Writing and playing adventures

What’s on your bucket list? Going sky diving? Traveling to Europe, or Australia, or Africa? Climbing Mount Everest? Going to Mars, or to the moon, or at least going into space? Yesterday I listened to a podcast (Naked Astronomy) that talked about colonizing Mars and how many people would be there by 2024 (Elon Musk’s goal) or 2030 or 2050. The same podcast episode also talked about space tourism and how you could spend a few million dollars for a few minutes in space. All you need is money. I suppose that’s true for a lot of things on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

I wish my bucket list was that simple.

Maybe that makes it sound like money isn’t an issue for me and that I have piles of the stuff hidden under my mattress or stashed away in a secret Swiss bank account. I don’t. Sometimes I wish I had, but when I really think about it I realize that money won’t buy the thing that’s at the top of my bucket list: writing and playing adventures.

When I say that writing and playing adventures is at the top of my bucket list I don’t mean that it’s my most important goal in my life. And I don’t mean that it’s something that would happen at some well-defined moment, like reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It’s an ability that I want to acquire.

You might agree that the writing part is not easy and is not something that money could buy, but surely there are plenty of opportunities to play adventures, without even spending money. Not really. I’m hard to please. Out of the millions of games that are on the App Store and in Google Play, I have only found a few that I’ve played more than two or three times.

As for tabletop role-playing games, I have played in various campaigns and adventures that I liked. I’m even playing in a good campaign now, although it’s kind of an on-again, off-again thing.

If I really put time and energy into it I could find some good adventures to play in, especially since it’s now possible to play role-playing games over the Internet with virtual tabletop software. But even though playing adventures is part of my top bucket list item, it’s not the most important part. Writing is the most important part. Making adventures. Creating them.

I have written a few adventures that I liked reasonably well. I’ve started writing a whole lot more, more than I like to think about. But they’ve all fallen short of what I expect from a good adventure.

What makes a good adventure? I’m glad you asked.

First of all a good adventure has decisions. That’s what separates games, and role-playing games in particular, from books and movies.

Playing a good adventure makes a good story. The Angry GM’s definition of an adventure is “the smallest segment of a role-playing game that can be considered a complete and satisfying story.” Of course, that raises the question of what makes a good story, and that’s a big question.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about what makes stories work. It’s a fascinating and difficult topic in its own right, but what makes it even more fascinating and difficult for me is how to take the things that I read and learn about stories and relate them to adventures.

One of the most important things to get right in stories is the characters. Kendall Haven, emphasizes that in his book Story Smart. In another book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey advises screenwriters to write simple stories about complex characters. He’s talking about movies, as opposed to novels or other forms of storytelling, but I consider it to be excellent general-purpose advice. If only I could do it.

Creating good characters in role-playing adventures can be tricky because often combat plays a big part in such adventures and combat often means that the character I worked so hard to create is killed in battle at the end of the adventure.

Speaking of combat, for some players that’s the be-all and end-all of role-playing games. I like having a good battle or two in an adventure, especially if there are interesting tactical decisions to make, but combat is less important to me than other aspects of adventures.

I love mysteries (as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog) so for me a mystery can make a great adventure. Or a mystery make an interesting subplot or component of an adventure. I suppose I could have been less specific and said “puzzles”, but “mysteries” sounds a lot better. One reason is because a mystery almost always means there are story elements involved: setting, characters, and plot, whereas a puzzle might have nothing to do with a story.

Whether it’s a “mystery” or a “puzzle” there’s one essential ingredient: clues. Saying that something is a mystery or a puzzle means that there’s unknown information, and that by itself is as likely to be frustrating as it is to be interesting or entertaining. But throw in some intriguing clues and you’ve got me hooked. That’s one of the reasons why I like debugging computer programs: the challenge of recognizing the clues and using them to track down and fix bugs.

One of my big gripes with traps in adventures is when there aren’t any clues about the trap. You either walk into it or you don’t. If you walk into a trap with no clues you get annoyed and frustrated and it detracts from the adventure. If you don’t walk into it you don’t know it exists and it doesn’t add to the adventure. On the other hand, if there are clues about the trap, and you put them together and figure out the trap, then you get a sense of accomplishment that adds a lot to the adventure.

Last and least are props and scenery. I say “least” because they are definitely secondary to decisions, characters and other story elements, clues, and even battles. And some people will argue that good verbal descriptions are as good as pictures. And there’s evidence for that in the fact that books are still popular even though there are movies and other visual and audio forms of entertainment.

But a good map can add a lot to an adventure. So can a hand-written poem or riddle on a scorched piece of parchment paper. Or a pouch of gems.

Some people like to improvise adventures and can do it well. But those improvised adventures are not likely to have maps and pictures and props so they aren’t as good as they could be.

So, I don’t need ten million dollars to cross off the top item on my bucket list. I just need adventures with interesting decisions, complex characters, intriguing clues, a battle or two, and some maps and props. Easy, right? I wish.

Compensated links to amazon.com:
Story Sense by Paul Lucey
Story Smart by Kendall Haven

About the Angry GM
Here’s a (non-compensated) link to the Angry GM’s article about what adventures are. Keep in mind that “Angry” means “swears a lot”. A lot of the swear words have been partially replaced with comic-style punctuation marks. Even so, I would like the site a lot better if it weren’t so angry. You have been warned.
The Angry GM’s article about what adventures are