Open Design Interview - From the Shore to the Sea
by Johnn Four
From Shore to Sea by Brandon Hodge is one of several Open
Design adventures currently underway. I say the first of
several because it's up to customers to support any or all
of three choices, for Call of Cthulhu, 4th Edition, and Pathfinder.
Wolfgang Baur's Open Design is a wonderful and innovative
product that customers help mould through ongoing feedback
and discussion while the adventure is actually being built.
Following are a few game master tips questions I lobbed over
the fence to Wolfgang and Brandon. With such expertise in
crafting solid adventures I figured we should tap into their
secrets so we can all build better stories for our
Adventure Creation Tips
Johnn: Could you provide a high level recipe for how you
plan out your adventures? If you broke it down into 6-12
steps, what would they be?
Brandon: I'm really big on sticking to theme. When I sit
down to craft something, I make lots of lists. Lists of
creatures. Lists of locales and major players. Lists of cool
events and environmental effects.
Then I start parsing them, sorting them into themes, scenes
and settings. I read something once about George Lucas and
how he would specify color palettes for his scenes.
Tattooine was yellow and brown. Endor was green. Hoth was
white. The Empire was monochromatic. I tend to work with
similar thematic guidelines, and anything on my lists that
starts to stick out compared to the rest gets shuffled or
abandoned as I narrow down these elements into their
eventual adventure components.
A good example is our creature collaboration on From Shore
to Sea. I gave patrons a big list of creatures culled from
available sources, and they were anything squishy and
tentacle-y and of the sea.
Since we're working with an aboleth as our antagonist, what
sort of creatures might be drawn to the "palette" of that
sort of monster? Weird crabs that inhabit discarded skulls?
Sure! Orcs? Not so much.
I've always had problems with monsters that are shoehorned
into adventures just for the sake of variety. If you are
aching to use a devil, save it for the next adventure - it
doesn't make sense to have it wandering in the sewers
underneath the thieves guild, and any backstory you have to
explain it is probably never going to be known by the
characters, so think of something else that doesn't make
them scratch their heads.
Johnn: Do you have any advice for GMs who want to make
awesome encounters for their game sessions?
Brandon: Environment! And weather. The SRD is chock-full of
so much hazardous fun, and a lot of GMs and designers just
don't use this to its potential.
In the last patron project, Halls of the Mountain King, I
had some patrons question my decision to use a particular
creature that was of relatively low CR in an encounter, but
when they saw the rough draft, they realized "oh, crap -
they're fighting this thing on the slippery side of a
mountain in a snowstorm while some of them are dangling from
an airship? Aha!" It was a tough encounter.
GMs have so many toys given to them to play with that I feel
are underutilized. Writing an adventure along the coast?
Have thick fog roll in...then put some nasty critters in it.
Instant atmosphere and a more challenging encounter!
I use detrimental weather effects a lot. I like keeping
players on their toes and out of that comfort zone of full
hit points and abilities. I like my players to be sort of
hobbled, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
Why was his character so awesome in that? Because he did
everything he did, and he was barefoot! With glass sticking
in his feet! Wow! Much more entertaining that some Dolph
Lundgren flick where bullets seem to bounce off of him
miraculously and he never seems to flinch.
GMs shouldn't be scared to impose environmental penalties on
their players, have traps spring in weird places in the
middle of combat and use hazards in new ways. Where is the
fun in everyone being at 100% all the time?
Johnn: What do you try to do to design interesting creature
encounters for game sessions?
Brandon: For my home game, I rarely take the time to create
intricately detailed creatures that my players are just
going to chop up in 3 rounds, and if you spend any time on
the various boards, you'll see lots of GMs talking about all
these monsters they spend so much time and energy creating
with tons of abilities and cool little things that the
players will never even see or experience.
Their time isn't being managed well if they aren't spending
that amount of time on what the players do. That is the most
important dictum a writer must follow. Fancy fluff,
creatures and backstory isn't worth anything if the players
never get to see it!
So don't spend so much time on these crazy beasts - worry
about the story, the environment and the experience.
