Friday 20 January 2017

How I Make an Adventure - Part 1

Due to a discussion with Kyana in the comments to the previous post, I have been lead to consider the following question

How do I write an adventure?

You might think this is a simple question since I should just be able to remember doing it.

Well, firstly my memory isn’t that good.

Secondly, I tend to accomplish things in a fugue state.

Thirdly, they are really complex things and your memory of doing them is being constantly over-written with each new version and iteration, each of which are almost a whole thing in themselves and, like a waiter forgetting a previous order, it can be quite useful to be able to dump a lot of not currently-relevant information out of your head to get the processing power back.

Fourthly, I've really only ever written one complete adventure, arguably two.

Here’s my best guess about how you do what I did, and I’m talking here about process and practice more than ideals, ‘design goals’ whatever the fuck they are and general rambling about minimalism and maximalism or whatever the fuck people are banging on about this week. This is literally, how do you do it.


1.      THE BIG IDEA

The most important and central thing about making a good adventure is to have a good idea.

I do not believe that good ideas are easy to get. Especially ones to specific purposes.

Ideas are easy to get. I could probably write down ten crappy ideas right now. Good ideas are rare, and the difference between the two is not just the level of work you put in.

I suspect there's a curve showing how much potential an idea has, even with the maximum level of work. At one end are really shitty ideas, with these, even if you change everything about it and hire all the best talent to work on it for a long time then it’s still not going to be very good. The interesting thing with a really shitty idea is that they tend not to produce giant charismatic piles of flaming disaster. You tend to end up with just mediocrity. Like the Duce Bigalow movies.

Then, in the middle are the standard 'good ideas', these are the ones you have coming out of the shower, on the toilet or whatever and you think "oh, that's a clever idea". I think of them as Writers Room ideas. If you got a bunch of reasonably intelligent, reasonably creative nerds in a room and they start spouting off ideas then you will probably get a few of these. These are ideas that can be massively enhanced or destroyed by the work done on them. They are like B+ movies, like a Robert Zemekis movie or a Max Landis movie or a Marvel movie.

Then right at the other end you get the good ones. These are the ones that if you just wrote them down badly they would still be kinda good. The City Without a Name is one of those. These are also the ideas where you know if you work on it in the right way with the right people and everything goes perfectly and, for once, all the stars align and all the coins land on their edge, you might just get the Real Deal, art with a capital A, something that punches through time, invents a genre, adds to the culture in a meaningful way.

They do not come along that often and I have never been able to predict when they will come along. They are a mystery to me.



So what is 'an idea'?

The most important thing about your idea for the adventure is that you like it. Making it will be hard and you will get depressed at multiple points and want to put it away, but if the central concept is provokes affection and desire in you then you have a much better chance of making it and of making it well.

There is a paradox, the idea should have a very strong identity and feel, but at the same time be a little formless. It should be something that you could accomplish a variety of ways.

At this point it absolutely doesn't need to be something you are able to explain to other people, or even to yourself. You can just have it there in the back of your head like a silent impulse. Wrapping it up in a neat conjunction of words at this point is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the opposite to movie-producer rules. You don't need an elevator pitch because right now, you are not trying to persuade a bureaucratic system that it's good. You don't need to explain it in terms of other things (yet), you need to let it be itself and grow and become unlike other things. You need to keep it to yourself a little.

The idea for DCO

The Research

With DCO I had already done a lot of research for Veins of the Earth and had had most of the ideas for that written out in their initial form.

I wanted to make something that would be an effective gateway to the Underworld as I conceived it. I had a head full of geology and deep time (thanks in large part to the books of Richard Fortney). If there is one basic concept behind DCO it’s that transmission of the feeling of deep time, the same one you feel when you see huge layers of strata on a cliff face and think about how deeply they reach into the past.

Whatever you are trying to make it will draw from something, even if its just everything you have ever experienced or imagined.

The Name

Deep Carbon Observatory is actually the name of a research group and I stole it. I had noticed it during my research along with the name of another group, Dark Biosphere Investigations, and noted it down.

DCO was nearly DBI, in that case it would have been a journey to a kind of collapsed abyssal zoo under the ocean.

It can be really important to have a good name. The name acts as the first hook or crinkle in the minds memory, a nodule that other impressions can accrete about. It’s a kind of symbol or rallying flag for when you are explaining the idea to others and yourself or for when you are depressed and doubting it. A cool name can breathe life into a project and idea. It’s also useful for capitalistic reasons of course, with marketing and so forth. it brands the project as being or not being a particular kind of thing in the eyes of the world.

