This page collects all sorts of articles on the abstract of idea of keeping something short – usually text.
Recently Harald Wagner wondered on Google+ “Is anyone but me writing short vignettes (three to five paragraphs) of background stories for important locations / items in their games even though they’re never meant for publication and most probably no one will ever be able to figure out all the details in game?”
In the old days, I used to write longer notes to myself:
These days, if there is any background at all, I try to make it part of the adventure. I find that whenever there are written things to be found, my players want to read what they say. Often modules will have nice hand-outs for plot-relevant stuff, but no list of titles and short blurbs for libraries, correspondence, stone tablets, and so on. I always have to improvise. Whenever I forget to prepare such a list of things to read, I feel a facepalm coming up as we reach that point during the session. The players ask: “What do the books say?”
In this case, I did not forget to prepare ahead of time. There were stone tablets to find and information about the dungeon, the setting and its history to be found.
Here are the beginning of my Caverns of Slime. Some coherent notes to help me get an overview of what the adventure is all about.
Again, a dwarven stronghold, with a few coherent sentences. “The dwarves are a suspicious, isolationist lot. […]”
I wrote more about this particular example back in 2010. When I rewrote this for inclusion in Fight On! #8 I also cleaned up the notes a bit. You can better see what I’m aiming for, but since it’s “cleaned up” it doesn’t reflect actual notes from my gaming table.
I think these examples also illustrate that I want my notes on my maps!
What motivates a referee? I think positive feedback is a key element. I’m not just thinking of players thanking you for running the game or players saying that they like your style. What I really enjoy is players who get excited when they’re thinking of the next session, players who’re sad if they have to miss a session, players who tell other people about the funny things they did, the terrible things that happened. Player engagement is intoxicating, infectious.
DM Peter recently ended one of the campaigns I’m playing in, citing lack of player engagement. It’s a tricky subject: who is responsible for it, how do you measure it, how do you foster it? Here’s what has worked for me.
Alpha players are always at the forefront of everything. They edit the campaign wiki. They write a log. They never loose track of their character’s experience, wealth, equipment and encumbrance. Their characters have plans. Their characters have issues. If you get one or two of them, that’s great. I found that my games can take a lot of casual gamers, however. Not everybody needs to be an alpha players. Quiet people, hard working people, parents, people with little time between sessions are just as entertaining at the table. Realizing this has made it possible for me to enjoy more games. If I need more games to fill the time between sessions, I run more games or join more campaigns.
Session reports are a measurable by-product of our games. Long session reports that cast the events in a mythical light, provide more intimate glimpses of the characters, provide extra details and entertaining complications are great. There will always be players that don’t have the time to write such session reports and there will always be players that don’t have the time read such session reports. Preposterous, you might think. And yet, this thought will set you up for disappointment. If one person keeps a few notes on the back of their character sheet and can bring everybody back up to speed at the beginning of the next session, that works just as well. Realizing this, I have cut down on my session report writing. These days, I don’t write to entertain, I write to remember. A short list of events is all that is required. Now I no longer feel close to session writer burnout, I’m no longer disappointed by the disinterest of my fellow players.
Player contributions are an inspiration: I try to encourage players to contribute little elements to our fairly traditional game. Sometimes the personality traits of a player character turn out to be the personality traits of an entire culture. Sometimes the ambitions of a player can shape an arc of the campaign. Sometimes, however, none of the players seem to be willing to contribute anything other than playing their character. In this case, a referee might feel cornered into the role of the untiring entertainer, a thankless job of crafting adventures for unappreciative players. This can be deadly for a sandbox campaign. I have found two solutions to this problem in my campaign:
Addictive elements to game play. Yes, it’s mean. It’s called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial, according to Wikipedia. I feel that’s why unbalanced encounters are fun. There can be two or three sessions where practically no treasure is found and characters gain less than a hundred experience points each and other sessions where the major hoard is found and each character gets a thousand experience points or more. Knowing this puts some of them on edge. They want to make sure not to miss the one gold session that will pay off big time.
I hope these points help you adjust your expectations and help you increase player engagement in your campaigns.
He pointed to the opening paragraphs of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood and illustrated how he’d strip it down. I’m willing to go further than that, however.
Here’s what I wrote:
In my experience, brevity is the most important. Players care about doing things, they care about treasure, monsters, interactions. That’s why they are perfectly happy with this: “After leaving Vienna, the Danube spreads out and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles. You see a vast sea of low willow-bushes before you…”
I guess it has an anchor (Vienna), an object (Danube), a change (spread), nature (swamp), some mood (miles upon miles), some detail (low willow-bushes), direct addressing (you see) and little else.
