboards for interesting encounters). As to whether there is a market for encounter packs (something that the gamemaster can quickly break open and use, complete with printable battleboard and monster counters, as well as ready to use checksheets, without having the preset context of an adventure), that is probably an unknown quantity.

  13. Tying in to your "Consider Usage" point, as well as your reference to Feng Shui's "Three Fight Scenes": what do you think of the Dungeon Delve format, and the book of the same name?

  14. @Jim i think it's a great idea, but I think a physical book is the wrong format for it.

  15. I think boxed text falls squarely into "not bad ideas, they just have been treated badly." Boxed text, when of reasonable length and when pared down to the information that's actually critical, is an excellent format for gathering into one place the information that needs to be communicated to the players at the beginning of a scene or location. It helps the GM make sure he doesn't leave anything out when getting the players started. Then, he can review the in-depth material on that scene while the players are making a plan.


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