My advice would be to make sure you have a really cool name that you love and write it at the top of your notepad or writing document. Have a file shortcut named that on your desktop.



When I started out I began everything by hand on various pads, usually either lined or square. Then once I had what I needed I took it to the computer at the end of each day, or week, and typed it in.

The great thing about this is that you can be away from a computer which you don't have to carry around with you. You also get longer to think about the euphony of your sentences and they flow through your mind in a different speed so that effects your writing style a little.

Later I started doing almost all my computer writing on Notepad – it’s really fast to open so you don't have to wait. It doesn't check my spelling or bad grammar and underline words to irritate me so I can type very fast and inaccurately without it being a problem. It has no format, fonts etc. so there are no extras to fiddle with. If they were there I would fiddle with them and waste time.

Almost everything I've ever written on my computer has started as a badly written notepad document. This is being written in notepad, the it will be re-written here, then transferred to Word to check spelling and fix stuff and make sure it makes sense, then finally the blog. I'll take a picture of it now so you know what it looks like

Now I rarely use physical paper for major segments. It just took too long to transfer everything over  I still carry physical notepads around with me just in case.



This is a part of the process quite difficult to keep track of, it takes place mainly on notepad documents that are easy to delete and transfer and on actual physical notepads.

It's also an extremely important process because it’s here that the first inklings of the shape of the adventure take place.

A main thing here is working out problems and getting chapter or section headings.

The thought process for DCO went something like this.

- I want PC's to go somewhere deep, gain access to something deep but most importantly, feel as if they are going somewhere deep. I want the space to tell them that.

- Here's this name, Deep Carbon Observatory. What would that actually be like? An underground observatory? What would that be?

- Then gradually - it would be inverted, it would see through stone, it would be deep underground but accessible (like our observatories are on hill and mountaintops).

- Mine - no. Done already.

- What about Open Cast Mine - this is an important moment, open cast mines are visually and spatially powerful and hyper-dominant spaces. They create a very deep impression. They are also something that most D&D creators won't use as they are explicitly modern and creators prefer to draw from pre-existing pseudo-medieval forms. Once the idea of it being an open cast mine was settled on, that governed a lot of the iterations from that point on.


Choose the most powerful thing EVERY TIME and THEN use reason and explanation and rationalism to make it all mutually coherent like it makes sense. Never be reasonable to start with, that is not your job.

- Ok, its like this big inverse pyramid and the observatory at the bottom. So why does no-one know where it is, why doesn't everyone know about it, why isn't it in use?

- Can't be filled in. Hidden somehow. How?

thinking thinking thinking thinking

- Hidden under a lake. River diverted and deliberately used to hide it, like a huge geo-engineering project. And that explains why no-one has gone there in ages and why its findable now. The project failed.

- Then the idea of the dam (the shape of the dam is a 20th century concrete-based technology, like the open-cast-mine of the entry, no ancient dam would ever have looked like that).

- How did no-one fuck with the dam/how did it stay up (the dam golems)

- Then the dam having broken. Then what happens in a flood?

- Stages and effects of a flood.

- Then that breaks down quite easily into different areas or zones. Then we have the idea of each area or zone being like going deeper and deeper into an alien reality, with each step closer to the observatory being like you are going further and further out of the realm of human understanding and into the realm of otherness.

- It's about this point that we reach our basic subdivisions or chapter headings.



We're back to names again. Instead of adventure names we are choosing section names but the process is similar. You want to choose a good name, but most importantly you need to know what manner of thing that section is and broadly how it relates to the whole

Here's a picture of what I ended up with in the DCO folder at the end.

You can see they aren't that good. Carrowmore is ok, the Crows is ok, the Drowned Lands is ok, The Big Dam is bad, The Profundal Zone is good (an actual measure of a particular layer of biosphere in a lake), The Observatory and the Giant are just practical.

With Maze of the Blue Medusa, well, in files the sections were first called UPPER RIGHT, CENTRE RIGHT, CENTER, LOWER LEFT etc. The project was always called MEDUSA MAZE, in caps. The sections eventually turned into LIZARDMAN ARCHIVE, GALLERY, GARDEN, ENTRY, THE DEAD WEDDING, then that odd bit in the lower mid right I forget if that had its own name, then the medusa's stuff, not sure if that had a name either but I knew what was there, then PETRIFIED CELLS. Then they got their current names through the edit.

