This first appeared as a series of tweets on twitter from Pandathiest. I thought it was so insightful, I asked them if I could reproduce it on here and they kindly said yes!
The author, Ben Adelman @Pandatheist, is on the judge's panel of the ENnies - which for those of you who don't know are effectively the RPG equivalent of Oscars (but without the boring acceptance speeches!). This is well worth a read for anyone wanting to improve their adventure design quality regardless of whether they want to win an award or not. (Which personally I've never thought about doing.) It stands to reason that what makes a good contender for a prize-winning adventure is likely to make for a good adventure to game! Without further ado I give you....
Adventure Awards - a thread
I can't talk specifics about things submitted to the ENnies, but I thought it might be interesting to break down how I evaluate adventures. Unlike other categories, a lot of what makes an adventure great is both technical and reproducible. Let's dig in.
1) Ease of Use
Adventures are technical documents. They're a set of tools for the gm to use, and it does not matter how good the content is if the gm cant reference it at the table.
I have like 50 threads by this point on the topic, but an easy test is: do I have to flip a page to answer a question mid-scene/room. I don't have to run an adventure to know its a problem. Similarly, is information buried in the text?
I like bullet points for quick reference before a paragraph, but that's not the only solution. Bold/italicize/underline key words as a reminder. Anything to make them stand out. Use tables. Use diagrams. Use headers. Different types of information are best presented in different ways
Doing all this doesn't guarantee your adventure is good, but it does mean its easy to run, and that means a lot. So much advice about gm prep goes out the window if you have good information design. If you’ve done it right I barely need to prep.
2) Player Choice
This is another thing you don't necessarily need to play an adventure to spot, and it can show up in multiple different ways. List within a list!
2a) Choke Point
Is there a spot in the adventure that doesn’t work if the players do something different?
A real common one is unkillable villains. Or hidden villains. NPCs in general really. If your adventure introduces an NPC to a party and assumes that NPC will be alive later on? Let me point you to RPG Reddit because you will find thousands of stories to warn you.
The party gets a lucky crit, the party decides to incapacitate the NPC or lock them up, the party…
PCs are gloriously unpredictable. They are chaos incarnate. They will astound you with their brilliance and stupidity and its why I love RPGs. Don't assume what a party will do.
The second most common version of this is assumed morality. You cannot guess whether a party agrees with you on what the “right” thing to do is, let alone if they care. You cant make them.
If your adventure hinges on players being whatever you think “good” looks like, it won't work. Morality is cultural and local and you cannot assume action based on it.
Before I get into this one I will say, the longer the adventure the more this matters. A linear adventure designed for 2 hours of play isn't really a problem. A campaign expected to last months is.
Linear adventures are boring. Or at least, they're usually boring.
Its probably worth a whole other thread, but what matters to a player at the table is that they feel like they could have done something else. Maybe its multiple looping paths in a dungeon. Maybe its multiple witnesses(or suspects!) in an investigation.
You can have the same end scene but you need the players to feel like they have a meaningful choice based off environmental clues. In a dungeon, for instance, this could be sounds from one corridor or footprints to another.
If there isn't a meaningful choice then the players are just reenacting the designer's story, and I promise you I can recommend 100 good books that will be more interesting.
This is a taste thing, but if you give me an adventure where I have a set of combats I can't avoid and no other options I’ll request we switch to video games or board games because they have more interesting tactical options. Let me talk to people.
If I want to fight I’ll fight. The game supports that by giving stats for literally everything, under the sun or no. And if you have ideas for a cool fight include it! Bizarre rooms with things to hide behind, to throw, to light on fire, and to swing on can be amazing!
But give me other things to do. Places for the rogue to sneak about, places for magic to do cool things. Places for the cleric to test their faith. Variety is the spice of life, and your adventures too.
4) A Hook
Why do the players care? Love, revenge, a friend in danger, a mountain of coins. Why should the pcs get involved? Because if it's not interesting the players will just nope out. This town is creepy? We've seen every horror movie ever. Let's leave.
Oh, wait we've been gifted a mansion and the artefact buried at its heart if we only stay the night? One night? I guess its not that creepy after all. Reward should be commiserate to expected danger because if you've actually given the players agency they can always just leave.
Make them want to stay! Scratch their curiosity. And key to that is:
5) Player Facing
All information in the adventure should be able to be learned by the PCs. End of story. If I see the phrase “use to be used for” I get annoyed.
This is bloat pure and simple, and while I will be nice about other things on this list here I get annoyed. If a player can never find out a piece of information you're making the adventure harder to use for no reason. That's information you've put in front of a GM's eyes they don't need.
Its information they have to skip while running the adventure. It makes it harder to find important information they do need in the midst of a tense sequence. It kills the flow of play. I mentioned at the start that an adventure is a toolbox.
Imagine having to pick through kitchen knives to get the hammer you need. That's information the players will never need. *deep breath*
Mini rant over, let's get down to the last wee bit.
6) The Core Idea
Last but not least. Is it cool? Is it unique? Is it interesting? Is it new? Is it an old take but better executed? It's deeply unsatisfying to me to try to explain why I like an idea because on some level it's personal. Whats memorable to me might not be to you.
It's not reproducible like the rest of the list. Its art. Like, I can talk for hours about why an idea is great, but a competent idea that doesn't pop? I kind of wave my hands and gesticulate wildly.
Wrapping it Up
I try to take a holistic look at adventures. What's included that shouldn't be, what's not included that needed to be. Does its brilliance outshine its weaknesses? Sometimes a set-up is so good that the execution just needs to be overlooked as long as it's playable.
Sometimes the idea is fine, but the execution is so perfect it elevates the whole product. Adventures that require no prep. They're easy. Open the book and its thought of questions I couldn't have imagined and provides tools to answer. You can tell they've been playtested heavily.
They sing at the table. The dream is that it's a great idea perfectly executed.
Reading between the lines here, there are a ton of great adventures that won't get an award and THAT DOES NOT MAKE THEM BAD. They could be brilliant, but tough to GM.
They could be competent but not stand out for whatever reason. A successful adventure, to me, is an adventure that helps the GM provide a good experience for the table. That's it. I loved Atomic Blonde despite it not winning an award. It was a great time. It was, to me, successful
I see the awards as a way to highlight the best things of the year. An opportunity to hold up the products that took all this stuff put it together and “got it right”. To represent the community and rejoice. Its been an absolute honor being able to read all your amazing work.
Doing this has been an incredible experience. Thank you so much for your creativity, your trust, your patience with my numerous and miserable spelling errors*, and thank you all for reading. 💖 Ben Adelman
*the text was edited by The Grinning Frog team so any outstanding errors are probably our fault!
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Image from an old game at The Grinning Frog HQ - in the picture is one traitor NPC, one now absent PC, one now dead PC & two ongoing PCs (and a die standing in for a magic skull!)... good times!