On his site tenfootpole.org Bryce Lynch has read and reviewed probably more D&D adventures than any other human being, which, I imagined would give him a unique prespective on adventure design and D&D generally so I asked him a bunch of questions.
1. WHY are you doing this?
Because I am a fool/for myself.
I've been roleplaying since 78 but in the 90's I moved from D&D to other games, eventually ending up in the narrative/story game space. A pivotal moment happened at Origins, in a Fiasco game, which slotted in to some views that came from running Lacuna. This killed my narrative/story interest, abruptly, and got me back to D&D-ish things.
Looking about I discovered all of these forums and all of these cool things people were talking about and recommending. This was right before GenCon, so I made a huge purchase at GenCon; like $2000 in adventures. Getting home from GenCon was like Christmas! As I started to go through it the highest Highs become the lowest lows ... I was crushed with disappointment. Almost all of it sucked.
Then I had a thought: if my expectations were crushed then other folks probably were also ... and a brief perusal showed that there was almost NO negative reviews of ANYTHING. In RPGlandia everything is TEH BESTEZT! I bought a site and started jotting down notes, mostly for me, to refine what I was looking for, and hopefully other folks would find a more realistic view also, when they went looking for opinions.
You mention games of Lacuna and Fiasco that alienated you from Storygames. I found a reference to that here in your Rise of Tiamat review and a little here in your Death Love Doom Review. have you spoken about it in more depth anywhere else? Would you like to do so here?
I thought it was on FortressAT, in my Origins Con Session Reports. Looks like it didn't make moderation and I eventually posted it on RPGGEEK in my Geek of the Week Q&A. I stuck it at the end. Boy, reading those old session reports brings back some fond memories. "The Queen can't just take our land, It's the Magna Carta baby!" ,"We're sorry for your loss. Please accept this complimentary British Petroleum Slurpee as a token of our regret."
(It's reproduced in full below the cut.)
"I bought a site and started jotting down notes" - you wouldn't, by chance, happen to still have those would you? What did they say?
Alas, no. Very brief though. "This sucks" and "I hate this hook" and "steal this." You can see some hints of this in the August 2011 reviews, some of my first, where I'm still figuring things out. I think I cherry-picked Thing in the Valley because I liked it. You can see me struggling in The Prison of Meneptah (which also has a Melan reply.) I recall asking someone on the Dragonsfoot forum, which was reviewing it, about it. I don't recall the response but I do recall it was less than satisfying. After I posted that one (or another one around that time period) someone said something like "Nice review. At first I thought you were one of those guys who liked everything." A little validation seems to vastly shorten the time it takes to refine an idea. For better or ill. :)
2. How the fuck have you kept this up without going mad?
The same as everyone else: Hookers & blow.
The only really bad part is Dungeon Magazine. I find everything else interesting, either because there's something to steal/get inspired by or as an example of what not to do ... a validation of my beliefs. I like to look/imagine, especially at the amateur products, at what the vision was and how the writing fell short. This makes most reviews pretty easy
Dungeon Magazine, though ... wow. The worst part is when I buy a series or a lot of product by one author. When the first one is terrible then I know I have to slog through the rest and that can do a lot to kill enthusiasm. Dungeon Magazine was like that for a LONG stretch ... knowing that I had to slog through eighty pages of crap with nothing to look forward to. I try to avoid mass buys these days, where all of the product is from the same author or the same company. In short: variety keeps things fresh, even if it's bad variety.
3. Has it become strangely addictive?
Hmmmm, I'd use the word 'routine.' Monday morning is a review, Tuesday morning is a review, and Wednesday morning is Dungeon Magazine. There's some applicable rule about how long it takes for something to become habit, I think?
4. What do you know that no-one else knows?
There is a difference between "I had fun" and "A good product." Having fun has more to do with your DM than anything else. The product is more about supporting the DM in helping you all have fun.
a. Have you perceived any deep, long-term patterns proceeding over years or decades that other people might not have noticed?
