On the Terrible Tragedy of Adventures

Since I've begun my journey of self-employment, I've been investigating things out of a desire to stave off the pendulum of entropy. What keeps my bank account from degrading?

So this leads to some investigating into what sells and why. I've been producing these art-heavy designed modules in the form of Megadungeon. We're somewhere around 200 rooms in 3 issues? So that's easily 40 or 50 hours of play. The art is helpful and necessary, providing tools for the Dungeon Master to run the module quickly, enabling his own personal skill at running games. But it's not narrative. It's an adventure environment with lots of useable tools and widgets.

But the problem is, people aren't interested in modules to run. Gabor Lux says:
"People know and it is blatantly obvious that most of the adventures out there which are being published are not being thought to be played or run. They are reading materials. . . A lot of people just read it as sort of a fiction and maybe as a source of indirect inspiration to get the examples and ideas." He continues, "That's where a lot of adventures fail, . . . is that they are not written with games in mind but with reading material in mind. They are bits and pieces and cannon. You can never even run them because it's a railroad and it would fall apart in your hands, but people buy it for their shelves or for daydreaming about being gamers."
This isn't difficult to tell. It's part of the insight I had while writing the Gygax module comparison. The modules are written so that the twists are hidden. That way the reader experiences surprise when it's revealed. As a tool, do I want such an important detail deep in the text?

And that's it really. I was eating with family and friends, and one said "I didn't enjoy it when I played D&D in the army." I perked up and immediately drilled down. "Why?" He said, "All they do is go from one fight to the next."

It's easy right? You're busy, no time to prep. Everyone wants to play, just follow though the dungeon, read the text and fight the fights. There. You played D&D.


There's no way all the adventures that are sold are played. I play D&D a couple of times a week and have campaigns that run 50-80 sessions with people I've known for years, but most people don't. You'd have to play a lot to get through all that. Dragon Queen and Tiamat took upwords of 50 weeks. Long past the publication date of the next two 5e releases.

Joseph Manola says on his blogAgainst the Wicked City:

 "Bryce often points out that the vast majority of adventure modules are written in a way which makes them almost useless for their supposed purpose of 'running a game in real-time at the table'. This is so obvious, and so trivially demonstrable, that its continued persistence strongly indicates that this is in fact not what most adventure modules are being used to do, and probably not even what most of their purchasers want them to do, even though it's exactly what most of their authors assert they are actually for.
"RPG books written like novels proliferate not only because many people have no idea how to write useable adventure modules, but because that's precisely how they will be read by a large segment of their target audience. For such readers, reading the book, and imagining what the experience of playing it at the table might be like, takes the place of actually playing the game.

Bryce the erudite reviewer at 10 foot pole who searches the sewers for diamonds says:
"No one wants the wrong thing. I would say that it's easy to go with the flow. Adventurer's League, show up on Wednesday night and play. WOTC pushes an adventure to the DM every week, almost no prep. And if you try and run something NOT Adventurers League, or D&D, or the most current version of D&D, then you face additional hurdles. I'm not sure that 'Apathy' is the right word, but a lot (a majority?) of folks are happy enough. I'm guessing that just enough of their sessions have just enough fun to keep them strung along, as they chase the high. It takes effort to seek out something different. It takes effort to get out of your comfort zone. When I'm at my best I want every thing in every day to always be awesome, and everything else isn't worth my time."
It's a little bit like enlightenment. One commenter on a thread said, "Surely lengthy published adventures/campaigns have to be broadly railroad by design, however well disguised that is." Because he's never seen blue, it's not possible for blue to exist. Can you describe color to a blind man?

The problem with this is, Megadungeon, and other things that are designed as tools to be used at the table are both a lot more work then a linear series of fights and not nearly as fun or interesting to read. Great, gripping, narrative literature it ain't. It's a tool to hold in your hand so you can run a game.

The list of platinum items on DriveThruRPG isn't filled with art objects. The majority of the platinum sellers are some core books, but there's a lot of items from Raging Swan Press and other small-press blog post like releases. 2$ for guildhall urban dressing. 4$ for "What's this Exotic Mount Like, Anyway". All of these type of aids lacking covers, and almost art free, and contain about 1,000-3,000 words of content. That's what's selling.*

But because it's designed as a tool for play, and isn't as enjoyable to read, it's less appealing to the majority of people who buy modules. And really, if that's what they want, we should give it to them, right?**

*I am not casting any aspersions on Raging Swan Press. Bully on Craig for finding success.
** Obviously not, it is a labor of love, but I'm going to have to slow down the pace because it takes each issue quite a while to earn back the art costs from producing it.

