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.

Laughing? Well I’m very happy at least

9 12 2009

This is not a specific review about the recent Paizo play-test for new classes to add to the Pathfinder game.   Although it is their Cavalier class that got me excited, I am more inclined to pen something about character creation.

The reason I needed to write was that I’ve just created a character for a PbP Pathfinder game and the GM said it was OK for me to try the Cavalier.  I had toyed with being a paladin, but as someone who used to love playing a Warhammer Templar, I was keen to try out what the Cavalier could do.

Of course, the more representative class for Templar will be unveiled next year as the paladin will get new options – and apparently among them will be the opportunity to play a ‘Paladin’ that’s not LG.  But I digress.

I can honestly say that creating my cavalier was the most fun I’ve had with character creation in a very, very long time.  I accept that part of this is down to the class, but moreover it gave me the chance to create a character I had in my head – a wannabe ‘Paladin’ that is a bit shaky about her faith and goes off to search for divine inspiration – not because of it.

As I’ve said before, I’m no fan of min-maxing.  I’m even a player that avoids optimising my character (surely that’s min-max in a different language?).  No, I like to have an idea and then see it through onto paper.

Just like my assassin that is created as a rogue – but using all the right skills and feats to make her a sneaky sort that can get up close to her kills before delivering the telling blow – my Cavalier (I notice I’m using a capital ‘C’ but never mind) was based upon a Paladin that doesn’t have divine righteousness.

And as my character was built, I could see it forming in my mind.  I chose feats that suited the character – not ones to make me an optimal fighter.  I invested heavily in horse armour.  I figure I’ll never get to see it used – but that’s what my character would have done.  I’ve spent money on musical instruments and the like because it fits in with the faith – not because I ever expect to use them in anger (or even leisure).

Because that’s what role-playing means to me.   It’s about playing a role.  Not rolling dice.  Not killing lots of creatures – but rather I’m keen to get talking to the NPCs and the other PCs.  In essence, I rolled a character that fitted the religion – warts and all.  And getting to role-play it is what I’m so excited about.

And the better news is that if I pick a different religion, I can go through the process again and end up with a fundamentally different character each time.  Different skills, feats and trappings.  And the back-story can come from some nugget in the Paizo Gods and Magic sourcebook which devotes two pages to each major religion.    

So, as much as I can’t wait to play by Cavalier (still a capital I see), I also can’t wait for a chance to play a different one!

Setting the rules prior to play

2 12 2009

I rarely – if ever – claim to have an original thought.  My strength is typically either putting lots of thoughts together into one cohesive thought – or to take an idea from one area and apply it somewhere completely different.

As I often wax lyrical about how players and GM should agree what sort of game is being played prior to gaming (ideally prior to recruitment if it’s play by post) and the following tool has always been at the back of my mind.

So I went searching for it on the Internet and thought I’d reference it in passing.  Except I couldn’t find it.  I knew it existed but tracking it down was a challenge.  So I thought I’d abbreviate it here for GMs and players to consider.

I’ll start by giving the rightful praise to two sources.  Firstly the  Superhero Summit podcast Fistful of Comics – which introduced (as far as I’m aware) the concept of  the COMIC continuum scale.  I also must give praise to the excellent 3.5 Private Sanctuary podcast, where I first heard of the scale and it is probably closer to their interpretation that you’re going to read.  Apologies to one and all for how I describe it – but it’s how I see it.

COMIC is an acronym.

(As an aside, acronyms are a bugbear of mine.  An acronym is an abbreviation.  It is specifically an abbreviation where the first letters of each word form a new word.  Like scuba or laser or even PIN.  FBI and CIA are not acronyms, they are initialisations as you pronounce the letters and don’t create a new word.  OK, digression over)

COMIC stands for (at least for this version) Colour, Origins, Mystery, Innocence and Carnage.  The idea is that GM and players discuss each of these in turn (or perhaps the GM lays down the law – that’s OK too) as to what level applies to each aspect.  You typically have four levels for each one that are pre-defined.  It applies to any role-playing game, not just hone-brew rules and I can best describe it as:

 C = colour

Or you could call it tone.  Level 1 would be like a comic.  Not realistic at all.  2 and 3 are either side of ‘reaslism’ i.e. our real world.  4 would be very over the top.

O = origins

As this came from a super-hero game, other genres might prefer to consider this as ‘options.’  It is around the subject of what source material the game will use.  A 1 would only be the core rulebook.  2 might represent the mainstream expansions but not the really specific campaign ones.  A 3 would include the campaigns and any 3rd party offerings.  A 4 would include any homebrew rules. 

M = Mystery

This is best defined as how readily accepted magic and monsters are.  A 1 says that to the average person they are myths.  A 2 means people have heard of some things but they are not common.  A 3 would mean that they are common and most things have been heard of.  A 4 is very common and everything is heard of.

I = Innocence

This relates to how NPCs react to PCs.  A 1 would be very defensive, NPCs assume the worst.  A 2 would be unfriendly, but PCs can earn their trust.  A 3 means NPCs are usually friendly and tend to trust PCs.  A 4 means that PCs are welcomed with open arms.

