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.