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Saturday, 4 August 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Adventure Writing Like a Fucking Boss

This is a review of the RPG product, "Adventure Writing Like a Fucking Boss", written by Venger Satanis, published by Kort'thalis publishing. It is as always a print edition, 30 pages long, divided into two parts (part I and part II). The front cover is in full color and depicts an impressive image of a dragon breathing fire; while the interior is in black and white, and contains several pieces of art (mostly in a classic fantasy style).

I should preface by saying that while I have nothing to do with the creation of this book nor do I profit from it in any way, I do have a connection to its author in the sense that we're both hosts of the Inappropriate Characters YouTube show.  I don't think this will affect my fairness in reviewing the product, but I want to make it clear for the sake of transparency.

This short volume claims to be a guide to "how to write scenarios that don't suck".

His first point? "No Limits". A section where he talks about how great it is that you can write whatever you want to in an adventure. Amusingly, Venger (who has offended a lot of people, though admittedly mostly the easily-offended) tells his readers that they should not "go out of their way to offend readers". He also presents a limit: suggesting that designers should avoid writing scenarios that ask the PCs to hurt children.

Next, he advises on how to make an 'elevator pitch' for your adventure; that it should have a summary of what it is about, and emphasizes three key elements for a pitch to be successful: that it be intelligible, that it be intriguing, and that it be exciting.
I can't say I have any objection to that, and certainly an adventure having all three of those qualities generally makes sense, though there's a lot of adventuring which can be intelligible, intriguing, and exciting that can't really be summed up in a one-sentence pitch.

Regarding writing style, Venger's chief piece of advice is that no matter what style of writing you use, someone isn't going to like it, and to focus more on continually improving, and not on pleasing everyone. That's sound advice.

Venger suggests taking a moderate approach in the 'railroad' argument; he says that actual railroads must be avoided, sandboxes are OK but his ideal is to put in 'guardrails' that help direct the PC party while leaving them personal choice. OK, that sounds fine. Someone like me, who already knows this, gets it right away but (like a lot of his advice sections) he probably ought to have provided way more detail and example.

This highlites what I think may be a problem with this product: one would presume that Venger is writing it for people who don't already know how to make adventures. If you already know how to make adventures, none of this is news. If you don't, though, it seems like this might not be enough. It doesn't give the detail to really help someone without significant adventure-design experience.

Venger then goes on to talk about 'scenes', and here thankfully he does get into a bit more detail. He suggests these are "building blocks of adventure writing". He advises, as a broad guideline, that a 'scene' should require about half a page of notes, and that a short scenario should have 5 pages of text (meaning, I presume, 10 'scenes').
I think this may all be a little too structured for my taste, but I'll note that Venger does repeat the warning about not railroading.
He provides guidelines about setting up the scene, in the sense of asking who is in it, where it's happening, and what is going on. He suggests the core of the scene is about conflict; and that there should be some form of conflict in the scene, and optionally some secondary conflict(s) involved. Beyond that, there's guidance about making a conflict more interesting, which includes a random table about twists to add to the scene; that's good, but unfortunately it's a very short and very broad random table: it only has 8 entries, most of which are along the lines of "they do something unusual" or "they know something unusual" and the 8th entry is just "roll twice".
There's a subtable, of "Unusual" things, but it only has 6 entries, and the last is, you guessed it, "roll twice".

There's a short section about 'upping the ante' (finding ways to make a PC care deeply about the conflict in question), and about 'the stakes' (what the PCs feel they have to gain or lose).

After this, he goes off the reservation with what he calls "the trailer test", suggesting that you should envision your scenario as if it was material for a movie trailer, and that you need to have some of the scenes be 'trailer material'. This betrays a fundamental split-personality in his writing. Venger talks about not railroading, he understands that this is a game not a movie, but he still seems to want to treat his adventure writing as if he's writing to try to create 'story'. He misses, in all this, one of the most fundamental points of successful RPG design: that RPGs are not story-making, they're world-making.

He goes on to talk about 'betwixt scenes' (what he calls 'moments', as breathers between action), and 'the callback' (making reference at later points of the adventure to something that happened earlier in the adventure).

After a mostly needless page quoting a scene from Resevoir Dogs, we get to Part II. Here we start with the advice of "just start writing", which is good sound advice. He even elaborates on this by giving a three-month plan of how to proceed.

