Over the years, Hex has published somewhere in the vicinity of fifty game books, and I’ve been involved in the editing process of most of them at some stage. As a result, I’ve noticed that there are certain mistakes that show up over and over again, especially from first-time writers. Some of these problems are general ones that are covered in most writing classes: passive voice, dangling modifiers, first drafts submitted with the belief that they’ll be taken seriously, that sort of thing. Others, especially when it comes to RPG adventures, are specific to the format and form.
Recently, I’ve been reading up on common mistakes that fiction writers make (so I can make sure my bad fantasy novel has them all). This research has led me to a realization that many of the mistakes I see in first drafts of RPG adventures might happen because writers are trying to follow the rules of good fiction writing. The problem, of course, is that RPG adventures aren’t fiction. When you write an adventure for a role-playing game, you’re not telling a story; you’re writing an instruction manual for someone else to use to tell a story. Realizing this from the start will save you a lot of revision later. Below are three rules to keep in mind when you’re writing an adventure.
Understand the Audience
“Know your audience” is a pretty common writing tip, but it’s especially important here because an RPG adventure has two tiers of audience: the GM and the players. A lot of people write adventures for the players. Since most people write their first adventures to run for their own gaming group, this is completely understandable. In a published adventure, however, the players aren’t the primary audience. The story (the game the GM runs based on your adventure) needs to appeal to the players, but the audience for the text of the adventure (the thing you’re actually writing) is the Game Master. You’re not writing the novelization of the movie, you’re writing the shooting script.
The most common audience-related mistake by far in adventure writing is withholding information. If someone is writing a murder mystery adventure (for example), they’ll try to keep the murderer’s identity a secret until the part of the adventure where the PCs are supposed to solve the case. Basically, they’re trying to structure things so the GM experiences the revelation at the same point in the story as the audience should experience it. The problem is that the GM isn’t the audience (of the story), she’s the director. She needs to know all the secrets from the moment they become relevant so she can understand the structure and flow of the adventure and present it properly to her players. For most adventures, this means telling the GM exactly who the antagonist is, what they’re trying to do, and (in at least general terms) how they’re doing it right from the start.
Tell, Don’t Show
The first rule of fiction writing is “Show, Don’t Tell,” but you’re not writing fiction. An RPG adventure is essentially technical writing. The story that the GM uses the adventure to tell may be great fiction, but the adventure itself is not. When you show, you’re dictating a specific action, usually in detail and often from a specific character’s point of view, which isn’t appropriate for an RPG adventure. This doesn’t mean you can’t be descriptive--good character and setting descriptions can be useful--it just means you should keep your description factual and limited to the static elements of the story. Describing the action is the GM’s job.
For example, If you say, “When the PCs enter the room, the minotaur swings his axe in a mighty arc and separates Skippy the NPC’s head from his body, showering the PCs with blood,” you’re making a lot of assumptions about what’s going on and robbing the players of some of their agency. Saying “When the PCs enter the room, the minotaur will attack Skippy the NPC if he’s with them” doesn’t sound like a huge change, but it allows a much wider range of possibilities. Most importantly, it frames the scene as combat rather than something that happens independent of the PCs, which gives the players the illusion that they at least have a chance of saving Skippy (even if he’s getting decapitated no matter how the dice fall). It also implies an “otherwise” that the adventure writer needs to include if the players enter the room unaccompanied by Skippy. Finally, it keeps the encounter description general enough that the GM isn’t required to do any “re-writing” if the thief snuck in and stole the minotaur’s axe earlier or the PCs gave Skippy a Ring of Protection from Decapitation or whatever.
Sure, any decent GM should be able to adapt to changes as minor as the ones in my limited example, but when you add it to a dozen other instances of showing rather than telling, you end up with a railroad track, not an adventure. Showing is the GM’s job. Your job is to tell him what he needs to (try to) show.
The “Tell, Don’t Show” rule is especially important when it comes to dialog. I prefer to avoid NPC dialog altogether. In addition to the usual problems that come with including boxed text that the GM reads to the players, writing NPC dialog creates unnecessary work for the GM. To keep the character from seeming inconsistent, he has to make sure the NPC sounds the same (uses similar speech patterns, style, and vocabulary) during other scenes as he does during the scene with written dialog. If you must include dialog, restrict it to monologs. Including dialog for a conversation either puts words in the PCs’ mouths (if the conversation is between an NPC and PCs) or excludes them from participating altogether (if the conversation is between NPCs). In either case, you’re basically forcing them to watch a cut scene, which is even more frustrating in tabletop games where they’re completely unnecessary than in video games where they can’t be avoided.
Keep It Simple
I think that every program that could possibly be used by a writer should come with a copy of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that the user has to read and take a short quiz about in order to unlock the software, so I’ll admit that there’s some personal bias here. Still, even I acknowledge that challenging text can make good fiction even better in a lot of cases. But, once again, an RPG adventure isn’t fiction.
You might notice that the instruction manual for your phone doesn’t include any subtext or clever wordplay or five-dollar words. That’s because the manual for your phone has one job: to teach you how to use your phone. Likewise, your adventure has one job: to give a GM the information she needs to run the adventure. Keep the text simple and stick to standard vocabulary wherever possible. Occasionally, the setting or atmosphere may require you to use uncommon words or refer to people, places, things, or concepts that most people have never heard of. When this happens, make sure to define or explain the word or idea somewhere in the text, preferably where it’s first introduced. If you only know something because of the research you did for the adventure or an upper-level course you took in college, it’s a safe bet you need to explain it to the reader. Also remember that the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. If the reader constantly has to stop reading to Google things because you graduated for the Gary Gygax School For Thesaurus Abuse, they might just give up. Even if they suffer through to the end because you’ve already got their money, they’re probably not going to give you more money in the future.
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