In terms of process, the most important feedback is what players are doing. As soon as one of the seems to be paying attention to something else, I cut the description short and go directly to “something happens!” or “what do you do?” Then, upon enquiry, I improvise more detail as required. This is rare and confirms my suspicion: my players value brevity above all.
When I wrote Caverns of Slime, I was also trying to keep things short. When I wrote How To Write A Module, I said: “In order to further aid improvisation every location starts with a sentence or two setting the mood, a list of impressions (sounds, sights), a list of names to use—little things that I’d appreciate as a referee.”
Here’s an example:
“The tunnel opens into a big cavern. On the ceiling, you see a glowing city with light bubbles and hanging bridges and gray webbing holding everything together.”
At the far end of the cave lies a lake. The stone wall rising from the water is wet. A dark fungus moss grows here, fed by water raining down from a black hole above. Flying or climbing up this wet tunnel will lead you to the realm of the Shroom Lord.
- spider webs cover every hanging house
- rope bridges connect platforms
- this huge mass of webbing is secured by glowing glas balloons
- water is diverted from the Fungus Falls at the back and distributed using wooden half pipes
- occasionally ropes reach down to the cave floor below
- the cave floor itself is covered in broken bones, the fallen remains of what the spider people feed upon
This city is one of the few places down here where the party can make friends and rest.
The above is then followed by events (encounters, monsters) and non-player characters (in this case, a spell-casting aranea).
Recently Michael Gibbons asked on Google+ regarding gaming blogs:
What do you prefer: content or opinion?
I prefer opinion and insight with examples from actual play or things that I will immediately adopt for my own games.
My favorite example for this is the Ode to Black Dougal blog.
A blog in the same category I recently stumbled upon is Untimately.
I will download a lot of content, but it doesn’t get read carefully unless it gets used at the table and that happens rarely. I have huge folders on my hard disk full of PDFs: bears, hats, treasure maps, Vancian spell names and short spell descriptions, alternate classes, one page dungeons, character generation shortcuts… At the gaming table, I can barely remember to use one or two of these.
What kind of stuff cheeses you off enough to stop reading someone’s blog?
I think my reasons for unsubscribing from blogs usually involve one of the following:
Brendan Strejcek wrote In Praise of Modules and argued that there are a number of positive aspects to modules.
On his Google+ post linking to the blog post, I left a comment that I’ve copied and edited somewhat.
Lately I find that modules take too damn long to read. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the One Page Dungeon Contest I’ve been trying to keep my own adventure notes very short, and when I wrote the Caverns of Slime for the upcoming issue of Fight On! I tried hard to keep things short.
When I ran the Paizo modules, the two or three I ran went just fine, but I always felt slightly confused. I was already stretched thin. When I ran the Paizo adventure paths, it was worse. I discovered that I didn’t really want to read the modules. It was too much, it took too long, it wasn’t the kind of reading I enjoy. When I ran the Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics for D&D 3.5, I also felt that they would have been great if they had been half as long. The two hard-cover collections of short adventures in the same line, on the other hand, seem perfect!
When modules are too long, I like to jokingly say that I could have written my own in the time it takes me to read it. That’s not true, obviously. Raggi’s argument is a valid one: to run adventures somebody else created is a challenge, a refreshing change of pace, maybe a learning experience. Lately, however, I’ve come to think that I don’t like it enough to spend money on modules. I didn’t invest in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess drive, for example, even though many of the authors caught my attention and many of the adventure blurbs seemed right up my alley.
Do you find your money is well spent when buying adventures? Perhaps my problem is that I didn’t read reviews before buying adventures. I was subscribed to the Paizo modules and the adventure paths both, and when there was a big sale of Dungeon Crawl Classic modules for D&D 3.5 I bought as many as I could get my hands on.
Do you feel the same tension? Some aspects you like – the enthusiasm, the ideas, the art, the change of pace – and some aspects you don’t like – spending money, investing the time, negative surprises.
How do you decide which modules to buy?
Recently Mike Evans asked about setting books on Google+. Here’s what I wrote:
I found Rob Conley’s Points of Light 1&2 to be short and concise setting books. They contain regional maps with a key; most things get a paragraph or two. NPCs get name, class, level. It’s very similar to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy but shorter. I have used both at the table and have been very happy. There are free examples available online: Lenap (which is what I got started with) and Southland.
Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands has more house rules, classes and the like which I don’t care for and unusable small maps. This is why I haven’t used it. I usually find that browsing the blogs and reading books gives me cool ideas and make me want to add stuff to the campaign. These things don’t need to be in a setting book.
I’ve used the Forgotten Realms book for D&D 3 as a player to help me write a backstory because I felt the DM enjoyed this kind of thing. The setting book provided names and places galore, so it was very useful to me. As I suspected, however, the backstory itself turned out not to be very useful at the table. This is why the kind of games I like to run don’t need this sort of setting book (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Golarion, Glorantha).
Generally speaking I need much less religion, history and culture background than is usually offered by the big setting books. When I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, for example, I never referred to the Golarion campaign setting book once. Not once! That’s how useless it was at the table. I think it’s useful for people wanting to write interesting backstories to their well-travelled characters, it’s useful to authors wanting to write adventures set in Golarion, it’s useful for the community as a reference point when talking about the game they love. It’s just not as useful at the table.
Why is that? I no longer play the system, and I no longer need the wordy style.
|ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Standard Paper)||$20.18|
|Realms of Crawling Chaos||$17.95|
|Fight On! #12 - Spring/Summer 2011||$9.99|
|Knockspell #6 softcover||$12.00|
|Shipping and Handling||$31.24|
|Shipping Discount (OCTGROUND305)||$-31.24|
I recently started listing to the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast. It took me a bit to get used to the occasional belching. Does it have to be into the microphone? Anyway, one of the guys, Stu, also runs the Douchey DM blog, and there he wrote about using Obsidian Portal to keep his notes. He also notes that his players did not seem to interested in actually reading the stuff he writes on the wiki. In fact, one of his commenters writes the following:
I feel your pain about players not paying attention sometimes. I’ve emailed them pdf’s of campaign notes and all that good stuff. Then about a quarter of the way into the first session, I start getting some blank looks. “You didn’t read any of the stuff I emailed you, right?”
I recognize the situation. Here’s what helped me cope:
When I listed my nominations for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2011, I added a few sentences to every nomination. I was later contacted by Shane Knysh and asked for feedback on his submission. When I asked, he said I could post it on my website as well. I love giving this sort of feedback!
So, The Island by Shane Knysh. My first impression is that the font is big enough for me to read without squinting, so that’s positive.
The map is very nice and light, so that’s another positive. The drawings of the four cabins are detailed with beds, tables, chairs, doors, windows—everything!
The most interesting aspect of the entry was the list of seven undead creatures “living” on the island. They are distinctive, they wear specific clothing, they have my attention—but unfortunately there is no more space, so there are no names, there are no clues to past events that I could figure out. What I would have loved to see: names, goals, personality quirks? Are they enemies, are they mindless or intelligent, are they perhaps friendly? Do they need saving? I want to know more about them, the secrets they are guarding, the necromancers or woes that created them. I want there to be more to it than flight or fight mindless undead.
I think that generally speaking the entry is good—it has an interesting location and interesting undead—but it could be so much better, so much tighter, so much more action packed. I like action packed.
Since there is not much space available, every sentence has to be either something to read to the players, or something for the players to interact with. I’m thinking of verbs like explore, investigate, fight, talk, plot, lie, exploit, help, read, etc. To give you an example, here’s a paragraph:
It’s nice, it has detail, it’s short. But if I were the editor, I’d delete this paragraph. Instead, let there be a letter from a grief-struck father lost at sea with his daughter and no help coming, writing a last letter to his wife, sealed. Have the bloated zombie following the skinny one wear a signet ring. This creates a possible adventure hook where they players get to track down the wife or family and hand over the signet ring. Perhaps the letter also contains a secret to involve players in an intrigue. Replace all the non-essential descriptions with things the players can act on.
Long paragraphs have an addition drawback. I won’t be reading them to the players, and I won’t learn them by heart. As it stands, I’m afraid the party will enter a room, followed by ten seconds of silence as I need to read the two paragraphs again before describing the room to them. If everything were shorter, that’d be no problem.
What do you think—too harsh? Too particular to my taste? Perhaps your players enjoy rummaging through old decaying cabins…
You might also be interested in the following:
Greg Christopher asks What do you wish that modules could do, but which you haven't seen done before?
I’ve mentioned before what I don’t like: I want less detail, less pages, less words. I also don’t like riddles too much.
But what is it that I want instead? In a way I could just copy and paste the list of things I like in a One Page Dungeon. I’m not going to repeat them here. If the adventure has more than one page, here’s how I’d like to see them used:
One of these days I should eat my own dog food and actually write an adventure that follows my own suggestions.