May 05, 2021 4 min read 10 Comments
"Imagine first, design second."
One of the web's most notorious adventure reviewers had agreed to talk to me about a project of mine that felt dead in the water. We were halfway through a video call when, out of nowhere, he looked up and told me with oracular clarity that that was the problem with the adventure I was writing.
It seemed like a revelation to both of us at the same time. I blinked in surprise.
"Imagine?" I said. "Like, imagine the space? The combats?"
"All of it," he said. "What you're doing here is designing. And it's not bad, it's just... boring. The adventure itself feels flat."
These were the words I needed to hear. I knew something was off with the writing, but I was struggling to put my finger on it.
The project had other things going for it, thankfully. Strong layout, punchy art, interesting monsters. But good cake ingredients don't always make a good cake.
It began to dawn on me where I had gone wrong. I'd been trying to juggle mechanics, pacing, monster design, space design. And throughout all of it, I had neglected to really imagine the space and sink my teeth into what was exciting about it!
I'd reduced the dungeon to a mechanical series of encounters, traps, fights, and treasure caches. And although it had technical merit for those elements, it didn't actually have thrill, vibe, or color.
"You're right," I groaned. I laughed at how easy the problem was to see in hindsight. "So... how do I fix that?"
This reviewer, who has been called incredibly cruel by people who do not like critique, went on to give me some of the kindest and most thoughtful advice I've ever received.
For the record, if you can't take feedback gracefully (even when it's harsh), you aren't ready to be a publisher. This is a fear we all face, and rather than shrink away from it, you can confront it yourself by seeking out the harshest feedback you can find and learning to separate the trolling from the truth.
After my talk with the reviewer, I had a sense of relief I wasn't expecting. During our conversation, I resolved to continue tinkering with the adventure as a way to hone my writing while also deciding not to publish it.
I thought I'd feel disappointed about putting this one in the "Don't Publish, Ever" drawer, but it was just the opposite; I was ready to jump into new things that sparked my interest and excitement, which this project lacked.
And what advice did the reviewer give me? I'll distill it below, along with my personal observations that line up with what he and I discussed.
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How can you detect when you're making the mistakes I did in writing a lifeless adventure? Here are some signs:
1. You can't name at least three things you're excited to write about in your adventure.
2. You sit down to write and can't clearly imagine the space in which the adventure is happening.
3. You feel like you could accomplish the exact same material you're writing by using random dungeon generation tables.
If you run into any of the above dreaded issues, take heart! You can take steps to remedy a lifeless adventure or extricate yourself from the pain. Here's what I ended up doing:
1. Accept that you're going to write some duds once in a while. This is my job, and I still wander down fruitless creative paths on a regular basis. Don't beat yourself up.
2. Consider setting this project aside and starting fresh, or at least rolling back what you have and coming at the adventure from an entirely new angle. Don't do this just because the writing is tough; do it only when your heart isn't in the work.
3. In either case, realize that you need to engage your imagination first, and come at your project brimming with enthusiasm and strong images in your mind. To find that enthusiasm, start a new research cycle:
4. Accept that even with excellent writing, you'll have to do hard work and difficult polishing to get it just right. Still, this should never feel like endlessly pulling teeth. If something is painful to work on, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, it might be time to move on.
5. Don't write to tropes, genres, or expectations of how something "should be." I went wrong on this with my above failed project. I was writing a more Old School-style adventure, and I thought that meant "simple and straightforward." Wrong! Three giant rats in a rubble-strewn room is not exciting anymore, even if it may have been novel 40+ years ago. We can do better and imagine bigger.
Finally, a few parting words.
Before you begin writing, you must see the titanic, black-glass mountain towering overhead like a rearing leviathan. You must smell the sultry jungle mist, redolent with flowers and the stench of nearby corpses. You must feel the rat bones pop beneath your boots as you stalk across the damp flagstone into the vine-draped halls of the monkey god.
Only then are you ready to add a Dex save to avoid falling into a 10-foot deep pit trap.
Imagine first, design second.
Header art by Tithi Luadthong / shutterstock.com
June 23, 2021
Hi Geoff! Wanted to reply to your most recent question, but my blog is apparently not fancy enough to do a direct reply, hahaha!
To answer your question about random tables, it’s a bit of a balancing act in using them. I absolutely use roll tables to generate large-scale ideas, villains, hooks, and themes, but I stop short of using random tables to populate rooms (at least in adventures I’m planning to publish) or make decisions about pacing, combat, and social interactions. When I say you don’t want your adventure to feel “randomly generated,” I mean on a ground-level scale.
So I’d recommend against rolling on random dungeon generation tables for room contents and monsters (unless you’re working completely on the fly and have no other option), because it will start to give your adventure an arbitrary feel, and if the pacing works, it will be due purely to luck rather than planning or design.
I hope that helps clarify it!
June 23, 2021
Hi, Kelsey. I just re-read this and I noticed that you say that If your adventure feels like you could have come up with it using random tables, it’s probably not going anywhere, and then in the research cycle, you suggest using random tables. Can you elaborate on how those are different aspects of this process?
May 07, 2021
The only scenario I ever had published (in a 90s magazine called Australian Realms) fell foul of this…I was so enamoured of the basic concept (let’s say zombie ship a decade before Pirates of the Caribbean) that I didn’t bring the fun. By the time the editor and I were grappling with these problems, the publication deadline was upon us and we could only do cosmetic fixes.
May 06, 2021
Bryce always did seem like an old softie deep down somewhere. Thanks for the article!
May 06, 2021
Wise words from a perceptive sage. Imagination is everything, it is the pulsing heart of the game that we play. Creative vision, resourcefulness, and inventive insight, just some of the principle elements of the formula for what later will evolve as the final crescendo of our innovative piece. But that is what we strive to accomplish, to create a door between reality and imagination, a fine permeable fabric where one can temporarily pass and engage the creative genius of our minds for the most memorable of games. Is that mentally dangerous, of course it is. To traverse between what is reality and what is fantasy, sometimes the line can blur. But Hey, what is life without a little intrigue, romance or charm. As artists, writers, creators, we are privileged with creative license to do so. Just remember the words of Albus Dumbledore " “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Great piece, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
May 05, 2021
This is such a generous piece. Thanks, Kelsey!
May 05, 2021
Such great advice! The heart and soul of any role-playing adventure is our imagination–our willingness to suspend disbelief and lose ourselves in the world the GMs and DMs reveal to us.
May 05, 2021
That’s really good advice – I’m going to write “Imagine first, design second.” on the wall above my desk.
Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and shelve the whole thing. I don’t mean ‘bin it!’ though. Sometimes and idea occurs later that you can see how it will work – time to pull out that set of notes again.
But there’s no sense in hammering on an idea that’s dead in the water at the moment. Move on, and come back later once you’ve had chance to “Imagine.”
May 05, 2021
A great article, very insightful, I’ve been there,
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October 29, 2021
One of my biggest inspiration sources for imagining combat encounters in particular is music. I listen to a lot of instrumental stuff, and sometimes a piece will grab me. I imagine it’s part of a film score, and I’ll start sketching out a scene I think fits the song.