Sunday, 13 July 2014

My Thoughts On Making Adventures

Now I have not only read adventures but published an adventure, I am going to talk about what I think I have learnt from it.

Making things for RPG’s is totally unlike any other form of writing. Because of that it requires a different structure of work to bring it into being. An average RPG book will contain maps, descriptions of people, descriptions of monsters, descriptions of specific objects and descriptions for rules (spells and magic) that specifically alter or subvert the reality that the rest of the work is trying to establish.

In addition to that, we add the element of time. Not only the makeup or ingredients of events are described, but the form or shape of actions proceeding through time is also part of the creation. Some products narrow the evolving nature of events to a sharp and pre-defined point, some allow the reactions of its individual parts to expand without restraint, but all must account for time.

Even to reduce an RPG book to its simplest most abstract form, a list of things, it would be a list unlike any other. To include time makes it still stranger, and we consider all this without the addition of rules to simulate a fictional reality. I’m talking here mainly about supplements and adventures, not rule books or systems.

Because there are so many different qualities of thing that go into making an RPG product, its creation requires a different structure of work. That is, the plan of action and arrangement of work and effort that goes into making it.

The plan of action for a novel might go like this.

1. Have idea.
2. Research.
3. Write it.
4. Send to publisher.
5. Edit it.
6. Publish.

It is an overwhelmingly linear process in which only one thing is being done at each moment, and usually by one person at a time.

What follows is my best guess for what a plan of work should be like when making RPG products. This is not the plan I have used, it’s a utopian guess at what might be possible.

1. Idea

A powerful idea should be of a kind wide enough to encompass and inspire spatial areas, living beings, strange objects and unusual situations of the necessary type. It must have psychic energy. This is the undefinable aspect of a work that in its creation inspires and drives the creators, provides means to harmonize effort and different parts into a constructive whole and, when complete, infects the end user with the desire to construct the idea within their own mind and transmit it to others via performance.

We can say that if a product has psychic energy and almost nothing else it may still be considered a ‘good’ product. It lives within the mind.

It is at this stage that a great deal of vague yet powerful information may be produced. This is good. This is what you show to people and say “its going to be kind of like this”. Imagine it as deeply in your mind as you can.

2. Art

Other than raw text, art is the most powerful projector of psychic energy.  It is the most immediate partner to the raw idea and its influence on both the creators and the audience is almost as strong as the nature of the core idea itself alone. Begin searching for and talking to, artists, right away, stay in contact with them and pay careful attention to the art they produce.

From this point on, words and art advance together, in conversation with each other.

3. Informational Architecture/Physical Format

Think deeply about the interrelationship of information in the product. Maps? NPCs? Monsters? Situations? How and when do they interact?

This is an act of great subtlety. The informational architecture of the product must be both useful, expressive of the nature of the thing, and fluid enough to accept changes during construction. A powerful general concept is best.

At this stage, also decide on physical format.  The estimated, page size and rough page count. This relates to both the informational architecture of the product, but also its sale, cost and distribution.

A4 has more information on a two page spread, A5 has less but is more viewable on tablets. How much information will the user need to access at any one moment?

So now you may have up to four people involved at the same time. A writer, an artist, a layout specialist and a printer or publisher.  All of these people are acting in parallel, not in a linear one-after-another fashion.

4. Two Page Spreads.

THIS IS IMPORTANT. Each page and two-page spread should be a discrete chunk of information.

What does that mean?

It should refer mainly to itself and describe a single piece of imaginative machinery. Like a map on one side and key on the other or a portrait on one side and NPC description on the other. Or a complex social situation on one side and EVERYTHING you need to run it on the other.

Work this out during the conception and thinking about layout, then write to the layout.

(This means you are paying someone to layout a book before you have written most of it.)

Some information is good at providing psychic energy, this is the rocket fuel of the product. Some is good at living mainly in the memory.  Neither of these need be utterly bound to the layout schema.

But if information must be referenced, then it should be accessible as one.

Again we are reminded about the difference between A4 and A5. A double A4 spread, if artfully compressed, can contain a huge amount of interrelated information. It can also allow space for art and maps to ‘breathe’, allowing them an greater intensity of impression.

It can also allow space for marginalia.  Small images or glyphs applied to the borders or gutters of a page. If these are used then they should have a use. They should never be simple copied bits of imagery intended to give a book the right ‘feel’. A purely aesthetic use is still a real use but here the creator must be watchful. Space is a resource.

A% likewise has many advantages regarding cost, publication and ease of use. In addition its compression of information may be useful and help to ensure disciple in the writer.

5. The Turnaround.

At this stage, an idea has been worked out, some writing has been done, some art has been done, a physical format has been decided, a method of publishing has been decided, a basic informational architecture has been chosen.

This is the middle part of the process. Not the end.

Now you must look at the art.  Work out what the artist is good/bad at. Re-write or re-emphasise the product to take advantage of unexpected good qualities and minimise the impact of non-optimal qualities.

Allow the good aspects of the art to push the creation of the product in unexpected directions. Did someone draw a servo-skull? There can be rules for that. Did they put something strange on a map? There can be text for that.

How is the informational architecture working? Does it look effective and expressive or should it be re-arranged?

6. Write the Product

Complete the writing. Write with intensity. Over-write and then narrow down. Compress as much psychic energy and usefulness into as little space as possible. Treat each page and spread as a little icon or piece of jewellery.

7. Edit the Writing.

Get all the comma’s and full stops and spelling and basic formatting and crap right before you send it to layout.

8. Assemble.

Combine it all. Since you did most of the architectural work already, and prepared page layouts, this should be simpler and faster than layout usually is. Instead of loading a complex series of interrelated aesthetic and informational choices on one person, right at the end, then waiting while they struggle with them alone, it should be done during the creation.

And then you are done.


Focusing on things in a linear way puts less cognitive pressure on each individual piece of work, if you try to balance many things at once the pressures do not double, they multiply. This leads to the possibility of each individual piece lacking intensity and imagination because the creator was also doing the work of a producer at the same time and they got distracted and stressed out.

 In addition, while a linear design process will take longer it is in some senses, more robust. A parallel process like the one described above works if you can get a bunch of people working on something at the same time. This means that any tiny glitch in the life patterns of any individual actor can fuck up things for the whole process. It’s like a dance, everyone must move at once. A linear process can have delays, the work can simply sit there, waiting for the next person to take it up.

The element of risk of both time and money is also increased with parallel creation. You cannot stop and save up, you spend money in the middle of the process. I imagine this would take some nerve.

So there is much to be said for linear design.


There is probably a list like the one above, just as long, to be made about what you do once your thing is made. I don’t really know much about that as yet.

I will remind everyone who has read this far that this is not a description of what I have done, but a dream of what could be done.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your blog often feels like I've stumbled over a copy of some arcane tome promising to lead the reader through hidden vistas normally excluded from Human purview. Upon completing the passage, I'm convinced, that I now have the powers to traverse dimensions or birth a shoggoth...