Description and setting

2 11 2010

If I have a hobby-horse/soap-box it is that GM’s could learn so much from writers. I have a vested interest, as my background is writing, but please don’t let that put you off.
So, today’s lite-sermon comes from a great book by Ron Rozelle. If, as a GM, you want to learn more about this subject, you could do a lot worse than read the Write Great Fiction series. But I digress.
Today’s tip is all about show don’t tell.
Any writer worth his salt will be able to tell you all about this subject. In essence, readers (and for readers read players) will invest in a sorry (adventure) most if they are allowed to create it for themselves.
Stephen King was a master at this. If you pick up any of his books and look for paragraphs of description. You’ll struggle to find them. What he did was give a few words and enabled the reader to create their own world, their own characters, based upon their own experience.
If you say a character is a computer geek, every reader will have a mental image. For every reader it is different but it works for us all as we all have our own frames of reference.
Where you have to be careful as a GM is that you want all six players to have the same image. Or at least you may do. Does it matter if we all have a slightly different image? If not, let us create our own pictures.
On the same subject, use description to set a scene or mood but through inference. Don’t say a character is angry. Say they throw a tool down on the ground. Tell the players they are red-faced and muttering under their breath.
Get the idea? Good, then use it next time!


The Kobold Guide to Games Design – Volume I: Adventures (A Review)

12 01 2010

I start this review feeling something of a fraud. I mean, who am I to review something written by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Ed Greenwood, and Nicolas Logue. So I have chastised myself and instead present this as an overview of the product.

It’ll just be an overview with my opinions sprinkled liberally.

The PDF copy of the document runs to 90 pages – including covers etc. Much bigger books I can review quite quickly – with a basic outline of the content, some specific examples and a summary of the plusses and minuses.

The KGGD, due to its structure and variety of content, makes that format redundant. So I will devise a different review format for this product.

To start with, the title is quite self-evident. It is a guide to designing role-playing games. I would suggest the advice is as applicable to entire system design as it is to campaigns and adventures.

Where it might leave some readers behind are the pages devoted to selling the said output. Some of it can be useful e.g. marketing (as you should consider what your players want) but aspects like making a pitch can be glossed over by most that would look to buy this book.

I’ll digress for a second. Is this a book? I bought it as a PDF and it runs to less than 100 pages, but I’m not sure what to refer to the title as. Kobold call it an, “88-page collection of essays.” It is certainly a publication and I’ll continue to call it a book – but you see my dilemma.

So the title works for those wishing to become freelancers (indeed every aspiring writer/designer should have a copy) and those wishing to improve their homebrew efforts. Plus, I’d add it would help if you wanted to write articles for publication on the subject.

It’s written by people who know what they’re talking about and the style and ease of reading reflects their professionalism.

I could summarise the content thus:

  • Marketing (who is the audience and making a pitch to sell your offering)
  • Design tips
  • How to be a better writer
  • Writing style (pacing etc.)
  • World-building
  • Games genres (good advice on a variety here)
  • And then some more.

See how it’s a challenge to review quickly? To consider the topics covered in the publication, I offer the following (and these are my headings, not theirs):

  • How to get the most information with the fewest words
  • Making fantasy realistic
  • World-building and settings and bringing it to life
  • Games aren’t books (the differences in writing styles)
  • Pacing
  • Cliffhangers
  • How and why to raise the stakes
  • Misdirection
  • Structuring your story
  • Subplots
  • Genres (city adventures, Arabian, hardboiled, underdark)

As I write this, it is starting to look more like a list than a review – and that is the fault of the publication! It is so varied (despite keeping to the same topic) and in-depth that it defies a quick line on each section.

I’ll focus here on the GM that wants to build better adventures, and as I usually do, I’ll pick some sections at random to show you what to expect.

Section 4 is entitled Fantasy Realism and starts:

“I hate the common critique of fantasy adventures and settings that they are “not realistic enough.” At the same time, I totally understand. The critique is not about realism. It is about depth and plausibility. A realistic setting does not have wizards, 20-pound battleaxes, or half-naked Amazon elves. Or giants, dragons, or beholders. Or anything fun, really.”

