Sunday 22 January 2017

How To Make an Adventure Part 2, answers to your Questions

Question 1

 Brandon D asked;

"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?"


What happens is the folder contents start off as text files. Then as soon as the subject in each file has any weight or imaginative coherency it gets incorporated into a big word doc for that section. This is like the skeleton or 'main machine' for that section.

Then things are either added straight onto that skeleton (when things are going well), or, when necessary, individual parts are dragged out into their own notepad docs, word docs, or even whole subfolders full of individual files relating to different things.

Then as problems are solved and issues are dealt with, they all condense back into the big main skeleton word doc, like a mad scientist making a Frankenstein, you have your big corpse in the centre, then you pull out organs to work on them, add bits on, shave bits off, fiddle with things and consider alternates, then you shove the organ back in the Frankenstein.

As this is being done you build up a detritus of files of various kinds which, as the Frankenstein near completion, generally get dumped into a bin folder called "Development" or "Everything Pre-2015".

To answer your question more concisely, those particular folders each have a single word doc for that section, but during development they might have had lots of sub folders and scrappy files like you describe, alongside one big doc for everything to be re-incorperated into.


Question 2

Scrap Princess asked "How do you fight "mission creep" or things otherwise expanding inward and outward in all directions?"


This reminds me a lot of someone asking "How to go to sleep?" in which the answer is intuitively obvious to anyone who can do it, but when we can't do it, it seems impossible and, in fact, the solution flies further and faster out of our reach the more we harass ourselves to find it.

I can only really describe this from my own point of view,

So there are a few moods or states of mind that help us achieve the aim of Reasonable Completeness.

The Cut

This is generally arranged around a single moment, it’s the thing most similar to a single decision, a simple, strong, singular NO, in which a situation is briefly assessed and then a prospective course of action is cast firmly and probably permanently into a state of not being done and never being done.

In a sense this is a kind of intelligent stupidity. When you're making any creative project, no “NO” should ever be really final or absolute, even if you throw something away it still stays in the brain bin and might come up later in something else or mutate in there BUT, having it on or in your mind when you are not going to use it soaks up energy. It's like having extra papers on your desk, you must sweep your arm across the desk and cast them onto the floor

I always feel a little macho or 'tough' doing this, and it’s also slightly painful as you are probably throwing away something that you are mentally attached to and feel affection for, so it’s a bit like strangling a pet. Anyone who makes a choice kills a world. It’s the alternative world where you chose a different thing and all the various consequences of that choice play out, the moment you decide against it, that world and everything in it fall instantly into irrevocable ruin, and that pristine ruin often looks better than the shitty flawed thing you actually ended up living with.

Creative work is really really heavy on your cognitive architecture in a lot of invisible ways.
It’s really global, you need a lot of the different parts of your brain talking to each other fluidly, and the more brain parts you can get communicating the most then the better chance you have of making something good.

Because of this, because of the need for a lot of cognitive energy or ability to be free, in a strange sense, being conservative can help you be more imaginative and more successfully imaginative

But this does not answer your question.

If it's hard to make a decision because you have a lot of stuff going on in your mind at the same time then it can be good to reduce things to a binary choice based on a particular quality, element or feeling. People are better at choosing between two things than between three or four things I think
the simplest way of saying this to yourself is "which of these two things provokes greater feeling in me" or some statement similar to that.

This means looking at a big mess of stuff and trying to boil it down to two main things. Then, if necessary, doing so again at a lower level.

After you make a bunch of binary choices in a row you have done the equivalent work to choosing between three or four complex things, yet perhaps with less energy cost and stress.

The Holistic State

I think of the Holistic state as the ability to hold the whole thing in your mind. It is governed more by love and desire than by dislike or rejection, more by the softer emotion of 'letting things go' rather than the harder 'cutting out' and provoked more by affection for the whole than by contemptuous judgement of the part.

Because this is a softer emotional state it’s harder to analyse and give advice about. I have found it the most difficult state to achieve at-will.

The ability ‘to cut’ is more easily and directly provoked in the heart, regardless of your mood, allowing yourself to feel is harder.

Nevertheless the holistic state is utterly vital because it invisibly shapes the decision architecture that tells you when and where it is wise to ask your mind for the energy ‘to cut’, a kind of meta-emotion guiding, not what choice you make, but when to make a choice.

The vague, gnawing troubled sense of something being undone or somehow incorrect might be the absence or negative influence of this state.

