Sunday, October 2, 2022

My Process

Since I'm getting a dungeon into publishable form right now for a new project, I thought it might be useful to share a little bit about my process for creating adventure locales. I’m pretty sure that my way of doing this is idiosyncratic. For reasons I will explain, it could never work for a “professional” ttrpg writer, someone who mainly writes on commission for other people or who produces game material outside of extended play. So, your mileage may vary. But I hope it’s interesting nonetheless and maybe useful to someone somewhere. 
The most important thing to say about my process is that all my writing arises from material that I prepare for play in my own campaigns. The kind of gaming I’m into is long running open world sandbox campaigns set in evocative worlds. So, for me, an important part of the background is that before I create an adventure locale, I already have in mind some pretty distinctive setting concept, e.g. a door has opened to a flying city of the dreamlands. This means that when I create adventure sites, the question I’m asking is what sort of adventure site would go in a setting like that? It also means that everything I make is designed for play and arises from the actual necessities of my gaming table. 
With these preliminaries out of the way, here are the stages of creation for me. I’m presenting them in a faux chronological order, although the process is not always so linear.

1. Generate a Concept

All my adventure locales have a high concept around which they are strongly themed. The ruins of a puppet theater where people were punished with trial by puppet. Museum tombs of the butcher priests. The drowned castle of a biomancer. An upside down jungle teeming with alien life. If I have two adventure locales, and they remind me of one another in concept, then I work hard to change one of them until they are thoroughly distinct.  
Everything is organized around this concept. This one-off concept helps me at every step to imagine the dungeon: its nature, contents, and factions. It’s because I have the concept clearly in view that I can begin to create the locale. Without it, I’m lost. How do I come up with these concepts? Well, the concept of an adventure locale comes to me as a flash. To that extent, there is no way I come up with them. 
Usually, at first, I imagine one or two kernels around which the pearl of the adventure locale forms. For example, it might be a vision of the approach to the location. Take the chum spouts at the entrance to the Catacombs of the Fleischguild where effluvia of the endless sacrifices the butcher priests perform in Zyan above is disgorged from grimacing stone faces into the sewer river. Jeweled flies swarm across the red slick of chum in which viscera bobs. This was the first thing that came to me when I thought of the concept of the catacombs of the Fleischguild. 

Russ Nicholson's representation of the chum spouts!

Or perhaps I start with the idea of one or two set-piece rooms like the ruined stage of the theater infested by white swine, which I think was the first idea I had about the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s theater. In each case this vision came to me because I had a strong concept that suggested them. If there’s going to be a ruined punishment theater, then of course there’s going to be a ruined stage. So that stage needs to be something special and big. Around these starting ideas thoughts begin to coalesce. 

This part is a little embarrassing to admit. But I know that things are going well at this stage if I fall in love with the idea of the place. There is something almost adolescent and melodramatic in this experience for me: I fall into reveries where my mind exults. This is, if I’m going to be frank, the main pleasure I get in prep—and it’s a substantial one. When combined with the pleasures of play it’s enough to keep me hooked on GMing ttrpgs.  

2. Draw a map

Since dungeons, certainly, and adventure locales in general, are usually spaces to be explored, for me the map is crucial. I like to draw the map with only the concept and a few rooms in mind. I try to make the map properly Jaquaysed, with multiple looping paths, changes of terrain, and so on. This creates interesting spatial relations between different locations, suggesting locales and tensions between factions, harder to access areas, etc. 

An unpublished level from the Abyssal Dungeon

Although I'm no artist, I try to make it look visually interesting. I end up drawing a lot of rooms that look kinda weird without knowing yet what exactly might be in them. Sometimes I draw some contents for the rooms, although since I key the map later, many things keyed aren’t represented on the map. There’s something about these handmade maps that really provides a scaffolding for my imagination. I often color them in using my children's art markers. 

