Designing is Redesigning

I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity a few years ago to earn an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I learned much more there than I will ever be able to digest in a lifetime, but I won’t soon forget the first lesson I learned from my first instructor.  She told me in no uncertain terms that the most important part of writing is rewriting.  It took me most of the time I spent in the program to understand what she really meant, and I have tried to pass that wisdom to my own writing students.

The reason this lesson has come back to me recently is because I am currently in the final stages of design on an adventure I am writing.  I have done the initial design, chosen the monsters, created the maps, created character backgrounds for the pre-generated characters that will be used for the adventure, and run a playtest.  Just as writing is rewriting, so designing is redesigning.  Now the task ahead of me is to redesign the adventure and its component parts based on the design I have done and the playtest I have run.

Correctly Identifying the Issues

The playtest is probably the most effective and reliable method of figuring out the problems with the adventure.  I’m sure there are at least two or three columns worth of thoughts I could share just on playtesting, so I am going to be deliberately uncontroversial and not overly pedantic on the subject right now.  Let’s just assume for the time being that based on a few good playtests, some thorough peer feedback, and some honest self-evaluation, the writer has collected a list of problems that need to be addressed in a revision of the original draft of the adventure.

That list of issues with the adventure should first be studied to see which problems are minor, which are fixable with a bit of revision, and which are so egregious as to require a great deal of redesign to make right.  These latter problems are the ones I want to focus on in further discussion of redesigning an adventure.

Knowing the Least Mutable Component

The writing instructor I mentioned earlier admitted that she loved the rewriting part of her vocation as much as any other aspect.  She explained that after the initial draft of a work was completed, it was then time to find the problems.  Once the problems were identified, the trick was to figure out how to solve the problems in the most creative and effective way during rewrites.  In a way, this analysis of a creative work-in-progress is the polar opposite of all the writing that comes before it: the creative, right-brained portion of initial creation must give way to the mechanical, left-brain portion.

Even more than fiction writing, I think game design, and particularly adventure design, challenges all facets of the creative process.  The imaginative must work seamlessly with the analytical to create a final product that works both as a story of the imagination and as the mechanics of a game.

After identifying and categorizing the problems, the next step is to figure out which of the components of the adventure need to be changed to address those problems.  However, based on the requirements and goals of the design, some of the components may not be changeable.  If an encounter is too difficult, for example, the difficulty can be adjusted in countless ways.  But some of those ways may not be adjustable because of the goals or design specifications of the adventure: it may be mandatory to use certain monsters at certain levels, the maps might be pre-determined, etc.

So the first step is to determine which of the components are the least changeable, and by extension which are the easiest to alter.

Which Components First?

The second-most frequent question I get asked is “Where do you get the ideas for the things you create?”  (The question I get asked most is “How do I become a freelance game designer?” but that is a topic for another time.)  The honest answer is that ideas for adventures, as well as the processes for going about writing those adventures, are completely different in each instance.  Often the general plot is the foundation of an adventure, but it is just as likely that the adventure design follows from other starting points: maps, characters (PC or NPC), monsters, magic items, etc.

I can think of many adventures I wrote where the final encounter was the one written first, because I had gotten the idea for a climactic battle and started there.  The whole process for writing the adventure then became imagining the most fun and organic way for the characters to reach that last battle.  In these cases, how to begin the adventure becomes the hardest part of design.

On the other hand, a large number of adventures are written in just the opposite manner.  The conflict of the adventure is presented in the initial encounter because that conflict was the seed of the adventure, and the design challenge becomes finding the most natural and probable consequences for characters interacting with that conflict.  This includes imagining how characters would deal with the problems facing them, and then providing the DM with the tools to adjudicate the details of the adventure based on the characters’ actions.

As an example, I was in charge of the Crimson Codex faction for the Eberron-based Xen’drik Expeditions campaign.  The mandate for the adventures comprising that faction’s storyline was that the adventures should be appealing to the players interested in adventures with complex plots and puzzles.  That meant that no matter the other variables, the adventure needed to challenge the players on that level.  When reviewing or redesigning the adventures, that was the immutable aspect.

This question of which component comes first is important because it ties directly back to the redesign question.  Assuming that one component of an adventure follows directly from another, the most difficult thing to change during redesign is going to be whatever aspect of the design acted as the foundation.  Fiction writers will often go back and write a character out of a novel, but it is highly unlikely they can do that with the main character.  Changing setting can be easier than changing genre if the genres are different enough.  Rewriting can change the tone or mood of a work, but if the tone or mood was a determining aspect of the original work, that task because nigh impossible.  Adventure writing is no different.