I doubt there's anything new to learn. I think the most interesting time was the move away from house-rules, like Arduin and Arms Law and T&T, and the codification of official rules that started in 1e. That shift, 35? years ago, is just now being corrected in any serious way.
5. Why are most adventures so bad?
a. Why do people want the wrong things?
I'm not sure that's a good question. 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.
b. Is there simply no evolutionary pressure on them to make them better?
c. WHY is there no pressure over time for tight writing, usability or clear layout? Is it to do with the audience, the way adventures are used, the hobby part of the hobby?
I'm going to write an answer for all three.
The problem has many parts. The good news is that a lot of research has been done on the issue, in the general consumer sciences field. The bad news is that the solutions are not prescriptive.
The hobby part of the hobby is one aspect. There's a very low barrier to entry, which is both a blessing and a curse, for both PDF and print. The glut of product makes choices hard for the consumer. There's a lot of research on how consumers react in these situations. We see things like mimicking the old trade dress and nice covers that try and combat these, but that's just marketing; putting a nice cover on a crappy product helps the publisher and harms the consumer. Harlan Ellison, I think, has some diatribe in which he touches on the impact of amateurs producing material. While not directly relevant, it is interesting to see how it impacts other fields of writing also.
Some publishers need a revenue stream. They mouths to feed and bills to pay. A product needs to come out every month and the deadline is the deadline, damn the quality.
Similarly, the pay-per-word crap sucks ass, and not in a good way. Encouraging bloat and weak editors combine to create unusable product. I'd love to see the big publishers crack down and/or cooperate in this area. Offer a set fee, set expectations, require hard deadlines with lots of time for revisions ... and offer a brand that means quality. But they don't really have to, people keep buying their schlock, so they don't. There's your lack of evolutionary pressure: they make money no matter what kind of crap they put out.
I just saw something from Finch, and he's right: When you buy something, rate it. 5 stars. 1 Star. Whatever. Rate it everywhere you can. Education, alternatives, that's what will change habits. (I'm a hypocrite; I used to do this more.)
Do you have a link?
The wretched hive of scum & villainy: YDIS
(Bryce provided a link but I am not sending traffic to that river of shit.)
6. What is beauty of interest to you? (This doesn't make grammatical sense.)
Apneatic (I wouldn't google that...)
The wonder of a childlike imagination. Grottos sparkle and waterfalls have caves. Bookcases have secret doors and chandeliers drop. Fields of flowers with fairy dragons who always talk to you. Something out of folklore where animals talk and limbs fall out of chimneys and brave little tailors have belts. Is there a treasure in that knot in the tree? Fuck yes there is!
7. If you could go back in time and change one thing (in RPG history), what would it be?
I wish for three more wishes.
1: Tomb of Horrors would either not exist or would only exist as rumors. I understand what it was and it's purpose however it set a bad precedent. I think it encouraged both a linear design element and, more troubling, and adversarial bend to GM'ing. I suppose someone would have done it eventually, but that early publication influenced too much, I think.
2. Those FUCKING skeletons in B2 would not be wearing those FUCKING amulets! Again, I think this influenced design too much. It implies that the game world has a set of rules that the DM must play by. Skeletons turn as 1HD, forever more, unless they wear this bullshit amulet. This has led to monsters wearing rings of protection and so on, not because it's cool or enhancing things but simply for the mechanical effect. It's got an AC 1 point more/less BECAUSE FUCK YOU THAT'S WHY.
3. And this is really my core point of the above two: the 'official' supporting product would have been better. For better or worse, people have taken (and will continue to take) the official product as The Right Way to play the game. If you publish a linear "5 fights" adventure with your edition launch then a lot of people are never going to move beyond that. More care going in to the launch products, at a minimum, would have set things on a different course, I think, and we'd have better design overall. It's weird to see some great advice in the DMG's and then to see the launch product ignore it.