My original map for the Catacombs of the Fleischguild

If it’s a hexmap, I do much the same thing, but this time using Hex Kit. I own ALL the tilesets, so I have a huge array of visually arresting material to work with. Again aesthetic considerations dominate to some extent. Since Hex Kit is a digital tool and so easily altered, I find that this process involves a lot more revision as I go.  

The Depths, Level 2 of the inverted White Jungle

3. Look at Visuals 

Often when I'm preparing to stock the map, or even before, I gather a trove of images. Frequently, I have some images in mind from the very beginning as part of the concept of the place. Indeed, my current (not yet public) project was born from a single illustration by Liz Danforth that captivated my imagination as an adolescent. Since I can’t quite talk about that yet, consider these images from Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed which I had in mind from when I started thinking about the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater. These images were the source of the shadow puppets and the weaver of shadows in that dungeon. 

While Prince Achmed is a movie that I had seen previously, my main tools for this stage of the process have historically been searches of online repositories of images like Tumblr and Pinterest. Tumblr, which was fantastic and is now a bit of a ghost town, but it never had a good way to organize saved images. So I used the “like” button for years for this purpose, but it’s hard to search through images you liked. Pinterest even if a bit let brilliant, is easier to work with. Here you can create different boards. If you click on a pin you like, it will recommend similar pins. Over time you feed can become mildly interesting too. 
To get a sense of this, I have a tumblr which you can look at hereHere are my pinterest boards. Take a look at this one on bio-occultism that I started when I was working on the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper (also very relevant to the Catacombs of the Fleischguild). It now has more than 2000 pinned images. For the stocking of interesting treasure, this Pinterest board titled "artifacts" has served me well. Ever wonder how I avoid basically ever giving gold pieces as treasure in my published adventures? Look no further than this Pinterest board. It’s all there, more than 1600 pins. Feel free to use it for all your treasure needs!

4. Draw on Memories of Place 

Besides past media, like novels and films, another resource I draw on sometimes to get the vibe or feel of a place right are captivating memories of different places I’ve been. I suppose the ultimate exercise in this well-spring of adventures rooted in place is Patrick Stuart’s Silent Titals that presents a fantasy version of the Wirral. Zedeck Siew has written about this as well in the context of A Thousand Thousand Islands. Most of the stuff where I’ve done this the most heavily have not yet been published. Since I was a city rat growing up exploring NYC, and then was got obsessed with the falling down, labyrinthine splendor of hilly Pittsburgh where I lived for the better part of a decade, a lot of this stuff finds its way into the city of my setting, Zyan Above. 
But I can give a modest example from my published work. The Catacombs of the Fleischguild is infused with the eerie vibes of visiting the Museum of Natural History with my father as child. The strange stillness of those dioramas behind glass. The cool air and quietness. The weird greenish, dim lighting. The hall of totem poles. Artifacts of unknown religious significance displayed on velvet cloths. The datedness of the place, as though it had come out of another time. The colonialism that infused it all without context.