No Easy Answers

One challenge of adventure design is the tightly meshed interplay between rules and story, between powers and the environment, between mechanics and plot: how exactly can you factor that interplay into the adventure design?  This is especially tricky when the characters can be widely divergent in their strengths and weaknesses.  A ranger can own one encounter where the barbarian is useless, and the next encounter can see just the opposite happen.  Raising or lowering the level of a monster or trap is simple; gauging these terrain features and adjusting them during the redesign process is trickier.  Changing monsters is mechanically easy as well, since one level 7 brute monster is theoretically equal to another.  However, if the monster is integral to the story (as it should be), then you cannot just swap monsters without significantly altering the story of the adventure.

The designers of 4e D&D stressed the importance of the combat map and terrain features in the fun of the game.  Don’t just run your encounters in large square rooms, we were told.  This advice is, of course, very good—and it was something that good adventure designers were doing already, going back to the original version of the game.  Both in terms of game mechanics and the atmosphere of the encounter, it is obviously more interesting to fight a battle while jumping from island to island in a lava-filled cavern during an earthquake than in a plain old cave with no special features.

Unfortunately, the act of adding these special features changes the difficulty of the encounter—either making it easier or harder depending on the powers of the monsters and the characters.  Flying or fire-immune creatures in the lava chamber are stronger than they would be normally.  Creatures that have powers or traits that allow them to push, pull, or slide enemies are much more effective when there are terrain features that do damage when a creature enters them.

Next Time

In my next column, I will take examples from encounters and adventures that I have written where the design was flawed, and I will examine how I would go about redesigning those encounters or adventures to make them stronger.


  1. Excellent, excellent, excellent. I really enjoy how you write in addition to what you say. Thanks, Shawn!

    I like the concept of these immutable pieces. I suspect each author/designer has also their own personal immutable areas. When you talk about balancing rules and story, this is an aspect that I find to be relatively easy for me. I actually yearn for it. I really can’t wait to get to that part of design. My adventures tend to get a lot of tweaking around how PCs, foes, and terrain will interact so there is a lot of story.

    But, I have much more trouble getting outside of my own head to envision how DMs will handle the info on an encounter. I expect everyone to read an encounter the way I do and handle a lot of information the way I do. This leads to wide variance in how the encounter plays, because I have a lot written and DMs can’t usually digest all of it without a lot of prep. I have trouble streamlining. I’m sure some authors never have that problem and always keep things tight and simple and efficient.

    On getting ideas for adventures, I talked on my blog a little about idea generation for campaign underpinnings. I think it is really important to keep some sort of an “adventure idea file” and to try to think of ideas (good, bad, whatever) as often as possible during the early creative process. You want to stay open and see snapshots of the story and how it might play out. My best ideas come from sudden leaps of imagination that only happen because I kept tinkering with these ideas. I’ve literally been at a mother-in-law’s house poolside when I come up with an idea and go grab paper to sketch out the terrain for CORE1-14. Strange to get ideas for a frozen ice floor adventure while poolside in Arizona, but it happened (pools and slides… you can guess the encounter).

    I look forward to the next piece. It can be very difficult to recognize flaws and to see what to do to them to change the way an encounter plays.

  2. The heart of this essay actually applies well beyond adventure design and into lots of other aspects of game design. Too bad time is so often the biggest factor in how much redesign or rewriting can occur. That’s some of the value of a team process, such as WotC’s, in that the reworking is handled with fresh eyes. But that’s a luxury we don’t always have.

  3. I can’t compare, but we see it a bit, from time to time, in the RPGA/Organized Play for living campaigns. Some of the really good authors collaborate that way or even write parts based on strengths, then go back and help with rewrites. I would like to see more of that. Campaign admins help, ensuring that control is not just in one person’s hands.

  4. My head went to the same place Chris’ did.
    Reworking and redesigning is a huge part of the creative process, painting, writing, etc. And this DOES apply to game design. Much as playyesting is needed for adventure, so to. does playtesting different types of games with the same ruleset show weaknesses in different iterations of rulesets.

    probably why I’m a big believer in the need for toolkit rulesets.

    Nicely written and a timely reminder.

  5. @alphastream: Thanks for the kind words. In my design experience, the immutable pieces are generally dictated by design specs rather than personal choice. For example, some assigments might come with the instructions “here is the map that you must use” or “these are the monsters we want highlighted.” In those cases, the other aspects of design must be manipulated to make the adventure work within those confines. And never, ever share where you get your ideas from! We’ll all be sitting at swimming pools looking for inspiration!

    @ChrisSims: Yeah, time is always going to be the most important factor in redesign, simply because at some point whatever is created must be sent into the wild. But even if designers had limitless time, at some point they would have to say, “This is ready.” And I’m betting there would still be flaws and problems that would need to be corrected.

    @LordVreeg: Studies into the creative process of different minds are something I have always been fascinated with. It is interesting to see how revision, with or without outside input, leads to a final product.