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
- 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.
- Don’t worry about your messy handwriting.
- 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.
- Write fragments when what you have is fragments.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Steal, steal, steal! By keeping your hand-crafted creativity within your private game world, you can borrow shamelessly and with impunity from other sources.
- 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.
- 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.
- You won’t run out of pages because you can always get another notebook.
- 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.
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.