Help me make WotC adventures better.
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  1. #1

    Help me make WotC adventures better.

    Hello there everybody,

    In case you don't know me, I'm Rodney Thompson, a D&D developer at Wizards of the Coast. Over the years I've seen WotC adventures take some knocks, to put it mildly. To put it more bluntly, I've seen comments to the effect that WotC adventures are, ahem, the worst. I'm not sure I agree, but there is a perception out there that some WotC-published adventures are sub-par.

    I'd like to change that.

    I'm making it my mission to change the way we design, develop, and edit adventures. It's not going to be a fast process, or an easy one, but I've formed my task force and have visited the quartermaster for ammunition and supplies. However, like any mission, mine needs some good Intelligence before the work can begin.

    So, what I'd like to hear from the community is what you think would make published adventures better. What areas are WotC adventures lacking in that could be improved? What makes a good adventure for you, and why are the published adventures so far not doing that for you?

    If you want to just post some thoughts, that's fine by me, and I'll be eager to read them. However, if you REALLY want to be a superstar, when you talk about something that can be improved, give me an example of a WotC adventure that does that thing badly (or not at all), and an example of an adventure that does that well.

    The only other things I ask are this: 1) Be polite and respectful. I am not going to take you seriously if you rant and rave. 2) Avoid hyperbole. If I see the words "epic fail" or "worst adventure ever" there's a good chance I won't take your comments seriously. 3) Don't use this as a soapbox from which to launch complaints about 4th Edition. We're here to talk about adventures, people, not game systems.

    So, that's pretty much it. Help me out, would ya?

  2. #2
    Sorry, I'm gonna be very general here. I'd like to spitball a theory.

    I think a lot of the work coming out of D&D gets muddled in sub-committee. I think brainstorming and critique are integral parts of a creative process; but, groups usually only come up with a median in terms of quality product: they tend to avoid failure...but never produce greatness. It’s like trying to come up with the best novel in the world by taking a poll of what the best aspects of a novel are: a novel isn't a sum of parts.

    So what I would like to see is a return to the swagger.

    Let a few authors flex some muscle. Let several people build shorter more succinct adventures so that a type of 'style of preference' can be branded. Play around a little: look at what Paizo is doing with the yearly contest. Don't be afraid of making something radically different. Don't be afraid of failure. Don't get me wrong, strive for success, but keep the cost down in low page count, low 1st run (if feasible), PDF versions...and then frickin' market it. Market the author!! There is a reason why titles of popular novels have smaller text than the author's name.

    Hope that helps.
    Last edited by Wild Gazebo; Thursday, 4th March, 2010 at 10:08 AM. Reason: spellin'

  3. #3
    I going to predict that your post is going to catch a lot of this community off-guard, Rodney.

    I haven't spent a lot of time running 4e WotC adventures, though I did plenty in 3.5. I spend a lot of time and effort on converting Paizo adventures to 4e in order to better enjoy them. I appreciate 4e for its mechanics and its engaging, dynamic combat encounters, and I appreciate Paizo for their ability to produce high-quality stories. Fortunately for you, WotC has dominion over the 4th Edition rules set. Paizo, on the other hand, does not have a monopoly on story.

    My first suggestion would be to look towards how Paizo writes their adventures. Ignore their combat encounters. You guys are much better at that part than they are; I don't think you're in dire need of improving your ability to design tactical encounters. Paizo spends a lot of time on NPC characterization and background. Now, often I feel they go too far, printing material that would be nearly impossible for the PCs to come across - effectively, writing for the DM and no one else. But there's a happy middle ground there where the DM is given a nice selection of tools with which to make the game world feel more immersive.

    What I would really like to see is you hire one of the stronger authors of the Pathfinder AP line, and pair him with your most proficient, most deft encounter designer. Have them collaborate on how to produce the adventure, and have them apply their strengths to the parts they excel at. The adventure writer could have the story plotted out, and then come to your encounter designer and say, "Hey, I've got the PCs walking into a rakshasa ambush - I need a really compelling rakshasa fight." The encounter designer can go over the details of the scene, maybe make a few suggestions on features to add that would make the set piece more interesting, and then pound out a killer combat encounter.

    There will be plenty of other people in here with their own suggestions, and they need to be listened to as well, but I think taking a few cues from the guys a lot of the community considers the best adventure publishers in the business is a really solid place to start.

  4. #4
    Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)

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    You've set yourself up for quite a tall order from us.

    I think a good adventure is like the old statement about porn - "I know it when I see it". It's hard to put what makes a great adventure into words. Personally, I don't think WotC did a horrible job back in 3E, so much as it didn't attempt to put it best foot forward in presenting and promoting them. WotC seemed to make it clear that "adventures weren't their business". On the other hand, I've only played "Keep on the Shadowfell" for 4E, but that has been enough to turn me away from looking at any other 4E adventures at all. So I can't really comment on 4E's adventures much themselves.

