Monthly Archives: November 2021

Quick Tips: Designing Adventures Backwards

If there’s one thing I think is most likely to trip up new GMs when they design their own adventures, it’s that they tend to design them front-to-back. That is, most GMs (and adventure writers) I see who begin creating adventures from scratch for the first time want to write the first encounter first, the second encounter second, and so on.

Now, that makes a lot of sense on the surface. That’s the order gamers encounter other people’s adventures in, so it’s a familiar pacing. Also, it means that if you plan to have 4 game sessions worth of adventure, you only have to do the first 4 encounters of work before you can run the first session. No need to design more than you need for the next game night, right?

Well…

Look, that works great for a lot of GMs, and if it works for you, more power to you. There are absolutely advantages to that system, and lots of ways to make it work to your advantage. But for many GMs, it means they introduce a problem and the mystery and the clues… before they know what the mystery is, or what the clues are supposed to be pointing to. That often works fine when you first introduce elements — everyone has seen the stories where the map has a big blank spot, or the detective finds mud they are sure is important, or the prophecy only makes sense after it’s fulfilled. So if you tell the ranger that yes, the site of the bandit attack has lots of wolf and goblin footprints, but on top of all of those are sharped bits of wood, as though from a whittled stick, which was done 2-3 hours after the bandit attack, players will file that away as an important clue for later.

Which is great–if you ether have a rough idea what you are doing (so you can make up clues that’ll fit in) or are good at bringing things together in the last few chapters even if you had no idea what you are doing when you leave a clue. But if you’re GREAT at coming with evocative and intriguing set dressing, but terrible at connecting them together after-the-fact, the end game of your adventures may be much more stressful and dissatisfying than you’d like.

For such GMs, writing your adventure backwards can make things much easier.

For example, let’s say you decide the end villain of your adventure is an evil ranger, who riles up local wilderness threats, directs them at farms and villages, and then charges those settlements money to “solve” the problems he’s creating. You give him a couple of personality quirks — he’s arrogant, handsome, and can whittle small wooden symbols that anger specific kinds of wildlife. You want a fight with him to end your advneture.

You want some investigation in town to happen just before that fight. So you create an event rh PCs could investigate once they are suspicious enough. You decide the ranger runs a protection racket, but a newcomer bard was becoming suspicious. So the ranger poisoned a local goblin tribe with herbs that make them battle-mad. Then he faked a note from the goblins to the bard making it seems the goblins wanted to tell the bard something important. When the bard went to where the note indicated, the herb-maddened goblins killed the bard. The ranger came by after the battle, whittling more of his magic traps, and stole the bard’s gear.

With that in place, it’s easy to see how the Ps get involved. Locals think the attacks are getting worse, and that the ranger isn’t enough to deal with them anymore. They hire PCs to help, but the PCs keep finding evidence of an unseen figure behind the attacks. You can have them fight some maddened animals the ranger sends after them hoping the PCs will be killed, have them ask folks what might have riled the animals, get told the new bard asked similar questions before being killed by goblins, seek ut the bard’s hidden notes because the bard was already onto the ranger, get pointed at the ranger, want to find the bard’s loot so they search the ranger’s hut and find it, then confront the ranger. Easy.

It may not solve all adventure problems, but often working backwards from the end is the easy way to decide what clues and story beats the PCs will find as they move forward through the adventure.

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Tabletop Gaming Space

People talk about game rules and social contracts and spotlight time and a dozen other interaction-facing things much, much more often than they talk about having an actual space to play tabletop game.

So, as I sit here in a 20×21 dedicated gaming room, with two 5-foot-long, 2.5-foot wide tables in the middle, several office chairs, a slew of stacking padded church chairs, ceiling fans, led lights bright enough to power solar calculators (which mattered when we designed the room 24 years ago), it’s own refrigerator, a computer hooked to a sound system, and bookcases on every wall, I wanted to talk a little about what I find useful in a physical gaming space.

This isn’t a must-have list or some professionally surveyed best answer. It’s just what I have found over my 40 years of playing tabletop games, as game to me today in no particular order, and generally using my current main gaming space–a dedicated gaming room in the house I’m living in–as a point of comparison.

Comfortable Seating

This may seem obvious, but it’s still worth thinking about. Especially if you have people with disabilities, what may work for you for 4-6 hours or more of sitting might be torture for other members of your group. Also, think about sturdiness. Not just for regular use (our gaming chairs see many more hours per week of sitting than the dining room chairs of my childhood home ever did), but for the people you want to have over. I’m a heavy guy — more than 450 lbs. on average — and I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been invited by people to hang out at their place where all they have are thin folding wood frame or aluminum tubing chairs. Those do not safely hold me. Consider who you want to make accommodations for, and give people an opportunity to tell you if they need something nonstandard.

Accessibility

Our game room is 3 steps down from the rest of the house. We have railings, and happily pass things up and down for folks having issues with the balance or steadiness, but I still wish our space wasn’t sunken in that much.

We’re pretty central to our town, which is a plus, but not particularly close to public transit. Some people walk here for gaming. Some carpool. But an easier way for people to arrive would be a help.

We have the game table in the middle of a big room with two ways in and out, so mostly people can walk around without bumping into people. But when we cram 9 people in for the big Tuesday Night game, it’s cramped. We can’t even get everyone at the table if the whole crew shows up.

