Monday, August 15, 2022

Starting Equipment Packages in Older Games

When new D&D characters are created, you know how the players can be stuck for a long time shopping for starting gear. Yes, that is a drag, especially for new players who often have little idea what each new piece of equipment is for. What are iron spikes for? The delay to the beginning of play can be boring for players expecting to dive right into adventure.

The Prismatic Wasteland blog has an interesting post about different methods for determining starting equipment expeditiously.

P.W.'s post also gives a link to Necropraxis' post from ten years ago in which an excellent table is provided for determining starting equipment packages for OD&D characters. The higher you roll on 3D6, the better the package of gear, with one column per character class.

Inspired by Prismatic Wasteland, this post is just an addendum about the rules lineage of "starting packages" of equipment. I have some notes about earlier RPG rules that addressed the problem of starting equipment by assigning packages.

Maybe new attention to old models will inspire new approaches. It also illustrates how many early games that are not D&D provide much of the basis for all kinds of RPG play today including what is current in D&D 5e. Again and again, you can find that games other than D&D blazed a trail for practices that are mainstream today. The history of D&D can't be told only as the story of D&D editions in series.

Equipment Packages for New PCs in Early RPGs

Early D&D tournament modules often included pre-generated characters. Some of these had assigned equipment lists, especially when pre-generated characters were higher than level 1. I'm not talking about pre-generated characters here, but equipment packages made for starting PCs.

The earliest equipment packages by character background I can think of are from RuneQuest 1e (1978), one of the most successful early alternatives to D&D. In RQ 1e, if your character is a peasant, townsman, barbarian, poor noble, or rich noble (randomly determined with a percentile roll), you started with slightly different basic gear. To give just a few examples, barbarians would have "riding gear" whereas peasants had a "drinking skin," among other items. These bits of gear were just as much for flavor and characterization as utility, it seems, and they were not complete lists of equipment. It was simple, but this seems to be the start of this sort of equipment allotment by character type.

RuneQuest was also the root of "slot-based encumbrance," as JC pointed out to me here (in the comments).

In RuneQuest 3e (1984), the starting packages were developed further to correspond with culture (Primitive, Nomad, Barbarian, Civilized) + profession (which varied by culture). Examples are "Farmer, Barbarian" and "Thief, Civilized." With this edition, each Cultural Occupation had a detailed equipment list of its own. The appearance of a separate equipment list for each character sub-type has proved to be influential until today.

In 1985, Dragon Warriors did something similar to RuneQuest 1e, but even simpler. For example, Knights and Barbarians (two of the character classes) have different starting gear. Little variations give flavor: Knights start with plate armour whereas Barbarians start with chainmail armour.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1e) in 1986 had "Trappings" that went with each starting profession, which was determined randomly. Even within the lists of Trappings, some items were randomized. For example, a character who is a Bodyguard has a "50% chance of shield." The idea that fantasy characters started from humble professions that they left behind took off in RuneQuest 3e and in WFRP, a model still emulated today.

(The idea of background professions and trade skills in character creation goes back to The Empire of the Petal Throne, published 1975. This feature was already in the original manuscript circulated in Spring 1974. These backgrounds did not confer starting equipment but implied skills. If your character was originally a baker, grocer, or sailor, that implied certain kinds of in-setting knowledge. AD&D 1e emulated this background profession table.)

The Talislantan Handbook did like WFRP in 1987. Here we see dozens of fantastic "Character Types," which are basically race/ethnicity + profession bundles as character templates. Each comes with a list of "Equipment/Possessions" and "Wealth." Manra Shape-Changers and Sauran Dragon Riders and Danuvian Swordswomen each have distinct lists of Equipment.

I'm sure I'm leaving other examples out, but this is the early rules lineage of starting equipment packages and random equipment such as we find in Into the Odd and its offshoots like Maze Rats and Cairn. Electric Bastionland's starting "Failed Careers" are a parallel with the earlier Character Types of Talislanta but, in tone, more like WFRP 1e.

Necropraxis' more recent innovation (linked to above), with the OD&D revival of the last decades, was to randomize equipment lists within each class, instead of the original D&D practice of randomizing cash to be spend on custom equipment lists.

The makers of D&D 5e surely knew RuneQuest, WFRP, etc., when they created personal backgrounds that came with starting equipment packages.