    I can only go by own experiences of what I think is a good adventure. One of my favorite is the old I6 - Ravenloft. But I'm not much of a fan of the "Expedition to Castle Ravenloft". Why? One of the big reasons was that old Ravenloft felt like a hunt for Strahd. Somewhere in this mysterious castle Strahd was lurking, luring the PCs slowly to their doom. You never knew what was around the next corner. The place felt desolate, off-kilter - a place you couldn't let your guard down in. There were odd things to encounter, but the focus was on hunting down Strahd and putting an end to him.

    Expedition, on the other had too many encounters. They distracted from the hunt for Strahd with side encounters that were put too front-and-center. Every time you threw open a door, you had your weapon at the ready because you knew something was behind it. A lot of times, it felt gratuitous and forced. Sometimes an empty room needs to be an empty room. If the DM running it doesn't agree, he can slap something into it.

    Also, another aspect seems to be "everything and the kitchen sink" syndrome. Occasional, unusual encounters are nice, but often - as in the case of Expedition - too much "cool" is attempted to be interjected into an adventure. Each new encounter seems to attempt to one-up the last. Instead, I'd rather see adventures that present a steady diet of lightly themed encounters set at logical story points. Excessive encounters, or encounters that try to be "cool for cool's sake" need not apply. Seemingly mundane encounters can produce enough spice simply by having different types of foes than the last encounter and smart use of the surrounding (normal) terrain. Save the really "wow" encounters for the end of story arc encounters or endboss fights, and say no more than one or two an adventure.

    The one thing I would advise is to never lose sight of the fact that modules are essentially canned episodes made to make a DM's life easier. They should present a themed, consistent story that requires as little beyond the DM doing a read-through to present it (Expedition to the Demonwebs was so convoluted I still don't follow the whole mess, and has given me little incentive to run it). They also should make a DM feel like it was money well-invested in that it isn't something the DM feels he could have come up with after a few minutes of thinking - the adventure should be inspiring.

    Finally, I'll say I find the delve format extremely annoying. Back in 3E, I bought a lot of Goodman's DCC classics because of their simple-yet-elegant presentation. I didn't need map reprints of every single room and a full page rehash of every encounter. Give me some boxed text, an overview of the room and either the stat blocks or where I can find them in the MM, and I'm good. The delve format is overkill, and in a bad way.

  5. #5
    I have two requests:

    a) ALWAYS include both keyed and unkeyed maps in a proper resolution. Many D&D-gamers are gaming online now (including me), and i need those maps for Maptool. I know you┤ve started to do this already, but i want to emphasize how important this is. Maps are only useful if i can print them out or use as a backdrop in Maptool. Overview maps are useless to me, and because you have some awesome mappers they are a waste of talent.

    b) You need more adventures that stray from the beaten path. Just look at fan-favourites, very often they are adventures that try something new. Best example were the Eberron Nicolas Logue modules in Dungeon.

    My take: have some "THEME" - slots in Dungeon. Say, forex: "somewhere in the future, we will publish a series of THEME-adventures in Dungeon - get to the keyboards, freelancers and fans."

    Possible themes:

    Gritty Sword&Sorcery

    Your core problem is that most contributors feel too chained to POLand or the campaign settings, and always think about "how do i drop that into X". To get the creative juices flowing, let your contributors be free in flavouring their modules, THEN think about fitting them into existing campaing worlds. I┤m a big fan of the current Dungeon, but if you read the older Dungeons, you┤ll see that many adventures were primarily influenced by what the author was reading about / researching at the time, and then it was fitted into D&D. This led to some goofy results, but also to a lot of diversity.

    Yeah, that┤s it. That┤s what you need. Diversity.

  6. #6
    Hi Rodney (if I may),

    For the best in-depth analysis of the faults of a WotC 4E module and how to overcome them I'd like to direct you to this site:

    The Alexandrian - Keep on the Shadowfell

    The author (Justin Alexander) spent months reworking Keep on the Shadowfell with further people from the WotC forums. I only hit on this recently.

    Very helpfully, Justin explains in the first paragraph where he thinks the adventure needed rectification most:

    Giving the adventure a stronger backbone and a richer mythology; rearranging the setpieces; fleshing out Winterhaven to give it some unique character and depth; adding extra encounters where possible; and so forth.
    Here's a fantastic example of what this means. On the road to Winterhaven (after the first encounter) Justin inserts this bit of read-aloud text:

    You continue down the King’s Road to Winterhaven. After another mile, you see smoke on the horizon. A little while later you round a corner in the road and look down into a clearing: A small farmhouse has been burnt to the ground, its ruins still sending a trail of smoke into the air.
    There. Fill the world with details which are highly relevant to things unfolding in the course of the adventure (here: a village + its surroundings beset by kobolds etc).

