Sunday, October 7, 2012

Adventure Design - Art or Paint By Numbers

It's not easy to design a viable adventure - or is it?

Heck, the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide has a whole section on building and stocking dungeons randomly. I used to bring that, graph paper and dice to holiday dinners and my aunt's house as a kid - I'd usually have a dungeon level completed before we sat down for soup. The fact that the dungeon levels sucked and made no sense didn't matter to me at the time - I'd followed the word of the "good book" and therefore the results must be good.

Ever notice that EGG himself rarely followed all of the rules in the books that he published. The rules he used at his own table were not the strick interpretation that the masses were supposed to follow.

There is something I'm always reminded about on my job that to me dovetails nicely into AD&D / D&D. On my job we have a "Patrol Guide". When the "Job" wants it to be, it's just a guide, but when they want to screw someone, it's suddenly "rules and regulations" - but the simple fact is it is a guide. It's there to help you, direct you, guide you - but little if any is written in stone.

Dungeon Master's Guide. There's that word again. Folks think if it's written in the DMG it's golden, carved into stone - but the shit is a book of guidelines. The more skilled you become as a GM, the more you can stray from the guidelines. Heck, the more you need to stray from the guidelines. If the rule doesn't make sense? Fix it with a new one. Build upon the guidelines.

Falling back upon a strict interpretation of guidelines while designing your adventure - whether its a sandbox, wilderness, town, dungeon - whatever,  is "painting by the numbers". I did that a a kid. It was not art.

Designing an adventure beyond the guidelines and safety rails is that first step toward becoming art. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it is art.

Vornheim is not a gaming product that I personally enjoy much, but it is certainly art. Not just because of the amount of art in it, but for the innovations that Zak brought to it - with his use of maps and running city adventures and whatnot. Zak didn't feel confined by a set of guidelines.

If the guidelines say something that doesn't make sense (I'm talking to you Mr Giant Rats and your 20% chance of having 1,000 to 12,000 CP in your lair!) change the shit up. Or find a reason to make sense of that which fails to make sense.

Which is more pleasing to the eye? A paint by numbers painting of a sailboat, or an actual painting of a sailboat by a skilled artist? If the first was painted by my 10 year old son, I'd hang it on my office wall in a heart beat. Otherwise, I want the actual painting.


  1. I can see rats having 12,000 cp. What is that? 120 gold. But weighs 1200 pounds. I can see [and have know (and been a part of)] plenty of groups that would just shrug and say "Why bother?".

    But it might make a good nest for some ROUSes.

    I used to do that with the DMG as well. But, IIRC, I only used it as an idea generator and discarded/changed something if it was "stupid". Not that that was necessarily an improvement.

    I don't remember Gygax having any special regard here, he was mostly just "the guy who screwed Dave", local boy who came up with the whole idea.

    So you played AD&D-but you threw in Arduin, Melee, Chivalry and Sorcery, whatever. Screw Gygax! The Foreward to the DMG Gygax wrote said everything about him we ever needed to know.

  2. "The rules he used at his own table were not the stric[t] interpretation that the masses were supposed to follow."
    Did anybody actually see it this way? I'm not sure. Maybe some people thought that this was the way the game was >supposed< to be played, but most people I think had the common sense to realise that the books were, as you quite rightly say, guidelines. The only rules we imposed were the ones we imposed on ourselves.

  3. I enjoy using a range of random dungeon generators and other tools - they often produce outcomes that are far more interesting than the naturalistic mundanity I all too often produce. I still have to make the random outcomes make sense, change things here and there, etc.

    It's probably an indictment of my imagination that it requires such seeds, but...

  4. @DrBagle - i use the same to spark my imagination, but I am not a slave to it.

    Sorry, I'm still rolling around my cranium a comment said on G+ about loot and "By the Book" reasoning.


  5. Gygax's forward to the 1eDMG is an attempt to offer some good advice from someone who not only knew the game inside and out, but had years of intense experience, running, playing and designing the system. And what he was giving was advice in an editorial comment way. There were no AD&D police that were going to come and arrest you and take your books for playing it differently.

    Then try reading the Introduction,

    "The final word then, is the game. Read how and why the system is as it is, follow the parameters, then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement."

    The DMG was never more than a set of guidelines, the author knew it and most DMs knew it but some DMs either did not read the book or understand what was being said. What Gygax is saying though is that they have carefully prepared this framework of rules and tried to make it the most enjoyable and workable system for a DM. They knew that every rule wouldn't be write for every player and every DM, and from the beginning they talked about DMs making the game their own.

    If a rule truly doesn't make sense, remove it, change it, that is part of the rules. If an adventure doesn't make sense or seems boring, then the DMs job isn't to run the adventure as written, but to change the parts that don't suit his players or himself. If the adventure is so bad that the DM feels it cannot be salvaged, then it is time to set it aside and either design one himself or try one of the other 1,000+ adventures out there and see if it is more to their taste.

    Outside of a tournament no adventure needs or should be played as written. You cannot write an adventure that suits all DMs and all players, and to not understand that the DMs job is to read and rework a published adventure to suit his style and his players taste is a sign of misunderstanding the role of DM more than simply a bad adventure.

  6. The thing is though, I think the treasure of the rats as presented made some sense. A bunch of coins and a handful of jewelry, stuff rights might pick up and carry back to their nest.

    Sure, it would have made more sense if there were less copper and more other kinds of coins, but I don't think it was that bad.

    I think on the whole though, Dwimmermount has a lot of interesting stuff. The 1st level is somewhat mundane, but even that has the HPL/CAS inspired Spawn of Atlach-Nacha (slightly renamed) and some treasure caches (which I guess your players missed)

  7. Did any of the original books give tips on adventure design outside of the dungeon?

  8. @Paul Thornton - the wilderness was mostly there to give you random encounters as you went from point A to Point B ;)


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