Anyway, starting packages have their roots in the late '70s and took off in the mid-'80s.

Alternatively, make your own equipment cards

One fun method of randomizing starting equipment, particularly in classless character creation, is simply to make cards representing individual bits of equipment. You don't need anything fancy. Just write the names of articles of equipment on blank index cards. Throw a few really special or precious items in there, like single-use magical gizmos. If that's too much work, have your players take a few minutes with you to make such cards quickly together on the basis of published equipment lists. Then the players draw a certain number of cards as the Referee decides. You can even randomize the number of cards they get to draw: 1D6 equipment cards, for example. The players write the items they draw in their equipment list, or just hold onto the cards for starters, and you start to play.

Random equipment lists are raw material for background stories. Why does your character have a shovel and a bucket and a blast of wind magically trapped in a glass bottle? Players can have fun making sense out of random gear.

You could just write whole packages of equipment on individual cards. Players draw one card each and that's their entire equipment list. Then you dive right into play.

By this method, players select equipment cards and avoid duplication of rare or unique items or gear.

Using cards to distribute starting gear avoids the need to have everybody share an equipment table for reference, like that one page in the rulebook where all the equipment costs are listed.

I never read it, but it looks like the Index Card RPG has a similar process.

If you know of starting equipment packages in RPGs prior to RuneQuest 1e in 1978, or if you have other early examples that I'm forgetting or overlooking, please leave a comment.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Commodification of Fantasy Adventure Games

Commodification Signifies Value

My son recently introduced me to some card games that he learned from friends this summer. He taught me the rules orally on the spot, and then we played; he had learned the rules orally from friends; his friends who taught him had learned the rules orally. There was no game book to study, no examples of play to read. It was just rules transmitted as folklore and a deck of cards. We didn’t need to buy a rulebook to play. (He easily beat me every time.)

Now imagine these two different attempts to recruit young players to fantasy role-playing games.

In one attempt, you pass around colorful, glossy D&D books and tell them you are going to play Dungeons & Dragons, a game played by millions of players over the last fifty years. The new players see and appreciate the fantastic art on every page of the lavish hardback books. They see that you have invested at least a hundred dollars on these books. The art communicates genre expectations to them faster than you can speak. Even though it is so complex that they can’t understand it all at once, they see that rules are codified in a system attempting to accommodate whatever they might meaningfully attempt to do in the game. They trust that the rules are legitimate as they are in print. The character sheets themselves are commercial products with fancy computer-designed layout.

In the other attempt, you hold up a notebook and tell the new players that they are going to play a fantasy role-playing game, something you designed in line with a gamer subculture. As with a card game, there are no books to learn from. This is a game you imagined, with rules you wrote yourself, and you will have to teach them what they need to know. The only codification is the notes you wrote in a notebook and what is in your head. You have no artwork to show them. They rely entirely on your oral description of things in the setting to assemble any genre knowledge that they might apply. You drew a map of the imaginary world by hand, and you show them your amateur design. They know that the peoples of this fantasy world are just things you made up. The rules are apparently your arbitrary fabrication.

In the former situation, your purchase and use of a commercial product inspire trust in the players. They know that they are participating in a large culture associated with a flourishing entertainment company supported by many, many other enthusiasts. The larger the subculture, the less stigmatized it is likely to be. The game cost money and its physical and artistic production required effort, and has been tested by others, so it must be valuable—regardless of the quality of play.

In the latter situation, the players must trust that you, somebody they know personally, made a good game. It cost nothing and looks like nothing, so its value is inherently dubious. It seems weirder and more private. You’re asking the players to make a big investment of time on something that may turn out to be less than fun. There is no commodification to signify that it will work.

I can tell you from experience that kids new to fantasy role-playing games will choose, every single time, to play D&D, with its shiny books, over my scribbled house rules, with my lone testimony that my rules are better.

Even if it wasn’t fancy Dungeons & Dragons books, but some other obscure FRP book publication, new players will choose the published item over an idiosyncratic, personal game every time.

That is the power of commodification of games and fun experiences.

When I played cards with my son, all we needed was just a cheap deck of cards. It was almost free. The only way we could have made the game more expensive would be to gamble over who would win. That would literally add value to our play and raise its status.

