Monday, July 7, 2014

A Lesson in Adventure Writing

I've been blathering on about my micro-adventures for the past couple of weeks, about my Patreon page and getting people involved or at least grabbing a copy of my latest creation.  I like folks playing my adventures.  It's a cool kick.  When I read about game sessions where the players have run through my adventure and how the GM has tweaked the adventure to fit their world/party/system, that's what it's all about for me.

But I'm not here to write about that.

Writing these one-page micro-adventures has been a fun challenge.  I love drawing the maps.  It allows me to do grown up coloring.  But trying to fit a fun, interesting adventure with possibly larger implications on half of a page, forces me to be concise.

Here's some examples from my most recent mico-adventure, The Crypt of Volkov.  It originally was going to be a page and a half, but I went through and slashed the shit out of it.  Waaa!

Here's the initial entry for the room #2 Tomb of Victor Volkov.  The stat box has been removed.

The door to this room is locked.  Opening the door will trigger the pit trap.  Inside the room is stone coffin.  It is carved from the natural stone.  There is a copper plate (long turned green) with an inscription scrawled into the metal.  Also in the room are two gargoyle statues.  They are made of a different, darker stone.  They are perched on pedestols.  The inscription is an archaic form of common.  Any player with a intelligence over 14 can read it, Risen from the ground.  Returned to the ground.  May the ground accept and protect you.  If the statues are attacked or if the party attempts to remove the coffin lid they will attack.  The statues are small, stone golems.  When attacked they get an roll at the same time.  If the golem scores a ’hit’ they grab the weapon.  If it’s a normal weapon it will be broken.  If magical the golem will take any damage the weapon normally does, but they player will need to win a contest of strength to use the weapon again.  The golem’s have an effective strength of 19.
Once activated they will remain so for one day.  They will chase the players to the entance of the crypt.  If destroyed, both have Golem Hearts (valued at 1000sp each) inside.  The coffin lid can beremoved with a combine strength or 30.  Inside is Victor Volkov.  He is dressed in rusted platemail and helm.  Grasped in skeletal hands is a two-handed sword covered in a calcium crust.  If grasped, the sword will transfer some of Victor’s experiences to the first one who touches the sword.  The sword’s name is scawled on the blade, Inviktum Viktorium.  Under the corpse is a secret compartment that contains four gold bars (valued at 100gp each).
Here is the final version.
The door is locked. Opening the door will trigger the pit trap. Inside the room is a stone coffin and two gargoyle statues. The statues are made of a different, darker stone. The statues are small stone golems that will attack if attacked, or if someone tampers with the coffin.  Once activated, they will remain so for one day. They will continue their attack even if it takes them outside of the crypt. A combine strength of 30 is required to move the coffin lid. Inside is Victor Volkov. He is dressed in rusted platemail. Grasped in his skeletal hands is a two-handed sword. The first to touch the sword will gain some of Victor’s experiences (gain 3d6 x 100xp). The sword’s name is scrawled on the blade, Inviktum Viktorium (see below).
Here's what my thinking was.
  1. This is too long for a micro-dungeon.  The whole theory behind it is being concise, be interesting without being generic.  I mention the natural stone...doesn't make a damn bit of difference.  A GM can make the call on that if it comes up.  It has no bearing on the room.  It's out.
  2. The copper plate with the inscription, while I like the nuance of it, it takes up a lot of space.  Three and a half lines.  While I did like that detail it needed to go.  Why?  Because it had nothing to do with what's going on in the room.  That darling needed to be killed.
  3. For some reason I thought it would be cool if the stone golems caught and broke the weapons swung at them, but it isn't a know skill of a golem (probably too slow for that anyway) and it took up a lot of space to explain how they would use it in game.  Four freaking lines.  This one needed to go again.  The golems are going to be difficult enough.
  4. Golem hearts.  I like the sound of them and thought they'd be an interesting find, but there was already a cool magic item to be found in here and I would need to go into a long explanation for a new magic item.  This got slashed due to it being redundant in this room, but stored in the memory locker to be used at another time.
  5. And I got rid of the secret treasure beneath Victor.  Again, another redundancy that took up too many lines.
With those five edits  I went from 20 lines to 9.  This room alone would have put me over my allotted space.  This is one room out of the six.  All of them had cuts.  In the end I think the adventure is better for it.

