Friday, January 27, 2017

How I Write An Adventure

I'm partially writing this in response to Patrick's excellent post about how he writes adventures.

I write them very differently.

Many Boxes At Once

I don't work on single adventure at a time.  I multiplex.  (This is partially why I so rarely post any adventures.  The other reason is that I'm never satisfied.  The other other reason is that I'm a lazy shit.)

I have a folder named Fingers of the Maggot. . .

I have a folder named Fossil Dungeon.

I have a folder named Bad Druid.

I have a folder named Asria Hexcrawl.  Subfolders for the House of Healing, Unicorn Farm, Clay Town, Rat Puzzle Dungeon.

I have a folder named Abasinia Hexcrawl.  Subfolder for the Plateau of Leng and the Bronze Colossus.

I have a folder named Goblintown.  Subfolders for the Witch Ravine, Filth Library.

I have a folder named Mount Maggaroth.  Subfolders for the Doppleganger City and the Living Mountain.

I have a folder named Gazebo Dungeon.

I have a folder named Telescope Dungeon.

And then when I have an idea relevant to one of those dungeons, I put it in the appropriate folder.  (Someday I'm just going to publish 10 dungeons at once and it's gonna be great.  I'm sure that's how it works.)

Sometimes I sit down and brainstorm ideas for a specific dungeon, but more often I just come home, pull up the computer, and remember all the DnDable ideas I was exposed to that day.  (Watch Adventure Time, you'll come away with a couple.)  And then you just sort those ideas into the most appropriate box.

But when I just need a dungeon now and I'll have enough content in one of those folders to sketch out a dungeon in the half-hour before the game begins. And honestly, running a dungeon for your players is the best way to (a) get ideas for your dungeon and (b) expose your dungeon's weaknesses.

telescopes confuse the shit out of me
I think I'll actually use a microscope for inspiration
The Telescope Dungeon

Originally this one started from an unfinished blog post.  It was a living dungeon written backwards, with the deepest room first, all in the voice of the eldritch horror that had been summoned to inhabit it.

But as I started filling it with ideas, I started hating it.  The cruel, naive voice of the eldritch horror became stale and inelegant.  So, a bunch of shit got thrown out, and a lot of stuff got revised.  The ancillary dungeon feature, a telescope that distilled exotic species of light from stars, became the main feature.  The eldritch horror has been reconcepted as a wizardly bid for immortality involving a series of interdimensional fleshtunnels of infinite length.

I like it better now.  Everything that goes into that folder now follows one of three themes, in decreasing order of priority.
  1. Alien light.  Light in general.  Sight.
  2. Failed immortality.  Monsters with different types of flawed immortality. 
  3. Non-Euclidean Shit.
I moved some stuff out of other folders and into the Telescope Dungeon because I felt it belonged there better.  I also don't want too many overlapping concepts in my different dungeons.

I'm also trying to stay away from body horror shit, because I always do body horror shit.  I'm failing utterly.

Tip #1: Don't Commit

Don't draw your map too soon.  This ties you down to a single idea and restricts you.

I start with a very simple concept sketch.  In this case, the telescope dungeon is a tower with a big lens on top (or at least it used to be) and beneath it is basically just a giant microscope that separates alien starlight by wavelength (or at least, the Centerran equivalent of wavelength) and diverts it into different side chambers.  It's going to be super-vertical.  Like 10+ floors, each of which is usually only 1-3 rooms.

That's enough detail to get the brain juices flowing, without baking them.

Yes, having a concrete map of the dungeon will allow you to draw interesting conclusions.  If you put the myconid town next to the ship of honorable ghouls, you'll immediately start coming up with prouctive ideas about how myconids will interact with ghouls.  That's good!  But you'll have time for that step later.  Right now you need to be unfettered.

