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Friday, 28 August 2020

How long does an RPG scenario need to be?

In the comments last time, Nigel asked a question that must have vexed us all at one time or another. We all know you can run a perfectly good adventure from a page or two of notes, but what if you're writing the adventure so that somebody else can run it? Every little detail, obvious to you, soon starts to demand a page of its own. Look at the annual Christmas scenario for Legend. Tim, our secret Santa for those specials, cooks up the adventure on the train to London and runs it from crib notes scrawled in biro on the back of his hand. Yet by the time I'm serving the scenario up to you it has typically swollen like a Quatermass experiment to 5000 words or more.

I don't claim to have a magic formula, but a lot of published scenarios are written to be a fun read rather than a useful template for running the adventure. It's what sells. So an investigative scenario, for example, will lay out the clues and describe how the player-characters are expected to come across them, all wrapped up in a form that reads like a mini-mystery novel. But to run the game you don't need any of that. For maximum compression, you really just need a couple of documents and (maybe) maps of the key locations.

The first document describes what would happen in the adventure if the PCs weren't there. You might include some contingencies here if you think the referee isn't experienced enough to make them up on the fly. Eg: "The Terminator goes to the nightclub to kill Sarah Connor. If she escapes it seeks out her mother or friends, and remember that it can mimic their voice on the phone to get her to say where she is." Take a look on Wikipedia at the plot summary of a few stories you're very familiar with. That's a good guide to how compressed you can go. You should end up with something like this (from The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder on the Tekumel site):

The other doc is just the NPCs. What they want, how they are likely to try and get it, the resources they can call on, and their attitude to the PCs and each other. This is the place to mark how the PCs might get involved, eg: "Du Pont thinks Goldfinger is cheating at cards and asks the characters to find out how. (See: Jill Masterton.)" Whether the PCs take those cues, and how they use them, should emerge in play rather than being baked into the scenario -- and that's where you can save on word count.

The maps don't need to be more than rough sketches. They're just there so you can answer questions like, "To get to the bath-house, do I need to go out into the courtyard or can I get there from the dormitory?" I tend to do my maps on scraps of paper at the table, often improvised when a player first asks a question so as to be consistent thereafter. You know the kind of thing:

A scenario like I'm describing will be a very dry read, but after all it's not supposed to be a novel. The only reason we have these neatly act-structured published scenarios is because that's the way the publishers get a customer to part with their money. Recently I was looking at a scenario in a published RPG which took up twenty-five pages (around 10,000 words) and it could all have been fitted on one piece of paper. As a short story it was fine. As a reference doc for running a game from it was useless. There was too much detail, too many cross-connections, too many assumptions about which order the PCs would do things in -- not to mention assumptions about what they would do.

What about set pieces? It can be really hard to resist preparing those in advance. You think, aha, if the characters go up this hill, they'll see what looks like a henge of standing stones on the skyline, but as they get closer it rears up and they see it's the dorsal spines of an enormous dragon. Let me stop you right there. You're not writing a movie. Maybe they'll approach the dragon from another direction. Maybe they won't encounter it at all. Murder your darlings. If you try to plan a cinematic set piece, there's a risk you'll then railroad the players to make sure it happens. So what if they go someplace else and do something you didn't anticipate? Have faith that you'll think of something in the moment that's as good as any scene you might have scripted in advance.

No written adventure survives contact with the players. So why go to all the trouble of writing it out neatly like it's the Great American Novel? Everyone's mileage is going to be different here, but if you're producing a scenario for somebody else to run, try paring it to the bone. Think of it as an executive summary for a CEO with a very short attention span. A couple of pages at most. The way the game turns out might be nothing like you or the referee expected -- but as long as the players have fun, who's complaining?


  1. If the other person for whom you are writing up the adventure to run is also an experienced GM, then I agree that few notes are needed but others may need more support from the writing. I am also a strong proponent of any fluff written only for the GM is a waste of creativity - everything written should be discoverable by all of the players in some way (but not always immediately), which would also strip out much from some published adventures I've read. I also agree that no adventure should assume that the PCs will do something or do it in a specific order, so those cinematic set pieces, like you mention, should only inspire, not dictate, what happens during the course of play (although they can confuse inexperienced GMs and, as you say, lead to railroading to ensure those set pieces occur as-written).

