Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 13, 2012
 
Building an adventure

The law of the instrument states that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". In other words, the tools you have available very much influence how you approach any given task. That is very noticeable to me when creating adventures for Dungeons & Dragons. I used to be a DM in my first 15 years of roleplaying, then went 15 years as a player, and now I'm back to being a DM. And both technological progress and my financial situation have changed a lot in those 15 years. Which means that today I have a whole lot of different and more powerful tools at my disposal than in my first DMing period.

Technology has a way of becoming so ubiquitous that many people can't remember how life was before some technology arrived. When I created my first dungeons 30 years ago, my computer was a ZX81 with 16k of memory, and there was no internet. I drew my dungeons by hand on graph paper, and wrote notes on monsters and treasures by hand. Later I had an Amiga with a 9-needle dot matrix printer, where I could print out adventure notes on green continuous form paper. Then I went to university, where I encountered the first versions of the internet: Not with HTML and browsers, but using Telnet protocol to access bulletin board services and Usenet on a green on black, text-only screen. Especially Usenet had a wealth of materials for pen & paper roleplaying, like lists of magic items or traps.

Today I have access to a much larger internet, via broadband, and online applications like D&D Insider. I have computer aided design software like Campaign Cartographer to draw dungeons, and a color laser printer to print them out. And I have software like Evernote for taking notes and sorting them into an adventure. And with all those shiny new tools, I find that building an adventure is a very changed experience.

D&D adventures from the 80's often started with the dungeon you drew on graph paper, and then you populated the rooms with monsters you more or less randomly picked from the Monster Manual. Even the commercially available adventures looked like that, room after room full of monsters, with story being thin on the ground. Today I'd follow advice like that of the D&D Adventure Building Workshop and start by creating a villain, whose motivation then gives rise to a story. I also brainstorm and take notes with Evernote of all crazy ideas I have what could make for a memorable encounter for my adventure. And once I collected enough ideas and got the basics of the story, I start fleshing everything out.

My "dungeons" thus start as a cloud of ideas for encounters, which then get connected and sorted into something like an adventure flow chart. There are combat encounters, story & roleplaying encounters, traps, skill challenges, and exploration. Only then do I start forming the relevant parts of that flow chart into a dungeon. Which is easy, because a dungeon is nothing else but a flow chart of encounters, with every crossroads being a decision point.

Of course the law of the instrument still applies. For example my color laser printer uses DIN A4 paper of 210 x 297 mm size. Divide that into 1" squares and you get 8 x 11 squares on one page. Which means that unless I want to spend extra money on having larger battle maps printed, it would be good if my dungeon rooms would fit on 8 x 11 squares, or 16 x 11 if needed for a series of rooms where combat is likely to spill over from one room to the next. Of course the dungeon map is much larger, but I don't hand out the whole map to the players, I only need to print the rooms for the encounters.

The creative process works differently for different people. I like building adventures slowly, taking notes of ideas for encounters over weeks before starting with the dungeon. The "You open a door to a 3x3 room. There are 3 orcs in here." kind of classic dungeons which was fun in the 80's appears rather outdated to me these days. I now prefer fewer, but more elaborate encounters, with a better logic of why that monster would be in that location, and where it fits in with the story and the motivation of the villain. That kind of encounter also works better if the players do something unexpected, like trying to negotiate instead of fighting. But most importantly I find that by building my adventures that way, I end up with more memorable encounters and interactive stories.

Comments:
kind of classic dungeons which was fun in the 80's appears rather outdated to me these days.

I think it depends on whether the PC's can actually die. If they can't because mechanically it's just not going to happen, or the GM is going to fudge the result, then yeah, it probably seems outdated.
 
Well, the PCs can die in my campaign. I just think that they would prefer that IF they die, it was in some epic encounter, and not to 3 random orcs that nobody knew what they were doing in that 3x3 room anyway.
 
The meaning of Kaplan's 'Law of the Instrument' is subtly different from the version 'Maslow's Hammer' that is better known now.

