Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: How To Write Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck by Goodman Games


Product: How To Write Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck
Publisher: Goodman Games
People: Chris Doyle, Mike Ferguson, Joseph Goodman, Ken Hart, Andrew Hind, Brendan LaSalle, Rick Maffei, Adrian Pommier, and Jeremy Simmons
Price: Printed Edition $29.99, PDF $6.99

Birthed from a series of Gen Con seminars beginning in 2007, How To Write Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck is a series of essays from nine different writers providing an industry view of how to not suck when writing adventures.

According to Joseph Goodman, owner of Goodman Games, the purpose of the book is to "provide tips to improve your adventure-writing skills. We hope you benefit from improved home games and perhaps drive some quality submissions in our direction."

We'll break the review down by essay, trying to give you a feel for the product as a whole. We've included author biographies from the essays as well.

Note that this review is for the PDF version found on DTRPG. The hardback is 100 pages long and much more expensive.

Essay 1 - Things I Look For by Joseph Goodman

Joseph Goodman wrote his first RPG at the age of 10 and has been professionally involved in the industry since the age of 17. He currently owns Goodman Games, where he created the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of adventure module. In his essay, Joseph describes a list of 20 things he looks for in an adventure. While his list specifically targets his Dungeon Crawl line, most can be used for any type of adventure. 

The major takeaway from this essay is that good adventure writing is just good writing. Things like strong narrative, good pacing, subplots, plot twists, and memorable encounters could easily be found in an essay on story craft.

Below is the list of things he considers when reviewing submissions to Goodman Games. The essay dives into each of them in some detail. I can remember some home brew campaigns that could have used this treatment.
  1. A sense of the fantastic
  2. Memorable encounters
  3. Hard work on thinking out great encounters
  4. New twist on old classics
  5. Easter eggs
  6. Intelligent treasure
  7. A good villain
  8. Sequel potential
  9. Distinctive levels
  10. Strong narrative
  11. Secret doors
  12. Thought requirements
  13. Good pacing
  14. Group involvement
  15. Twists - preferably at the end
  16. Subplots
  17. New monsters
  18. Start with a bang
  19. Intelligent ecology
  20. Consistent atmosphere 
Overall, the essay is well thought out but short. His focus appears to be more on submissions rather than home games. Still, there are multiple points of good advice for anyone.

Essay 2 - From Concept to Outline to Design By Chris Doyle

Chris Doyle has been a professional freelance writer for the RPG industry since 1991. He has been published in several magazines, including Polyhedron, Inquest, and Dungeon. He has worked for West End Games, TSR, Atlas Games, Wizards of the Coast, and more recently with Goodman Games.

This essay gives a straightforward approach to writing adventures with references Goodman Games modules so you can see how the method manifests itself into a finished product. As with the first essay, his suggested strategy maps closely to good story plotting guidelines. The general flow is
  1. Concept - a few lines about adventure.
  2. Plotline - The backstory and general flow of the adventure. A good adventure should be as fun to read as it is to play.
  3. Outline (in order)
    1. List Challenges - list the encounters, traps, puzzles and other challenges encountered on the adventure.
    2. Monster/NPC Stat Generation - do all the stats at once to keep them from interrupting the creative flow later.
    3. Draft Maps - based on the encounters, map the adventure taking into account the ecology needed to support the encounters.
  4. Write - the fun part.
  5. Playtest - vital to making sure the adventure works. 
Of course, there's a lot more meat in the essay than included here. The author is highly prescriptive, which is great for a new adventure writer.

Essay 3 - Writing Adventures For Your Audience By Brendan J. LaSalle

Brendan J. LaSalle is a writer, game designer and odd-job man who had the good fortune to discover his true calling in 1977 when he was introduced to AD&D. He is the creator of Xcrawl and the author of several DCC adventures for Goodman Games. 

This is one of my favorite essays of the set, partly because Brendan writes it for the homebrew adventure writer rather than the folks who want to turn pro. His admonitions include
  1. Decide what you want to accomplish by gaming.
  2. Decide what you want to avoid in your game.
  3. Choose the elements of your game and play style in order to accomplish those goals.
  4. Run an entertaining game with energy and enthusiasm.
  5. Listen to feedback from your players and tailor the game to maximize everyone’s fun.
While those points are great, I liked the following sections more.

  • Write for Your Players!
  • Write for Your Characters!
  • Surprise the Players
Brendan gives great advice for how to include everyone in the adventure to ensure maximum enjoyment. If you read only one of the essays, read this one.

Essay 4 - Verisimilitude By Adrian Pommier

Adrian has written or co-written several Goodman Games modules, including DCC #51: Castle Whiterock, DCC #55: Isle of the Sea Drake, DCC #61: Citadel of the Corruptor, and some not yet in print. For the last four years, Adrian has also orchestrated the annual Gen Con DCC tournament module from initial concept to managing the writers to running the tournament itself.

Verisimilitude is the believability of a character or story. With adventures, verisimilitude means that things are believable within the context of the setting. 