For example, I'll take a standard OGL creature of about the
right CR, copy and paste it over from some SRD, and just
write a new description.
I had once had some thieves using corrupted potions of
gaseous form that were mutating them, so I used the stats
for belkers when the PCs had to fight them.
No need to go through the time and trouble of assigning
class levels and stats and abilities and feats - just yank
the closest creature, change the appearance (but keep in
mind its true type and other factors that might come into
play) and use it.
Good designers and GMs spend more time focusing on the
sights and sounds and smells experienced by the PCs than the
stats of the creatures - there are PLENTY of published
beasties, so use them.
Johnn: Tell us about how you keep your writing and planning
organised. Do you use software to plan adventures?
Wolfgang: The design discussions, polls, and brainstorms are
all hosted on the blogging service Livejournal. I've
considered moving it to a wiki or to a PHP messageboard
system, but.... It ain't broken, so I'm not that motivated
to change it.
We also use the d20pfsrd.com for OGL adventures
for Pathfinder designs, and the DDI
for 4th Edition adventures. Beyond those basics, it's not
really about your tools, but about how you plan and
The traditional tools work: an outline, a monster list, a
set of balanced encounters, working steadily to meet the
word count, and playtest thoroughly.
Johnn: What software do you use to write with and why?
Wolfgang: Open Design has contributions from a lot of
designers, so it's hard to provide a universal answer. One
designer uses Word exclusively in the Outline View, which
seems to work for him. Me, I use Word for outlining, writing
and (most importantly) editing/commenting during the
revision process. We also use a free Word 2007 plug-in to
generate PDF files for playtesters.
I suppose we could be using Notepad or Final Draft, and I
tried Google Docs briefly while writing Empire of the
Ghouls. Actually, I had high hopes for Google Docs, but it
was sort of a disaster; file size issues, file corruption,
data loss, you name it. I went back to Word.
Johnn: Whether writing professionally or as a GM trying to
prepare a campaign, finding time is tough. How do you carve
chunks out of real life to write?
Brandon: I'm a lucky guy. I'm incredibly busy with two
popular retail businesses as well as politics in Austin, but
I have an absolutely crack crew, so they have my back when a
deadline is looming and I need to stay home.
It also helps that I type fast, and it is amazing what I can
get to paper with the right quiet room and a strong cup of
coffee first thing in the morning. It probably helps that I
routinely write 1,000 words or so before I even realize I've
woken up. Some of my best material gets typed before I get
around to stumbling toward my morning shower.
Johnn: What do you use to capture ideas - notebook and pen,
software, voice recorder?
Wolfgang: I prefer pen and paper for ideas as I move toward
an outline, and I send myself email sometimes. Web services
like Evernote tempt me to a ridiculous degree.
The key element is to get the good ideas (and the bad ones)
down while they're fresh, and then shape them as you find
time to think them through. Some will turn out to be dead
ends; if you have a long list of things that inspire you,
jotted notes, clever tactics, NPC names, etc., I find it
easy to let them stew or to spread them all over a desk when
I'm trying to hammer them into something coherent.
Johnn: How to you deal with ideas once they've been
Brandon: It is very important to catalog ideas properly,
because you never know when you'll need an idea again. I
have stacks and stacks of old ledger books of drawings and
notes and scribbles and ideas going all the way back to
Good ideas are incredibly valuable, and you've got to keep
track of them. I do go through mine regularly, and recycle
the best ones every chance I get. I also have this running
digital document to record ideas that, believe it or not,
started off as a Word 95 document and has survived countless
computers, laptops, hard drive failures and data transfers.
That thing is almost 15 years old!
Wolfgang: I think Brandon's wrong on this one, at least for
the way I work. I have old notebooks and old hard drives,
and most of them are filled with junk. Most ideas are junk
and are ephemeral, worth discarding when their time has
passed. I open old notes and they are cryptic or just out of
date. I'm no longer passionate about those ideas after a few
And I find, frankly, that there are a LOT more ideas in the
world than there is time to execute on them. The trick is to
move quickly on the good stuff, and let go of all the dross.