In this second part, which deals more with writing an adventure for publishing, so we get some advice on stuff like cover art and interior art.

You also have some very good advice about leaving a few 'blank spots' in an adventure; not trying to cover every last detail, but rather writing an adventure so as to give the GM using it room to add either a little or a lot to make his own out of the adventure.

I think that not every piece of advice Venger provides in this book actually matches everything Venger does in his own adventures (for example, with the exception of his Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, which is a true sandbox, most of the adventure-writing of his I've seen is more railroady than one would like), one piece of advice that very clearly matches his adventure-writing is his suggestion to go over the top in presenting PCs with places to be, and things to do. Venger's style is certainly not about subtlety. He also advises you to give player characters complications, and give monsters motives.

As you may have noted, I don't agree fully with every piece of advice Venger gives, but one I certainly agree with his advice to use Random Tables, as a tool for creativity.

On the other hand, I couldn't disagree more with his advice about 'balancing encounters'.  He advises that encounters that are vastly in the PCs' favor should just be swept away rather than fought out; or that encounters that are extremely difficult should be deus-ex-machina-ed away. Very wrong.

Venger provides basic suggestions about different types of endings you can have: the boss fight, the twist ending, the puzzle-like solution, or the weird ending. Advice on NPCs is equally straightforward: suggesting that for basic NPCs only the most basic information about motive, appearance, and purpose needs to be answered, but that more important NPCs should be more fully fleshed out. You get similar information about the importance of room descriptions.

The next major bit of advice is entitled "needs more tentacles", which I guess is certainly something that Venger has applied in his own adventure design. He doesn't strictly mean 'tentacles' literally, but suggests he really means 'more awesomeness'. If you aren't exactly sure what the relationship between 'tentacle' and 'awesomeness' is, he elaborates with extra points like "dark", "Weird" and "sexy", only two of which I'd personally associate with 'tentacles'.

There's more advice, about making your imagery evocative, about it giving the PCs mental possibilities, about adding in some random mechanics, and the value of having factions present in an adventure (other than the faction of the PCs themselves).  All of these are fairly short.

A slightly larger section (half a page) is given to advice on how to be funny. Venger elaborates on the various types of humor: silliness, ridiculousness, self-mocking humor, and clever humor.

Readers are later advised that if they find something they're writing about to be exciting, they should elaborate on that as much as possible.
There's also a repetition not to railroad, adding that if certain phrases apply to a scene (like "the PCs can't rescue..." or "The PCs always fail at..") these things should be "shot between the eyes".

Finally, we get to a subject that's obviously relevant to yours truly: reviews. Venger points out that he personally doesn't buy anything that hasn't had at least one decent review, defining 'decent' as something that "gives me a sense of what the product is like". He wisely warns would-be adventure writers to be prepared for 'bad news'; that is to say, to be prepared to take criticism well (hope he's keeping that in mind here).
He suggests that reviewers can be broadly divided into "positive" (reviewers who usually express only the stuff they like about a product), "negative" (those who only express what they don't like) and "neutral" (reviewers who try to take an objective perspective of the product, and try to assess what kind of reader might like a product and what kind might not).
This is a good section, though he could have saved newbie writer/publishers some time and just shortened it all to "Give the RPGPundit your stuff".

So what to conclude about "Adventure Writing Like a Fucking Boss"? 
I'd have to say that on the whole, it's not one of Venger's stronger products. For it to be truly useful to a would-be adventure writer, or adventure publisher, it would need to have a lot more depth of material. It would need to be longer.

As it is, I feel like I gave away most of the contents of the material just in writing this review.

To someone who already knows a bit about writing adventures, this product wouldn't really be much help.  To someone who doesn't know anything about writing adventures, it's too short and limited in content to be of much help.  As a "tips and tricks" kind of thing I guess it might have something of value. And yet, it's hit platinum-bestseller on DTRPG.  So I can't really argue with the success of that. I guess some people found those tips and tricks enough to be worthwhile.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Acorn + Image Virginia


  1. I have this, but I share your opinion. I'd be a lot more interested in Venger's take on Sandboxing Like A Fucking Boss.

  2. Never underestimate the power of rolling twice!