Or: Old Man Yells At Clouds!
For context: I’ve been putting quite a lot of work into editing the Crux SRD/Core book and have been looking over the document (Currently sitting at around 237 pages, huzzah!) quite extensively to make sure it’s legible, coherent and, hopefully, engaging. To this end, I also started doing some research on adventure modules, and layout, to see how established RPGs are doing things these days.
Our tale begins…
It started off as an innocent-enough conversation with my D&D group about players being players, and the inevitable derailment of a carefully orchestrated campaign, often brought on by nearby shiny things and the conversation started veering towards a particular subject that’s rather close to my heart at the moment.
A certain degree of plot derailment is inevitable, and one of the skills a GM needs is the ability to rein in their players desire to run off after shiny things too much, while still giving them enough agency to have fun within the game. Too much structure, you’re railroading, not enough, you’re in an aimless sandbox. There’s a happy medium.
A common trick (and one that I certainly use) is to structure the story’s plot around a series of encounters and set-pieces and shoehorn them into the narrative as best you can, providing a pretty organic experience, somewhat tailored to your players, while having a lot of narrative wiggle-room should events not run according to plan.
This isn’t normally something that you can do with a module/adventure path/whateversplat.
Or is it?
Providing some kind of narrative leeway within a narrative tends to be viewed as lazy writing, especially from a continuity perspective. Any connective content, be they random encounters or planned diversions on the way are often quite threadbare, with very little lasting impact over the main events. I don’t think that they have to be.
So, thinking about this, what would I want if I were writing a module for Crux?
I would love to see a GM’s resource ‘module’ that has a synopsis of overall plot arc/timeline, broken down into a series of setpieces, with several encounters and events each. These in turn are bridged by a series of adventure hooks for the purpose of player engagement, along with suggestions of how they could be folded back into the main plot, tying everything together.
It was recommended that I take a look at Curse Of Strahd, the 5e Castle Ravenloft module/campaign book. The art and presentation of the book overall looked really impressive. Looking closer, the way the information was presented was awful.
Immediately, it reminded me of running Hoard Of The Dragon Queen – where each adventure required me having to rewrite and edit the book’s content into my own notes almost in its entirety before I had anything like workable GM’s notes. Forgotten Realms remains one of my favourite campaign settings, but the amount of mental grind necessary to prepare what is a pretty lacklustre adventure path into a viable condition was not an enjoyable experience.
Foolishly, I quickly skimmed over to Castle Ravenloft itself, something I was familiar with from previous editions, and I beheld this:
K73? How many individual rooms are annotated in here? 80 it turns out. Granted, some of them have meaningful and pertinent encounters in them, but having to sift through a bunch of maps with a nice-looking but ultimately unhelpful isometric perspective, which you’re just going to have to collate for your own reference (before copying it out once again to either a battlemat or roll20) is just busywork. And all of these 8 or so different maps over half as many pages again all have entried beginning with K? This may just be my ADHD talking, but isn’t that a little convoluted? I get that they’re all in one building, but perhaps a little compartmentalisation would be better design? Perhaps break the individual encounters that are adjecant to each other into shorter sub-sections that are covered over a page or two referenced over an infographic map/table of contents at the start of the chapter.
I needed a palate cleanser. As a comparison, the first chapter of Jade Regent, the Paizo adventure path. While I have my own issues with 3.x (which I will not go into now, I’ll never get back on track.), I remember that the adventure paths were always rich and well-written, both for GMs and casual readers alike. Let’s see how this fares…
What’s this? Multiple smaller maps with a much lower encounter count per map. Yes! This is immediately much more accessible. AND a campaign outline. In terms of ergonomics and layout, this is far better. Much more context for the content, and seems far richer in terms of substance, as opposed to relatively sparse, empty data, punctuated by the occasional box text
(I’m really not a fan of box text).
And this pretty much illustrates the focus/scope issue I find to be an issue with the WoTC stuff. Part 1 of Jade Regent is 91 pages for Levels 1-3, as opposed to 258 pages for levels 1-10, As a game resource, JR is much better. For want of a better term, I don’t think it has the same level of love/dedication put into its creation. Curse of Strahd seems to be mechanically fine, and the information is there, it just seems, ironically, dry and soulless in comparison.
The current D&D content offers adventures that are massive in scope, such as Tiamat, Elemental Evil and so on, which is epic, nay, world-shaking in scope, but seems too focussed on the grand scheme of things, such that the little details like the flavour of the setting is really missing from the play experience. Bring it in to start with, make it vivid and then as our characters horizons slowly broaden, the full extent of the plot is revealed. You can’t just burst out the full spectacle immediately, as that often gets diminishing returns… Your first dragon is almost always more memorable than your ninth.
I will concede that comparing these two is something of an apples/oranges situation; one is a sandbox pseudo-setting, the other is a pretty linear adventure path. That having been said, the amount of context, setting and detail provided in Jade Regent means that I would be more than comfortable improvising some content in and around the adventure path as it stands, and engaging directly with the material, as opposed to a sterile bunch of encounters designed as a sandbox, as there’s far less content to riff off, and this lack of enthusiasm would probably be felt by the players.
So, what am I taking away from this rant-cum-analysis? What am I likely to bear in mind when compiling an adventure, module or campaign?
- We’re going to favour flavour and context over sheer weight of content (like quality over quantity, but with more steps).
- There’s a right and a wrong way to present information. Keep it simple. Break things down.
- Scope and focus matters. If grand events and derring-do are what you’re going for, great! It is, however, possible to lose your engagement with the events and setting if things are always running at full tilt. This is why you can’t remember specific events in a Michael Bay film to any significant degree. Don’t get lost in the spectacle.
- Contrast large events with equally important smaller ones. To the PCs, everything that happens has the potential to matter to them, should they engage with it.
- I really do pick the weirdest hills to die on.
In closing, I’d like to thank Stephan Lewin for helping me formulate this rant-essay-thing by providing counterpoints and suggestions in aid of my fevered rantings, and allowing this diatribe to be a lot less Old Man Yelling At Clouds than the subtitle may suggest.