5. Key in preparation for play

So far, everything I've described is fun. But I find the initial keying of a dungeon and the initial creation of random encounters to accompany the key just awful. I can usually only do it under the yoke of necessity, desperately as the players approach. I run out of imaginative steam very quickly. 
Usually I can do 4 or 5 new keyed rooms maybe per session, which is often just enough to stay ahead of the players. I write up full room descriptions. Here’s what I do. I try to mention only salient, observable things, in the first paragraph. I think of this as putting things on the menu that then players can follow up by asking questions or observing the things more closely. So I keep the descriptions very brief in that first paragraph, only naming the thing, or perhaps mentioning what would first strike you looking at the thing. I save additional information for later paragraphs, following the same order of presentation in the initial paragraph. If I mention the book case first in the opening paragraph, then I discuss the bookcase first in the second paragraph.
This structure works for my brain at the table. I can scan the first paragraph easily and describe the room to my players. I can then look down to remind myself what comes next when they follow up on things. Here’s a dirty secret: I often literally use the first paragraph as read aloud text to my players. Yes, I sometimes employ the much hated read aloud text. I think it works in my game because the descriptions in that first paragraph are very short and to the point. I try to make them evocative, employing turns of phrase and adjectives that paint a vivid picture where I can, but I keep them very brief. For the great majority of rooms that I don’t manage to fully key for a session, I just maybe just jot down a few words or a sentence for those that are near enough to where the players are exploring that they might come up in play.
When I’m stuck keying, which I very often am, I find it helpful to go for a run. It doesn’t work on an exercise machine, which is monotonous suffering that makes thinking impossible. Something about running a route I know well draws me inward and allows my mind to turn creatively. It’s almost the only thing that I can consciously do to “force” the issue. I actually do a lot of philosophy when running too, so it works for me for anything that requires creative thought.
My encounter table is similarly created in fits and starts. It begins with 4 pitiful entries. Maybe the second session it bumps up to 5. Finally four sessions in I get it up to a semi-respectable 6 so that I can finally use a six-sided die. 
I find this whole process quite stressful. Although I love playing, I hate the prep for playing at this point, because it always feels like I'm running something half-baked and I so often come up imaginatively empty. It’s primarily this stress, when combined with a couple of sub-par sessions that leave a bad taste in the mouth, that have caused me to back away from GMing in those periods where I felt that I needed to take a break. 
So prep is a double-edged sword.

6. Run it again 

At the end of that process, I usually have a dungeon that's about 2/3 written up. Now that I have a rough draft of the key for most of the dungeon, I often run it again for a different group. (I've had 3 dreamlands campaigns, two of which are currently running.) At this point the prep is more leisurely. Each session I "finish" 3-4 rooms that are unfinished or polish something else up, or expand the encounter table by a couple of entries. Since I can just run it without doing much work, this second time through is relaxing and basically stress free. Prep here is fun again, since I can fill in keys at my leisure and expand on things when as suits my fancy. I also know the dungeon very well and have it at my imaginative fingertips. This is part of the reason that I run my stuff more than once: I get the fun without the stress. 

7. Rewrite it for Publication

After some time has passed since the second run, I ask myself what would be required to make the adventure location publishable. The main goal of this process is to dial up what's neat about the adventure location up to 11. In other words, I try to lean in to the concept of the location and what is unique about the adventure. I take the opportunity to remove the things that don’t fit with the theme. I also replace the the bits that sagged in play with something more exciting that better fits the concept, and to fix any problems. Often unique mechanics that would support this concept in play occur to me at this point. I also take the opportunity to pep everything up a bit, swapping whatever small bits is mundane with something evocative. There are many little flourishes and new ideas that work their way in here. This part is fun too.  
When I start commissioning art, or when Gus does his wonderful maps for me, there's also some real creative synergy that emerges. It was Gus' map of the Sewer River that inspired me to really do up the sewer river properly for Issue 3. Sending me that map was throwing down a creative gauntlet. Similarly, Huargo's art has led me to subtly shift course a number of times. 

8. Playtest the finished product 

Ideally, I playtest it again at this point for a 3rd group. If I were a real professional, I would have other people playtest it for me, since that’s obviously the best practice: seeing how well it runs at other people’s tables. But I’ve never done that. Chalk that up to my being a DIY solo author. 

That, in a nutshell is my process. What's your process? Does it resemble any of this? How does it differ? Drop it in the comments!


  1. No one who rejects "adolescent and melodramatic" experience should write fantasy at all, and without "reveries where the mind exults" no dreamish fantasy could be great. :)

  2. I see no-one has yet responded, so I thought I’d share some thoughts. I haven’t published anything, so I hope this is ok.

    My Process, such as it is.