And it is the writing style as much as the content that makes this publication work. It reads like a learned favourite uncle (Uncle Wolfgang in this case) has sat you down and spun you some home truths about writing fantasy adventures.

The language is accessible and flows smoothly. The down-side is that you have to read it – it is difficult to dip in for a line or two.

It is the ongoing theme that imparts the knowledge, not half a dozen words written in bold.

If I leap to section 11 City Adventures, the second paragraph reads:

“I always enjoy the subcategory called “city adventures” because they break the established rules of the D&D combat arena. Unlike dungeons and other secluded locations, city adventures are constantly interrupted by the presence of bystanders and busybodies, by the forces of the law, and by villains hiding among the innocent. They can be wildly unpredictable.”

I’ll close my excerpts by moving to section 15 Inspiration and Discipline in Design (aka Fire and Sword). In keeping with my approach, I’ll print the opening paragraph:

“To be a successful game designer, you need all the tools of the trade: wordcraft, imagination, mathematics, and discipline both in mechanics and in daily writing. To get started, you need the spark of inspiration that gets your query approved by an editor (for periodicals) or that gets your pitch accepted by a publisher.”

I would add that spark is just as necessary to get your gaming group fired up by your suggestion for a new campaign or game world.

Buy this if:

  • You are at all serious about writing professionally
  • You blog, write for fanzines etc. and want to improve your output
  • You are serious as a GM and want to be the best you can
  • You are prepared to sit down and read 100 pages of text
  • You can review advice and fit it to your own situation (i.e. the excerpt above about the spark)

Don’t buy it if:

  • You simply want some campaign ideas
  • You like lists and step by step guides
  • You can’t see the bigger picture 

Finally, I’d like to say I do recommend this publication. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better GM. And anyone who doesn’t want to be a better GM – your players don’t deserve you.

I am reminded of a trainer I met when I took over an HR function many years ago. I asked him what his aspirations were. Asking for my job had come top of the list to date.

He said he wanted to be the best trainer there was. I dismissed him as lacking ambition.

Yet, he was as ambitious as they come – and I learned that over the next few years. He really did want to be the best trainer IN THE WORLD.

He was relentless and looked to improve every aspect of his work. He was good to begin with and could have coasted and still performed. But he was driven to be better.

Unless you’re driven to be better, this book could just collect dust on your shelf (or virtual cobwebs on your hard-drive).

Next time, I’ll review Volume 2 that covers How to Pitch, Playtest & Publish. It is more focused on the writer that wants to be published but still includes enough for the cover price for GMs to purchase (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In response to a comment, you can find the title if you go to:

You can see both their standard offerings e.g. Kobold Quarterly magazine as well as The Kobold Guide to Games Design. Just use the search facility.

Every fantasy GM should own a copy of…

5 01 2010

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.

This is not your average sourcebook and as a work of historic non-fiction, I can imagine many would be put off by its serious nature.  But don’t let the subject matter put you off.

Its sub-title is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.’  It’s apt as the book is written as if it’s a travel guide rather than a history book.

Imagine the past was a foreign country – and you needed to buy a guidebook.  This would be the one you’d pick.  Of course, this is only of use if you GM in fantasy settings, but if you do, come up with a good reason why you wouldn’t buy a copy.

It focuses on the sort of information that GMs rather than historians would like to know about.  Stuff like:

  • What can you see?
  • What do you smell?
  • Where do travellers stay?
  • What is there to eat?
  • How do you greet a stranger?
  • How fast can you travel (safely)?

The book has eleven formal chapters:

  • The Landscape
  • The people
  • The medieval character
  • Basic essentials
  • What to wear
  • Travelling
  • Where to stay
  • What to eat and drink
  • Health and hygiene
  • The law
  • What to do

I can only do a review justice  by picking some random samples.  For example, the book opens with a section on cities and towns.  The opening line reads:

‘It is the cathedral that you will see first.’ 

There then follows an explanation of what you see and smell as you approach a typical medieval town.  Did you know the brook you cross before you reach the gatehouse is most likely full of human faeces, rotting meat and broken crockery?