Yet I remember my friend Ben and his own fantasy role-playing game. He had own rules, drew his own maps and pictures, and not one single commodified article in his game. We played in it for well over a year and it was one of the freshest games I ever enjoyed as a player.


Copyrighted Subculture and Marketed Sociability

When Daniel Dayan wrote a review essay of Gary Fine’s now-classic RPG study Shared Fantasy, appearing in the American Journal of Sociology in 1986, he addressed the matter of commodification of fantasy.

The essay is entitled “Copyrighted Subcultures.” Dayan had a lot of interesting things to say.

The essay as a whole shows that Dayan did not quite understand fantasy RPGs. He was pleased with Fine’s book (the occasion of the essay, a positive review) but complained that wanted to know more from the book about the contents of the role-playing fantasies, which he calls “its modalities.” He recognized that the popularity of fantasy RPGs had something in common with “recent Hollywood productions,” referring to Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, in which “one notices over the last 10 years a consistent reorientation of interest in accordance with the demography of a new film-going public, largely composed of adolescents and young adults,” “made very deliberately with such a public in mind.”

“One wonders,” he adds, “whether the games and films draw from the same sources, or whether the films are transpositions of the themes proposed in the games, that is, translations of the games’ ethos into mass culture.”

I think at the time he wrote that, it was a matter of common sources, but that the history of RPGs since then has made the ethos of the games the source of mass culture. This deserves more study and comment, but not here.

I’m focusing here, instead, on what he has to say at the end of the essay, with boldfaced emphasis added by me:

two last remarks, which have to do with the stereotyping of fantasy worlds, that is, with the fact that the various gaming communities have to rely on predesigned fantasy sets. First, a player must choose from the line of products available in a given fantasy store. The possibility of shopping for one’s fantasy world is particularly interesting and paradoxical. The world of fantasy usually appears as private. Here, not only is it made public by being shared within a given community of players, but it is somehow legitimized by the fact of being displayed. Fantasy thus acquires some currency, a degree of social dignity. It is less an escape or a deviation from social life than a new basis for it.

The second remark concerns more specifically the possibility of commercially acquiring the ingredients of a “subculture.” The sale of fantasy games accentuates a movement that has already affected interpersonal relationships, since for some time these relationships have been mapped in an increasingly complex system of greeting cards, joking cards, or even semihostile cards, covering almost all occasions of everyday life and offering to an ethnographer (under the brand name Hallmark) an extraordinary insight into the models that underlie this mass-produced “etiquette.”

What is particularly noticeable in both cases is the marketing of forms of sociability. If indeed it is a subculture, fantasy role playing displays a striking anthropological originality: its modalities are copyrighted.

With the creation of fantasy RPGs as commodities, players began to participate in a public fantasy that was legitimized by its display in stores and in catalogues. The more commercialized RPGs have become, the more “social dignity” they have acquired, as Dayan put it, shifting from a weird and intensely private hobby of mostly male misfit dreamers to an entertainment industry sold to a broad, eager public with spare cash to spend on fun pastimes.

When games are commodified, the money they cost means that they are valuable socially and trustworthy as recognized sources of enjoyment. The more money involved, the less the stigma is likely to be. If they cost too much money, however, they will lose adherents. It is always a matter of setting the price just right.

At the time he wrote this, Dayan was a visiting faculty member at the University of Southern California. He probably did not realize that one of his colleagues at USC was Prof. J. Eric Holmes, the editor (author) of the first D&D Basic Set, published in 1977. I wonder if he would have seen things differently if he could have talked to Holmes.


Consumers or Creators?

Tim Kask was Gary Gygax’s early editor and amanuensis, the first employee hired on at TSR, where he worked from 1975 to 1980. He was instrumental in the production of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In 1981, in issue 5 (page 4) of Adventure Gaming, a journal he edited after leaving TSR, he published an editorial with the alarming title, “Is Imagination Dying?”

He had a problem with commercially produced adventure modules and settings.

During the last couple of months I have begun to notice something that I find vaguely disturbing. If my observations are representative of the hobby as a whole, FRP is losing something. More and more FRPers have never played in any adventure other than a commercially produced one.