Tablespace

How much tablespace you need depends a lot on the needs of the game you play. If you are wanting to have Starfinder games where sniper rifle ranges are relevant, you may need a ton of space for miniatures and terrain. If you’re playing Dread, everyone needs to be able to reach the tumbling tower, and it (probably) ought to be on stable level surface.

We have a table-topper that puts a 2 ft. x 3 ft. space up about 4 inches off the center of the table and can slide and spin. that’s great for letting people pull the map closer to them and turn it to see what is going on behind a shack or hill, but also means we can’t really have many drinks on the main table, and laptops often have to be closed as the table topper is spun. We also have TV trays, which people can use as additional space for books, dice, water bottles, and so on.

Climate

Our space is large enough that even with 9 people rammed in, the AC and ceiling fans and tower fan can keep us pretty cool, even in summer. But it takes 4 AC ducts, 2 returns, two ceiling fans, and 1 tower fan to do it. If a space is likely to get too cold, it can be worthwhile to have blankets and fingerless gloves as options. If it’s going to get too hot, plenty of water, and be understanding if folks decide they are just unwilling to get too hot while trying to have fun.

Atmosphere

Once of the nice things about a dedicated game space is that it serves as the geeky visual center of the house as well. There are miniatures and maps and game books on shelves, light sabers and swords and starships hanging on the walls, a fleet of sailing ships on top of one bookcase, plastic towers, mountains, and a 3-foot wire-frame oil derrick on other furniture. The walls have framed posters of comic books, movies, and game magazine covers. Overall, it helps put people in the mood to play games.

You often can’t go this far–kitchen tables and living room coffee tables are much more common as play spaces, and those often need to serve aesthetic desires beyond “look geeky.” On the other hand, some people go much further, with faux-stone walls, stuffed dragon heads, and wallscapes of fantasy forests with distant castles.

Whatever your options, think about little things that can help put people in the right frame of mind for the game you want to run. Even just having a GM Screen for a specific adventure or game system, or a single small prop tied to a game’s theme (like a model of the PC’s starship, or miniatures of the allied royal court, or a picture of the fungal ghouls destroying civilization) can help make a game space feel tied to specific campaigns, even if those props have to be put away between games.

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Me, NaNoWriMo, and 52-in-52

I keep wanting to try to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and it almost never works out. That’s sad to me, because there is an energy, expectation, and support system in place for NaNoWriMo’s goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days that makes it ever-so-slightly easier to get a lord of wordcount produced in November than times where you’re doing it largely alone. The groundswell of support, suggestions, public accountability, and even people talking about hard times they are having can help buoy a writer past obstacles that might stop them on other months.

But, yet again, I can’t do NaNoWriMo this year, because if I have any spare capacity beyond my regular monthly writing contracts and obligations to people depending on me for projects to move forward so they can make money on the labor they’ve already put into them, it has to go into 52-in-52.

You remember 52-in-52, right? It was my big swing at doing something new, announced in November 2019. The idea was to produce one new product every week in 2020, with each product being released in four different versions–on each for Pathfinder 1e, Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and D&D 5e. It was a big, ambitious subscription model and something I knew would take all my focus.

Obviously since I am still talking about needing to work on it nearly two years later, it did not go as planned.

The Covid pandemic is part of the reason why, along with moving twice in 2020, being hospitalized, having friends die, losing a beloved pet–seriously, it’s been among the roughest 24 months of my life. I tried to allow for complications and interruptions on the schedule I had for creating 108 game products in a year, but I never could have guessed at even half the things that were going to hit during that production time.

And this was not a Kickstarter, or some other crowdfunding campaign, where the entire budget is covered in advance. The idea was a classic pre-order, with enough money from early orders to get started, followed by ongoing sales to keep funding the project as it went along. I had carefully noted that my plan was to personally write or develop each product in the line. That meant if I fell behind on writing things, I could hire writers I knew to take on one or more parts of the project. I had a decade of sales information to extrapolate from, so I was confident that I could get things done that way if I had to. I was covered… as long as a major economic disaster didn’t have a huge impact on how much money people spent on tabletop rog products on a scale even ten years of sales data couldn’t predict.

Cue sad trombone.

So, that’s why now, ten months past the original deadline, the project is still only about half-finished. Under any other circumstances, I’d consider doing more than 100 game products cover 4 different gam systems over two years to be a triumph of productivity. But I promised customers a series of products, and while I can’t change history so those things arrive on-time, I can make sure everyone who pre-ordered gets everything I promised them.

So, what does all that have to do with NaNoWriMo? Well, I’m going to produce 50,000 words of 52-in-52 this month.

No, that won’t be all the rest of what is missing. Nor is it really what NaNoWriMo is about. But it’ll be closer to doing NaNoWriMo than I have been able to try in recent years, and 50k words produced towards overdue subscriptions will go a long way towards providing material I am dedicated t putting in people’s hands.

So, I’ll be tracking my Na52WriMo at the beginning of each day. It’ll be in the form of Words Prepared for layout/Words Turned Over to Layout (Words Sent to Subscribers)/50,000. So if I have 1,000 words prepared but none turned over yet, that’d be 1,000/0/0/50k. I’ll update each weekday, with the stats from the previous day.

It won’t fix things being late, but it will move a lot of materials forward on this much-overdue subscription model.