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Open Design Interview - From the Shore to the Sea

by Johnn Four

From Shore to Sea by Brandon Hodge is one of several Open Design adventures currently underway. I say the first of several because it's up to customers to support any or all of three choices, for Call of Cthulhu, 4th Edition, and Pathfinder.

Wolfgang Baur's Open Design is a wonderful and innovative product that customers help mould through ongoing feedback and discussion while the adventure is actually being built.

Following are a few game master tips questions I lobbed over the fence to Wolfgang and Brandon. With such expertise in crafting solid adventures I figured we should tap into their secrets so we can all build better stories for our campaigns.

Adventure Creation Tips

Johnn: Could you provide a high level recipe for how you plan out your adventures? If you broke it down into 6-12 steps, what would they be?

Brandon: I'm really big on sticking to theme. When I sit down to craft something, I make lots of lists. Lists of creatures. Lists of locales and major players. Lists of cool events and environmental effects.

Then I start parsing them, sorting them into themes, scenes and settings. I read something once about George Lucas and how he would specify color palettes for his scenes. Tattooine was yellow and brown. Endor was green. Hoth was white. The Empire was monochromatic. I tend to work with similar thematic guidelines, and anything on my lists that starts to stick out compared to the rest gets shuffled or abandoned as I narrow down these elements into their eventual adventure components.

A good example is our creature collaboration on From Shore to Sea. I gave patrons a big list of creatures culled from available sources, and they were anything squishy and tentacle-y and of the sea.

Since we're working with an aboleth as our antagonist, what sort of creatures might be drawn to the "palette" of that sort of monster? Weird crabs that inhabit discarded skulls? Sure! Orcs? Not so much.

I've always had problems with monsters that are shoehorned into adventures just for the sake of variety. If you are aching to use a devil, save it for the next adventure - it doesn't make sense to have it wandering in the sewers underneath the thieves guild, and any backstory you have to explain it is probably never going to be known by the characters, so think of something else that doesn't make them scratch their heads.

Johnn: Do you have any advice for GMs who want to make awesome encounters for their game sessions?

Brandon: Environment! And weather. The SRD is chock-full of so much hazardous fun, and a lot of GMs and designers just don't use this to its potential.

In the last patron project, Halls of the Mountain King, I had some patrons question my decision to use a particular creature that was of relatively low CR in an encounter, but when they saw the rough draft, they realized "oh, crap - they're fighting this thing on the slippery side of a mountain in a snowstorm while some of them are dangling from an airship? Aha!" It was a tough encounter.

GMs have so many toys given to them to play with that I feel are underutilized. Writing an adventure along the coast? Have thick fog roll in...then put some nasty critters in it. Instant atmosphere and a more challenging encounter!

I use detrimental weather effects a lot. I like keeping players on their toes and out of that comfort zone of full hit points and abilities. I like my players to be sort of hobbled, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

Why was his character so awesome in that? Because he did everything he did, and he was barefoot! With glass sticking in his feet! Wow! Much more entertaining that some Dolph Lundgren flick where bullets seem to bounce off of him miraculously and he never seems to flinch.

GMs shouldn't be scared to impose environmental penalties on their players, have traps spring in weird places in the middle of combat and use hazards in new ways. Where is the fun in everyone being at 100% all the time?

Johnn: What do you try to do to design interesting creature encounters for game sessions?

Brandon: For my home game, I rarely take the time to create intricately detailed creatures that my players are just going to chop up in 3 rounds, and if you spend any time on the various boards, you'll see lots of GMs talking about all these monsters they spend so much time and energy creating with tons of abilities and cool little things that the players will never even see or experience.

Their time isn't being managed well if they aren't spending that amount of time on what the players do. That is the most important dictum a writer must follow. Fancy fluff, creatures and backstory isn't worth anything if the players never get to see it!

So don't spend so much time on these crazy beasts - worry about the story, the environment and the experience.