    I noticed that the re-edit for H1 when it was released for free online tried some stuff along similar lines (e.g. foreshadowing the BBEG), but really, that's only 5% of what was needed to make the module a more compelling experience beyond the 'learn the ins and outs of 4E's combat system'.

    But here's the catch:

    WotC writers are now down to a 32 page count writing the new HS modules. What Justin says a module needs cannot go into 32 pages - and certainly not if a module expects to level PCs up at least 2-3 times (meaning, what, 10-20 encounters?).

    You want to improve WotC adventures beyond a back-to-back encounter slugfest, I think you'd need to talk to the guys who set these product guidelines first.

    Scott mentioned Paizo, so I think it's worth mentioning that

    1. a Paizo module which levels PCs up 2-3 times (a) dishes out story awards liberally and (b) has a page count of 96 pages, resulting in more room to actually provide info surrounding fights the PCs have to go through to level up.

    2. when Paizo does a 32-page module (the product line previously called "Gamemastery Modules") they don't go for that 'need to level up the PCs 2-3 times" approach. If they did, they wouldn't have time to write anything but combat encounters as well.

    PS. I think you did a brilliant job at self-analysis after concluding the 'Dawn of Defiance' module series for Saga.
    Last edited by Windjammer; Thursday, 4th March, 2010 at 10:31 AM.

  7. #7
    Defender (Lvl 8)

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    It's nice to see you coming here, speaking frankly about this subject, and asking for input.

    A few things pop to mind:

    1. Reduce the number of combat encounters. Take the remaining encounters and make most of them large, adventure-critical events. Go for level +3 to level +5 encounters. Spread it out over an interesting area. Make the battles multi-stage; have waves of enemies. For the remaining encounters, make the setup interesting or unusual, but make them a pushover, so they are completed quickly and make the PCs feel awesome.

    2. Add a bit more "empty space" into dungeons and encounter areas. A few things to look at, doesn't even need any creatures to interact with, necessarily. The pantry filled with disgusting goblin snacks may not serve much purpose, but it adds atmosphere and maybe makes the PCs hate the goblins that much more. Or the storeroom containing an obviously stolen bottle of eladrin wine. Some PCs will sell it; others will ask, "What is the story behind it?" If the DM wants, this can become a hook for something else -- if not, it is an easy detail to gloss over.

    3. Explore different types of adventures. With the Dungeon e-zine, you can kind of probe the community, trying very different themes, settings, and approaches, and see what works, what doesn't. Then use that feedback when you are preparing the print published adventures.

    4. Keeping asking the community for help. EN World has no shortage of great ideas, or people willing to expound upon them

    I also echo the sentiments of the previous posters.
    Last edited by Mentat55; Thursday, 4th March, 2010 at 10:29 AM.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Stormonu View Post
    Finally, I'll say I find the delve format extremely annoying. Back in 3E, I bought a lot of Goodman's DCC classics because of their simple-yet-elegant presentation. I didn't need map reprints of every single room and a full page rehash of every encounter. Give me some boxed text, an overview of the room and either the stat blocks or where I can find them in the MM, and I'm good. The delve format is overkill, and in a bad way.
    That's a topic worth discussing in its own take. I'd recommend Rodney to (re)read this thread, if he's interested.

    Personally, I don't think WotC will give up the delve format. As it is, this is their way to save money otherwise spent on costly art order for modules (ask Paizo what eats up their money!). They order a map once, and then reprint bits thereof throughout the module. It's like the 4E FR Player's Guide - they asked a guy to paint a world map, paid him for the job, and then re-used that very same art piece for 30+ odd partial reprints in the book. Instead of spending money on actual art, actual illustrations of NPCs etc., all the stuff that Paizo spends money on.

    Which gets us back to the point I already raised. I simply don't think WotC is willing to put money into modules, and it shows. And it will continue to show unless WotC is willing to alter that. Which is why I think Rodney is asking the wrong question to the wrong people.

    PS. Out of fairness, I'd like to highlight the fact that the stunning cartography and art for Draconomicon 2 absolutely floored me. That's a good indicator of what WotC is capable of when they do put money into a product.
    Last edited by Windjammer; Thursday, 4th March, 2010 at 10:40 AM.

  9. #9
    Orcus on an Off-Day (Lvl 22)

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    A few thoughts, hopefully good for adventures for any edition:

    1. Make the adventure itself the star. Don't worry about showcasing the neat new developments (Keep on the Shadowfell was bad for this in 4e, Sunless Citadel ditto in 3e) but instead just come up with a cracking good adventure and let the new developments showcase themselves (Forge of Fury in 3e was quite good in this regard). One test for any new adventure might be to convert and playtest it in each of the other editions...if it plays well in all of them, then it's probably a good adventure.