The most important thing is that it be broken down into workable sections. In the case of DCO, and to some extent with MotBM, the sections are based on geography, i.e. they could be sections of a map, but they are also based on gathering consequences of play; you can't get to the profundal zone without going through the drowned lands, you can't reach the Medusa without going through the Almery and you are unlikely to meet her without meeting Chronia first.

Even though in most things I do I like a high degree of interconnectedness both in aesthetic, in terms of worldbuilding and imagined mutual history and in terms of mechanics and carried over effects, if I didn't break things down a LOT first I would go mad.

The only way I know how to deal with highly complex big projects is to break them into parts with a specific informational architecture.



Once I've got a rough arrangement of chapters it’s just a matter of working out what is in each thing then writing that


But yeah, a similar process is followed. Breakdowns on either paper or text docs, lots of notes, lots of sub-headings. Breaking down each section into its own sections and then working out names and content for each of them.

This is like 80% of making the thing but it only gets these few lines.

Also, the whole architecture of the adventure and the arrangement of all of its parts can and will change multiple times as new stuff is invented and put in and old stuff discarded.

The DCO flood flowchart only happened because I had this big clever idea for a kind of flood mega-image map thing with all the different encounters on it and Scrap just said no so I had to come up with a way to do the same thing with just information.

This leads directly into –



It's too big. It's unmanageable. There are too many simultaneous problems you have to think about. Your dumb ambitions have sunk the project. It will be incomprehensible anyway. It's pretentious unplayable arty shite. You can't even stand to look at it any more. There's some waste ground near your house where they won't find the body for a while. You could do it with pills.

At some point you cross the line from having it all in bits to....



I have found the Navigation View in Microsoft Word to be very useful for arranging the architecture of information, here's a picture of the navigation view of a BFR doc.

As your chapters fill up they also narrow, casting off old word docs, notepad docs, image files and prospective layouts in like a snake with leprosy shaking off its skin. Here's a list of the files for BFR as they currently stand

And here's the "Misc Development" folder for the section I'm working on now. I use this as a dumping ground for stuff that might be relevant but I don't want it staring at me.

Eventually you have all your little chapter sections as complete as you think they are going to get. you have read through them all multiple times and to you they are entirely comprehensible and eminently playable, only a fool could fail to understand them. So, you mangle them all into one huge, sequential, staggeringly slow and constantly crashing word document.

After months (possibly years) of crushing effort, multiple dark nights of the soul, fitful rushes of inspiration, moments of near genius and several bedazzled and hallucinogenic dead-ends your glorious first draft is READY.


You are now half way through the process.


That’s all for one blog post. Next post I will talk about all the stuff that comes after like publishing, formats, printing etc. As well as all the stuff that I missed out like dealing with rebellious mute beasts artists, fools who would oppose your will co-workers and parasites who dare to questions your divine genius editors. I will also try to answer any specific questions that people ask in the comments.


  1. A little off-topic but just for the sake of curiosity...
    When I have got DCO there was a HUGE disaster in a mining dam here in Brazil that helped feel the adventure more real. You can search for it with "mariana mining disaster".

    1. Oh wow, I'm really sorry about that. Although yeah, good for the game.

  2. So just a follow-up for clarification: are each of those "inner folders" - such as is shown in the DCO image with chapter titles for each folder - just filled with notepad documents? I'm picturing that each of said documents would be small text files that start almost like sketch ideas (like one for Hoolloch in "The Crows," and one for each encounter in "The Profundal Zone, etc) and eventually form into a complete idea, but are still separated by idea (every encounter is its own text doc) - is that the case?

  3. How do you fight "mission creep" or things otherwise expanding inward and outward in all directions?

  4. put Beast+Fool+Parasite on my OSR tomb

  5. also how much winds up all the cutting room floor?

  6. How to know if idea is good or not? What if idea appears to be very insubstantial? "Gateway into Underworld" deals with places that can be mapped, but what if the idea is, for example, "explore/decide what means to be human" or some other abstract-moralistic thing? Maybe such ideas are never good ideas at all?

  7. I had no idea we were so different, Patrick.

    Also, my labmate used to work for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations. He centrifuged a lot of seawater off Catalina Island.

    1. Did he find any dark biosphere energy? Or evidence of a dark energy biosphere?

  8. Oh Navigation View, what would I do without you? Until I transfer files back and forth across different versions of Word and it slowly dawns on me- there is no "updated file" all the updates were destroyed by version incompatibility! HAHAHA!

  9. I've read this several times before, and indeed summarised it on my own blog, but I just read it again and I still love it.