Writing is a difficult thing to do. Sure, there are times where inspiration takes hold and you find yourself spontaneously creating literary gold, but those times tend to be few and far between. The reality is that whether you’re writing a book or a letter to the editor, writing is hard – and this is even truer when you’re trying to write an adventure for an RPG. After all, you not only need to have good prose, but also have the mechanics down pat, a good sense of pacing and flow for the PCs, how challenging the encounters are, and so much more. Ironic, then, that while there are plenty of guides to general writing out there, there are almost no guides to adventure design…until now.
The Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume I is dedicated to (professionally) writing adventures. Written mostly by Wolfgang Baur (with a few articles from other well-known RPG writers), the book is a series of independent articles covering various aspects of adventure design, from general aspects (such as inspiration-based writing, like I mentioned above) to very specific things (what makes an adventure feel Arabian in tone, really?). It’s worth noting that these articles were originally written at different times for patrons of Mr. Baur’s Open Design projects, where he opens a project up for public commissions, with only those who buy in receiving the final product; those who pay more also get to see various design articles, such as these, as well as participate in discussion about the adventure, etc. In other words, these articles are collected from various Open Design sessions and are now being made public for the first time.
Having written a number of short RPG products myself (including one adventure) I can honestly say that this book is a must-read for anyone who’s serious about designing professional adventures. The advice and tips given here are solid gold, whether he’s telling you not to try and world-build in the context of your adventure, or explaining what a “realistic” fantasy setting actually means. More than once I found myself nodding in agreement as Wolfgang discussed things that I’d run into before, but never really thought too much about. I really can’t overstate the level of insight into the design process that this book brings.
That said, the book is not without flaws. The first thing that partially undermined it for me was technical in nature; specifically, the lack of any sort of easy-navigation tools. When you have a PDF that’s over eighty pages long, you absolutely need for it to have bookmarks, and hyperlinking the table of contents isn’t a bad idea either, which is why it’s so odd that neither was done here.
The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way was how Wolfgang continually referenced the Open Design adventures for examples throughout his essays. Now, to be fair, I can’t really hold this against him – after all, these articles were originally written as companion pieces to designing those adventures. Moreover, he gives a handy (but brief) guide to what the various Open Design projects were about in the beginning of this book, so the reader isn’t completely lost when he starts referring to them. That said, it’s still somewhat irking that he’s holding these adventures up as paragons of various points that he makes, since you know you’ll never get to see them (unless you were an Open Design patron for them originally). Writing about the nuances of Castle Shadowcrag as an example for how to pace an adventure is good…if you own Castle Shadowcrag. Otherwise you’re trying to fill in the blanks (and quite often you’re left with your mouth watering for what sounds like a really great adventure that you’ll never get to own). This is perhaps the single greatest weakness of what’s written here. To be sure, it doesn’t undermine the book – these examples aren’t used a lot more often than they are, and again, it’s probably inevitable given where these articles came from to begin with. But it’s still a weakness in the book’s presentation.
Those are relatively minor quibbles, however. The material here is sure to be the best friend of anyone who wants their adventures published, and indeed it could be useful (though perhaps not quite as much) to anyone looking to write fantasy material. The Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. 1 is a smart investment for anyone who wants to write in the RPG industry.
[4 of 5 Stars!]