For example, I'll take a standard OGL creature of about the right CR, copy and paste it over from some SRD, and just write a new description.

I had once had some thieves using corrupted potions of gaseous form that were mutating them, so I used the stats for belkers when the PCs had to fight them.

No need to go through the time and trouble of assigning class levels and stats and abilities and feats - just yank the closest creature, change the appearance (but keep in mind its true type and other factors that might come into play) and use it.

Good designers and GMs spend more time focusing on the sights and sounds and smells experienced by the PCs than the stats of the creatures - there are PLENTY of published beasties, so use them.

Johnn: Tell us about how you keep your writing and planning organised. Do you use software to plan adventures?

Wolfgang: The design discussions, polls, and brainstorms are all hosted on the blogging service Livejournal. I've considered moving it to a wiki or to a PHP messageboard system, but.... It ain't broken, so I'm not that motivated to change it.

We also use the for OGL adventures for Pathfinder designs, and the DDI for 4th Edition adventures. Beyond those basics, it's not really about your tools, but about how you plan and organize.

The traditional tools work: an outline, a monster list, a set of balanced encounters, working steadily to meet the word count, and playtest thoroughly.

Johnn: What software do you use to write with and why?

Wolfgang: Open Design has contributions from a lot of designers, so it's hard to provide a universal answer. One designer uses Word exclusively in the Outline View, which seems to work for him. Me, I use Word for outlining, writing and (most importantly) editing/commenting during the revision process. We also use a free Word 2007 plug-in to generate PDF files for playtesters.

I suppose we could be using Notepad or Final Draft, and I tried Google Docs briefly while writing Empire of the Ghouls. Actually, I had high hopes for Google Docs, but it was sort of a disaster; file size issues, file corruption, data loss, you name it. I went back to Word.

Johnn: Whether writing professionally or as a GM trying to prepare a campaign, finding time is tough. How do you carve chunks out of real life to write?

Brandon: I'm a lucky guy. I'm incredibly busy with two popular retail businesses as well as politics in Austin, but I have an absolutely crack crew, so they have my back when a deadline is looming and I need to stay home.

It also helps that I type fast, and it is amazing what I can get to paper with the right quiet room and a strong cup of coffee first thing in the morning. It probably helps that I routinely write 1,000 words or so before I even realize I've woken up. Some of my best material gets typed before I get around to stumbling toward my morning shower.

Johnn: What do you use to capture ideas - notebook and pen, software, voice recorder?

Wolfgang: I prefer pen and paper for ideas as I move toward an outline, and I send myself email sometimes. Web services like Evernote tempt me to a ridiculous degree.

The key element is to get the good ideas (and the bad ones) down while they're fresh, and then shape them as you find time to think them through. Some will turn out to be dead ends; if you have a long list of things that inspire you, jotted notes, clever tactics, NPC names, etc., I find it easy to let them stew or to spread them all over a desk when I'm trying to hammer them into something coherent.

Johnn: How to you deal with ideas once they've been captured?

Brandon: It is very important to catalog ideas properly, because you never know when you'll need an idea again. I have stacks and stacks of old ledger books of drawings and notes and scribbles and ideas going all the way back to junior high.

Good ideas are incredibly valuable, and you've got to keep track of them. I do go through mine regularly, and recycle the best ones every chance I get. I also have this running digital document to record ideas that, believe it or not, started off as a Word 95 document and has survived countless computers, laptops, hard drive failures and data transfers. That thing is almost 15 years old!

Wolfgang: I think Brandon's wrong on this one, at least for the way I work. I have old notebooks and old hard drives, and most of them are filled with junk. Most ideas are junk and are ephemeral, worth discarding when their time has passed. I open old notes and they are cryptic or just out of date. I'm no longer passionate about those ideas after a few months, usually.

And I find, frankly, that there are a LOT more ideas in the world than there is time to execute on them. The trick is to move quickly on the good stuff, and let go of all the dross.