Game Mastering Published Adventures
Johnn: As a designer, how do you envision GMs using your
product? Do you think they should read through the whole
adventure first? Should they make notes as they read - if
so, what kinds of notes?
Wolfgang: They should read the whole thing if they have
time, but if not, I tend to write setup/stats/fallout, so
each encounter can be fairly self-contained. In many cases
(like the Wrath of the River King or the Tales of Zobeck adventures), the pieces are modular enough to plug and play
in anyone's campaign that is in roughly the right style or
environment; the Feywild for Wrath of the River King, urban
adventures for Tales of Zobeck.
What sort of notes? That depends very much on their GMing
style and their players' style. Myself, I tend to highlight
NPC names and motivations for roleplaying encounters, basic
hp, AC, and my favorite tactical element of any combat
encounter. For mysteries, I tend to highlight the crucial
clue or information that ends a scene.
Johnn: If you were a GM who has From Shore to Sea in their
hands for the first time, what should they do with it to get
the best gaming sessions out of it?
Brandon: Like any adventure, GMs need to get a feel for the
whole picture for the game they are about to run. They need
immerse themselves in it, but at the same time try to not
anticipate what the players are going to do so they don't
make assumptions and get caught off guard.
Our best home games happen when the GM wrote the material
himself, so when GMs pick up a published adventure, they
need to know it that well. Get messy with it! Scribble notes
all over it. They should underline the parts that really
call to them and latch on to the roles and encounters
they'll be enthusiastic about running and really make those
Roll with any hiccups during play and try to react naturally
if something goes off script. My goal as a designer is to
provide a GM with an adventure that will run as if they
wrote it themselves, and I always keep that in mind when I'm
Johnn: Will From Shore to Sea be available as a PDF, print,
or both? Do you think GMs prepare differently based on
whether they have a PDF or print version? If so, how?
Wolfgang: Patrons of From Shore to Sea get both a playtest
PDF and the final published print, plus a PDF of the Sunken
Empires sourcebook full of new monsters, ruins, and spells
for Pathfinder gaming.
I prepare from both print and PDF most of the time. I prefer
PDF on the road and print at the table.
Taking Advantage of Open Design Patronage
Johnn: Let me now be one of those interviewers who hogs all
the camera time to ask long questions and then answers their
own questions in the process. That's my favourite kind of
Being an Open Design customer, or patron as it's officially
known, offers gamers a lot of opportunities not found
elsewhere. I'm not sure if people realize this is not just
an adventure they're buying. They get in on the ground floor
of design, can chat with you through the Open Design
customers-only blog, can chat with other customers, can read
your design insights and thinking-out-loud blog posts, and
can vote, discuss, and change the module as it's being
As someone who would eventually GM the finished product,
this support and interaction offers unprecedented
opportunity to run an amazing campaign. What advice would
you give customers on how to leverage Open Design to make
From Shore to Sea a hit-out-of-the-park, all-time-best,
slobberknocker campaign with it?
Brandon: Well, you did really nail the answer already!
Patrons have the opportunity to take part in every aspect of
the design, and they should take full advantage of it. They
really do have front row tickets to the whole show. They'll
know exactly why things are done the way they are, and the
best ways to circumvent problems that might arise when they
finally run it.
Trust me, patrons have already picked the thing apart
looking for holes and inconsistencies in brainstorms,
collaborations and playtests. By the time a patron has a
finished product in hand and is ready to run it, they know
the adventure inside and out, especially if they are active
on the boards.
And, more often than not, active patrons can flip through
the adventure and say "that was my idea" or "I contributed
that!" So, it comes down to familiarity, which is what
anyone running a published adventure needs to strive for
with anything they plan on running.
So, what better way to be intimately familiar with From
Shore to Sea than to actually take an active part in
creating it from the ground up? It is an incredible
opportunity and an awesome experience.
* * *
Johnn: Thanks for the interview and advice, guys! Also,
thanks very much for the ongoing Roleplaying Tips support.
Tips readers, learn more about From Shore to Sea.