My best advice to provoke this state is to seek the initial spike of embodied joy that caused you to become interested in the project. Imagine your first enthusiastic conception of what it might be, imagine yourself explaining, clearly and lucidly, to someone you actually like, what you love about the project, dwell on what is, or was, pleasing to you about it.

Hopefully forming this image or idea-group in your mind, as a vague but positive idea of what should be, rather than a negative idea of what you do not want, will help guide you when you turn back and look at what is currently going wrong with your thing. Where has it expanded out of its original conception? Where must it be pruned?

The Use of System

This is an emotionally neutral-feeling capacity which is just about your ability to organise and arrange your own information.

The better you are at 'filing' things, then the larger and more total view you have of the whole project and the easier it is to have that total view. If a map of the whole thing comes more easily to mind then that reduces the cognitive cost.

Also, when you are angry and blocked on a project then it’s still relatively easy to do ‘filing’. Moving information around and getting all your shit in the right place requires neither love nor hate, it can be meditative, a bit like doing the dishes, and it might actually do you some good because, who knows, you might have a breakthrough.


To count backwards from the top to bottom.

1.      Do your filing and have your folders and text architecture worked out, you don’t need to feel anything while you are doing this.
2.      Imagine the feeling of the great idea that caused you to embark. Imagine explaining it to a friend.
3.      Take this feeling and use it to look at all the stuff you currently have. If it’s a big sprawling bush, what parts of it may not be like your explanation or idea?
4.      Look closer at those parts and reduce each issue to a series of binary choices where you choose between two things.
5.      Be super tough and macho or whatever your equivalent of that is a boldly strike your way through those either-or decisions one by one.

Be aware, I just make all this shit up and it may or may not work.


Question 3

 Scrap Princess also asked;

"How much winds up all the cutting room floor?"


I don't really know as I don't keep a lot of records of ideas that have been thrown out and not used. My memory may be inaccurate or unreliable. It also depends at what stage an idea or concept is abandoned. When it first flits through your head? When it’s written down in a big list along with a bunch of others? When its incorporated into a main draft? When it’s in a first final draft? When an editor cuts it out before printing?

If we go from the end and say stuff that was cut out in the same way old film was cut, that is, written, performed, filmed and then dumped, I would say anywhere from 30 to 5 per cent. With MotBM being more towards the thirty percent number, or higher, and DCO or FotVH being much lower.

If we say every idea or potential that passed through your head from initial conception on, then it could be around 50% or higher of those idea's don't get used. Making good things is about saying no to bad ideas.


Question 5

 |Kyana asked;

"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?"


Ultimately I can only answer this in reference to the kinds of thing I already know how to make but I will first try to consider the varying possibilities for different kinds of games or formats.

"explore/decide what means to be human" on it's own is best explored first through an essay or poem, then through a narrative, then through a storygame, then through a kind of white-wolf or Pendragon-esque highly-specific game, then finally through an OSR-style game. Even for a storygame that would be a very abstract concept.


The adventure idea you described in the comments to the last post wasn't quite like that. It didn't just have a single abstract concept at its core, it also had particular people, a particular world, certain charismatic objects and relationships and places which all had a specific tone and mood. So if we were considering that, then I would say it was best expressed through either a storygame, OSR game or possibly a narrative.

One thing that makes a concept group a good possibility for an OSR game is the ease and fluidity with which it suggests a geography and lists.

It doesn't really matter exactly what the lists are of. They can be places, people, monsters, objects or just cool sounding words and individual names of things, so long as they are things.

If you can sit down with a piece of paper for an hour and start writing down things, just anything you can think of, and end up with a page full of cool or interesting sounding-stuff. Something that, if you think of it you either smile or just want to know or explain more, then you might have a good concept group for an OSR game.

Even if you can't do that it's not necessarily a bad idea, it just might be best for a different kind of thinking.

I think it could make a really good adventure, if that's what you wanted to do with it. If I were you I would take the time to make sure


So in addition to all these questions I said I would talk thee things and those were;

6.     Publishing, formats and printing.


These are rather tiresome issues that I only started to think about once I began making things but which it might reeeaaallllly benefit anyone making an adventure to consider


First comes something that probably everyone knows about already but that I feel I have to repeat publicly just because the consequences for not knowing are so aggravating and this might be the first time some people hear about it and if I can save even one…..

American Letter Size – Beware It!

Americans, unwilling to deal with the same kind, rational and eminently reasonable paper sizes as the rest of the world, have clung resentfully to their own special paper size which is nearly but not quite the same as A4. American "Letter" size. Day 1 in Trumps America people. This piece of shit size has fucked up more good ideas than (INSERT TOPICAL REFERENCE HERE).

