This column is about adventure design. Really it is. As you get halfway through it, you may begin to doubt that it is. Trust me. Keep going. You will get to the adventure design stuff. And it might even be worth the trip!
At DDXP 2011, one of the seminars I attended was called “Adventure Design and Freelance Writing.” Seminars like that are always interesting for me, since I have just enough knowledge in both those areas to be a danger to myself and others. I always learn new things, and very infrequently I even have something to add to the conversation. The pairing of the two topics interested me, so I wanted to hear what the WotC folks had to say about the intersection between freelancing and adventure design.
Presenting at the seminar were Mike Mearls (Wizards R&D Manager) and Chris Perkins (Wizards Senior Producer). Sitting on the panel with them were Rob Schwalb, the human game design machine, and Steve Townshend, a new, highly creative, and enthusiastic cannon in WotC’s freelance arsenal. The seminar began with all four talking about their respective paths to their current positions. It can be summed up with Samuel Beckett’s famous line: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” There is no perseverance without persistence. All their messages were insightful and appropriate: great lessons for those looking to break into any business where there are more potential doers than there are things to do.
One bit of advice resonated particularly strongly in my mind: “Always do what is asked of you.” On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. However, in my rapidly increasing number of decades surviving on this pretty blue-green rock, I have come to believe that “no-brainers” are best left to people who do not always use their brain. As the seminar topic switched from freelance experiences to adventure design, that “always do what is asked of you” began to haunt me. I ultimately failed to ask the panel the question I should have asked: “What happens when what is asked of you is bad adventure design?”
The Boss is Always Right
If you’ve read my past columns, you are aware that as an administrator or writer for many organized-play campaigns, I have been involved in the creation of literally hundreds of adventures. I’ve even been lucky enough to do a bit of work for Wizards of the Coast directly as well. Among those various projects, I have occasionally been asked or instructed to undertake a project in ways that went against my thoughts on what good design was. I don’t think this is too controversial or shocking. I’m sure writers who have created work that I subsequently developed or edited would say that I have asked the same of them. Repeatedly. Emphatically.
Discounting minor creative differences, I found myself sitting at that seminar pondering all those times when I absolutely disagreed with what I was being asked to do, but was afraid to speak my mind for fear of being labeled “that guy.” Normally, I don’t mind being “that guy.” But in the freelance world, “that guy” quickly becomes “that guy who is no longer getting freelance gigs.”
Granted, this is not a new phenomenon, or even one that is particular to the freelance world. In any job we have bosses or managers, and those bosses and managers are always asking us to do something in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. We get taught stuff by teachers that we don’t believe, or at least don’t agree with. And we always struggle balancing what we think is right with what we are told to do. Of course, sometimes those bosses and managers and teachers enjoy being challenged, and great things result from interactions with them. Sadly, sometimes standing up to the authority figure ends, shall we say, with unfortunate circumstances. And you never know which way that interaction will go until it is too late to change tactics.
Cowbell or No Cowbell?
An example from my own freelancing career came right at the beginning of 4e. In that 1st quarter of 2008, just before the release of the books but well after the playtesting had concluded, I was happily working away on the adventure for the Living Forgotten Realms campaign. We still working from draft copies of the rules, but it was still a great time. After slogging through development and editing of D&D3.5 adventures, 4e was a blessing. (This is not an edition war thing. I like 3e. But editing adventures and stat blocks then was preferable only to swimming in toxic waste or watching SuperBowl halftime shows.)
So I was having a blast working on these brand new adventures for a brand new campaign with a totally new set of rules. Out of the blue, there was a call for 4e adventures for Dungeon magazine, and I quickly submitted an idea that was accepted. Awesome. Not long after came the opportunity to work on Dungeon Delve, followed almost immediately by the call to fill in for Rob Schwalb on the Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress adventure. (I think Rob was in the shop having his hands replaced with cybernetic gear.)
For those of you keeping score at home, that is four different projects at practically the same time. And four projects meant four different bosses. Anyone who has had so many different supervisors from the same company at the same time knows where this is going. I would turn in work for one project, and get back a note saying, “Never, ever use cowbell in an adventure.” Literally minutes later I would get notes back on the next project from a different supervisor saying, “You know what this part needs? MORE COWBELL!”
Again, this is nothing new to people who deal with large organizations, especially at chaotic times. For me, it was more humorous than frustrating, having dealt in other jobs with the vagaries of bureaucracies within monolithic corporations and government offices. But there was always that persistent voice warning me that to speak up about the inconsistencies would turn me into “that guy,” while not speaking up would mean that at least one, and probably more, of my supervisors would look at my work and think it poor. I did point out various inconsistencies in the instructions about style and substance that I was getting, hoping that I could at least start learning one or two sets of standards rather than four.