Jumping to ‘What to Wear’ it debunks all of the Hollywood myths about how medieval people actually dress.  ‘In 1300 clothes are straightforward and practical…Then about 1330 things begin to change.  The essential difference lies in the way a sleeve is cut.’

And moving forward to ‘What to Eat and Drink’ we are reminded that people starved to death in this era and that theft in order to avoid death was a likelihood.

‘With the exception of a few high-status, self-indulgent individuals, people do not normally have breakfast.’

Before you write this book off as long on fact and short on usefulness, please be aware that I really did pick those sections at random.

The book isn’t just full of useful facts, it has plot hooks too.  I just turned to page 270 and I see listed, Relics in the Church of Wimborne Minster.   If that doesn’t look like a list of things an evil-doer might steal and the heroes have to recover, I’d like to know what is.  I mean, they even had a part of the thigh from St Agatha and some blood from St Thomas Becket!  Imagine if a mad necromancer was travelling around the churches collecting body parts to one particular saint?

I do see this as a book that will divide GMs.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can find no better (and easier to read) title.  If this isn’t your bag, I’ll never convince you.

Buy it if:

  • You’re a GM of a fantasy game
  • You are prepared to read the book
  • You want to know what’s authentic – even if you choose to ignore it

Don’t buy it if:

  • You want nothing but quick-dip lists (this book has lots of sentences and paragraphs)
  • Your fantasy setting is not interested in what medieval times were actually like (and there’s nothing wrong with that)

(Has it really been almost a month since my last blog???)

Writing effective setting in adventures (part one)

26 11 2009

One thing that most writers (adventure or otherwise) find challenging about setting is understanding how it gives the story context

Overlooking the setting

Too many GMs spend a lot of time on plot and ensure they have great characters and expect to produce a fantastic adventure.  Setting is the most often overlooked aspect of adventure writing that is relatively easily teachable.

Certain parts of writing are difficult to impart – style and pace are the two that immediately spring to mind – but like plotting or creating believable characters, crafting great settings is something that can be learned.

Having said all of that, good setting does not mean a good adventure but it’s fair to say that bad setting can equal a bad adventure.

Stories in a vacuum

The adventure doesn’t just need things to happen – it needs somewhere for them to happen. Setting doesn’t just give the players a place to see things unfold, great setting adds to the experience.

It creates the mood and can draw the player into the story in a way that no other facet can.

Setting isn’t world building, but it’s a small step towards creating a believable world in which your characters and plot live.

Setting is not, however, just the broad brush-strokes of the world – it’s not just the background.

The link to great characters

We are all influenced by where we grew up, where we went to school, where we live.

The creation of accurate settings reflects who your characters are, where they came from and sometimes even where they are going.

Your characters may be a reflection of their environment. Or the setting may give the players an insight as to why their characters are developing the way they are.

Do your characters conform to their setting, or are they rebelling?

What are the aspects of setting?

Do you need to include scenery?

Scenery is a challenge for the fledgling adventure writer. Too much scenery and the players will feel like they’ve stumbled into a book of photographs.

Very pretty but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Yet too little and there is no context for the story.

Scenery has its place. If the scene opens with a man bursting into the room with a gun, the players don’t want ten minutes of the GM describing how beautiful the room is – they want to know what’s going to happen.

As a GM, you have to know the appropriate point to describe the scene.

You either have to delay the entrance with the pistol, or find another way of working it in.

Each scene deserves at least a few words of setting – even if it’s a familiar place. You can always reveal details bit by bit if it’s a setting frequented often.  Players probably won’t take in all of the details in one sitting anyway.

Because that’s exactly how it works in real life. You typically notice the big things first and then upon revisiting, you start to notice more and more of the details.

Eventually you would notice if something was moved or missing.

A good rule (to be stretched and bent as you see fit) is to give the description as early in the scene as possible, without it getting in the way of the story or encounter.

The second suggestion is to invest more time on scenery the first time you visit – and the more important the setting is throughout the adventure.

Place as a character

Sometimes the scenery or setting plays as big a part in the adventure as any character. In a whodunit, the murder scene is often integral to the plot.

On these occasions, as much effort should be lavished on the creation of the setting as that important NPC.