The nightmare of this shitty, deceptive death-swamp of a paper size is that, unless you are looking for it or are already familiar with it, it’s entirely possible to get most of the way through a production or adaption and not realise that the stuff you did in A4 will have to be completely re-formatted for printing in a US letter format and that, because the size difference is so marginal, you can't just cut the info content of a page in half or anything, you have to shaaaave it, and, depending on the paper quality or type of binding some printing companies may or may not make certain paper types, colour options and bindings available to use.

O, so other than that page size has three big effects on a piece of work

1. Amount of stuff you can fit on a double-page spread, power of art, tables, interrelationships of information.

More and more I have come to think that things should be written and designed in informational groups so that everything on a double-page spread hangs neatly together, and to do this you need to know ahead of time what format you are going to be using

For anyone creating stuff in the future I would strongly recommend thinking 'by spread', when you are creating, or trying to, to see if it works.

2. Ease of practical use at a table.

Almost everyone I know who has spoken at any length about use-at table strongly prefers a relatively small format for use and I see the LotFP A5 size praised a lot (again, if anyone has opinions then let me know in comments), also a big thick tome is going to be a bitch to hold up and flick through at the table while a light Broodmother Skyfortress or Blood in the Chocolate will be relatively easy to deal with.

I do not love A5 myself but as with PDF’s I am in a cult of one.

3. Weight of the thing and its cost to produce and post.

the general process of development for most OSR creators seems to be that we want to get our stuff bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more like a 'real book', heavier, thicker and with better binding.

As the thing you make gets bigger then the ancillary costs to printing and sending it go up and up and this is especially valid in cross-ocean postage.

The boundaries of the OSR market (and D&D generally, for the most part) are roughly contiguous with those of the Anglosphere. The USA takes up the majority, then there are sub-markets in Canada, the UK, Australia, some in mainland Europe like France and Germany and a bit in New Zealand. I have not seen very much from the rest of the world.

(Though presumably there is gigantic potential in India and China, especially India, so far as I know most urban Indian nerds will be multilingual in English so if there was a Lulu printing centre in India and D&D somehow took off there then that could be a biiiiiig deal).

So a big deal for OSR publishers is if you are posting your stuff across an ocean, if it’s done through lulu or RPG.NOW then they have production centres in both Europe and the US so that takes care of that problem for those areas (not for poor Australia or NZ), but if you are printing your own shit and then posting it then you need to think about the weight of the finished product. Intercontinental postal costs take a big leap at certain weight boundaries and parcel thicknesses and you will need to know what these are. If it’s going from the Old World to the US or visa versa then the value of postage can create a larger and larger effect on the cost.

(I was going to back the Contessa Swords and Wizardry but the postage was going to be as much as the thing itself and was going to be taken out of my account at an unknown time so I noped out.)

In addition, there is the effect of page thickness on the ability of that page to hold colour. I learnt this from Scrap but essentially, perceived colour is strongly affected by the depth and intensity of blacks on a page, if you can't get deep blacks then they will seem greyed-out and the intensity of colours will suffer accordingly, to get deep blacks on a page you need thick paper to absorb the ink
thicker paper costs more and increases weight, leading to all the knock-on effects of cost listed above.

there is perhaps a potential market opening for a kind of series of zines or pamphlets, with one being produced every two or three months, sent out like a subscription service, and with each series making its own large scale thing

I'm imagining something the size of Yoon-Suin broken down to chapters based on area and then subscribed to, with each pamphlet being playable on its own, so someone could get one part and play it with their friends while the creators work on the next part, then after a few months, hey, looks like a new area has opened up, we can go there now. So the whole thing could almost be a continuous-play thing, going out and being experienced like a comic book, and the relatively small size would make postage and transport easier, plus making each individual part less of a massive weight on the time and resources of the creators.

PDF/hardcopy conflict/synergy

I hate PDF's because I think they don't get read. I think they are largely dead information.


No-one else on earth agrees with this opinion. A meaningfully large part of the audience wants a PDF alongside a hardcopy, many people want to buy a PDF to 'try it out' before getting a hardcopy and another chuck of the audience only wants a PDF.

Regardless of how you feel about them, PDF's are a dominant part of the production process

This interrelates with page size as the reader that most people are using to view a PDF is smaller than A4. In most cases it can comfortably view a notebook sized page and an A5 sized page but it will often have a bit of trouble with a full-page spread at those sizes (not much direct experience of this so let me know in comments if wrong), this changes the dynamic from a physical book, which will almost always be open in the DM's hand or in the table with a double spread showing.