8. On whom would you bring down the sword of judgement if you could? (You don’t have to answer this one.)
I suspect I know the plan: keep D&D on life support and make money in licensing and internal Hasbro synergy. That's no excuse for the quality of the product they are putting out. There's an absurd amount of tribal knowledge, or at least should be, about how to do something good. Their official adventure content sucks donkey balls: hardbacks, Adventurer's League, and most of the previous 4e and 3e line. The feedback I've seen is mostly "You don't proofread! Orcs are supposed to have an AC of 12 but they have of 13 in the adventure! " That's lame, and it seems to be the feedback they pay the most attention to. The stat & rules nonsense is worthless, it's fucking D&D, it can be whatever. Their inability to produce content that is evocative and helpful is inexcusable. Laziness, because they know people will buy it anyway, especially if they slap Baur's name on it? Who knows. I can excuse the amateurs who, as a labor of love, create something and their vision doesn't match what they turn out. The product WOTC cranks out for the Worlds Most Popular Fantasy RPG should be better. Fuck their book layouts and fancy fonts. That shit should be the cream and not the core value for a $50 book.
9. Are there any personalities you would single out as having a noticeable effect on adventure design? Any important names that the audience might not have heard of?
The long line of shitty editors that Dungeon Magazine had? Robert Silvers they were not.
Matt Finch, You, Melan, Benoist, Bowman & Calithena. Zak for his relentless championing of the DIY/gig thing. Jason Sholtis. Stater. But that's really just a subset of people who right stuff I like and not Personalities who had a Notable Effect.
The early TSR folks established the course that we're still on today. Those small efforts early have influenced everything. The only thing that has made as large an impact is, I think, the OGL. Ryan Dancey, representative as the work of many on the OGL, has put us in the wonderfully optimistic spot we're in today. Without the OGL the landscape would be VERY different. I don't see another person who has had as large an impact since the very early days.
'Baur' is Wolfgang Baur, is that right? Do you want to add anything or contextualise that for anyone not familiar with that situation or person? (Like me)
During the launch of 5e WOTC released a boxed set. The first adventure they published after that was two linked hardback books, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. Both were done in some kind of work for hire with Wolfgang Baur and his Kobold Press company. Baur had a decent reputation after writing several decent Dungeon Magazine adventures, a stint as an editor for some things, and Kobold Press was decently respected. So WOTC outsourced their launch product so someone they had previously had a employer relationship with, and leveraged the fact that he was moderately popular ... and the end product, Hoard/Rise, sucked ass At least that's what I can piece together. The adventures WERE outsourced to Baur/Kobold, for sure.
Melan - Melan of Melans Dungeon Mapping and Dragonsfoot? Any particular articles you would like to point out?
That's him. That mapping article appeals to the academic in me. He's written a decent of critical commentary, and his Formhault stuff is pretty good. He's written quite a bit for Fight On! He's one of the few non-native english speakers that publishes in english.
Benoist - Benoist Poire from http://odd74.proboards.com/ and this interview & here? Anything else you would recommend people looking into?
Yup. He's got a nice series on map making on K&K, and also.
Bowman & Calithena - From Fight On! magazine? Any recommendations?
Issue 2: the upper caves (my favorite ever!), issue 3 (crab-men!) and issue 5 (trogs) and issue 6, a monumental work.
Jason Sholtis - From http://roll1d12.blogspot.co.uk/ http://theystalktheunderworld.blogspot.co.uk/ and the Dungeon Dozen. I think my audience will be familiar with him.
Stater - Is that this guy? I don;t know him well. Tell me more about him.
He does a lot. He turns out A LOT of content in the form of hex crawls. Each hex being an little adventure seed. I did a comparison of hex crawl styles in one of my reviews: http://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=997
10. If you were putting together your prefect copy of Dragon magazine, what would you put in it?
My Dragon looks somewhat like Fight On!
*) I'd have a fluff piece each month, no more than three pages. A campaign world, concept, or something like that. High level, with almost nothing explained WHY. Mystery after mystery referenced once and never again.