    But not every GM is experienced and comfortable with improvisation. If an adventure is being published commercially, it should be accessible to a broad audience of both experienced and inexperienced players, including those comfortable with improvisation and those that prefer a more ready-to-play adventure with little or no prep or improvisation required. In these days of PDFs, where there are no additional printing and shipping costs for longer works, why not include more material that experienced and confident GMs can strip out but which can support less experienced GMs (or just those that prefer a different style of play)?

    And those additional paragraphs, scenes, throwaway snippets of lore, or whatever that might otherwise clutter a lean adventure outline can still inspire experienced GMs, even if they do not use them during that adventure.

    I guess this ramble is putting me on the write-too-much pile that allows people to pick and choose how they use the adventure and the material in it, rather than write too little and make it inaccessible to some players. That's if it's for commercial release, of course - anything that's released simply to inspire others can be of whatever length and format that's easiest to produce and let it find its audience.

    And, as a final afterthought, there are the people who buy adventures not to play, but to read like a novella - to get swept away in the narrative of what might have been, lose themselves in the lore of a land that has inspired so much of their own creativity, and imagine the many directions in which that adventure could go in the idle, and possibly forlorn, hope that they may one day get to play that adventure in the future.

    1. The first five Dragon Warriors books are full of highly-structured scenarios for novice referees, so I can't deny the value of those, but most of the overwritten scenarios I'm thinking of certainly don't assume it's going to be your first rodeo. The extra word count isn't there to make it easy to run, it's there to make it a superficially enticing read (the peacock's tail effect) and to pad it to justify the price of the book.

      And in making the scenario a good read, the designer frequently forgets that somebody is going to need to run a game from it. The structure they're using doesn't give any help to a referee who isn't good at thinking of things on the fly. Example: I was using one published scenario and the PCs searched a room for clues. Twenty pages (a couple of days of game-time) later, the designer suddenly added: "By the way, in X's room there was a note hidden in the desk drawer. If the players go back they'll find it." Well, why should the players go back? They were in another city at this stage. And why didn't they find the note earlier? Nobody had been in the room since. It was just that the designer only just thought of it, or was using one of those Hollywood beat sheet things (BS is a good acronym for them btw) that told him it wasn't dramatic to let them find the clue right away.

      Totally agree about the extra snippets of lore and backstory. I have no complaints about those as they help inform the other choices you'll make while running the campaign. In the kinds of overwrought scenarios I'm thinking of, backstory is often not put where it would actually be useful, though. When running a game, if there are vital details then you should find them at your fingertips when you need them, not have them buried away at a point the designer thought would make for a more dramatic read. If the Apollo flight protocols had been written that way, Eagle would be a twisted pile of scrap in the Sea of Tranquility!

      I'd say that if somebody just wants to read a story for ideas, or to imagine the adventure they might run -- well, sure, but in that case they'll get more value for money out of a real novel. H Rider Haggard's She, for instance, is no classic of literature, but it's a far better read and a richer source of adventure ideas than the typical half-novelised scenario. And anyone who is worried about their ability to improvise cool ideas will get more value out of a Robert E Howard Conan book than any number of published adventures.

    2. Long ago, I had a book called Heroic Fantasy, which was a collection of short stories by a variety of moderately well known authors (there was definitely a Tanith Lee, I remember, and an Andre Norton). Anyway, one of the stories, which my memory claims was called 'The Seeker in The Fortress' by Manley Wade Wellman, I just used as-is as a scenario in the game (I think it was still D&D, at that stage). And it worked much better than the 'modules' which were regarded as the state of the art at that point. I mean, the nature of the story meant there was a reasonably clear structure, and a certain amount of linearity, but even then, when I ran it, it was drastically different to the story version.

      Notably, the hero was a character called Kardios, who was clearly a Conan clone.

    3. And, in the sort of flash of synchronicity that would cause Freud to faint dead away, the editor of the Heroic Fantasy series was Gerald W Page, who corresponded at great length with the tweenage (sic) Morris and was really instrumental in getting me to look at the fantasy I was reading with a bit more thought.

    4. "They tried to tell him, he's too Jung..."