He understands that commercially produced modules and settings do save time, but he thinks they have lost their function as mere examples and models that would give incentive to make one’s own, which is what he says he considered their primary purpose to be.

He complains,

Every game store that deals in FRP games is overrun by commercially produced modules. All too many of them are prepared to too great a degree. Too many of them have already set out the goals and determined the rewards before a single adventurer sets foot in them.

He asks,

If we have become a group of consumers where will the creators come from?

FRP has always been an exercise of imagination, creativity, and extemporaneous thought, but I feel that the first two are diminishing. Granted, many who play today might not if there had been no pre-prepared adventures in which to get their feet wet. But how many of them now realize that there is another way to go?

He ends with an exhortation:

I urge every GM to try his hand. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t feel that your effort will compare to a professional one. It doesn’t have to, you’re not a pro. The only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it. Designing your own adventures will provide you with a level of insight into the game that you will never truly experience by merely moderating somebody else’s operation.


These days, it seems that everybody wants to sell their house rules, or their home-made modules, even for just a few bucks. The quiet pleasure of home-made adventures for home use inherently keeps a low profile. Partly, I think, it’s just that we have the internet now. Even the laziest adventure writers can publish a pdf without so much as a spell-check. Publishing one’s stuff signifies that one is a creator instead of a consumer. You might enjoy the privilege of seeing your lovingly-designed fantasy game stuff dismissed in one of those blog reviews (sometimes brutally... or praised if you are their friend), even though the reviewer will never actually play what you published. And, who knows? You even might get interviewed in a podcast! And there is also the endless dream of living as a full-time hobbyist (even though game designers often do not get to play). But generally, putting a price tag on a game makes it socially real and legitimate in the ways described above, not just for others but also for ourselves. Only with $$$ does the fantasy of today become more than private. It became a part of mass culture when it cost money, a shared medium of exchange. Somehow, that is disappointing to a dreamer like me, as it was to Kask in 1981, yet one must acknowledge that the hobby would be much, much smaller and lonelier without this system of valuation of fantasy.

The only cure is actually to play, and (again, with Kask) the only thing that matters is that the players enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

On RPG Play-sytles, Part 3: Classic Playstyle versus Trad Playstyle versus OSR?

In April 2021, a fruitful essay appeared called "Six Cultures of Play," by blogger Retired Adventurer, receiving a lot of deserved attention. It seems to have established some terms for further and ongoing discussion since then.

In this entry I address the distinction construed there between the earliest two "cultures of play" and how they differ from what is known as the OSR (Old-School Revival).

The essay rightly calls the OSR "a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition." For some reason, this instance of the claim (which is true) seems to have registered with gamers who read this essay while earlier, similar statements did not.

One reason for the growing acceptance is that gamers who care about these things have begun to digest Jon Peterson's book of late 2020, The Elusive Shift (which I reviewed here). This book is leading even the most dogmatic and grumpiest OSR-aligned players to admit that the neat "old"/"new" distinction to which they have laid claim, in favor of the "old," is mostly spurious. The distinctions between the play-styles called "old" and "new" today were drawn already in the 1970s (not by those names and not so neatly), but simply forgotten since then, only to be reimagined as a new issue in this century.

Another part of the success of the distinction in the case of the "Six Cultures" essay is its simultaneous coining of two other non-negative terms for older styles of RPG play: "Classic" and "Trad(itional)." This gave substance to the distinction: there were two old ways to play that were not OSR. They could be named.

What were the two old styles, then? Retired Adventurer calls them Classic and Trad (Traditional).

He describes Classic play as challenge-based:

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly."

He states that Classic play was articulated around 1976, when Gary Gygax began to define modes of D&D play, revising his previously expressed idea that it was essentially a free-for-all, do-it-yourself game. He did this as he developed the idea of tournament-style, competitive D&D.

Retired Adventurer describes Traditional play, which he says came into being in the late '70s, as about narrative (story):

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision.

 I have encountered discussion in forums since this essay appeared trying to parse Classic and Trad play-styles and to come to grips with them. They sometimes seem to treat them as two mutually exclusive approaches to RPGs.

