As of today my new upcoming adventure module, “The Bone Marshes” is complete.
Not done, oh no! But I don’t think I’ll add anything else to it. Still needs some re-writing, editing, design tweaks, added flavor, tone changes….alright, maybe calling it “complete” isn’t fair.
Point being it’s in a good enough place that I am ready to workshop it. For this workshop we’ll be going through a bunch of great adventure-writing advice I’ve found online and see if we can apply this to Bone Marshes.
This will be a good preview of what’s in this adventure, as well as a chance to apply the advice to your own projects. Two birds, one blog series. Let’s go!
Bryce Lynch’s Adventure Design Tips
Bryce Lynch is the writer of tenfootpole.com and one of the most famous adventure reviewers. He’s read them all! Even the crappy ones. Especially the crappy ones.
Occasionally Bryce will drop some advice to other adventure writers, usually motived from exasperation at the current adventure. Jon Miller was kind enough to summarize a lot of Bryce’s advice in this post.
So that is the list we’ll be going through.
The Five C’s: Color, Context, Choice, Consequences, Creativity
I think I nailed Choice, Creativity, and Consequences. Bone Marshes has a sandbox design to it, with lots of ways for players to explore and handle various situations. Many of the consequences come from the ticking clock of the Marsh locations. Each location changes over time, tracked by visit; the marshes burn down as time goes on. I tried to design each hex to allow for player freedom and creativity about how they handle it, and the magic items require clever thinking to get the most use out of them.
Color and Context are trickier. Bone Marshes is somewhat bland in certain places. Fish people, bandits, fire elementals, etc. One of the things I’m looking forward to going through and spicing up are these common elements. I put a LOT of effort into the mapping and navigation challenges; now I need to go back and inject some more color.
For example I’ve changed Fire Elementals to be fierce competitors. Each Fire Elemental has it’s own color of flame, and whenever there are more than one, they compete to spread their color farther and faster than the other. It’s a small change, but it makes their intentions clear, and players can tell one Fire Elemental from another.
Context could also be a lot stronger, namely through NPCs. Bone Marshes doesn’t have many NPCs because I’m on a dungeon crawling kick in my weekly sessions. But I think a few colorful NPCs would help contextualize the actions of the PCs a lot better.
So I added a simple triangle. Three big NPCs that all want something from the other, but are unwilling to give. Hopefully this will not only promote a little more backtracking and exploration, but give some context for how the burning marshes are impacting those who live there.
Don’t rely on a single hook, use multiple kinds. Hooks should appeal to players, not just characters. Hooks should be complex, nuanced. Monsters, locations, and NPCs should all have hooks.
This is definitely an area that Marshes could improve on. I have a few obvious fetch quests right now, but I’d like to make things more organic. Give motivations to monsters and NPCs that could involve the PCs.
The initial hook for the adventure is extremely bland and simple. I’d love to find a way to spruce it up, give it some variety. Maybe a competing wizard ALSO needs help with something? I’m not quite sure.
Location descriptions should be terse, but evocative. Rooms should have interactions and meaningful consequences. Maps should have multiple routes, multiple entrances, open spaces, bridges/ladders.
I’m stealing the description format from Hot Springs Island, which looks like this:
Stone Door[locked, deep engraving, images of a waterfall, grooves and channels, crescent moon], Hole in Ceiling[5ft wide, goes up to surface, clear view of sky], Pool of Water[center of the room, about 2ft deep, 5ft wide, a tarnished silver bucket lies at the bottom]
This door will only open at night when water is poured over it.
So the words in bold are first impressions, things the GM can just read out loud when they first enter the area. The words in italics are secrets or details revealed upon closer inspection. This format makes it really easy to run at the table, and keeps things short and sweet in the book.
However because there are short descriptions it’s even more important that those descriptions be good ones. I need to go through Bone Marshes and clean up some of the more mundane descriptive phrases. E.g. instead of “patch of grass” it could say “lonely patch of green grass” which is a little more evocative.
Monsters and NPCs
Interesting, believable motivations for monsters and NPCs. Create factions of monsters and NPCs. Create schedules, routines, and tactics. Give evocative descriptions of monsters. Give concrete descriptions of their appearance and activities.
Ouch. Okay this is definitely something I can improve. The only monsters that get some interesting descriptions are the Muckers, and they need a little more fleshing out in terms of motivations and interactions.
I mentioned Fire Elementals a little earlier, but I bet I could make them even better. Maybe they can ask the PCs to find and put out the fires of rival Elementals? Maybe the Muckers burn a special color, and the Elemental requests Mucker corpses?
The bandits are also somewhat bland. They need a little something to improve PC interactions. What if the bandits are false hooks? The give quests, but always lead the PCs to traps or something? Make them untrustworthy.
The other big faction is the Silfer Automatons. Created millions of years ago these beings are programmed with simple tasks that they will attempt to carry out, no matter what. There actually isn’t much to interact with; just things to be avoided or suffered. Maybe that’s a good thing? Makes them feel VERY different and alien, which is kinda the point.
I like the point of using evocative descriptions of their appearance, but concrete in their actions and motivations. So instead of just saying “Fire Elementals are fierce competitors” I need to write in specific examples of elementals competing.
In fact, now that I think about it, I could re-tool a LOT of the random encounters to include these motivations right in the description. Make them more open ended and communicate it through the situation.
Treasure should be valuable enough to motivate players. Non-magical treasure should relate to the setting. Give evocative descriptions of magic items. Give concrete descriptions of their appearance and how they must be manipulated to produce their magical effects. Use magic items to evoke a Sense of Wonder.
Treasure as motivation to the players, rather than the characters is a huge point. I accomplished some of that by allowing players to purchase “level-ups” with enough gold. But I could do more by hinting at certain treasures through NPCs or locations. Heck, maybe have the treasures reference one another. “This sceptor, when combined with the cloak of Ra, is even stronger.”
Instead of having treasure in specific places I made a giant d100 table of “Lost Things”. It includes junk, useful items, valuables, and about 40 or so magical artifacts. Maybe I should hard-code some bits of treasure, rather than allowing everything to be on the random table.
A “sense of wonder”, eh? I will have to write that on a sticky note and glue it to my monitor as I work on these changes. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
There are a few more bits of advice about maps and ease of use, but I think that’s better covered in a future post, since it’s the PRIMARY motivation behind Bone Marshes.
In some ways this workshop only revealed how inadequate the Bone Marshes really is: bland descriptions, fuzzy motivations, simple loot, etc. But on the other hand I feel energized and motivated to improve upon these parts of the adventure. The Bone Marshes has a long way to go, but I’m excited to work on it and make it as good as I can.
Thank you Bryce Lynch for your incredible reviews and advice. And thanks to Jon Miller for summarizing them so well.
And thank you, dear reader, for following along. I hope you enjoyed this workshop. I plan to do one of these every week or so to keep me focused on writing and start building hype for Bone Marshes.
Kickstarter coming January, 2019. See you then! Workshop pt. 2 here.