    1. CONCEPT. My ideas come from all over. I saw a reddit post with a map of the Alaskan gold fields in 1897, with Siberia to the West, and British Territories to the East, and with notes on it documenting the supplies you’d need. That is a concept right there. Another was a reddit post with a visualisation of Valencia, Spain, in the mid 1800s. A city, a river, bridges, castle walls, train tracks - all the bits and pieces you need to start thinking of plots and situations. TV and Film, especially series like “Versailles” or “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”. These gave me characters, at first. Situations. Clothing. Technology. Society. Then I got ideas for locations. So I run with all of it for a bit, then start to sift it to turn it into something meaningful. In places I have a page full of names because a name in a program takes my fancy, and I create names around it for the world I imagine that name could come from. Or I’ll see someone’s house rules for a game, or a new game on, and it’ll inspire me to take their game and tweak it to be something different. Or, it could be a map they’ve drawn, or a One Page Dungeon that I re-key. Not exactly organised, or efficient. I collect these ideas on various scraps of paper, or in notebooks. Sometimes when I need to create something for a session I look at old notes and let that inspire me. I have a lot I haven’t revisited much at all, but the ideas, having been written or drawn, are in my head and morph along with time.

    2. MAPS EITHER turn up as part of (1), OR they get generated now, OR they turn up as part of PREP (see later).

    Often they’re just some form of relationship diagram or mindmap: circles and lines, not arty dungeon maps or Tolkienesque Middle Earth style. I don’t like hexmaps that much, as they smack of wargames too much. I got into RPGs from wargames. I wasn’t much good at wargames, and RPGs appealed more to my creative side. I have seen some nice hex maps so I’d not be against using them, but I like a more ‘trad’ style. Reddit again has some great ‘old maps’ r/oldmaps, r/papertowns, r/mapporn that sort of thing.

  3. 3. COLLECTING VISUALS and mood boards are something I’ve tried to do, but so far they’re not naturally ‘me’. I see other people do them. It impresses me. I think it is something that I should develop, but I’m not there yet. I collect names, words, titles. Strings of places along a road trip or rail trip, or along a coastline. Hierarchies, position titles, ranks and petty god names.

    4. MEMORIES OF PLACE. Mostly not: I get so much from the imagined scenes from books, and from film & tv, BUT…the few I get from where I’ve been and seen IRL are important. They scale things for me. They ground me. I live in an area with storm drains and green belts that I go walking around. In my mind as I walk they can become rivers, and fields, and more decorative clumpings of trees become copses or strange tree constructed cathedrals and temples. There are some odd houses that I pass that can be collected in my mind with other odd places, and suddenly I have material to make the ordinary place I live quite strange. Maybe even magical. And since I’ve been lucky enough to see some old parts of Rome, and Paris, and Berlin, and a few other places in Europe, I can bring that vibe into my mind when I see pictures of all the places I didn’t get to, and meld them with the places that I am in the day to day.

    5. PREPARATION FOR PLAY. This is where maps turn up if they didn’t turn up before. Plus encounter tables. Maybe. This is most often a page or three of notes, with one or two or three mind maps, some scrawled names, notes for character generation, adjectives, notes on vibe etc for the setting, what the premise is. If I’m a bit organised I go through this and prep a page to give to the players, or copy into a discord chat to show character generation, and maybe a map.

    6. RUN IT AGAIN. Doesn’t happen often, but it has. If a lot of time has passed it is the ‘peaks’ of what I ran that last. Like squinting at a scene to get light & shadow when you’re trying to sketch it. That often reveals what the scenario’s guts were and are, which I probably didn’t really get the first time. Often these scenarios can be from completely different games.

    While I hit many of the same bits of process as you, at this point I stop. Your 7. & 8. Just don’t happen. Yet. Maybe one day. I think if they did, then my process would become less haphazard, and might really start to match yours a bit more. But the random sourcing of ideas and inspiration probably wouldn’t. That has been the way my mind works for decades. It was the way my mind worked when it came to writing computer programs back in university. It is both good and bad.

  4. My process is fairly different, but my adventures aren't (usually) written for publication. Generally it goes:

    1) Concept
    2) Map
    3) Keying
    4) Playtesting

    #5 would be "polish" if it were intended for publication. This might include adding illustrations, but I am not an artist myself and getting art for my work is always a chore. Probably the main reason I don't publish my adventures!