My conclusion is that, although it's useful in principle to distinguish challenge-based play and play motivated by a GM-authored background or story framework, the distinction of these two play-styles is not valid for the '70s (the period when it allegedly came into being). Retired Adventurer is definitely correct about the OSR (it really is a romantic reinvention), but Classic and Trad are not so easily distinguished at any time, least of all the 1970s. They coexisted inseparably because they designate activities connected to two simultaneous pleasures of RPGs.

In fact, players were interested in emotionally satisfying narratives from the start, and DMs were expected to be leading creative agents in the generation of an epic tale, with players also having a large role in that. How would I know? After all, I started late, in 1981. Well, we can listen to older gamers and what they have to say.

Take this recent interview, posted by Matt Thrower interviewed Stephen R. Marsh, who contributed to OD&D, AD&D, and the X of B/X D&D. The interviewer's article is written in roman type, and Marsh's words are in italics.

B/X as a system is still played today as part of what’s become known as the Old School Renaissance or OSR. It’s an approach to adventure role-playing that frames it as much as a challenge as a story. Character creation is fast and players are encouraged to enjoy the difficulty of weak stats and come up with clever solutions to traps and combat encounters. The DM, in turn, has to run the game as a fair adjudicator.

For Marsh, this is partly a question of practicality. ‘The actual old school way of play was so varied that it pretty much can encompass just about any style of play,’ he recalls. ‘At the same time, the Renaissance tends to be purer. That is, people tend to be much more likely to hold to the rule set rather than mix and matching, which was more common back in the day.’

Notice the discrepancy between the point of the article and the point Marsh is making.

The article is trying to make a point about the OSR, I suppose to distinguish it from 5e play at large today. The OSR is characterized here as being about challenge more than story. This is a distinction that is drawn today, but Retired Adventurer locates it as having emerged in the 1970s as Classic versus Trad. But if we look at what Marsh is quoted as saying, it contradicts this very point in the article in which it appears. Marsh said that there was no distinct "actual old school way of play." The OSR, he rightly notes, tends to focus on rules purity, but that does not reflect just how it was done in the old days. (This also underscores the truth that the OSR is new.) He says people played in all different ways in the old days. This seems to be in response to the proposal he was asked about, that old-school play was supposedly specifically challenge-oriented. The interviewer seems to have gone looking for support for the new "OSR" idea, got a polite "no such thing" in response, but used the statement, regardless, to support the point that it's not how most people play today.

The article continues with a quote from Dave "Zeb" Cook, the third full-time game designer hired at TSR.

Cook agrees. ‘I'm not sure anything is genuinely old school unless it is arguing about the proper way to play the game, he laughs. ‘Ever since the start of RPG's, groups have played the game differently. Everything from style to interpretations of ambiguous rules and homemade rules for all those holes created a range of different flavors.

There you have it from somebody who was there: nothing is genuinely old school, not even style of play. Only debates about play-styles are old-school, he quips--but those debates have never ceased, so they can't be merely old-school.

These remarks, coming from early player-designers who worked at TSR during its "Gygax years," should carry more weight than the internet musings of relative youngsters about what's really "old-school" or the romantic back-projections of the guys who were (like me) munchkins in those days.

 An early Classic/Trad distinction?

If there was no distinct old-time play-style, what about the Classic/Trad distinction? The idea that storytelling, characteristic of the alleged "Trad" play-style, was a later priority seems to be contradicted by other testimonies. Let's look at just a few.

One is a recent interview with Lawrence Schick, author of the fan favorite AD&D adventure module White Plume Mountain (S2, 1979). Schick reminisces about playing back at Kent State with Tom Moldvay (responsible for the 1981 Basic D&D set). Schick describes how he and Moldvay were increasingly interested in collaborative storytelling after spending hours preparing each session. He said,

One thing Tom and I discussed more and more as our campaigns evolved was the collaborative nature emerging from RPGs. The more we got into storytelling, the more we noted that the game story wasn't complete without the contributions of the players. We spent more time thinking about how to draw them in, get them invested, make them actors rather than reactors. These were lessons I carried with me to TSR, and on after that into video and computer game design.

Several of the characterizations of their play in the '70s described here run counter to the common conception of the OSR as well as an alleged early discrepancy between putative Classic and Trad styles of play. They conceived of their games as including storytelling, plain and simple. Referees painstakingly designed their worlds in advance, plotting ways to draw the players in, in the style of now-derided "auteur GMs." This is what Retired Adventurer calls "Trad," but here it occurs seemingly earlier, not in the wake of Dragonlance (as OSR-oriented D&D fans sometimes allege), but arising spontaneously among players who were engrossed in their games.