*) I'd have a campaign arc outlined each month, enough to start someones imagination running. No more than a single page, and maybe half a page. Evil Iggy just won kissed the princess and is now the king. He's looking for the Throne of the Gods. Blah blah blah. Not a plot, an outline
*) Half a page each month on how to make a new monster or magic item. Brief, breezy, maybe using one of those random thing web pages to juice the imagination.
*) A con/public game calendar.
*) An Oglaf strip.
*) Something like the Dungeon Dozen.
*) A Dear Abby column on how to handle HARD things. My buddies wife keeps coming in during the game and asking him to take out the trash. My friend stinks. Mike always cancels, and so on. And the advice should always end with "Remember, sit down and talk to them like a real person. There's only drama if you get worked up."
*) I'd have a zonky cover, something completely different month to month. Anyone who's ever had a page at Deviant Art. No two ever by the same person and as much style diversity as possible.
*) A terse village, maybe one page, brief, with a focus on the people and how they relate to each other, that you can drop in. Or a business "rope walk" ,"salt works" or something like that. A touch of realism but LOTS of gameable content.
*) An adventure. That doesn't suck. No more than 6 pages. It will have some twist or something new to it. Not just goblins in a cave. They better be those goblins made of twigs and leaves and the cave better be a purple worm.
*) A well written industry news piece. Trends,etc.
*) New stuff to check out, or skip, with a liberal definition of 'stuff'.'
*) A DM/Player advice column, tips to run the game, handle traps, etc.
*) Outside your comfort zone. A furry RPG, narrative game, rolemaster overview, something DIFFERENT.
*) Most importantly, a page of DIY Rules. Exploding daggers, Shields will be sundered. Carousing.
Maybe 16-18 pages. $20. Village & adventure are located so they can removed and used.
11. Have you ever thought about making your own thing?
Only when my ego becomes over inflated.
I've done some one-page/one-sheet references under other names. I did a players handbook. I wrote a "fixed" chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. My wife and I have talked about working on something jointly, again. We argued, no joke, for three hours over the first sentence in my Hoard rewrite, and thus have tabled that idea for now. I have a lot of hobbies and I would have to give something up in order to do this ... or come to terms with my self-loathing perfectionism. Neither is likely to happen any time soon.
From Q 11 'fixed' "chapter to Hoard of the Dragon Queen" is that the link I have above?
The Tiamat adventure line is a 2-parter. Rise, the link you have, is part 2. Part is at: here on the blog and here in a google drive.
12. Have you ever thought about condensing your wisdom or things you have learnt into rules, guidelines, a manifesto? A statement? (Or just a list of rules or guidelines.)
The Grand Moff Tarkin says you're never supposed to talk about what you plan to do, only what you've done. Jesus H Fucking Christ it's easy to procrastinate writing.
[ask patrick if I should open source this?]
Open Sourcing creative efforts is a complex issue which can work differently depending on personality and your ability/desire to deal with large numbers of people and processing and synthesising their ideas. I generally wouldn't, but then I am essentially a Morlock so maybe don't take my advice on when to work with others.
I would be keenly interested to see what you come up with though.
13. When reviewing, how do you think about potential preferences in taste, things that are unique to you vs others? Is this something you think about?
I have some strong reactions to certain things, among them: fairy tales, barrows, gonzo, tinker gnomes and magical ren-faire. I try to disclose this during a review if I think it's applicable. More importantly, I try to write a review in which my own preferences are not relevant to someone else finding the review useful. "I like this" is not a good review. "I like this because tinker gnomes fly hot air balloons with rappelling kinder special agents" tells you more. Even if I don't like something (or do) hopefully I explain why so the reader can make their own judgement based on their own preferences. This makes the review useful even to the scum^H^H^H^H folks who like kender, tinker gnomes, and magic technology.
"I liked it" is personal preference. "I liked it because the salmon sashimi was coated in about a pound of kosher salt, each." is actually useful. If you like that much salt, Yum! If you don't like that much salt then maybe that place is not for you. The important part is now BOTH sides can find the review useful.
