Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sage Advice: Adventure Details

There's clear tension between the amount of adventure detail in a published work, utility at the table, and required preparation time.  The X factor is the DM's ability to think on his or her feet and improvise interesting details.  It could probably be represented as an equation:

X = Y:  Detail requires reading and preparation; walls of text are useless while running the game, so all the prep is necessary for memorization, creating notes, and highlights.  Meanwhile, sparse notes are easy to read and parse while running the game, but the important details need to be improvised.  There are correlations between detail and prep time, and improvisational ability and the degree of sparseness the DM can handle.

There was a post over at Telecanter's place that laid out the case against too much details; it went like this - detail is expensive (it takes up a lot of time), it demands mastery (you need to keep the details straight), and it's dominant - once something is tagged, it's hard to change the descriptors, the details stick.

One sheet of notes for a huge level
There's been a whole minimalist movement in the OSR, starting long before I was out here posting, to recapture that sense of 'creation at game time', where the adventure is laid out in the loosest level of detail imaginable, and the DM improvises on the fly.  The "one-page dungeon" movement and Sham's empty room principle captures this aesthetic well; sparse description and empty space transforms the effort of DMing a game from rote memorization and regurgitation into an effort of creation on the fly.  Remember those interesting Gygax pictures, like this one, of Gary running his famous Castle Greyhawk?  The map might be intricate, but  the prepared notes seem as brief as possible.

On the other hand, there are adventure writers like James Raggi that insist on extensive detail, and make impassioned defenses both of the published adventure and copious detail.  Consider this excerpt from the introduction to LOTFP's Hammers of the God:

It is the atmosphere and flavor which I feel is the most valuable in a commercial adventure. Anybody can make maps and stock them with monsters and treasure. You can even do it randomly. Off-the-cuff refereeing is a skill that indeed requires no outside support, be it commercial or free. But I know when I buy an adventure, I am seeking in-depth descriptions that make the map and the contents of the location come alive, and hopefully in a way that I would never have done on my own…

There are some valid points there; note that he doesn't denigrate off-the-cuff refereeing, he just opines that there's not much you'd need from a publisher.  We'll come back to that point later.  He goes on to make another interesting observation, one that I agree with; one way to learn how to run your own games better is observing how other DMs do things.  You can't always sit in when other DMs run their games (although Google+ games seem to be changing that!) but you can pick up staging tips if a module author makes it a tacit goal to impart that kind of help through the module presentation:

Becoming a good musician starts with having a good record collection. Being a top athlete means competing against the very best. I think a Referee can only benefit from taking another’s adventure and adapting their style to the author’s presentation, instead of doing the commonly-vaunted reverse method of always adapting published material to the Referee’s own campaign.

The "problems" of detail have different solutions for the home DM vs the RPG Publisher.  In the home game, we should strive to run wild with that minimalist style; write down just enough to keep the facts straight and jog your memory if you get fuzzy.  You are your campaign.  The reason there is no published Castle Greyhawk is because Gary was Castle Greyhawk; how do you catalog and document a life-time of running adventures in a location you mostly improvised?  You don't.  That's why we'll never have the real thing.  Go make your own.

For publishers, the answer is different.  When I look to buy a published module, it's for one of three reasons - either the author has established a specific theme or tone (using the authorial voice Mr Raggi discusses in his quote above), or the author is providing new tools for enabling the home DM, or the module covers a significant amount of scope.  I've done a fair amount of reviews the past year, with more on the way, and those adventures that score highest  in my personal ratings do something new and different in one of those three areas.  For everything else, you'd probably be better off just home brewing it yourself.



  1. This is (IMHO) the best explanation for the madness of Castle Greyhawk's development history.

  2. Interesting that you should bring this up. I was just in the process of prepping Hammers of the God for my 4E game. I actually find Raggi's descriptions to be quite concise, and the fact that they are all location based, with never more than a paragraph or two per location, means that it is (almost) possible to use them on the fly.

    It does require a read through beforehand, but that is true of a module written in any style. Compared to a few other adventures I have read recently (Vecna Lives!, a 2E module; and Seekers of the Ashen Crown, a 4E module) I felt like I was able to assimilate the detail from Hammers much more easily.

    I think it's a nice balance between mere suggestion and novel-length detail.

    Also, I would draw a major distinction between the detail required in an adventure intended to be used by someone other than the author and an adventure that you write yourself only intending to use yourself. Modules that you write for yourself need much less flesh, because the motivating idea is already in your head. That is not true when you are using someone else's work. I think Hammers reinforces this point. From the introduction:

    The first bit’s notes were just two sheets of graph paper and rough notes written on the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper, and that was done in about four hours total before that week’s game. The second part was written on-the-fly (I didn’t expect the players to take the bait to go there), and my notes are on just one side of a piece of printer paper.

    When he published it for others, that turned into 32 pages of small text in digest size, or 86 pages in the PDF meant for reading on a screen.

  3. Oh and you said that there is no castle greyhawk manual that's technicly true however near the end of his life gary started to compile his notes of the last 40 years and he published Its castle greyhawk in all but name (since Wotc owns the rights to greyhawk)I own the book and its by no means an easy book to use its a mishmash of different things sort of like someone took a campaign binder of 40 years worth of stuff and tried to put it all in one place. That said its very interesting and as one of the last things he did well worth a look at. I actually met gary in 2007 when he was signing stuff at the C&C booth he was really cool and even signed my 3.5 D&D book since its the only book I had on me at the time even though he obviously didn't have anything to do with 3rd edition. I keep kicking myself for not going to one of the other booths and grabbing a ODnD book of some kind for him to sign but tiss life

  4. I'm definitely in that camp that always wanted to see the real version of Castle Greyhawk; Gary's TSR-era AD&D modules are legendary and awesome - the S-series, the G-series, the D-series; I can't recall many modules from the mid-80's or later that stand out, but those 1970's classics are still heavily played. So after hearing about stories of Castle Greyhawk hear and there, in Dragon and now online, who wouldn't want to see the real thing?

    It's only when we understand the gulf between writing a short module for public consumption, and running a bare-bones megadungeon for a home game from sparse notes, that we begin to understand the impossibility of the project. I have a hard time remembering the details of game sessions I ran 5-6 years ago; can you imagine trying to recreate details from memory and pencil-drawn maps going back 30 years, when the game was run 5 nights a week for huge groups?

    @Aamedor: I'm familiar with Castle Zagyg and the attempts to do the project for C&C; my understanding is those Upper Works barely scratched the surface of the material; mu understanding is that most of it was done with a ghost writer interviewing Gary from time to time and trying to collate old notes and maps.