Two Novel Approaches
I survived those four simultaneous projects relatively unscathed (at least physically), and resumed normal Living Forgotten Realms duties. About a year into the campaign, my all-seeing overlord Chris Tulach had an idea for the second “Weekend in the Realms” gameday. He wanted to present an adventure with tie-ins to one of the Forgotten Realms novel, which turned out to be the very well-written Mark Sehestedt offering The Fall of Highwatch. This idea was one that many people have clamored for since the awesome FR novels started being published: find a way to draw players into adventures that use the same characters and backgrounds as the novels. The “Weekend in the Realms” gameday was planned to occur the same week as the novel released.
This was pretty much the adventure I had been waiting my entire life to write: turning a novel with a completely awesome back story into an adventure, where the player-characters could tread the same turf and breathe the same air as the novel-characters, even possibly interacting with some of them. I was ready. I blocked off several days to make sure this got done right. I received a synopsis and a few sample pages of the book, and I loved the story and the situation the main character was in.
I was ready to read the novel from cover to cover and start designing the adventure. But the novel never came. I hinted that getting to read the entire novel would make the adventure easier to design and a better experience for those partaking of both. Still no novel. And there was that dilemma again: do I be “that guy” or do I move forward with what I have and hope for the best?
I should have dug in my heels and made a fuss. I should have risked being “that guy.” In the end, the adventure turned out fine as a play experience. But when I finally bought the novel and read it, I could feel my stomach turning. It’s that feeling you get when you slowly realize you have failed at something. The characters in the book were different than I had described them. So many cool opportunities for adventure integration were right there, and I had missed out on them. Even though I might be the only person in the world who recognized this, I am the only person who I have to live with constantly. (If you haven’t noticed, it still bothers me.)
Ironically, as if the fates decided I needed a cosmic do-over, I got the chance to work on a similar project for D&D Insider a few months later. The design challenge was to create a single encounter based on the Jak Koke’s Forgotten Realms novel The Edge of Chaos. Even though the novel had not yet been published, I was sent an electronic copy of the book without asking, and I think the mini-adventure is much better for it. Having the exact descriptions of the characters and the situations they were in, I could much more easily present DMs and players with a fun and detailed—and most importantly, integrated—experience that could be used either as a one-shot game or integrated into an ongoing campaign, using those novel-characters as foci.
Revenge is Best Served Unenlightened
My last adventure design project, Kalarel’s Revenge, brought up similar issues. At DDXP 2011 (and perhaps other upcoming conventions), Wizards wanted to run an adventure that previewed upcoming products—most notably, Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow. Those rules are not going to be released until April, so I was not privy to anything about the races and classes therein, other than their names. In most adventure design, knowledge of specific character traits and powers is almost irrelevant, since the adventure needs to be playable by any combination of races and classes.
However, this adventure required the characters to be not only very specific pre-generated characters, but the plot of the adventure was supposed to be intricately tied to the backgrounds and abilities of those pre-gens. You see where this is going, right? Learning my lesson from failures past (“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”), I immediately started asking questions of Greg Bilsland, the Wizards D&D Producer who was my contact on this project. (Greg Bilsland knows what you are going to ask before you ask it, and he asks it better than you could.) Greg was very quick to respond with any and all answers he could share with me, and because of that the characters’ background better matched their abilities and powers. Thanks to Greg and editor Ray Vallese, the adventure turned out as well as I could have hoped.
Even then, there are aspects of the adventure that I would try to improve if I could. As the inimitable Sarah Darkmagic shared with me, she felt a bit of a disconnect when trying to figure out what the character could do rules-wise and what the character’s personality and actions would be. Having played the same character as she, I completely understand this issue. Also, a big part of the adventure revolves around one of the characters being able to make a particular skill check. I had assumed the character’s class would come with an automatic training in Arcana, but the character sheet did not reflect that. This makes one possible avenue of adventure completion particularly difficult.
All Design is Blind
With all my ruminating and navel-gazing about trying to design around holes in your knowledge, I will be the first to admit that any sort of creative process, and even the more mechanically inclined process of game and adventure design, is sometimes an exercise of shooting into the dark—even under the best of circumstances.
One of the most-used lines in writing instruction is “Write what you know.” It is also my second-most hated line. (“Show, don’t tell” is the first.) Please, for the love of all that is right and just in the world, please don’t write what you know. Writing what you know is like going on a grand adventure of exploring the inside of your living room. Starting writing from a place that you know, but always be moving toward the unknown. Open new doors. Test new ideas. Use those standard goblins only once, and then create your own goblins. Crawl through that dungeon just once, and then break out of those walls. Build a better character trap. Embrace the unknown and then own it. And don’t whine about those times you fail because you didn’t know (like I do). Now you do know. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.