Saturday, April 7, 2018

How about a Style Guide to write adventures?

I have a couple of things in the air right now and the good news is, it's more and more gaming related work than work related work. Some of it hinted, some of it still to be announced, and then there is that one gig where I get to be editor of a rpg release! Good times, good times. We are taking our time with the thing and want to get it as right as right gets, hence the need for a style and construction guide ...


A few words before we get into the thing proper. This is about how you structure content and what to keep in mind when writing something like a module or adventure with a publication as the end game. Content is still what the author has to provide (and what might be problematic in its own way) and grammar or syntax are the least of my concerns.

The lines are blurry, though, and I believe that taking the guide seriously will also take care of most of the rest. In a way, if you work hard on getting on a page what you have in your brain, you'll consciously and carefully make an effort to get it done. So a style guide will give you a structure for your text that allows you to test your material on every level of resolution. In theory.
Anyway, this is what I came up with. Jay and I thought it might be useful for the community at large, so here we go:
Style and Construction Guide (Modules)

This is by necessity pretty rough, just presenting the outlines of how a rpg module or adventure can be structured. There’s of course a high degree of variation and abstraction possible, but it’s a good, simple base to fall back on if need be.

Style will be first, since it’s the shortest. However, it needs to be applied on every stage of writing. While structure helps a reader memorizing and sorting the different elements of a text, it’s style that keeps them engaged. In that style and construction fulfill two purposes that’ll help navigating the material when read and when used in the game. The third crucial element, content, is what the author brings to the table and won’t be featured here.

Things to consider when writing (Style Guide)

1. Always consider that the reader has never heard of any aspect you are describing. In other words, take nothing for granted and instead find ways to either explain an aspect properly or give pointers, where a reader could find additional information. If you talk rules, either quote them in full (if short) or give a reference where to find more information. Same goes for every aspect of a story or skill … well, everything. Always answer the questions How? and Why? while keeping it short and concise.

2. Show don‘t tell. That also a basic, but nonetheless often disregarded: details are what makes a setting tick. I don’t need to know that there is a market, I need to know what’s special about this one. If someone is important for the story, name him, give him traits (and stats, USR is simple enough to allow for that). Every detail you give can somehow be used in a game, generalization doesn’t do that for you. What smells the arena like? What poison is used? What does the princess look like? Little things, but all the time.

3. Keep it short and open room for the imagination. In other words, don’t get too specific about the moving parts of an adventure. Rather tell people how something works and let them figure out what potential a situation has. However, doing so at different levels of resolution (what happens now vs., for instance, what are the possible outcomes) means offering a collection of flexible frames to support the CK* in a way that using them manifests the story you imagined. In that sense, a collection of short and specific random encounters and locations will trump lengthy descriptions every time, especially if they also bring something interesting or special to the table. Avoid unnecessary and redundant text.

4. Adventures are specific manifestations of rules. You don’t just want to tell a story, you want to tell it through a very specific lens, and that would be the rules of the game you decided to use. If there is action, then there’s also always to consider how the game gets involved. Are there chances for different outcomes? Name them. Little sets of sub-rules for a specific scenario? Tell the reader how you’d do it with the rules you use.

The big picture (Construction Guide)


This is where you connect the reader with the material. You tell them in broad strokes what this is and what’s it about. It‘s the part of the module where you introduce some general ideas of how this can be played or what you imagine how it should be played. It’s where you tell the people how the material is structured. It’s also where you give people points of reference, like books, comics, games or movies they might want to check out to get an idea. It‘s where people decide if they explore a text further or not. The exposition, if you will.

Done right, it‘s where you hook the reader to invest more time and maybe use any of it in his games.

Main Part

How this is arranged strongly depends on the focus you imagine for the module and how big the whole thing is supposed to be. Look at the following elements A to D and decide a hierarchy for them, then go from most important to most detailed (mix, match and repeat, if necessary):

A. Setting: Where does the adventure take place? What characters are in it and what things are commonly known about it? What’s interesting, what’s strange, what’s useful? How does a CK bring it to live? Rumor and Random Encounter Tables are in that section.

B. Timeline: Is there a course of events important for the characters? Can the influence those events? How? What happens if they don’t and how would that manifest in the game? When describing events, go from a general description down to the necessary details. Offer rules and tools for the CK, if applicable. Weather would be here, too.