We can go back farther than that. A few months ago, I corresponded with a senior GM who began playing D&D in 1974, a few months after the game came out. He was a big part of the early West-Coast scene. (I leave his name out because I didn't ask for permission to cite him.) He ran games two nights per week straight from '74 onward, wrote a continuous stream of D&D 'zine articles, and eventually designed some RPGs himself.

I asked him specifically whether his games evolved gradually from games about challenges into storytelling. He told me that the story or background narrative and the idea that the campaign was an unfolding epic was there from the start:

I always had a background to my campaign.  As the players advanced, they started getting involved more and more in the politics and economics of the [dungeon name] area. The long-standing "bad guy" ... turned out to be the brother of the king who ruled [dungeon area] ... The players didn't find out about this until a good 5-6 years into the campaign, when they finally managed to capture [the bad guy] and turn him in to the [king's representative].  The epic tales were there from the beginning with mine -- and while I don't recall the details of them, just about every one of the other campaigns I ran in had their own backstories, legends and myths (either nearly from the beginning, or becoming clear to the players by the end of the first year or so).  It was a time of great adventure and creativity; it still exists, but the totally creative worldbuilders are a smaller percentage of the DMs now (there are probably just as many of them, but the total number of players has gone up so much, that they're a smaller percentage and perhaps harder to find as a result).

In light of these testimonies from players who were in college when D&D first came out and playing soon thereafter, and who played a large part in the early development of D&D, I think we cannot posit a historical distinction between "Classic," challenge-based play on the one hand and "Trad" play aimed at an emotionally satisfying narrative on the other as historically distinct schools of play, social groups, or modes of enjoyment. The two were not distinct.

It seems, rather, that all early D&D players were prone to discover emotionally satisfying narratives through the initial framework of a dungeon adventure that soon blossomed into a bigger campaign.

These were not separate or distinct cultures.

I suspect that players who experienced D&D solely as a series of challenges (if they existed) were ones who didn't play with one group for long, not an otherwise distinct social group. Early DMs normally designed settings for their games, spending many hours on their development.

I'm not saying that it's not useful to distinguish the cultivation of challenges in play from the cultivation of satisfying narratives. I'm saying that they were never separate. I think that the variety of enjoyment deriving from these games explains why they caught on as they did. It's the power of these games to please individuals in so many different ways that turned it into a thriving subculture phenomenon. And to this day, players debate peevishly, and short-sightedly, about which kind of fun is original or "right." Of course, there isn't any such thing.

In my view, the multiplication of RPG styles of play was immediate. That is, no two groups played D&D the same way, from 1974 onward. Yet they all blended different components inherent in the new kind of game. The first effort to regulate play-style for D&D was Gary Gygax's. It manifested as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Here I agree with Retired Adventurer, as I do about most aspects of his essay. But it's pretty clear that the characteristics of what he calls "Trad play" were simultaneous with the beginnings of D&D and didn't appear late in the '70s. The two were not separate.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Hand-Crafted Adventures

There was a period of years early in the hobby’s history when there were no adventure modules at all. In those days, everybody made their own adventures by hand—without computers. You can, too.

Lately I’ve returned to the quiet pleasure of developing hand-crafted adventures and setting materials on my own. I have no intention of sharing my materials with anybody but the players of my games. I draw on sources of inspiration both inward and outward, and a personal sense of vicarious wonder and adventure, to develop playgrounds for the players of my games. I rely on my experience running games and my observations of my players’ preferences, and I ignore what the critics and bloggers think is cool. My games are not about what’s trending in the scene, but about fun for my group. There is overlap but they are not the same.

By hand-crafted I mean just that. I write my notes and sketch my maps by hand. When I have a moment of inspiration I jot ideas down, not with a computer keyboard to be saved in a computer file, but with a pencil or pen, the way I did back in the 1980s and 1990s, before the internet was a basic utility. I’m not trying to make beautiful maps like the pros or clean layouts. These are my setting and situation designs, good enough for me to use in live play. They’re not pretty, but the players won’t see the maps, and I know what my own messy maps mean. The game emerges in live dialogue, not in my hand-written notes.