Adrian tells the story of a grand uncle who ran D&D campaigns. One campaign was derailed when he put a giant octopus in a cavern lake. What started as a Moria-like monster rising from dark waters to attack the party turned into a lot of questions around how the octopus arrived, the water salinity needed to sustain it, and arguments about whether the octopus as a critical puzzle to be solved as part of the adventure. The problem was, an octopus in a cavern lake wasn't believable - even in a fantasy setting.

The author's point is that verisimilitude comes from plausibility, following the rules, and asking the "Who, what, how, where, when, and why?” questions around story elements. It also gives advice on when to use Counter-Verisimilitude to provide plot hooks.

Verisimilitude is another of my favorite essays in this work. Read this after reading 3 and 8.

Essay 5 - Villains By Rick Maffei

Rick Maffei has been playing one edition of D&D or another since 1977. He is a charter member of the infamous “Goodman Games East” writers’ contingent.

The essay on villains follows best practices for character development. Rick suggests following the three Ps: past, present, and purpose. Understand the villain's past, what they're doing now, and what drives them. 

Other advice includes
  • Avoiding “Cardboard” Villains
  • Providing Variety to your Villains 
  • Villains should not be defined by equipment
  • Avoid Cliché Villains such as 
    • An evil necromancer near a graveyard
    • A lich in a trap-filled tomb
    • A vampire living in a castle
    • An orc chieftain in a humanoid-filled fortress
    • An assassin guild master (dressed all in black, of course)
    • A plotting wizard in his tower
  • Give Villians a Soft Spot
  • Give the characters a connection to the villain
  • Advice on Secondary Villains
  • Advice on Recurring Villains
  • Play Fair - Let the villain fall if the characters legitimately beat them earlier than expected 
  • Let the Villain Evolve
The essay contained good advice for anyone looking to make memorable villains.

Essay 6 - Puzzles By Mike Ferguson

Mike Ferguson has been a gamer and writer for over twenty years, ever since his first character stumbled across an underground spaceship on an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. He’s been hooked on gaming ever since. First published in Dragon Magazine in 1999, his writing credits include work for Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo, and a whole bunch of adventures for Goodman Games.

Goodman Games likes the old Gygaxian puzzles found in Tomb of Horrors or White Plume Mountain. This essay gives advice on how to craft those puzzles so the characters enjoy vs. dread them.

His advice falls along the lines of making puzzles an enhancement for an adventure rather than something that must be solved before the adventure can continue. Correct answers can be fluid - if the players come up with a great answer that makes sense, go with it. Finally, play test your riddles on your friends before your players encounter them.

While I'm not a puzzle GM, I still found the essay an interesting read. If you are a puzzle GM, this essay is vital reading. 

Essay 7 - Two Crucial Rules By Jeremy Simmons 

Jeremy is a crusty old gamer from the early Gygax days, gradually accepting the ways of the young ‘uns. He cut his teeth on Tomb of Horrors, Against and the Giants, Ghost Tower of Inverness, and other such dinosaur classics of the genre. He’s a huge fan of mood, setting, and story; these are what transports the players into the game.

This is a short essay that admonishes authors to remember the Adventure is all about the story. That a story is a lot better when it's  not burdened by unneeded weight. It's the same for general writing: don't make your readers read more than necessary so don't make your players play more than needed for a great story.

Essay 8 -  RPG Editing & Proofreading Advice: Trust No Word! By Ken Hart

Ken is a pop culture fanatic and freelance RPG editor/writer for Goodman Games. Over the past two decades, He's worked as an editor or writer in a variety of fields (computer tech, entertainment, healthcare). His career highlight: He was legally threatened by Spelling Entertainment over his Melrose Place satirical website, which led to his 15 minutes of fame in TIME magazine in 1997.

There are many paths to becoming a pro. Editing is one of them. This article has some great advice on editing both your own material and the material of others. It's one of the longest essays of the group but also the one with the best information content. After reading Essay 3, jump to this one next.

Essay 9 - Designing Planar Adventures That Don’t Suck By Andrew Hind

Andrew Hind has written several Dungeon Crawl Classics for Goodman Games: DCC #5: Aerie of the Crow God, DCC #45: Malice of the Medusa, and DCC #24: Legend of the Ripper. He has been published by several other RPG companies as well. His most recent work is an article in Kobold Quarterly #9 detailing the Mayan bat god, Camazotz. Beyond the gaming field, he has co-authored several books, including the newly released Niagara: Daredevils, Dangers and Extraordinary Stories (Lone Pine Publishing).

I don't do planar adventures but I do write them so this essay was of interest. It discusses the larger-than-even-fantasy-life adventures and rewards that come from adventures to the planes. I enjoyed the section on making things Weird and Wonderful. It has great ideas if you're adventure takes the players out of the mortal realm.

Conclusion

The work is short, about 26 pages of content, but well worth the read. It's likely a must-read if you have aspirations of publishing with Goodman games. The advice should work with any genre but, again, it's highly tailored to the Dungeon Crawl Classics line.  I'm not sure it's worth the $30 asking price for the physical copy but the $6 PDF is a fair price.

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