And like characterisation, you may not use all of the detail – but you had better be prepared. Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels is a prime example.  So if you have a dungeon, what was it before it was a dungeon.  People just don’t build them.  They are typically functional building that fall into disrepair and then they become dungeons over many, many years.  The dungeon should have a flavour that reflects its original (or most recent) use. 

If you only reveal the salient points in a mystery story, you have telegraphed the plot to the player. Similarly, if you over elaborate, the player will lose interest.

Sometimes the place has an importance because of its effect on the characters – and on these occasions, it merits a greater description.

It’s a classic show and tell scenario.

You can tell the player about the character or you can show the interaction with the setting – which is always far more effective.

Your own backyard

There is a real tendency for adventure writers to fall into two opposite traps when describing a place that is familiar to them – either from real life or a fantasy setting they’ve used over and over again.

The first option is to explain every detail. Often the GM is proud of what they know or remember and they want to share this in every minute detail.

The second mistake is to assume that every player knows about New York, the Manhattan skyline or the Statue of Liberty – and so no description is given.  Or for that matter the Jedi academy on Coruscant.

In the first scenario, the player will think they’ve stumbled upon a game about writing a guidebook, not an adventure.

In the second, anyone who hasn’t visited these places (or watched the film) will feel left out.

It’s like a recipe book without a picture of what the end product is supposed to look like – you feel cheated in some way.

Include the detail that sets the scene and is relevant. Add nothing more but don’t scrimp on the ingredients either.

Change of scene

The greater the alteration of scene, the more important the description becomes – and the earlier the GM needs to reflect the change.

As an adventure writer, you know when you change scene where the action is taking place – it’s your story. But do the players?

To use a literary example, too many books transfer the action from a quiet room in the centre of Chicago to the wastes of Alaska and don’t let the player know until the second page of writing. As a reader this is most disconcerting (and the example I use is from a real novel).

If your characters experience a change of setting, you need to describe that change – even if it means holding up the plot for a minute or two.

Players that teleport, travel to another plane, enter a dark cave or simply visit a village with differing customs – they all need to be aware of what’s changed.  It sets them mentally to be prepared for other changes e.g. the NPCs may react differently to them.

Writing the unique adventure

18 11 2009

Wherefore art thou unique adventure?

At the risk of spoiling the joke, I’ll start with the punchline – there is no such thing as a unique plot/story/adventure.

There, that’s got it out in the open.

Too many GMs give up writing their own adventures because they can’t think of a unique plot. They have plenty of excellent ideas, but when they sit down and analyse their creation, they see a strong similarity to this book or that movie and they wring their hands with despair.

There are a whole host of reasons why you’ll never find a unique story. Every reason makes sense but should never stop a GM penning that great idea just because it’s similar to a recent bestseller.

In fact, there’s a good reason why it should encourage the GM, but I’ll save that surprise until the end.

I’ve been told by different sources that there are only one, three, seven, twenty or thirty-six different plots (and I covered these on the How to Plot series).

I have no idea which version is true and I don’t particularly care. It’s an academic debate. If you analyse a plot enough, you come across enough similarities to categorise is as one basic concept or another.

So on a purely logical level, discarding a story because the plot is similar to lots of other adventures is quiet ludicrous. It’s supposed to be similar – the academics tell us so – and that’s why there are only 1/3/7/20/36 categories.

The next point is that we’ve been telling stories since we could talk. All the unique plots went thousands of years ago.

Now is a good time to pause and reflect on what I’m saying.

A lot of adventure writers – the ones that get published – aren’t really interested in this debate. They just get on and write.

This discussion is for the rookie adventure writer. I’ll be more specific, this debate is of most interest to the wannabe adventure writer. The one that yearns to pen an adventure but feels what they have to offer isn’t original enough.

The key word was in the last sentence.


Original is not the same as unique. Striving for a unique story is going to stop you ever putting pen to paper. Seeking out an original story is easy. Yet for some reason, despite their power with language, writers tend to get these two words muddled up.

If you listed your favourite books (or films) of all time and considered their plots, you’d be amazed a how many of them – if you broke them down into a simple form – were similar. Each is original, based upon the setting, the characters, the language etc. but none could be called unique.