    2. Make sure the adventure stands alone. Many (if not most) DMs are not necessarily going to run your adventures one after the other in the order written, but instead are going to drop 'em into their campaign where it makes sense to do so. The less your adventure depends on outside story or other adventures, the more chance it has of being played.

    In 3e, Forge of Fury again was good for this. In 4e, while I converted KotS to 1e and ran it I did not do the same for H2, as it seemed on reading to be much more dependent on having previously played KotS than I was looking for.

    3. Layout, layout, layout. Take lessons from 1e in how to lay out an adventure. Put the overall map on a detachable or separate piece of card stock heavy enough to stand on its own and thus pull double duty as a DM screen. Don't get stuck on one page-spread per encounter - some take more to describe fully, some take less; and you can save lots of space by leaving the map out of the encounter description and putting all the detail in the overall map instead. Write in point form if you have to - the information is more important than the syntax - and you don't need 16-point or 20-point headers for "Tactics", "Treasure", etc. in every write-up; simple bolding or use of a different colour will do and this'll save a bunch more space.

    4. Think like a character, and write accordingly. An example of the sort of thing I'd like to see done better is the last encounter area in Keep on the Shadowfell - the area and opponents are written up well enough (well, except for Kalarel's magic items, but that's not my point here) but after Kalarel dies the DM is given no help at all in the "what comes next" department. The module seems to expect the PCs to simply leave after slaying Kalarel, but most inquisitive PCs aren't going to settle for that; they're going to start poking around, and the DM is left hanging. For example, how can the PCs close the gate? Or conversely, how can they finish opening it? And in both cases, if not, why not? What are the basic stats of the Thing in case the PCs decide to start shooting at it, like mine did? And so on.

    Either that, or at least put a note in the room's write-up stating that it is left up to the DM to sort these things out as s-he sees fit, so the DM has some warning and guidance.

    5. Try to avoid battlemat-style maps unless it's all open and visible terrain. While the battlemats are great for minis combat and are far more colourful and detailed than any map I'll ever draw on a chalkboard, they inevitably end up giving away more information to the players than their characters would know...and players sometimes forget this and use said extra information to their advantage.

    6. In a standard dungeon-style adventure, terconnect the levels and sections more. This allows for an adventure to play differently on repeated use, as the party has more choice in which ways to go and thus might not encounter obstacles and opposition in any predictable order. KotS, for example, has only one possible entrance and only one possible way to get from level 1 down to level 2. A second (secret) entrance from the outdoors and about 3 more connections (stairways, elevators, hidden shafts leading to trap doors, whatever) between levels 1 and 2 would do wonders here! And in a dungeon with more than two underground levels, make sure there's always one staircase that bypasses a level completely. (thus, if there's 4 levels and you enter on level 2, there's at least 2 connections* between each neighbouring pair of levels, along with a set of stairs that goes straight from level 1 to level 3 (with no exit to 2) and maybe another that goes from 2 to 4)

    I can't think offhand of a published adventure that does this really well.

    * - then make sure the opposition uses these connections to their advantage!

    Hope this helps!

    Lan-"and release the converted version for each edition, too"-efan

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Windjammer View Post
    Scott mentioned Paizo, so I think it's worth mentioning that

    1. a Paizo module which levels PCs up 2-3 times (a) dishes out story awards liberally and (b) has a page count of 96 pages, resulting in more room to actually provide info surrounding fights the PCs have to go through to level up.

    2. when Paizo does a 32-page module (the product line previously called "Gamemastery Modules") they don't go for that 'need to level up the PCs 2-3 times" approach. If they did, they wouldn't have time to write anything but combat encounters as well.
    This is a very valid point; background and story details take up space. I don't want to see less space dedicated to combat encounters, though. The strength of 4e's conflict mechanics is one of the reasons I'm such a fan. This is a real dilemma. Increasing the page count of your print products might not be feasible, and if that's the case you need to do some really difficult prioritizing. Non-print products are another matter entirely. I costs almost nothing for you to add more pages of content to a Dungeon magazine adventure - a few extra dollars to your freelance author and a bit of bandwidth. There is nothing preventing you from publishing incredible adventures that cover everything your average D&D player is looking for online.

    In fact, better yet, do what you must with your print product adventures, and then publish extensive digital supplements to the product through DDI. Not only can this help you fill perceived gaps in the itches your community is looking to scratch, but it's yet another draw to the subscription service. Publish NPC backgrounds online, extra non-combat locations (in towns and such), extra novel treasures for the party to come across, etc. You have this really amazing tool for delivering whatever content you want to a huge fraction of your fan base. Leverage it every single opportunity you get.

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