Tuesday, September 24, 2019

On (the Game of) Writing Adventures

A few weeks back Dave and Dan had another good episode discussing the "role" of the Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons...what are the responsibilities of the DM, what are the expectations placed on the DM, and why they themselves enjoy running games. While I don't think their dialogue does much to put the topic to bed, the conversation raises some interesting "thinking points" for consideration.

One concept they reach, that I don't think unreasonable, is that while there clearly seems to be a number of responsibilities (hats worn) by a DM, many DMs (including themselves) have particular responsibilities they prefer more than others. To me, this is not unlike a player saying that the thrill of combat, or the solving of puzzles, or the interaction with NPCs is their preferred portion of exploring the imaginary environment of a campaign. Clearly, the majority of us play D&D because we enjoy what it offers, but some aspects of it offer more "juice" than others.

For me, MY particular preference is for designing and running adventures. Campaign or world building is actually a bit of a slog for me...it's a means to an end, that end being the parameters for a particular adventure. And yet, I would guess I am far away from the current norm of adventure design: I have little concern for plot or story arc or the design and writing of "interesting characters" (NPCs). I enjoy creating situations and scenarios for exploration and I do so in a formulaic fashion designed around the D&D system...based on whichever edition I happen to be using at the time. 

I outlined my basic design formula waaaay back in 2015 (about four years ago). It's the method I continue to use, more or less, and the method I am currently using to repurpose the 5E adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. It's a system based mainly on treasure allocation compared to the expected level of player characters participating in the adventure, mixed in the proper proportions of monster-obstacle-rest that I have found fully functional for pacing in actual play.

Has anyone here ever taken a screenwriting class? For those who haven't (but who are interested in the process), I'd recommend Syd Field's Screenplay as the non-nonsense instructional work on how to write a solid film script. Films we watch may have more (or less) interesting stories than others, they may have more (or less) developed characters, they may have better (or worse) dialogue, but nearly all of them follow the exact same formula when it comes to writing them. Good, bad, or meh. There are reasons films tend to be the same length (120 minutes, or 90 for those aimed at younger audiences with shorter attention spans). The plot points, their pacing, are all based on standards established over the many decades of the film industry. 

For me, the fun and enjoyment of adventure design is found working within the formula that I choose to use (as outlined, in the main, by Tom Moldvay). The adventure in D&D is, after all, only a means to an end itself:

- It delivers the experience of D&D to the players.
- It provides the method (through reward) by which players advance, opening additional opportunities (i.e. content) for play.

Dragon of Icespire Peak, despite some interesting and creative ideas, is an extremely simplistic and (for my money) poor design hindered by the 5E's variant system of advancement...in this case, the "milestone" system of simply awarding a level of advancement upon successful quest completion.

[fun side note: I developed an alternate system of level advancement also using the term "milestones" long before 5E was published. This was back in 2010 and was inspired in part by Saga Star Wars's "destiny points" to represent a more streamlined bonus. Since my "B/X Star Wars" game (later re-named "Kloane War Knights") has yet to be published, its original format has not yet seen the light of day (other than this blog), but you can see the same application in my Five Ancient Kingdoms, copyright 2013...a year before 5E was published. Pay me, WotC!]

[yes, 4E had a "milestone" rule procedure; it was not related to the awarding of experience/levels]

ANYway...Dragon of Icespire Peak divides its various adventure scenarios (called "quests") into the following types: starting quests, follow-up quests (divided into two tiers), and the main dragon quest/fight. Characters are awarded one level for each starter quest up until 3rd level, one level for every two follow-up quests (presumably up to 6th), and then one more level for defeating the dragon. The adventure states that characters "should be 6th level" by the end of the adventure (and indeed, the box says it is designed to take characters from levels one to six), but a group of completist players are going to end up being 7th level by the letter of the milestone rules...and I'm not sure I'd buy that.

Here's the treasure yields I'm considering, using the B/X fighter level chart as a baseline (yes, AD&D fighters need more XP starting at level 5, but if you subtract the 10% experience bonus most such PCs would expect to have, it amounts to the same numbers or less):

Starter Quests: 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 1): 10,000 g.p. each
Follow-Up Quests (tier 2): 20,000 g.p. each
Dragon (main) Quest: 80,000 g.p.

Considering that even a white dragon has treasure type H (average yield: 50,000 g.p.) this should be pretty doable. Icespire Hold has 24 encounter areas total (counting the two H22 areas as "A" and "B"), which works nicely with my formulaic approach:

8 monsters areas (4 have treasure)
4 trap/hazard areas (1 has treasure)
4 "special" areas (1 has treasure)
9 empty areas (1 has treasure)
With perhaps 1 "extra" treasure area. 

Rough treasure yields for the main quest will thus be:

40,000 g.p.
20,000 g.p. 
10,000 g.p.
5,000 g.p.
2,500 g.p.
1,250 g.p.
1,250 g.p. (or 625 g.p. x2)

These are parameters I'm happy to work with; more, I'm excited to work with them. Even using a formulaic system, I find it a cool challenge to see what I can come up with, working within self-imposed design limitations. I'm not concerned with the XP yield of monsters, as combat/killing monsters isn't a requirement of the D&D editions I run. That XP is incidental, and will (hopefully) make up the difference for treasure the party misses; I never expect PCs to find every last scrap of loot in an adventure site. As I'll be taking the same approach with every "quest" in the book, there will be more than enough potential XP (found treasure) to advance the PCs...assuming they play well enough to survive and find said treasure. 

