Collected advice on adventure design

I am writing some OSR-type D&D adventures that I intend to publish, so I have gone looking for advice on doing that. Below, I have collected links. I have also included some summaries, but honestly in the eyes of posterity they are more for my benefit in writing them than for you in reading them.

How I Write an Adventure, by Arnold K

https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/01/how-i-write-adventure.html

That’s prosaic, principled, but realistic — I can believe he actually works like that. My summary:

  • Write ten adventures at once, gathering and filing ideas as they come to you
  • Run them early — that will give you ideas and show you problems
  • Have a (short) list of themes, be strict about cutting stuff that doesn’t fit
  • Don’t commit to anything until late on, especially not to a specific map
  • Focus on making interesting snippets – you can integrate them later
  • Iterate your design, culling weak (or unthematic) bits ruthlessly

How I Make an Adventure by Patrick Stuart

http://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2017/01/how-i-make-adventure-part-1.html, (also see https://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2017/01/how-to-make-adventure-part-2-answers-to.html)

That’s less principled than Arnold K’s, and promises less order, but is even more real — it’s a first person account, the view from inside. And although Patrick is strange, he’s not that strange. He writes about the kind of creature we are, not about the kind of creature we (or some bureaucracy) might want us to be.

My summary of his not-quite-process:

  1. Somehow, acquire an excellent idea – something that will smash your mind and reshape your perception, yet is generative and fertile enough to be expressed in a multitude of ways.  This is hard.
  2. Keep the idea to yourself. Let it grow and mature.
  3. Give the idea a good name. A name that you like using.
  4. Start generating words, in a raw form like plain text or even actual paper, that give form to the idea
  5. Whenever you have a choice, choose the most powerful vision. Choose the things that burns in your mind. Rationalise it later – our brains are built for that.
  6. Break it into sections. Sections with good names. This is mostly for your benefit — smaller sections are easier to manage.
  7. Break the sections down into subsections — divide and conquer
  8. If you have taste adequate to your endeavour, see all the flaws at once, and despair
  9. Progressively reassemble the parts into a whole

Apparently after that you also have to art and format and print and distribute it.

Sharpening the Axe – How I Plan and Write RPG Books by Skerples

https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2019/09/osr-sharpening-axe-how-i-plan-and-write.html

Dozens of suggestions, but harder to trust than the first two because it’s didactic, context-free advice — not “this is what I think I do, and it seems to work” but “this is what you should do”. As Skerples says in the comments “Oh I won’t actually manage all of it either, but it’s nice to try”. I’d rather hear what he does manage.

It might be best used as a checklist.

The deluge of points makes it hard to summarise, but some interesting ideas and repeated themes are:

  • Sometimes, there is no clear best option — there two possibilities and you could have a good adventure either way. But you do have to choose.
  • Your choices, overall, need to build a consistent whole. This is hard. (notice how Arnold K puts a lot of emphasis on sticking to your themes)
  • Every word, every sentence, costs GM time at the table. Be merciless with verbiage. Don’t give the reader anything they can easily adlib. (see also Joseph Manola on conceptual density)

Bryce Lynch’s Adventure Design Tips Summarized and Explained by Jon Miller

https://into-the-dark-rpg.blogspot.com/2016/07/bryce-lynchs-adventure-design-tips.html

Bryce is my favourite reviewer, and his interests in the OSR D&D space seem to closely mirror mine. Here, Jon Miller has extracted 30 “principles of adventure design” that Bryce seems to use, implicitly, in his reviewing.

As with the Skerples post above, it’s a checklist, not a process. And much of it is concerned with avoiding with fairly basic errors, or with stylistic decisions that I wouldn’t consider. This feeling of familiarity is, of course, a notorious liar — students report it when they read over their textbook repeatedly, but it’s no indicator they’ll pass an exam. But it makes it hard to know what to put in a summary, so I won’t give one.

What else is there?

I am always interested in reading more of these. Especially if, like the Patrick Stuart and Arnold K ones above, they show me how someone actually works.

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