The Bone Orchard – Lessons learned

Previous posts in this series

Part 1 / Part 2

Last time I talked about what some small-press D&D publishers1 are doing to make their modules easy to use at the table for the GMs. I believe publishers of other games – my focus is largely on investigation horror games, such as Call and Trail of Cthulhu – could learn from these and other creators to make their own scenarios more GM friendly.

There are universal principles of great design everywhere, if we’re willing to look

I pointed out some of the clever things those creators have done, but what are the other things they’ve learned? For the moment, I’m focusing mainly on copy and minor layout choices. Later I’ll be looking at more complex page design. For the moment, I think the core lessons are:

  • The GM needs to be able to read the scenario through once and, without having to make further notes, then be able to run it.
  • When running the scenario, the GM needs to be able to look at the page and be able to find the information they need within a second or two.
  • Information should be where it is needed during play. Don’t have exposition, and NPC motivations and possible reactions, scattered through the scenario.
  • Stats and relevant rules should be near where they are first located, e.g. relevant info near maps or combat encounters.
  • Use plenty of tables, bullet lists, bolding of key words, etc.
    • Use legible fonts, don’t use background colour or images, and don’t overuse capital letters and italics, etc.
  • Modules aren’t novels. When describing NPCs and locations, focus on impact and evocation, using the minimum number of words, rather than exhaustive descriptions.
    • Limit even long descriptions of the relevant and unique to two sentences.
    • For the irrelevant and mundane, stick to an adjective and noun.
  • Scrap unnecessary backstory. Only use what will be directly relevant to the module. Some things only the GM will know, but that is far less important than what the PCs can learn, so keep that to an absolute minimum.
  • Especially for minor NPCs, only keep what is unique and ideally something that is gameable, such as a plan or a dramatic link to another NPC.
  • Avoid detailing empty locations or unnecessary NPCs. If they are included, use them to drive the theme, past background, or foreshadow future actions.
  • Use clear, simple English. Avoid the passive voice as much as possible. Cut all superfluous words. Common culprits include:
    • that,
    • you find yourself,
    • there is,
    • in the event of,
    • very, totally and completely.

If you want to distil this list down even further, you could say that a scenario must have:

  • The minimum number of words possible.
  • Those words need to be easy and logical to scan during a game.
  • Seriously question the relevance of anything that isn’t gameable, or directly helping with setting, theme or mood.

That seems a reasonable distillation of concise module writing, and I think most of these can be applied to scenario design as well.


Grass is Greener

Old-school D&D-based games have a natural advantage here: they’re largely focused on combat, treasure and puzzles. That’s an oversimplification, of course, as plenty of campaigns can involve playing off one faction of a dungeon against another and the like, but I think it’s a fair generalisation nonetheless. Those activities are considerably easier to compress into a small word count, which makes innovative page design, and even artistic design, easier. This compares with investigation games which often involve research in books, at crimes scenes and of witnesses, which invariably requires text-heavy clues, lore, and motivations.

Another area where they differ is that old school D&D is often designed to be a sandbox where the PCs have a basic motivation – even if that’s only gold or XP – and a situation/location to explore as they see fit. A sandbox presents NPCs, factions, organisations, and sketched out plots, all poised a moment before conflict or crisis so the PCs actions start a cascade of reactions. The vast majority of this type of gaming experience is therefore emergent, rather than having to be written out on the page first.


Little bit more tricky

Investigation horror games are almost exclusively scenario based, sometimes with a fairly rigid sequence of scenes or locations for the GM to shepherd the players through and therefore a varying amount of freedom for them to solve the core mystery. This is largely through necessity, as writing multiple scenes the traditional way – i.e. often taking up >1,000 words rather than a >100 – which may never be used, is simply prohibitive in time and page count.

As I mentioned in the first post of this topic, this results in GMs having to learn – through painful trial and error – how to either gently steer groups from scene to scene without them feeling like they’re being railroaded or how to learn to improvise around the published scene when their players inevitably approach things in a different way to the one or two suggested solutions.

I believe even investigation scenarios can be written better, presented better, in a way that makes it easier for what the GM actually experiences at the table.

Next time, I’m going to start talking about how these can be used in investigative horror games.


1 There is great page design elsewhere of course, and I’ll be talking about them in future posts, but it’s often limited to rule books. Whether that’s PbTA games, the post-OSR crowd, or the talented youngsters in the indie scene, there’s a lot to admire.

However, while they all have things to learn from, none of them have examples of well-designed scenarios, specifically investigative ones, since their games often don’t use them. I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into what they can show us.

2 thoughts on “The Bone Orchard – Lessons learned

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