Game Mastering Published Adventures

Johnn: As a designer, how do you envision GMs using your product? Do you think they should read through the whole adventure first? Should they make notes as they read - if so, what kinds of notes?

Wolfgang: They should read the whole thing if they have time, but if not, I tend to write setup/stats/fallout, so each encounter can be fairly self-contained. In many cases (like the Wrath of the River King or the Tales of Zobeck adventures), the pieces are modular enough to plug and play in anyone's campaign that is in roughly the right style or environment; the Feywild for Wrath of the River King, urban adventures for Tales of Zobeck.

What sort of notes? That depends very much on their GMing style and their players' style. Myself, I tend to highlight NPC names and motivations for roleplaying encounters, basic hp, AC, and my favorite tactical element of any combat encounter. For mysteries, I tend to highlight the crucial clue or information that ends a scene.

Johnn: If you were a GM who has From Shore to Sea in their hands for the first time, what should they do with it to get the best gaming sessions out of it?

Brandon: Like any adventure, GMs need to get a feel for the whole picture for the game they are about to run. They need immerse themselves in it, but at the same time try to not anticipate what the players are going to do so they don't make assumptions and get caught off guard.

Our best home games happen when the GM wrote the material himself, so when GMs pick up a published adventure, they need to know it that well. Get messy with it! Scribble notes all over it. They should underline the parts that really call to them and latch on to the roles and encounters they'll be enthusiastic about running and really make those parts shine.

Roll with any hiccups during play and try to react naturally if something goes off script. My goal as a designer is to provide a GM with an adventure that will run as if they wrote it themselves, and I always keep that in mind when I'm working.

Johnn: Will From Shore to Sea be available as a PDF, print, or both? Do you think GMs prepare differently based on whether they have a PDF or print version? If so, how?

Wolfgang: Patrons of From Shore to Sea get both a playtest PDF and the final published print, plus a PDF of the Sunken Empires sourcebook full of new monsters, ruins, and spells for Pathfinder gaming.

I prepare from both print and PDF most of the time. I prefer PDF on the road and print at the table.

Taking Advantage of Open Design Patronage

Johnn: Let me now be one of those interviewers who hogs all the camera time to ask long questions and then answers their own questions in the process. That's my favourite kind of interview.

Being an Open Design customer, or patron as it's officially known, offers gamers a lot of opportunities not found elsewhere. I'm not sure if people realize this is not just an adventure they're buying. They get in on the ground floor of design, can chat with you through the Open Design customers-only blog, can chat with other customers, can read your design insights and thinking-out-loud blog posts, and can vote, discuss, and change the module as it's being developed.

As someone who would eventually GM the finished product, this support and interaction offers unprecedented opportunity to run an amazing campaign. What advice would you give customers on how to leverage Open Design to make From Shore to Sea a hit-out-of-the-park, all-time-best, slobberknocker campaign with it?

Brandon: Well, you did really nail the answer already! Patrons have the opportunity to take part in every aspect of the design, and they should take full advantage of it. They really do have front row tickets to the whole show. They'll know exactly why things are done the way they are, and the best ways to circumvent problems that might arise when they finally run it.

Trust me, patrons have already picked the thing apart looking for holes and inconsistencies in brainstorms, collaborations and playtests. By the time a patron has a finished product in hand and is ready to run it, they know the adventure inside and out, especially if they are active on the boards.

And, more often than not, active patrons can flip through the adventure and say "that was my idea" or "I contributed that!" So, it comes down to familiarity, which is what anyone running a published adventure needs to strive for with anything they plan on running.

So, what better way to be intimately familiar with From Shore to Sea than to actually take an active part in creating it from the ground up? It is an incredible opportunity and an awesome experience.

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Johnn: Thanks for the interview and advice, guys! Also, thanks very much for the ongoing Roleplaying Tips support.

Tips readers, learn more about From Shore to Sea.