Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from all of us here at Day 20!
As we've been continuing to write our adventures, we've been thinking a lot about what the format of a typical adventure module looks like. Whether you play Pathfinder, D&D 5e, Call of Cthulhu, or one of the dozens of fantastic indie RPGs out there, there are some common notions and assumptions about how modules should look. Perhaps you will humor us as we analyze those assumptions with a seasonal metaphor: a Christmas Present!
The first thing you see on any present beneath the tree: the wrapping! It could be store-bought wrapping paper, the funnies from the last 5 months of your local paper, or some simple butcher paper and twine. Some have bows, others ribbons, but no matter what this is the first thing you will notice about any boxed gift.
For an adventure module, this is the visual nature of not just the words on paper/screen, but also accompanying art, graphics, and the layout of those words. With the recent renaissance of D&D, there have been several art books published detailing the fantastic illustrations & art pieces that have made D&D and tabletop gaming in general what it is today. (My personal favorite is Art & Arcana, but there are plenty of others out there.)
Even though we are early in the rough draft stages for most of our modules, we are still thinking about the visuals. How will this look on paper? What iconic scenes would make for a good page of art? Are there ways we can play with the layout to help guide the reader?
That last question is one we are focusing on a lot. One mechanic that is central to the design of Day 20 is scaling encounters: encounters and scenes that scale in challenge to match parties of any level. We are working on layouts that can display these scaling mechanics in ways that allow DMs at-a-glance referencing. If we want the DC to disable a trap to scale with the group's level, how do we notate the different DCs without it being a headache to keep track? Part of this will be creating glossary and appendix material to explain some of our unique mechanics, but we are also striving to have these rule variants be easy to understand with very little pre-work.
One example that we'll be diving into next month is experimenting with traditional 5e statblocks to create monsters whose features and statistics scale-up to challenge higher level parties.
Beneath the bow, or perhaps taped to the side, there is a card. It could be a 3x5 or an elaborate Hallmark, but the present has now become more than a shiny box. You now know who it is meant for and who it is from. Perhaps the card contains extra details or clues as to the present's nature. If the present is for you, you might already be making guesses of what it could be based on the size of the package or who it is from!
For an adventure, "the card" is all of the text that explains the adventure without actually being the adventure. Just as the card on a present has a standard format (to, from, some optional fluffy text), most adventures are written with a pretty consistent format for their opening sections:
1. A brief statement declaring who is expected to play this module. Something like "an adventure for player levels 1-3." This might be embellished to clue the reader into the themes of the adventure, such as "a daring heist for characters level 7-9."
2. A introductory paragraph to help the reader, typically a DM, understand the purpose and general plot of the module. Many times this includes an outline: a quick list of the parts of the module and what happens in each.
3. Some DM guidance on "How to Run" and "Placing this Adventure". These are optional and usually depend on how / why the module was written. If it is part of a greater whole, such a season of organized-play modules that assume a setting, these sections are typically omitted.
For Day 20, the theme and tone of the modules can shift radically from one to the next. That is part of the appeal, but it also makes it difficult to provide the reader with a consistent module prep and reading experience. You don't write a heist adventure the same way you would write a dungeon crawl or a fighting tournament.
That's why we are spending some time to develop consistent explanatory-text. We want a DM, no matter their experience level, to be able to read the first page or so of a module and have a really firm grasp of what it is. And we also want that first page to be a consistent format from module to module, even when the content might be incredibly different.
Arguably the most important part of a present: whatever is actually inside the box!
For an adventure, this is the content of the module. The traps, monsters, maps, and challenges that represent the story that unfolds when a group plays the module at their table. This is both the easiest and most time-consuming part of writing a module.
The easy part is the "what" of the module. When we write, we usually have a very clear idea of what we want the adventure to be and how we want it to play. Will it be heavy role playing or more combat focused? Is the party trying to recover something, persuade someone, or simply clear out an enemy outpost: what is the goal? How do we want a group to feel when they play this module? It is spooky, heroic, thrilling, or something that can be tailored to the group's preferences? Those questions are answered before we ever start brainstorming a save DC or dungeon map.
The part that makes it time consuming is coming up with the formatting for all of that content. The story of the adventure almost writes itself, but chopping up that story and organizing it into a format that makes it easy to read, prepare, and run? That can be tricky.
What makes modules readable vs. easy to prepare vs. easy to run is a topic worthy of its own blog post, but here's a quick rundown of the inherent tensions:
A module that is easy to read is very similar to a novel. The story flows and explains the character motivations as you progress. This leads to large blocks of explanatory text with mechanics hidden away inside the story.
A module that is easy to prepare focuses on the spatial flow of a story: what is in the current scene, and how do the characters get to the next scene? This leads to very modular text with each room or scene getting dedicated blocks, but the story can become fractured across the locations.
A module that is easy to run would have all of the relevant mechanics (DCs, monster names, trap triggers, etc.) in lists based on the area or expected order of events. Very useful in the moment, but incredibly boring to read, and with none of the context needed to prepare.
To that end we've been experimenting with some new symbols and layout techniques to help make modules of all types be equally easy to reference at a glance. With better formatting and helper-symbols to help DMs run the modules, we can focus on the right balance of verbiage to make them readable and easy to prepare.
Hopefully we'll have some playtest content to show off soon, letting you see some of these ideas for yourself! But until then, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from Day 20. May all your 20's be natural!