Do you like Megadungeon? If you support me or tip me it will help me continue to produce it! Also, there's HD ready maps for Virtual Table Tops available on the Patreon!

Hack & Slash 


  1. I think even the old AD&D modules were mostly read for entertainment and inspiration rather than used in play. I agree that it creates conflicting incentives for the authors to try to create something that can be used for both purposes.

    I'm not really familiar with the 5e adventure release schedule. I run a homebrewed B/X megadungeon myself. But, I am playing in a 5e game via roll20.net using the Tomb of Annihilation adventure. It helps that we have a good "old school" DM that runs it as a sandbox hexcrawl and lets us get into all sorts of trouble. Some sessions have been combat heavy and others we manage to avoid most of the fights. It's my only experience with 5e so far, but so far it doesn't feel like too much of a railroad or too much "walk to the next fight, repeat".

  2. I found that when I tried running Storm King's Thunder, it was just like playing in a novel. There was too much plot and too many characters for me to wrap my head around. I felt that the writers had a definite series of events that had to happen (very railroady). However, my feelings could be because I've never liked running adventures in any of the campaign settings (Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms).

  3. I run a lot of 'rail-roady' adventures (stacks of old Dungeon Mags, bits a and pieces I find online, etc). It's pretty trivial to break the railroad before you bring it to the table. I use them more as an aid, but if I can't find something in the wall of text, I make it up. It helps that I have a pretty good memory, but it also helps that I've read and re-read a lot of the material, in bits and pieces, over many years. So when it comes time to mash up three or four different half-baked adventures on the fly, it all kinda clicks into place. Or falls apart stupendously.

    Example: I ran the first installment to the Age of Worms adventure path, an adventure called 'the Silver Skeleton,' AND another adventure called 'the Devil Box' all at the same time. Individually they're kinda weak in places, but taken all together it's a kind of sandbox. And then I added some stuff with unique traps, and showdowns at high noon, and long cons gone awry, and it was pretty great.

    So I don't think it's an either/or thing, in every case. People do use those things for reading, yes, but it's not just idle daydreaming. It's a kinda ADD way of prepping things to run at the table, it's something that's accessible as training wheels for novice DM's to IMAGINE what DMing would be like before they sit down with the players, it's good for experienced DMs who can retain and filter and ad-lib around that information. Is it my favourite format? No, but....

    ok this is taking longer than I thought, maybe I'll just make it my own blog post lol

  4. I agree pretty much 100% with Melan's "usefulness" perspective. I need things that are easy to use at the table, and I don't want things that are simply evocative. I liked the Maze of the Blue Medusa for a while, but discovered it's just too cumbersome for enjoyable play. For me, it's not a good OSR book. (It probably actually is a good OSR book for many people - even in actual play. It's just too hard for me to use in a hurry.)

    Now, add this: I love your blog. It's among the best RPG blogs. There are only two other blogs I can honestly say MIGHT be equal to it.

    So, from that, you might think I'd be in your target audience, right? I am! However, I did not know that the book would be a good fit for me.

    You wrote: "We're somewhere around 200 rooms in 3 issues? So that's easily 40 or 50 hours of play. The art is helpful and necessary, providing tools for the Dungeon Master to run the module quickly, enabling his own personal skill at running games. But it's not narrative. It's an adventure environment with lots of useable tools and widgets."

    I had no idea this was the case until I bought Megadungeon. This is the best marketing I've seen for it so far. The above paragraph would have totally sold me on it (because I would have believed it) as soon as I saw it.

    Instead, here's what happened at the time Megadungeon 1 came out.
    1. I saw you made a zine and got excited.
    2. I tried to find out what it contained and discovered very little.
    3. I decided to wait until I understood if it would be useful for me.

    So, I put off buying it until I happened to see reviews that led me to believe it was for me. I bought both issues recently.

    Anyway, my point is this: I think you need to make certain that the people who will benefit most from the zine know exactly why they would benefit from it and have a sense of how much they would benefit. You need reviews *before* the thing comes out, if possible, and you need a way to ensure people see previews of the best parts of the thing.

    Word of mouth is powerful in this scene. Anyway, that's my perspective.

    You do good work. I hope you continue, that you find profit, sustainability, and health. You've contributed notably to a very positive part of my life. Thanks.

  5. So, something that how in the movie trailers sent out before the audience even can see the movie in theaters say things like:

    "Rolling Stone gives it two thumbs, way, way up"?


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