C = Carnage

Just how bloody is your game?  A 1 would be a non-lethal world.  Fights end in disabling NPCs, not killing them.  PCs never die.  A 2 means heroes rarely die but villains do.  A 3  and anyone can die.  A 4 and death is all too common.

Many gamers would never need this tool.  Many don’t think they’ll ever need this, but at the very least, the GM should review this prior to a new campaign or adventure and check that the world the PCs are about to inhabit at least fits into the usual game world.  If the GM decides that this time, some villages will be antagonistic, it’s not fair to the players to find that out when one of them is dead.

I see it being most useful for new gamers to a group and for PbPs.  This is where the players and GM might have different versions of the game world in their head.  If so, now is the best time to make sure they air those preconceptions and agree on a mutual way forward.

Writing effective setting in adventures (part two)

27 11 2009

What’s the best way to avoid too much setting?

The bare minimum

Stephen King is a writer that likes the idea of giving the reader the bare minimum in terms of description.

He feels that too much and you force the reader to see your characters and settings in your way.

He wants the reader to own the description – thus making the story specific to them.

The key here is, ‘the bare minimum.’  Stephen King is a master at knowing what is too much and what is too little. If you are not as blessed as Mr. King, what do you do?

Trial and error

Until you become an expert, you will have to follow the trusted steps of trial and error.

The rule mentioned before of one line per new scene is a good starting point.

The more important a place is, the more you describe – but remember, you don’t have to reveal it all at once. Revisits can be used to flesh out more and more.

More than a few lines to describe the setting and you’d better have a good reason for it.

Know your players. Different players will have different tastes – if they love long descriptions, give it to them.

Using the right words

If you have a habit of overstating the scenery, work on the words you use. The later reference to senses is particularly useful here.

Use language that doesn’t just describe in a flat way. Use alliteration and very specific descriptors to sharpen your description.

A word like ‘gloomy’ suggests both the state of the weather and of the mood. The better your vocabulary, the better your settings will work.

How do you ensure you engage your player’s senses?

The basic five

The five senses are not anything mystical. They are on the other hand, extremely powerful when it comes to creating a setting.

Little else sparks the imagination like an appropriately used sense.

There is, as ever, a balancing act.  If the sense used is too obscure, you won’t engage the players – and they’ll spend so much time trying to work out what you meant that they’d miss the next few words.

On the other hand, making it too hackneyed doesn’t really add any value. Try to avoid the tried and tested if you can. Be original without being alien.

The final point is to ensure you use all of the senses.

GMs will typically spend 99% of the time talking about what characters can see and only use the other 1% when the input is exceptional – a loud noise or a pungent smell.

In real life the mix of sensory perception is never this heavily weighted in favour of sight. Why should your adventure be any different?

The emotions

Emotions aren’t senses of course, but they are a powerful link to getting a player to understand the setting very quickly. If you can combine senses and emotion you will really hook the player quickly – and that’s why I have linked them here.

Describing an inanimate object by using an emotion on the face of it seems odd, but it can convey in a couple of words what could take a five minutes to explain.

If your characters come to a ‘lonely house’ or enter a ‘confused room’ then you have started to evoke multiple images in the players’ mind – and only a small amount more description will enable the players to fully understand what you mean.

Understanding the levels of setting

Metaphors etc.

The subtlest way to describe is to say how the setting resembles something the players know well (or the other way around).  Each serves it’s own purpose but writers regularly confuse their uses.

a. Metaphors

This is an implication. There is no statement that there is a link; we simply use the resemblance.

‘She walked catlike across the roof of the villa.’

Nobody expects the character to have fur and a tail. If ‘she’ were a cat, we would say she simply walked – cats, by definition, walk catlike.

This one word suggests she walks assuredly, softly, secretively and no doubt evokes the image of a cat burglar. The players will probably already suspect that she is up to no good.

b. Similes

Here we add the prefix ‘like’ or ‘as’ and therefore by definition create more of a signpost to the link.

‘She walked across the villa’s roof like a cat.’

The same result but a different and less subtle route.

c. Analogies

This is the least subtle option as we tell the player that something was like something else and include a comparison.

‘Her journey across the roof of the villa was like a cat stalking its next meal as she made every effort to make no sound and reacted instinctively to every small movement around her.’

d. Allusions

Here you make reference to someone or something famous.

‘Felicity the burglar. The wonderful, wonderful burglar.’

I chose this on purpose – and if you didn’t understand it, I’ve proved my point.

If you’ve never seen or heard of Felix the Cat, the allusion is wasted. Worse still, the players would wonder what on earth the words mean. If they do get it, they feel pleased with themselves.

(If you still don’t get it, ask someone older than you to sing the ‘Felix the Cat’ song (or YouTube it).  Then you’ll get it).

Allusions are dangerous ground.

e. Personification

This is a variation, where an inanimate object (or sometimes flora or fauna) is given a human trait.

‘The fog hugged her body as she sat on the villa’s roof.’

Next time out I’ll talk about using nature in setting.

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?