  2. “But despite his youth he was not aFreud”

  3. I was girding my loins for polemic battle. Ready to rail against the reductionist commentary of one of the living legends of the rpg and gamebook universe on his very own blog (a bit like bearding the Maglash in its lair). Then I read Lee’s reply and realised most of my points had been eloquently made already. Curses.

    Dave it sounds like a lot of your complaint against prolixity is as much about poor structure, layout and lack of organisation in the writing. I agree that the hallmark of a well written adventure is that it should be easy for the GM to run. You have inspired and challenged me though. The introduction to the adventure I’m writing at the moment is like the teasing blurb on the back of a novel or a movie trailer. I’m going to pick up the gauntlet and add a coldly clinic, possibly bullet pointed, boxed executive summary. Something like “an eel fisherman goes missing. His young son enlists the PCs to find him. They must travel into the Marshes and stumble upon marsh goblins and ancient undead in their sodden barrows before confronting a giant eel. The father is found (alive or dead) as suits the tone of your campaign”. Argh even then it’s too flowery. Maybe “the PCs must find a missing peasant. On the search they are attacked by goblins and skeletons before confronting a giant eel.” Hmmm I’m sure I basically ran it with that as the idea and just the stat blocks for the monsters 30+ years ago… But that misses, or requires the GM to improvise all sorts of background, details and colour (for example a brief scornful and dismissive interaction with the scheming Sir Beorn) which both potentially enrich the roleplaying experience and help the PCs feel immersed in a “real” world with interconnections and cause and effect and consequences for actions. It’s certainly a richer reading experience when it’s more than a couple of sentences and some creature statistics. But to be honest perhaps it’s more about the frustrated novelist in us all finding it much more fun to write!

    1. Your example there, Nigel, makes me think of the clarity of an instruction manual contrasted with the elegance of a novel. But actually I rather like your ultra-stripped-down version. It has a streamlined elegance of its own simply because it is crystal clear.

      You're right that I'm railing at bad structure rather than word count. If I could read a scenario, enjoy it as ergodic fiction ( ) and then run a game from it that'd be great. Then it's a twofer. But if it is sold as a module for gaming and turns out not to be fit for purpose then I'm going from mild-mannered to Malgash.

      (I so want to give some specific examples here but that would be bad form. The culprits know who they are...)

      And then there's padding. Joseph Manola (see links below) said, "One or two ideas in one or two pages is fine. Dozens of ideas in dozens of pages is fine. But a handful of ideas stretched out over dozens of pages is just wasting everyone's time."

      I realize that when I say the real richness of roleplaying comes from the improv, and that the written plot is really all just a MacGuffin, it does rely on the referee and at least some of the players being imaginative and quick-thinking. But really that's the minimum requirement for roleplaying to work at all. If the person running it isn't able to improvise then somebody else should run it. And in my experience players are willing to give him or her all the support needed. We played in one game where our actions took the adventure in a drastically different direction nobody could have anticipated. Eddie Izzard would have been hard pressed to immediately come up with a new story thread on the spot. The referee (Tim Savin) was wise enough to call for a break: "Let's take fifteen minutes, have a coffee, while I think this through." When we came back to the table he had something ready. A good lesson there for anyone who feels intimidated by having to think on their feet.

  4. You're right, Dave; Joseph Manola wrote nothing else :

    1. Mr Manola nails it, Olivier. The only comment of his there that I'd take issue with is when he says modules are often "written in a way which makes them almost useless for their supposed purpose of running a game in real-time at the table." My gripe goes further. Many modules are *worse* than useless for that purpose. My group voted to abandon a scenario book that had been praised in reviews and garlanded with 5-star ratings. But after I ran a couple of sessions it was clear that you could only read it like a novel. It simply did not work as a viable scenario pack.

      Interesting that he uses the analogy of cookbooks. My wife and I only buy a cookbook if we intend to try the majority of the recipes. (Our cookbooks are festooned with our notes on the dishes, like I imagine a sorcerer's grimoire.) But it seems that, when it comes to both cuisine and gaming, I'm out of sync with the buying public.

