Blind Design, or How to Fail Better

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.


  1. Great post Shawn! I felt so conflicted leaving that adventure. On one hand, I have some knowledge about how these things come together especially with preview material, so I was afraid of sounding harsh when I really didn’t mean to. On the other, I felt like I failed as a player somehow. I’m glad you were able to take those comments and make something good come from them.

    So often I’m afraid of failure. The key is to not let it stop you. I’m so glad you are willing to take those shots in the dark. 🙂

  2. I suspect very few designers have the ability to just do it right. I know a few of these people and I envy them. For the rest of us, we have to really dig in, refine, and fail and then do better. I think if people really saw me at work they would laugh and cry at the same time, because I work so slowly and have to work so very hard to do good work. Your self-flagellation may be part of what empowers you to keep making great adventures.

    I wonder what Rob Schwalb is like. Does he just whip quality stuff out? (Yeah, that was on purpose)

    One thing I do, not on purpose, is have enough complexity that almost any encounter both succeeds and fails at the same time. The upside is that I get a lot of useful feedback so I can fail less often (maybe) in the future. Then again, the main thing I wish I could do is reduce complexity in what I write…

    Changing gears, I think your column is great. At the same time, this piece promised “how to write an adventure as awesome as the Classic”. I think people would be interested in that story. What did you have in terms of direction? How did you take the first steps toward a draft? How did you work the backstories? How did you choose foes, terrain, tactics? How did you weave in the open design and the choices? How did you make it so that so many DMs ran it so well? I find a dearth of that sort of knowledge online.

  3. It’s interesting, because this reminds me of what it means to be part of a design team. The leaders of the team decide how to approach a project, and the nonleads have to follow. That’s whether you, as a nonlead, believe in the plan, format, or whatever—or not. You can probably tell by some things I’ve said or written that I don’t agree with some mainstream approaches to design. I was never really a lead, though. And, bit, have I failed and failed better.

  4. First: I love Zatoichi.

    Thanks for an insightful article. The things you’re talking about are so applicable in any creative field that’s run by supervision. I’m inspired to submit to Dungeon.

  5. Mickey Tan says:

    Wow, that post really hit home. I have felt the exact same way. “Alway writing what is asked of you” and not being “that guy” is a really hard line to live by, but a necessary fact of life. It is comforting to know that others have felt the same way especially someone so experienced as yourself.

  6. I’ve had a lot of similar experiences as a freelance graphic designer. This is a great look at the inner mechanics of a project, especially for vocal critics of published material. Very few cooperative creative projects are hit-it-out-of-the-park good, but there are more cooperative successes than examples of solo genius. In my experience, even bad input can be good in the long run. As you’ve said, it has allowed you to make better choices going forward.

    Zatoichi rules!

  7. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Sarah Darkmagic: You don’t have to apologize for how you feel. Along those lines, one of the tough design choices in making an adventure with pre-gen characters, as you well know, is deciding on exactly how much personality and backstory to give them. As I player I like to be given exact personality traits, because part of the fun for me is to see if I can portray those traits convincingly. However, I also know a lot of players who prefer just to be given the barest of backstories and/or motivations, and then they get to tailor the exact traits of the PC on their own, which is part of the fun for them.

    @Alphastream: I have been going back and forth trying to decide exactly how much of the design of that adventure I can talk about, especially because of the NDA and how some of the material is preview material. Many of the design decisions, especially the things I chose not to do, came about based on knowledge of other products that are not yet out. For example, my original idea involved a phantom brigade. Needless to say, that got nixed because there was some other “phantom brigade” stuff on the horizon. 🙂

    However, I think that you will be happy with the next column that is coming. It definitely does delve very, very deep into actual design questions.

  8. Shawn Merwin says:

    @The Talented Mr. Sims: Excellent point, sir. Team design is a much different animal and most of what I have done in organized-play work. Part of working in that team approach is understanding the process and knowing your team enough to trust them. That is why freelancing for Wizards was–and still is–a strange, wonderful, and sometimes confounding thing. I knew that what I was writing was not going to be what made it to the page, and I was fine with that. But not knowing how the content ended up at Point X from Point A was bewildering. That’s why I was so relieved with Kalarel’s Revenge when Ray Vallese actually contacted me and asked about why the adventure was the way it was. Otherwise, I think it might have lost something, or at least been a different sort of adventure at the end.

    @Darkplane: I’m glad you are going to send stuff to Dungeon. The game definitely needs new material and new visions. As for Zatoichi, DaveTheGame added the picture to the article. I in no way would compare myself to that character. However, I will second it. If you get a chance, see any and all of the Zatoichi films. Incredible stuff, and a great character!

  9. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Mickey: With your experience writing for the RPGA, I am sure you have felt the conflict just as strongly as I. And I have empathy for all sides in the matter, because I have too often been in the position of being the guy who says, “Just write what I told you to write.” And it becomes a feeling-out process of knowing which adventure designers who can trust to stray but still deliver good content and a strong experience. As the producer/developer/editor, it is so often easier and even less time consuming to just take the work and practically rewrite it than it is to guide the designer to get what is needed through them. It is so much better for the designer to have that kind of detailed feedback, because they then learn for the next project. But it can be brutal for the person doing the guiding, especially when it is a volunteer effort.

    @Anarkeith: I couldn’t have said it better. Group efforts may never reach the genius that an individual effort can achieve on the rarest of occasions, but nor do they turn out to be as bad as an individual effort can turn out to be. As an editor, I try to follow the distillation of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” But as a writer, I would rather have my editor do a little harm if it saves the work from being a total disaster.

  10. An interesting related topic is how to give feedback when things aren’t working. For me this happens with playtests or reading over things as a volunteer (not as a lead). How do you find the right way to say “this is not going to work” or even “this is terrible”? I have regrets about early LFR playtesting where I failed to be up front enough and identify huge problem areas. Lately I have enough of a good relationship with the admins to have a two-way trust of what our group might identify as an issue with playtesting, so that makes it easier to have a dialogue and press the author/admin on any issues.

    I can’t imagine (but could soon face) having to oversee an author and seeing the entirety of the work be really bad… how do you handle that? You bring in someone and it isn’t working at all? I’ve dealt with this in the workplace, but it seems easier than in the volunteer world.

  11. Great article man.

    Oh man, you made me realize that I’m “that guy”, to the core. Explains a lot of things. He he he.

    I do take away the “do what they ask” though as I’m so often tempted to reinvent the wheel and reinterpret a work’s scope because I feel it best serves the purpose of the task at hand.

    Thanks for the post, this will generate lots of background musings. I look forward to seeing you so we can discuss this more.

  12. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: You are right. It would be great to read a column about how to give positive and constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll just dig back through my notes on your LFR adventures, but take out the curse words. Ahem.

    @Chatty: Thanks man. You know, “that guy” is always in the eye of the person who has to deal with that guy. Looking back over my experiences in the editor role, there are times when I too quickly dismissed a person as being difficult when I should have been more patient. And there are others when I was too nice, trying to be a teacher to someone who was not at all interested in being taught.

  13. Ha! Well, one thing that often happens is that editors end up reviewing at the last minute, with no feedback. You write, the editor takes and changes, you get a pdf. In organized play you can get little feedback. That isn’t bad. With CORE1-14, I liked 99.99999% of what you edited, for example (and boy, do I need an editor! Wordiness alone!). In cases where I have playtested, there have been some nice interactions. For ADCP2-2 heroic, my party really was beaten up. The author and global and I had a really good discussion of why that might be. It was a really open discussion since we had not absolute knowledge and were all hunting for the cause and cure. Knowing the people involved helped immensely.


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