A micro-adventure should be something the GM can read through in a couple of minutes then be prepared to get the game going.  I appreciate a long adventure, but I'm lousy at digesting that much material unless I run it over and over again.  These adventures you can pop into your head with no prep time.  And the reason why I need to keep them short....unlike this post.

That's a glimpse into my brain while I write these adventures.  I've got some good ones on the assembly line.  I hope you stick around to see what's next.


  1. Interesting. It's always cool to see some of the creative rationale behind what people do.

    1. Thanks. There probably is some rationale, but I haven't found it yet.

  2. I find I have to do this for adventures that are just for my own use. When there's too much detail on the page, I can't find the important details I need, when I need them. Doing it the context of a micro-adventure that you're putting out there for others' use, I expect you have to be even more vicious with your editor's pen.

  3. I should hire you as my editor, I am terrible at the job myself.

    1. I am also Matt. I try to have Ivy look at first. She'll be "Why is this in here. It's crappy." Slash.

  4. How about 7 lines?

    The door is locked; opening it triggers the pit trap. Inside the room are a natural stone coffin and two stone gargoyles (small golems that attack if attacked or if the coffin is disturbed; once animated they remain active for one day, even pursuing foes outside the crypt). Inside the coffin (combined strength 30 to open) lies the skeleton of Victor Volkov in rusted platemail. The first person to touch his sword (scribed with its name, Inviktum Viktorium) gains some of Victor’s experiences (add 3d6 x 100xp). Treasure: golem hearts (1000sp x2), gold bars in secret compartment under corpse (100gp x4).

    [italicize parenthetical notes, bold magic items and the word "treasure"]

    In micro-adentures, the main thing lost is the ambience that an adventure writer might want to convey (the green copper plate, the throwaway inscription). You have to trust that the DMs using the adventure will add in the extras necessary to make it their own, embellished to the taste of their own adventure group. But you should still be able to get the nitty-gritty in.

    You could simply describe Victor's corpse as "his remains" and leave things like "skeletal" and "rusted plate mail" to the individual DM, unless those details are important (is it a false tomb? has Victor always been depicted in paintings wearing chain mail?)...but personally, I find SOME little touches to help stir my imagination.
    : )

    1. hehe Hey JB! Yeah, in micro-adventures there is a delicate balance between being brief and generic. I try to keep in some of the environmental touches, but those that push the adventure forward.

    2. (I wasn't trying to be a jerk by the way...I just liked keeping the "golem hearts" in the encounter)

    3. ha, didn't think you were. I'll find a home from them in the future.

  5. Great article, Tim. It's the brevity of your adventures that makes them so appealing to me. It's why I use them in preference to novella-sized tomes.

    I like to take your evocative bullet points and then expand them into my own setting, rather than having to hack through paragraphs of badly-written fan fiction to find out what an encounter is actually about.

    Keep up the fine work!

  6. I think the real trick to micro adventures is deciding which details will set the scene and fuel the imagination while retaining brevity and leaving breathing space for the GM.

    1. Boom! There is is. Well said Sean. I am going to steal that for the future.

  7. Now, this is beside the point of your post, which as an editor is incredibly helpful to me...although I tend to LIKE a lot of fluff.... But as I was saying, your point aside...the golem-grabbing effect is "easily" handled as an effect rather than a skill: Because of the rough-hewn nature of the stone, there are natural cracks and crevices. Each melee attack against the golem may have a d100 chance to get caught in one of these cracks and take d6 rounds to wrench free. That way it's not a skill, or have anything to do with the speed of the critter.

    Just my 2¢.

  8. Have you ever considered making adventures that are like three pages long? Three pages, the map, a page of monsters, and the map key. That's six pages total. You would be able to keep in all that awesome detail (you cut more awesome than I've ever put into an adventure truth be told). With a very good layout, you wouldn't have to worry about the fluff getting in the way of the crunch.