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Advice on how you can write great adventures - from the company that has published more than 200 top-notch adventures!
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A Great Start! And S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

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Hi everyone,

Well that was a great start to the Kickstarter! As I write this we have funded and are inches away from the first stretch goal. We're going to need more stretch goals!

The contributors to this project are all great adventure designers who have in turn been inspired by the adventures that came before them. As one of the features of this Kickstarter, I thought we could ask them to describe their favorite adventure modules, and what they've learned from them.

Here then is our first entry. I hope this benefits your own adventure-writing skills in some measurable way. Enjoy!

A Bit About Tsojcanth: My Favorite Module, With A Caveat

By Lloyd Metcalf

The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth is one of my favorite adventure modules with a bit of a caveat that deserves a short explanation. 

When I did my heaviest playing of AD&D, I was a young lad from the back woods of Maine. It was due to circumstance and chance, and a friend’s grandmother stricken with “Satanic Panic,” that I ended up with the core rule books. Because we were young and short on income, modules and add-ons were considered a luxury in our first gaming group. Nearly all our adventures and worlds were created from scratch back in those days. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the joy of modules and the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I will attempt to comment on it here without revealing spoilers for players. As a warning, there are a still a few spoilers ahead!

Tsojcath (S4 revised) is a Greyhawk module written in 1982 by the man himself, E. Gary Gygax. When S4 was released, it was an expanded and improved version of the competition convention module “Tsojconth.” S4 came as a 32-page adventure with an additional 32-page booklet of monsters and magic items. The core of the adventure outline is to investigate the lost treasure of Iggwilv, where the party is confronted with her vampiric daughter. It tromps through 20 or so wilderness encounters, each with their own little sub-motivations. Hunters trapping hippogriffs, or being on patrol, etc. In the caverns there are also a number of sub-adventures and areas with their own flavor. 

The Inspiring Parts

There are a few things about Tsojcanth that make it one of my favorite modules as a game designer, DM and writer. Reading through it reminds me to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). The setup is nothing more than a few paragraphs. “There was mad archmage up there who had marvelous and wondrous treasure. No idea what happened to her.” Shortly after, it launches into the meat of the adventure where encounters begin. It reminds the reader that the DM of the group is master of their world and adventures. It then sort of says, “Now here are some guidelines for you to fill in.”

It reminds game designers that sometimes it doesn’t pay to over-think complex story lines. It’s also a reminder that you can have story twists and lines without a long soliloquy by the DM. The adventure cleverly reveals details about the story through player eyes. It makes the adventure fun and exciting and reveals the story without long exposés that put players to sleep at the table.

I am not sure if it is Gary’s writing, or the final editing, that makes the writing brief, succinct and exciting to read. The room descriptor text carries the same value and it’s loaded with suggested imagery that sets a DM up for success. The style is certainly something I strive for; indeed I often read bits of the module before I start outlining a project.

The encounters are summed up with numbered titles and a quick paragraph without complex “if - then” statement traps that I STILL tend to fall into when writing adventures. I can almost hear Gary’s voice when I fall victim saying, “Hey! Let the DM run the game, you just need to supply the framework!”

Writing this now is even creating a new burning desire to open Tsojcanth again to review the way I set up traps, challenges and encounters in my design. 

Adding Monsters and More

Tsojcanth added a number of new monsters in its 32-page supplement that accompanied the 32-page adventure. Many of these monsters made their way into the Monster Manual II. I almost always try to come up with new monsters and non-standard items to add to an appendix in my own adventures because of this. I feel it gives DMs some new tools to keep players eager to explore the adventure, even when they are well-versed with the text. A quest is most exciting when there is some element of the unknown, when death is real, and the story clear.

Keeping it Vivid

The cover art by Erol Otus sets the table up for great adventure. I can’t explain exactly how, but it does. The interior also has a visual pacing and ease of reading that makes the entire module a continuous fountain of inspiration for me personally. When running through descriptions of encounters and scenes, I find myself staring at the art, both interior and exterior, to set the scene effectively. If you don’t have a copy of this module, it’s worth picking it up in paper or PDF form wherever you can.

Keeping the Inspiration Flowing

It’s common practice to view and enjoy the work of masters and other creatives in the field to stay inspired and grow. It is possible to pull inspiration from others into your own work without plagiarizing, and adventure creation is no exception.

Adventure writers, RPG artists, gamers and DMs make up a tight community and it is my hope that through works like this  that we never see an end to flights of imagination, growth and adventure.

Lloyd Metcalf began gaming in the early eighties when he and his friends all pitched in for the Basic Red box D&D. From then on, he was always dreaming of other worlds, heroes and spells. Now as an adult, he can hardly believe it is his work to create, illustrate, and produce RPG supplements. It has been just over 30 years of immersion into the game and in the last few, he has been humbled and honored to have worked with many of the people who created and illustrated the game that changed his life. Lloyd’s website is at http://FailSquadGames.com

Next update: the Secret of the Slavers Stockade!

Jon Hook, Vincent DiCello, and 20 more people like this update.

Comments

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    1. Jim McLaughlin
      Superbacker
      on

      I really love this one, even though my character was killed by the Chasmes, as I recall.

    2. Vincent DiCello
      Superbacker
      on

      Cory - thanks for the link! I checked it out, some really good suggestions in the list, including all of the modules listed in these Updates so far.

      It would be great to see a more recent list, too. There are so many role playing game systems now, and thousands of adventure modules to choose from nowadays.

      Very hard to know which ones are the best to look at spending the money on. Seems like most are rated about the same on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

    3. Cory "DM Cojo" Gahsman on

      There was a ranking of the 30 greatest adventures in Dungeon magazine 116...I believe. It is referenced in this blog: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/09/30-greatest-d-adventures-of-all-time.html…

    4. Missing avatar

      Jarrett Perdue on

      You are dead-on about the quality of the art. Jim Holloway was such a workhorse for TSR, supporting Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, doing all of MMII, and many modules besides. I love how his back cover illo perfectly matched the adventure text.

    5. Vincent DiCello
      Superbacker
      on

      Lloyd - sounds like you looked for it, thanks! If you do find it, please post it, I for one would love to read it.

      Like you, I didn't have the funds in the early 80's to buy modules. I was lucky I had the DMG, PH, MM, a birthday subscription to Dragon magazine, some dice and a handful of pewter miniatures.

      Thank goodness things are different now! ;)

    6. Lloyd Metcalf on

      yw - I really do love that module. Although I think officially it falls somewhere in the late teens / early twenties of all-time greatest modules.
      there actually was a list somewhere - danged if I can find the link again

    7. Vincent DiCello
      Superbacker
      on

      Creator - I was going to ask for a list of some of the best fantasy modules ever made, but you beat me to it. Please keep them coming!

      Thanks Lloyd, great suggestion and background on this module!