Navigating a PDF opens up a whole new range of ways to deal with information, no more, turn to this table on page XX, instead, you can just have a button on the page and when it says, to use this procedure, turn to this table, it can just take you right to the table.

In the same way, navigation can provide much greater ease of movement between sections and elements, even in a large book


I also said I would look at;

Dealing With Artists, Co-Workers And Editors.


Fucked if I know. I am no good at this so I have decided that I should try to interview some people who are good at it and then report back to you. So get ready for part three I guess.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sitting here flipping through Fire on the Velvet Horizon, I can't understand why you think it wouldn't transfer well to PDF. It's images and text arranged pretty much linearly.

    1. Sure they're different and it probably works better as a book but you blow this format-specificity thing out of all proportion.

    2. The screen size on most readers would be way to small for it to be readable without zooming in, meaning you wouldn't be aware of the whole page while you were reading. The intensity and vividness of the images would be dulled and muted.

    3. I read PDFs on a big monitor with vivid colours, there's no good reason not to make a PDF available to people who want it.

    4. The reason is that we want that work to be a physical object only and since we are the creators that is all the reason that is required.

  3. Two more questions for you:

    1) do you playtest your work? If so, did you change anything of dco after testing it?

    2) when talk abt ideas do you think about anything like a statement or more like a mental image? When i master dco (btw thank you) i oriented my game about the cognitive, emotive, psychological depth of the newtonian concept of space (and of the two polar concepts of emptyness and fullness). Was that stuff of mine or war yours?

    1. 1) I haven't really playtested anything yet though I probably should have.

      2) Its always more of a mental image than a statement. Though I would say often not even an image but a cluster of moods, intuitions and idea fragments, some showing up as head-pictures, others in different ways.

      I'm pretty sure all that newtonion stuff was yours.

  4. (in regards of idea development) What if starting to create such list of thing for idea (for example, knightly situation) I arrive at entirely different idea (something to do with black bronze mirrors, lands of thorns and no knights in sight). The second idea holds more interest, but in regards of the first idea it is a failure as it has almost nothing to do with the first one, not even aesthetically.

    1. Whenever that happens to me I always go with whatever the most interesting ideas are.

      If I was being paid to create a specific thing, or if I was already half way through something and needed to keep on focus then I would worry. But, in a situation like yours I would just keep coming up with stuff, following whatever direction seemed most potent.

      Thing might loop back to knights in the end, or I could possibly re-integrate them later, or it just might be a whole new thing.

    2. Thank you.
      It might be a stupid question but can I repeat the 1-hour process of writing down stuff (for the same idea) or is it better to do it just once?

    3. It's not stupid. Feel free to do it as much as you like.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. (reposted because the wording was unclear)

      If I may ask another question: did you have a situation where a list of interesting things contained things which clearly don't fit other aesthetics or are somewhat symbiotic/parasitic to you personally (for example, I have certain things I caught myself plugging into almost anything I do regardless if it fits or not; an example would be a latte in times where it clearly doesn't belong)? If yes, did you try to involve such items with other items anyway or cut them immediately?

    6. Honestly it depends on what it is.

      Usually I would decide based on whether it was interesting, whether it added to the feel of the thing, if it was possible in the imagined world and if I just really liked it regardless.

      It's not necessarily bad to put mild modernisms into a fantasy setting, so long as it is possible in *some* world where development was different. Steph Swainston did this a bit with her books and its not outright impossible for something like a Latte to exist in a pseudo-historical setting. John Belliars wrote 'The Face in the Frost' with a strange mixture of fairytale, pseudo-historical and modern elements and it works really well.

      I'm sorry, all my advice comes down to it being a judgement call, which isn't that helpful. I would lean very slightly (52%) in favour of including odd stuff as most genre work is very samey and you may as well do your own version regardless of whether it makes sense or not. If it ends up good you can just say its one of the elements of your style.

    7. It is helpful to me to know how other people view such things. I tend to suppress such elements outright but this time there are quite a few of them that might still fit and I was wondering. Thank you very much for your help.

  5. False Machine

    Are you planning on using any of this adventure design skills to write a novel any time soon?

    I know it's a different skill, but Novels have a way of penetrating the public consciousness in a much great way than Adventure publishing, and a lot of novels are adventures following great and interesting characters.

    You can build the greatest world ever, but to tell your story you need characters people can relate to.

    JK rowling managed to create an incredibly detailed and amazing world, and then told a great story in it with great characters, and she's done ok.

    LEss blog posts! More novels!