      Btw Joseph Manola wrote another good post on this topic here:

    2. I was thinking about the scenarios I'd bought and... it really didn't take long, because in the whole time I was an active rolegamer (slightly more than 20 years) I only bought a handful. In the early days, I was too skint to do so, and there weren't very many then anyway. I got City-State of the Invincible Overlord, which seemed to me far more useful as a spur for scenarios (and which doubled for Lankhmar in the game I ran based on Leiber's books). Later I remember I got one called The Lost Abbey of Calthonwey, which I quite liked, and used a couple of times. But again, I notice it's not so much a story as a description of a place and the people there, which generates ideas for scenarios. Then I did have scenarios sent to me for review. I doubt my reviews were very good, as I was very rarely able to actually use them. And I certainly couldn't write scenarios for publication. Now I think of it, the first one I had published (The Tower of Horglin in DragonLords) was basically the same story as the last one I had published (Pyramid of Skulls in imazine). It is great, after all these years, to finally understand the reason underlying all this!

      My interest in rolegaming was always the actual game itself. Reading scenarios never much appealed to me: the only scenarios I ever enjoyed reading were the ones that actually contained concrete ideas that could be adapted into my game (and as you've observed, there has never been an excess of them).

      But here's a strange thought: the very early scenarios -- the dungeons -- weren't that bad. At least they were honest, and they were definitely usable as written. The hobby went off the rails when all these pretentious young turks started writing 'narrative' adventures. What kind of a twerp came up with 'narrative' gaming anyway?

    3. I suppose that between the people who just read a scenario and put it away on the shelves and the people who actually want to incorporate it as a session in their ongoing campaign, there must be some who run it *exactly as written*. But like you, Paul, I've never had much use for scenarios in the past precisely because they would need massive adjustment to fit into the campaign's continuity.

      More recently we've fallen into the modern ADHD approach of running a campaign for a dozen sessions and then switching to something else. So in theory published scenarios could now be useful, as they purport to contain everything you need to run such a mini-campaign. In practice, the ones I've seen are hopeless. They're half-baked novels with information in the wrong order. The only way to run them would be to read the whole thing, deconstruct it, and rebuild it as the crib sheet you're actually going to need. I started going through one book with a highlighter, adding notes and cross-references in the margin, but soon realized I may just as well roll my own.

    4. I remember feeling what a pity it was that the ADHD approach took over, because what I had seen was a campaign with sufficient 'history' between characters that I thought would be enough momentum.

      Yes, I understand the urge that pushes you towards the Year Zero. I went through a period of contributing to a couple of fanzines, and each contribution would be done in a completely new typographic style. It was a useful exercise, but I finally realised that continuity itself has a lot of value. And if you disagree with me, feel free to send me a letter via Consignia.

    5. I remember you said so at the time, and you were right, but it's gone much further than that. I *think* we still kept the same overall campaign setting -- it wasn't a reboot of the whole timeline? But now campaigns tend to be single stories, designed to play for one "season". Our recent Conclave game, for example, ran for eight sessions and that's really the end of the story. More games could be run in that setting but those characters' story has been played out. A lot of today's RPGs assume that's the way people are going to play. Hence the emphasis on emulating genre rather than simulating a fantasy reality, as genre furnishes the inciting incident, tropes, threat and endpoint that will wrap it all into a discrete story package.

      Btw back in the '90s I occasionally used "season" as a shorthand for phases of an RPG campaign, but I'd never have done so if I'd known how contrived that TV analogy would have become by now.

    6. All of this brings us back to the fundamental nature of RpG. In "traditional" media (book, movie...), the action is driven by the tale of the author/the scenarist. In a RpG, the action is/ought to be driven by... the actions of the players. We know that the enemy of roleplaying is railroading. Being n°3 in the Fellowship of the Ring, no matter how great the story is, won't make a great RpG scenario, since you'll have to follow what Gandalf or Aragorn decides.
      An entertaining RpG evening can arise out of nearly no scenario.
      When - during the last millennium - I was gamemaster for Warhammer Fantasy, my two friends played the role of greedy dwarves. The pre-written scenario made them stop at a roadside inn. So, the only thing I had prepared there were the stats of the clients of the inn. It happened that some wealthy merchant overnighted there too, with a chest full of gold. The dwarves took a glimpse of it and... decided to steal the chest during the night. Since they were poor burglars they soon trigger the alarm and - for one of them was a Rambo-like fighter - slaughtered the whole people at the inn, the mounted police and a group of trolls attracted by the scent of blood...
      (finally, they couldn't even be arrested by the Wasteland authorities, since the inn was near the border to the Empire, where they had to go...)
      So, instead of "scenarios", shouldn't a better approach consist of "modules in a sandbox", with potential opportunities for players ? This is the vision of Kevin Crawford, who advises to prepare only things you are sure to use for the next session.