Apply the same philosophy to: 
  • Your backstory.  Keep it general at first. 
  • Your monsters and NPCs.  Make a list of concepts like "floating tyrannosaur head" and a list of roles like "guards the big ruby" before you start fusing them together into "tyrannosaur head that guards the ruby".
  • Your loot.  Keep concepts and goals separate.
Tip #2: Focus On the Functional Bits

Write snippets.  You'll have time to sew them together later.  Here are some example snippets:
  • This room has an effect that blocks light.  Torches are visible as muted orange things that can be seen, but shed no light.  The effect is caused by a single enchanted brick in the wall.  The effect is strongest there (torches dim near the center of the room, and near the ceiling, because they are nearer the enchanted brick).  The brick can be pried out as loot.
  • In this part, a halfling can actually enter the optical tube and squeeze into the next room.  The next room contains something mildly dangerous and something mildly useful.  Alternatively, they could also pick the lock (difficult) or find the key later on in the dungeon.
  • In the telegolemetry room, there are four pods.  One is sealed closed.  A PC can sit on one of the other three to control one of the giant golems inside the reactor core.  The golems can work together to restore power to the facility.  They can also break down the glass separating the reactor from the rest of the dungeon (this is a really bad idea).  The sealed pod contains an mad, old, immortal wizard who is also plugged into a telegolem.  When he notices the party messing around in the reactor, he'll try to break the glass.
  • A monster cloaked in darkness.  If anyone has darkvision, they can see it.  This is a very bad idea, since it will drive you mad if you look at it.  (The wizard cloaked it in darkness for his safety.)  IDEA: This seems like it would go good with the darkness brick room.  I'll put it in there.
  • 2D projector can turn 3D things into 2D things and vice versa.  (As duodimension).  IDEA: Scatter 2D treasures around the dungeon that can be turned back into 3D treasures here.  IDEA: Put 2D enemy shadows in the dungeon somewhere.  They're much easier to fight if you are 2D yourself.
  • Slobs: These are fucked up immortal people.  They are super-brain damaged from all the times their heads have been smashed open and the dungeon has put them back together again.  Each one has 1-3 behavioral expectations based on its role (some inaccurate) and if these expectations are met, they're cheerful (if unreliable) allies.  If they are contradicted, they'll flip out and attack you.  Something about them makes them especially odious to fight.
  • Ouroboros slob: Formed from guy who went mad and started practicing autocannibalism.  Is basically a giant flesh-snake man eating himself, except he grows as fast as he can eat himself, so he's just a disgusting loop of autocannibalistic insanity.  Expects other people to eat him?  Expects other people to stop him from eating himself?
  • *Potential Slob Stats: HD 2, at the end of every turn that he takes damage, he heals all HP damage, max HP goes up by +2, and he grows a new head (out of the wounds) with a bite attack for 1d6.
  • The Phoenix.  They call it that because it's a bird (mostly).  It hunts the party.  Whenever it dies, it comes back with an adaptation that makes it harder to deal with.  (You kill it with fire, it becomes fire-immune, etc).
  • The Infinite Fleshtunnels are each a random dungeon generator that creates a linear series of rooms, each with a different theme.  They can only be entered once.  There's at least a mile between each "room", so exploration can be quite the ordeal.
  • Rooms radiating out into the spectrum (ROYGBV) and the anti-spectrum (Ulfire Smaudre Pallow Jale Dolm Purple).  Each one collects a different type of light.
  • Players killed in a certain area of the dungeon automatically resurrect with a mutation (?) and a 1-in-6 chance of becoming a hostile slob.  IDEA: The Phoenix can be killed permanently if the machine (?) is destroyed, but without the machine, the players lose their free resurrections.
  • I really want there to be a part where a slob is fused with the wall in a giant gross flesh heap.  And he's immobile and harmless, but he's like, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD KILL ME KILL ME KILL DESTROY MY BRAIN" and "YOU MUST KILL ME NOW OR I'LL SCREAM" and if you don't kill him, he starts screaming (summoning the thing that lairs in the light collector below) and if you do start killing him, the flesh heap shudders and he is pulled into the ground still screaming and begging.
Snippets can be map fragments, ideas for traps, or just scenes that you think would be cool.  

Tip #3: Watch Your Goals As You Sew It Together

This process isn't linear, it's iterative.  You keep going over your dungeon until it feels fleshed out.  Playtest it.  Rewrite it.  Try to come up with a reason why each part of the dungeon exists.  Try to come up with reasons why you should remove it.  

Cut away all the parts that aren't awesome.  It's better to have a small, excellent dungeon that it is to have a bloated, generic megadungeon.  (Deep Carbon Observatory > Rappun Athuk.) Be aggressive in your deletions.  Remember that amputated content can go back into your slush pile.

Keep doing this.

Towards the end, make sure you complete the dungeon checklist, make sure that your dungeon has the topology (linearity, interconnectedness, etc), and flow control (i.e. Will the players encounter the statue garden before they encounter the medusa?)

perhaps the Phoenix
by Mavros-Thanatos