14. Culture war bullshit. Gender, race, representation, the gender wars. These aren’t primary interests of mine but it’s possible that you have a deeply held feeling you have been holding on to, something you are anxious to say or an opinion you have been brewing for a while. Is there anything you want to say?
|Bryce selected this image specially|
My own intolerance is reserved for the cohort of angry old white men shaking their fists at the sky. The kids stay in their room too much. The kids don't know how to roleplay. The kids like grid combat. The kids have no attention span. The kids play with their phones at the table instead of listening to my six page monologue. Those sorts of generalizations upset me the most, maybe because I'm always on guard to ensure I don't fall in to them. I often wonder why ... again, so that I don't fall in to it. Fear of difference? Some nonsense definition of respect? Bitterness? Their genius & wisdom is not being recognized? I was delighted when you asked me to do this ... do I fall in to the same traps? And now I'm self-centered for bringing a discussion of cultural inequity back to me? Stupid unexamined life.
We live during a time when the world has never been more just and verdant. I have great confidence that the younger and coming generations will ensure that statement becomes even more true. The kids are alright.
Also: I like succubus boobies.
15. Likewise - edition wars. maybe you have a mic to drop or something.
Oh, I don't know, it's all personal preference. I prefer the more rules-light stuff in B/X or something like Black Hack. If you want to run Roberts Rules of Order edition then have fun.
My only gripe is the tendency for folks to not play anything but the most recent rules. I like playing with new people and having new experiences and it's hard to attract players in a store, con, or public game if you're not in the Most Current Edition trough. This makes me sad when I think about it so I'm not going to think about it anymore.
I loathe lawyering and the min-max/DPS mindset, which is probably why I like the rules-light stuff. The focus can then be on the game and what's going on rather than digging through the books trying to find something to give you a +.5% edge. [Shakes fist at sky!] A 90's GURPS foray, and then 3e, is where I first noticed it and then my experiences with GOD DAM I FUCKING HATE YOU RPGA, both in running games for them at GenCon and now playing with my kids & wife at Winter Fantasy, has perhaps biased me quite a bit. Fuck me, I can't seem to quit a game called "Dungeon & Dragons."
I did have that 4e book burning. The party was more anti-materialist and about "finding" the 5e boxed set in the ashes the next morning. IE: Performance art for the big 5e meetup the next weekend. I disliked 4e quite a bit more than the others (although I did like the way it emphasized special monster abilities) but not enough to go out of my way to erase it from existence. I wanted a big party to celebrate 5e and the giant meetup/party the next week and I thought that finding the 5e boxed set in the ashes would be a fun thing to do. And it was.
16. What do you think about 'the future of the hobby' whatever that means.
Wasn't it in one of those goofy sequels to Dune where humanity spread out in the galaxy, forever free from being annihilated? The environment has splintered in to a thousand sub-systems and will continue to do so. (although it could be argued that everyone house-ruled in the early days and so it has always been this way.) The large companies will hunt the lucre in media deals while keeping their systems on just enough life support to sign the licensing deals their shareholders crave ... maybe with guaranteed income subscription models in the middle-tier. I have great confidence that the gig/DIY culture will flourish, in the shadows, and continue to grow and continue to produce an increasing number of wonderful products.
I'm also looking quite forward to seeing more product from other countries, and in particular those without the Tolkein influence. We get glimpses of these things every now and again, with the work of Benoist and Melan are the immediate examples. I'm quite optimistic that the Internet will allow us to see more from the DIY fantasy crowd in other countries and I think that's quite exciting. There's this small group of people who travel & license foreign boardgames, I sometimes wonder if one could do the same for RPG's/adventures? Imagine an imprint that travelled exclusively in that content! That would indeed be wonderful!
Below the cut you can read, in almost real time, Bryces Dark Origin and the Tragic Accident that turned him against Story Games.