Consider Walt Disney. He made a fortune recycling the works of the Brothers’ Grimm. Did anyone mind? Hardly. His strength was in taking a standard story and making it original through the magic of setting, characters and dialogue.

Take William Shakespeare. Hardly unique, yet his plays have spawned so many obvious remakes that were successful in their own right. Sometimes the story was copied in its entirety, other times an element was borrowed.

Invariably the setting was changed – either to present day, the future or even using animals instead of people. Think about the following:

  • Romeo and Juliet = West Side Story
  • Taming of the Shrew = Kiss Me Kate and 10 Things I Hate About You
  • The Tempest = Forbidden Planet
  • Othello = O
  • Henry IV Part I = My Own Private Idaho
  • Hamlet = Lion King
  • Twelfth Knight = She’s the Man

There are significantly more books out there that use one of Shakespeare’s plays as a starting point. It’s where they go from there that makes them original. Just setting Macbeth in the 21st century isn’t enough. You need to make more changes to make it original.

I chose films rather than books as the titles above ought to be familiar to all of you. The fact that they were based upon five-hundred year old plays did not affect their box-office.

This brings me neatly to the promise I made earlier. I suggested that similarities to existing plots are actually a good thing. As they say in all of the good washing powder adverts – here’s the science.

Using a plot that’s already been proven to be successful makes the story more workable – not less. Think about it. The plot seems vaguely familiar but the characters, setting and actual reason for the conflict are new. This makes the story original and familiar – a recipe for success.

The only word of warning I would voice is to make sure that you don’t imitate this week’s bestseller. That’s too familiar. Use the classics or at least something that was on the best-seller’s list ten years ago. Make it original – take the element of the story you’re basing it on that means the most to you and change as much as you need to make it your story.

You see, being original is easy once you know what to copy.

Generating ideas for adventures

15 11 2009

Coming up with ideas for adventures by widening your horizons

Just where do you get ideas?

I will admit to being something of a dog with a bone on this subject.  I know it causes more hardship than any other for GMs and so I will publish whatever I can think of on the subject – in the hope it will help.

I have met many published authors and read interviews with countless more. As I’ve said in the past, most of them will confirm that being asked about where to get ideas from is the most common question.

Many aspiring writers no doubt hope that the famous author will provide them with a web address – or book title – that will mean never having to think up an idea themselves again.

Of course, successful authors (or adventure writers) don’t have a secret place they go to find new ideas. Most writers I’ve heard can’t even tell you where they find inspiration – it just happens they say.

Coming up with the idea is only part of the battle.  If you give two writers the same suggestion, they’ll provide quite different adventures. Give a published writer the same idea and they’ll produce a much better quality adventure.

So what magic ingredient separates mere mortals from the published greats? At this point, I’ll concede that I don’t believe there is a writing course out there that can turn a poor writer into a great one. It’s an inherent talent.

Having said that, I believe that with the proper guidance, most GMs can produce better adventures – although I still can’t agree on one magic ingredient. I think it’s a potion and all the aspects of writing go into that potion.

I’m going to go off at a tangent now, but I’ll get back on track on coming up with ideas before the end.

I listen to a lot of podiobooks and writing podcasts. It’s a close community. I also frequent many of the forums. In addition, I am an avid reader of ‘How to Write’ books.

One piece of advice always comes through loud and clear – in order to be a decent writer, you must read. Every source I ever reference says this.

So I was looking at an aspiring author’s blog the other day and there was a link to their Amazon wish list. As I’m always looking for new authors to ‘discover,’ I clicked on it. I have read works by half of the writers and had heard of about a further quarter.

What struck me – and produced a genuine ‘light bulb’ moment – was that I thought to myself, “You sure can tell what type of book this author wants to write.”

It was as simple as that.

When I’ve read blogs or interviews from successful authors, they say something quite different. For most of them, only a fraction of the books they read are within their genre. One even said they never read the competition. Many list non-fiction as their chief source of reading, and most follow the recommended ‘good books’ and classics, regardless of the section of literature it comes from.