There are plenty of claims about the benefits that come from writing by hand for cognition, learning, and creativity. I don’t know if these claims are correct but drawing up adventure settings and scenarios by hand feels right. I’m happier with what I produce this way. I type much faster than I can write, so this is slower, but slowing down seems to help. I also focus better writing off-screen, without the constant pings and lures of the internet on the same screen where I type. It took a little time to find the right notebook for me. I am surprised at how much it helps to have something that I enjoy writing in.*

Suggestions for hand-crafting your own adventure game materials

  1. Find a notebook you really want to write in but that you won’t regret messing up. Don’t make your notebook sacred. Graph paper and dot matrix paper notebooks are versatile for mapping, too, but you may prefer an entirely blank page.
  2. Don’t worry about your messy handwriting.
  3. Jot down your ideas as they come. Whenever you have an idea for an interesting encounter, a location that inspires wonder, a cool object or vista, or a dilemma for players to enjoy, grab that notebook and write it down. Imagine interesting choices for players to make. Roads should fork, literally or figuratively. Invent clues and cues to help players decide between the options.
  4. Write fragments when what you have is fragments.
  5. Order is not entirely relevant when you write new ideas. Let it be a jumble if that’s how it comes out. You can reorganize later. Likewise, if you want to make random tables, jot down contents for them by hand. Notebooks are great for lists. You can type them up in a table and print it later, if you want, but start with handwritten notes.
  6. Don’t plan to publish anything. Focus on creating stuff that you will want to run for your actual players, not on impressing an impersonal internet audience that will probably never use what you create. Your maps and sketches can be messy lines. This is for you and for the benefit of your own players. If somebody wants to see your stuff, tell them to join your game. To hell with everybody else’s opinion. Writing adventures to please critics who won’t play them anyway is useless. Applying dogmatic design principles leads to bland uniformity eventually. If your players like it during play, you will all have fun and that’s the goal.
  7. You don’t need to write everything down. If you have it firmly in your mind, it doesn’t need to be written. What matters in the end is what emerges in play, not notes. Nevertheless, writing stuff down by hand often triggers new, connected ideas.
  8. Steal, steal, steal! By keeping your hand-crafted creativity within your private game world, you can borrow shamelessly and with impunity from other sources.
  9. Don’t save your good ideas for later. You won’t run out of them. Now that you have written them down, deploy them in a game at the first opportunity.
  10. Write something in that notebook every day if you can. It doesn’t have to be much. Something as simple as a list of objects found in a room will do. Some days you won’t have any distinct ideas, so just start doodling. Make writing down ideas a habit and don’t be afraid to use those doodles as solid game content.
  11. You won’t run out of pages because you can always get another notebook.
  12. Feed your mind off screen. Read paper books more and read on screen less. Go to any museums and galleries in your area. Go to the physical library and browse free books. Turn off your devices and finally read those books that have been accumulating on your shelf. I am sure that novels provide lots of ideas, but if you are developing situations and settings rather than storylines, I recommend nonfiction.
Soon you will have a stock of material that can be shaped into locations and situations to explore. It’s not difficult. Once you get going, the hard part is reining yourself in.

Do you need to craft adventures by hand? No! If you are happy with your creative expression through a keyboard and on screen, that’s fine. I’m a fan of typesetting, too. Use what works. Still, it can’t hurt to try to make a habit of hand-crafted adventure design. See what happens. Give it several days and you may see what I mean.

* Classy sketch books and gorgeously bound diaries seem too fancy for my scribblings. Cheap notebooks are too flimsy and uninspiring for me. I settled on the Field Notes 64-page “True Black” Note Book with dot matrix pages as the thing I want to write in. It’s sturdier and more inviting than a typical, generic notebook, but it’s just ephemeral enough that I don’t get the feeling that I have defaced a beautiful blank book if I decide I dislike what I’ve done on any particular page. The dot matrix is great for tunnel design and works for map scales. These notebooks are not so thick that I can’t fill them, either, so there is a sense of accomplishment when they are thoroughly used. They are compact enough to accompany me on errands or at work so that if I have ideas on the go, I can write them in a spare moment.