    7. Some games used to run "adventure seeds" in the core rulebook, but I expect they realized that with a bit of padding each of those would make a book of its own. I certainly prefer to just scrawl a few notes on one sheet of paper (it is often the back of the proverbial envelope) and run the game from that. Some will say, "But, Dave, you're probably good at improvising stories," but it's not that. The whole group is improvising all the time in the moment, as you say; the game/story is what emerges from that. And it doesn't take any special skill either -- every human is improvising in the moment every time they have a conversation.

  5. Adventure seeds or “hooks” are a really useful element of both rulebooks and setting books/gazetteers. Fleshing out the extensive history of a region and its notable people is really only useful (as opposed to ergodically entertaining I guess) if something impacting the PCs (directly or indirectly) flows from it. Having said that, it's much easier to improvise in my experience when you’re not having to make up on the fly everything, from the name and ruler of the land right down to the name of Farmer Joe’s missing prize cow… Far easier to put meat on the bones than to build the skeleton first (those foot bones are tricky) particularly for the time poor GM ;-)

    I suppose the other comment I’d make is about choice, the illusion of choice and “railroading” (which someone mentioned). To pick a recent example, the party (who were in the employ of a rich and slightly shady merchant) were offered a couple of different jobs. One led to a particular town I wanted them to get to to be able to run a published adventure which fit directly into the broader impending civil war plot. The other options had them pottering about and encountering some things and clues which fleshed out the broader world and gave them connections/introductions to some important people. I’d cooked up a short travel interlude adventure to get them from a to b. But there was a significant risk the players would choose one of the other dirty deeds that needed doing. Those were a mix of vague ideas or other published modules that would have needed some tweaking on the fly. It was genuinely a choice in this case but it could easily have been a case of “all roads lead to b” regardless of which option the players took (even if they decided instead to abandon their employer and search for the lost city instead…). A lot of GMs would rail against me if I’d chosen to railroad (see what I did there) the players into taking the smugglers road option I’d already prepared. But my proposition is that as long as the players genuinely felt their players had autonomy and a genuine choice, does it really matter? I won’t even mention that occasionally as a GM I’ll fudge die rolls or even pretend I’m rolling just to keep things interesting/moving and the players on edge/engaged as needed. But I suppose this is a whole other topic...

    1. I have no complaints about any module that fills up a dozen pages with NPCs I might need. Those are especially useful in Tekumel games, where you have no idea in advance which of maybe three dozen clan, temple and city functionaries the PCs might want to call on after arriving in a new locale.

      Wrt your example, I understand the temptation to get them to the town where you've got an adventure planned, but I'd resist it. The town there is like the safety net under a trapeze act. The performers are glad it's there, but the real show is what happens on the high wire and you hope the net won't be needed.

      I've over-prepped often enough and then seen players go off in a different direction, trashing the best-laid plans, to know that the resulting adventure is always as good and often better -- and has the added bonus that it surprises me as well as them. So you could stage-manage things to get them to the town whichever route they take, just as you can fudge a dice roll they don't get to see -- but I'm still in favour of going off-piste. As Olivier said above, the most memorable games arise out of no planning at all.

  6. As you often say your mileage may vary but in my experience players will find ways to surprise, delight and confound you regardless of the level of detailed creation or height of the guide rails. Despite the rich background tapestry you have meticulously woven some creative blighter will either set it on fire or wipe their backside with it. As long as everyone has fun and no-one loses an eye I guess it’s all good.

    1. Absolutely. A short while ago I ran a short adventure in Tim Harford's Conclave world -- or should that be Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea world? Anyway, I originally scrawled it as a set of rough ideas, but before running it I'd turned it into a structured 4-pager. Naturally, barely 10% of that structure made its way into the game as played, but the session at the (virtual) table was way better than my version so I can't complain.