So now I can finish the detour and bring us back on the original path. Poor writers don’t read much. Decent writers read a lot – but tend to focus on their genre. The good writers are the ones that read widely.  And for writers, please read adventure writers.  Plus, I’d be surprised if any GMs don’t also read.

So, aspiring adventure writer – take a look at your book collection.

A few of you will have a wide selection, but I’m guessing the majority tend to read within a much narrower range (and you can include sourcebooks as well as conventional published works). It’s understandable.

Many aspiring writers (adventures or otherwise) started out as readers and wanted to add to the body of work they enjoyed reading. And most readers tend to have favourite genres rather than an eclectic taste.

So, if you want to become a better adventure writer, start acting like a published author and read outside your chosen genre – especially non-fiction.

Which brings me back to my original point. If you only read within your genre, your stimulation for new ideas is dampened. You’ll find yourself reworking plots from the books you read and you’ll discard them as being too like this novel or that short story.

If you read more widely, you’ll pick up inspiration from plots (or factual topics) outside your genre – which in turn will allow your creative juices to ponder, ‘what if…’

Now I’m not advocating plagiarism, but instead pointing out that reading non-fiction and new genres will inspire you in a way that your tried and trusted field never can.

And it will improve your story-telling ability too. As a good example, many aspiring adventure writers will have to include romance in their story at some point, but how many have read good novels from this specific genre? I’ll not ask for a show of hands.

So try reading some books that you wouldn’t usually read. It will seem strange at first, but you do want to come up with new ideas, don’t you?

Weather is so much more than how wet you’re getting

9 11 2009

As a GM how many times do you consider the weather during an adventure?

Most GMs overlook the weather as a useful tool in both setting and also in telling the story.

Many years ago, we relied on the weather and took it seriously. Poor weather affected crops and livestock. Bad weather could even affect health.

Nowadays we have supermarkets that will fly in food from around the world and central heating and air conditioning to ensure we don’t need to vary the climate inside our house.

But it’s deeper than that. Seasons reflect aspects of life and weather can be a great barometer (pun intended) for emotions.

In reality, we all react slightly differently to the weather. Some love the heat and others despise it. Even considering these variances, the majority of people will react similarly to most climactic conditions.

The English language is littered with idioms that reference the season or the specific weather. They don’t need explaining, we all understand exactly what people mean when they use one. That’s because they are understood as a subconscious level. Even the most basic of weather descriptions convey a mood:

Spring = hope, new birth

Summer = adulthood, happiness

Autumn = old age,

Winter = death

Sunshine = happiness, goodness

Storm = trouble, a change

Calm before the storm = trouble or a change ahead

Rainbow = hope, a link between two extremes (sun and rain)

Cloudy = confused, muddled, unclear

Clouds on horizon = trouble ahead

No wind = no change

Windy = changes

Rough weather = problems

Fog = confusion, unaware

Rain = depressed, badness

Snow = coldness, cleansing

This makes weather an ideal setting tool to convey what’s going on in the story or in a character’s head. You don’t need to use the sledgehammer approach but I’d also exercise caution at being too clever.

A few references, subtle ones, dropped in during a scene will convey the message.

As an example, if you used the rain as a portent for something bad about to happen, don’t have a PC thinking, ‘it’s starting to rain and rain is a bad thing.’ Instead, reference the changing light – from bright to muted grey tones. You could even describe the rain, or its effect as resembling something inherently evil.

The use of metaphors and weather work well. Mention the noise that the rain brings, reference something having to stop because of the weather. Consider how inanimate objects react to the weather – or even the characters.

How does the rain affect textures? How does it change how things sound? Does its own noise drown out something the characters were listening to? Does it simply stop whatever was making a noise? Does it therefore bring silence? How does it affect the characters’ senses? Does it affect what they’re doing? And be subtle here – does it affect their mood? Remember to build the mood, don’t dunk the reader in it.

Sometimes a sudden change in mood is necessary and an equally sudden change in weather is appropriate. Sometimes the change, or even the manner of the change is as important as the weather itself.

Let the players join the dots. If you’ve positioned them well enough, they’ll get the picture. You don’t need to go over them with a felt-tip to convey the message.

Finally, setting is an integral part of writing an adventure. The use of weather is just one tool to set the scene – not your only one.