I can understand if this seems like a "soulless" approach to adventure design, but I find it to be the opposite. In practice, I've discovered that taking care of the mechanical aspect of the award system up front provides me the freedom to run adventures to the best of my ability, managing the minutia, playing the NPC adversaries (and allies), creating the experience (through pacing and narration) in the players' minds that allows them to enjoy playing D&D. Involved story arcs and fancy plot devices are paltry in comparison.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything here. I get tired of hearing how important "role playing" is in the game. World building is nice, as an outline, but it's not even necessary. The fun, for me at least, is in the exploration and accrual of experience/treasure/weapons/magic.

  2. I'll check out that script writing resource you mentioned.

    Milestone advancement though goes back pretty far. True20 had it in 2005. Mutants & Masterminds had it in 2002. There were some others in the 90s, but I can't recall them right now.

    There is nothing wrong with a formulaic approach. Like you said it allows the mechanics to take care of themselves and you can focus on creativity.

    1. @ Tim:

      Have never actually checked out True20; I don’t remember the mechanic in M&M, but that makes sense if I took it from there (since I first picked M&M up in the summer of 2010 *after* getting Saga Star Wars). Huh...that’s pretty wild. I’ll have to go back and take a look.

      The idea of “leveling up” upon completion of a quest isn’t anything new; there are AD&D adventure modules that suggest all characters earn a level upon completion (I believe Tomb of Horrors is one). However, I thought my use of the term “milestone” and linking the mechanic to life events (which we commonly call “milestones” in a person’s life) was fairly original.

      Just goes to show...I’m not nearly as original as I thought.
      ; )

    2. Hmm...on the other hand, I just spent the last couple hours combing through three editions of Mutants & Masterminds as well as a PDF of the revised True20 core rulebook, and I find ZERO MENTION of the "milestone" advancement, nor even the term "milestone." All of them seem to use DM fiat as a method of advancement, which is not quite the same thing. Can you cite a reference for me, Tim?

      Guess I *am* a bit more original.

  3. IMO, any true-to-origin adventure wherein GP = XP *must* begin w/ a treasure budget. Do you want each PC to level from this adventure? Or is this a side-quest where they gain half a level. When you know the level range you are designing for, the average amount of XP for a character to go from X level to Y level must then be referenced. Some multiplier of this number (1/4th, 1/2, 1, or maybe even 2 if the place is vast and you don't think they'll explore the whole map) is then multiplied by the number of characters the adventure is designed for. This final number is generally shocking to people who don't a) play in GP = XP games and b) don't understand how to run an economy that places big demands on rich adventurers. In other words, I support formulas at the very beginning of adventure design. They are, IMO, an essential step.

  4. Well great...now I need to write a post about Adventure Design or my lack there of. Thanks JB. ;)

    We definitely do things differently and much of what you don't like about DMing is why I sit down to GM in the first place: Campaign Design, World Building, and Creating Interesting NPCs.

    I haven't 'written' an adventure in nearly 35 years. I have names of people, places, creatures, plot ideas, notes, but no adventure is written up. How could it be? I have no guarantee which way the PCs will go or what they will do.

    This is a fascinating read. As was a recent post on Gnome Stew reviewing Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Workbook.

    Incredibly interesting to me to see how the other half lives. So to speak.

    1. @ AD:

      In case it was unclear, I’m only talking about adventure design in D&D. My approach to other games I’ve run (from various supers games to D6 Star Wars to Vampire and Ars Magica) have been VERY different and “non-formulaic” (usually PC-driven)...although I personally wouldn’t judge them to be as successful as my D&D games (my players may have differing opinions).

    2. I understand that you're only referring to D&D. or more specifically how you think about D&D Adventures, but it still strikes me as interesting that our approaches differ so much.

      Treasure, Monsters, etc., even when I have run D&D these are pretty much the very last things I think about.

      Well, I might think of a cool monster I read about in a folklore books or a neat idea for a magical item that is more clever than powerful, but they are nowhere near the focus of my scenario design such as it is.

      Also, just the phrase 'Writing Adventures' is fascinating to me. Do people do that? Actually write down the adventure they're going to run? How exactly? Like an old module? Many, many thoughts on this.

    3. Hmm...I didn't use the phrase "writing adventures" in this post ("designing adventures," yes). If I did so in a prior post it was a misnomer as I don't actually "write" much at all when crafting scenarios.

      Though, for this little exercise I *will* be trying my hand at actually writing it up...for sale, in this case.

      AD, I'm familiar with your dislike of D&D as a system, so I'm a bit surprised you've done any DMing of it at all (that's not meant as a jab). Now I'm super curious as to your history with the game. Which edition did you come in on? Mentzer? 2nd edition? Did you come to it through a different "gateway RPG" that taught you things like monsters and treasure were unimportant? I agree that the differences in our perspective are very interesting...from my point of view, the monsters and treasure aspect of the game are the *most* important elements of the game's setting!

      Anyway, would like to hear more...either here or on your own blog.
      : )

    4. (Ha! I actually see now that the title of my post is “writing adventures!” Sorry...I’m ridiculous)

    5. "I have names of people, places, creatures, plot ideas, notes, but no adventure is written up."

      That is the adventure.

  5. And I sit squarely in the middle. I like creating worlds and NPCs but having a mechanical skeleton or framework to build off of helps to get the juices flowing. I've learned that for me, I really need to have tools and structures to use and repurpose.