Kaplan: "Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."

Maslow: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The first describes the desire to use a new tool/toy on everything. The second describes a type of mental blindness in someone used to always using the same toolset.

In some ways the sayings are opposites, even though they both correctly describe certain human characteristics.
 
And then we get the opposite...

"If all you have is the internet, you don't even know where to begin."
 
Well, the PCs can die in my campaign. I just think that they would prefer that IF they die, it was in some epic encounter

Well, then why did they go into the room with three orcs if they don't want to die that way? Don't go in there - the players can decide these things for themselves.

Besides, they whole 'they want epic' gets a bit topsy turvey - that's thinking out of character/outside the fiction. And once were outside the fiction, how can it be epic? Real life epic? Surely not? Fictional epic? Well then the character isn't asking for an epic story.
 
Don't go in there - the players can decide these things for themselves.

How could they possibly do that? Are you running a campaign in which the characters always know the exact strength of the enemy monsters? Where they never get surprised by what is behind that door? Plus even if the challenge is reasonable, somebody can die from bad luck. The only way to make sure you never die, is to avoid all adventure. And that wouldn't be much of a game.

Besides, they whole 'they want epic' gets a bit topsy turvey - that's thinking out of character/outside the fiction.

I would say the point of a pen & paper fantasy roleplaying game is to cooperatively create an interesting interactive story. That requires some out of character thought, because dragon slaying isn't a very rational in-character motivation.

You could create a roleplaying game in a modern setting where we are all playing students, accountants, and the like, and the only events would be normal and mundane. "You'r washing machine breaks down, what do you do?". I doubt many people would want to play that. They want heroic, escapist fantasy.
 
World building is one of my favorite things to do, and D&D is where I shine with it. I organize my encounters and the entire story based off of the world I've either built, or manipulated. The fights and the story actually come in after that, usually being dictated by it. It may not be the best way, but I've always enjoyed it. Anyway, great article.
 
How could they possibly do that? Are you running a campaign in which the characters always know the exact strength of the enemy monsters?

Your issue seems to be with the supposed banality of three orcs, not with knowing exact or rough ideas of strength.

Actually I do tend to sprinkle strategic information around, either given or could be found, so most choices are not blind choices and there is atleast some information that might inform them about entering the room or not.

So the orcs become a strategic question for the players, rather than an aesthetic cool-or-not thingie.

Where they never get surprised by what is behind that door?

Well, why do surprise doors have to exist but three orcs must not? Seems the impetus for the former argues for the latter as well.

Plus even if the challenge is reasonable, somebody can die from bad luck.

It depends on the chance of that, I'd say. A 1 in 2 chance of dying from bad luck per fight is alot different from a 1 in 2000 chance of dying from bad luck per fight (particularly if a campaign will run for roughly 300 combats only).

You can hardly say 'there's a chance of dying from bad luck' with the exact same inflective in both cases.

That requires some out of character thought, because dragon slaying isn't a very rational in-character motivation.

You could create a roleplaying game in a modern setting where we are all playing students, accountants, and the like, and the only events would be normal and mundane. "You'r washing machine breaks down, what do you do?". I doubt many people would want to play that. They want heroic, escapist fantasy.


There are characters who topple governments in some countries. Characters from real life.

I'll pitch the challenge that it's not escapist at all if really you can only make up character motivations to be students or accountants, when even in real life people out there are doing government toppling (or even Julian Assange stuff)

And yet you might say Julian's attempted 'dragon slayings' aren't very rational, either.

But it does make a story.

I'll pay, I was GM'ing the other night and damn did those players just keep nosing around for 'the plot'. They even said it. They just couldn't think of following their own character ambitions and instead kept looking for a life someone else (the GM) had plotted out for them. So it's hard to run a game based on PC ambitions, when they have none and keep looking for the life someone else has decided for them. Impossible, even.
 
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Thanks for the link to the Adventure building workshop. Good stuff.
 
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