C. Factions: Who is or could be involved in the adventure/module and why? How can the players influence or interact with them? Also: consequences, dangers and benefits need to be assigned. Factions are best described going from groups to more detailed and important non player characters. Arrange all that in a hierarchy of importance (take single entities into consideration where applicable).

D. Aspects, Scenes & Locations: Usually a collection of short vignettes that aren’t covered anywhere else and might make the game more interesting. What interesting places are there that deserve more description than offered in A? What scenes are most likely to happen? It can also feature specific cultural elements that deserve further exploration. This is specific where A is general (a higher level of resolution, if you will) while being short enough to have a place in the main part instead of being put in the appendices.


You will always end up with a set of specific events and locations that need even more detail (highest level of resolution): dungeons, CK tools, tables to big or complex to feature in the main part, extensive sub systems (that also have value beyond what’s happening in the module, like for races or riots, for instance) or locations that either have a high possibility to get explored in depth or give a general impression of common feature characters might encounter (taverns, apartments, boats, and so on). This is where they are collected.

They always should be referenced to in the main part and they, also, should be sorted hierarchical (as applicable).
I think I covered all my bases here. Following the rules outlined above should have you end up with a good start, if not a finished product (it's mostly what I did for Monkey Business, if you need my take on it). Most of it will apply to writing in general to some degree or another (the fourth style advice could apply to genre instead of rules and so on). I hope it helps.
Content hierarchies, always the same [source]
That said, I'd be more than happy to get some opinions on this as well. Did I miss something crucial? Is there advice in there you think doesn't apply? Please share your thoughts, observations and opinions where I can find them, if you were so inclined.

* That's the Crypt Keeper, which is just another term for Dungeon Master (thought I'd clarify).


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head honestly. The idea of putting large tables in the back is smart. I always overthink world things and then to write too much. Ex a mystical island set in a magical portal, how does the portal work. That kinda stuff. Obviously that's a writing issue and not style thing. The few big modules I started working on I followed basically what you have laid out here, background, factions, important NPCs events etc.

    1. Thanks, Shane! Means a lot to hear something like this from a fellow blogger and successful DIYer :)

      The idea with the appendices is to allow some flow for the reader when reading it. If you have huge blocks of "something entirely different", it throws the reader off ... at least it's like that with all kinds of texts, so it should apply for modules, right? That said, there is a huge variety possible, you just need a structure to abstract from.

  2. Firstly, thank you for writing this. I am fairly well along into creating content for a 'mega city' that is feeling less like a locate for an adventure or three and more like a source book. I'm at a point where I want to do some serious editing and a simple search on duck duck go lead me to your site top of the page in search results - kudos!
    But when looking back on my days as a tech writer progressing into QA for web design, what I am reading in this post seems to me to be more of a Content Matrix and less a Style Guide - both important and both vital for publishing. Style Guide in that world was more about fonts, placement, colors, image size, hierarchy of headers, etc - stuff you would tailor the css to. Content Matrix was the actual content, and where it would be placed on a web site - alot of what you have created here.
    Have you taken this any further? And more generally, do you know if some of the mid to larger companies have templates for Content Matrix and Style Guides? I'm focusing on any OSR at the moment that I can begin to leverage.
    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks! Every industry does it somewhat differently, I think. I haven't heard it described as Context Matrix, for instance :) I will look into that, though. It's always interesting to check out how others are doing stuff. From what I gathered after a quick little research, it's a somewhat different perspective on content and seems to assume you are doing it right enough to achieve what is necessary in a content strategy (goal not process oriented, maybe?). The above tackles the content production a little before that, I think. Interesting, though. Thanks for the pointer!

      They all seem to have an idea what they want their content to look like, at least they have as soon as they can afford to pay an editor. The OSR (the whole scene in general, actually) seems to be a bit tight-lipped about the whole process. I'd say there are no standards others than the ones that already exist (AP Stylebook and such) and those you can agree upon (like I tried above). If you consider that role playing games are a new form of media, it's apparent that we still have some ways to go. In the stuff I do, I try to orient my designs on how non fiction and children's books are done (maybe comic books, too, to some extent). There's a lot of inspiration to be found, and given the topics we seem to end up working with, it's hard to come up with anything but a very general outline how to convey information in PDF or print media. I know, that's a lot of 'maybe'. Hope it helps a bit anyway ...


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