Writing Dungeons and Dragons DMsGuild Adventures in the RPG Writer Workshop

My experience writing a Dungeons Dragons adventure as an RPG Writer Workshop participant and publishing on the DMsGuild.

Learning to write for others and possibly self-publish is my goal for this blog, and is also why I finally got a twitter account ten years after everybody else. The RPG Writer Workshop is one of many possible ways for both learning and publishing adventures, and this post recounts my experiences as I do the workshop lessons. The goal is to inspire and even help other DMsGuild writers.

I have run RPG games for thirty years and have carefully kept notes in perhaps twentyseven of them. I’m not only a rabid RPG gamer but also a rabid RPG book buyer. I have always preferred to create my own setting and adventures, and I have not really paid attention to the online stores like DriveThruRpg, except titles I’ve got as part of various crowdfunding campaigns, and picking up a couple of long-lost D&D classics.

This slowly changed as I began lurking on the fringes of #DnD Twitter, where I soon realized Ashley Warren is a key person. Eventually, I even learned why: Warren runs the RPG Writer Workshop. The praise and many references suddenly made sense, and in short, joining the Fall/Winter 2019 RPG Writer Workshop seen like a natural step for me as a learning writer.

The workshop is released to the participants over six weeks. The goal is to write and publish a 3500-word one-shot adventure by the end. This clear goal and modest word-count immediately appealed, although I knew I would miss time because I had a vacation scheduled sometime around the fifth week. I also realized I’m very unlikely to find time for a proper playtest, which is a problem. Regardless, I was excited to get started.

The following is not a review, but a journal of my process and what I have learned. I have already shared some thoughts on the workshop Discord and my own Twitter account, but the following covers my whole process, such as it was.

That said, since you’re still reading, let me get two things out of the way: 1) the RPG Writer Workshop was worthwhile, and 2) they did not pay me to say so, I paid them to participate.

A Warm Welcome and a Map

I got immediate access to a brief welcome introduction, and a beautiful map and graphics for later use Immediately upon signing up. The welcome explained how the workshop works and immediately induced trust. Warren and her crew have a plan and presumably know what they are doing.

I had initially hatched an idea about goblins battling brigands before the workshop began. The idea was to tie my adventure to the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (2014) and write an adventure for beginners.

The welcome included “The Mountain of Doom” map by Meshon Cantrill, but the map unfortunately did not fit my idea. I wanted to adhere to the Forgotten Realms lore as strictly as possible, and I had no recollection of a mountain temple in the area of Phandelver in the starter set.

The map is really good, but was I supposed to write a specific adventure instead of my own idea? The discussions on the Workshop Discord suggested otherwise. I mulled on it for a day, and soon had two ideas instead of just one. The new idea was a mountain temple in the jungle harboring vampires, so I knew I could write something for the map included in the workshop. I could build on the Tomb of Annihilation (2017) or perhaps even the Isle of Dread (1981), which would be lots of fun.

Worst case, my goblins would have to wait, but perhaps this jungle vampire temple idea was better? The map is certainly better than anything I can do, and sometimes blessings come unexpected.

Assured I could make this work, I waited for the lessons to actually open.

Preparation

The first part of the workshop is preparation: finding a writer’s mindset, setting a goal, creating a workspace, and picking the tools.

A 3500-word count should be easy, which meant I should be able to actually finish an adventure. I realize that this blog post is likely to be longer than the adventure itself, which is perfectly fine. I have a nice workspace, I am determined to write, and my better half knows what I am up to and is supportive.

My tools have been Moleskine journals, google docs, and Grammarly for a while now, and I am excited to perhaps add more tool through this workshop. I have never really been able to make my writing publishable, and I am eager to learn more about that.

The workshop provided a sample .docx file template, which did not work properly in OpenOffice, but the document is optional if I understand the lesson correct. We’ll see.

The Anatomy of a One-Shot lesson explain the three-act story structure, which is familiar territory and is something I have explored in older blog posts regarding creating adventures.

Music, Moodboards, Movies, and Videogames

I’ve always written to music, while tools/toys like Pinterest is relatively new to me. I do not use Pinterest much these days, but it was crucial when I still figured out how to start the blog, how to begin writing sensibly, and how I eventually can self-publish my stories. Pinterest is a visual search engine that quickly picks up your interests and will show up relevant pins. It is worth checking out.

My favorite writing music includes moody soundtracks by John Carpenter and Christopher Young and more rousing stuff by folks like Trevor Morris.

My top ten fantasy writing soundtracks:

    • John Carpenter The Prince of Darkness
    • Christopher Young Hellraiser
    • Trevor Morris Dragon Age Inquisition
    • Trevor Morris Vikings
    • Inon Zur Dragon Age: Origins
    • Inon Zur Dragon Age II
    • Hans Zimmer X-men: Dark Phoenix
    • Hans Zimmer The Dark Knight
    • Basil Poledouris Conan the Barbarian
    • Wojchiech Kilar Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Needless to say, my stories have a darker side, bordering sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy, if not outright horror.

My other sources of inspiration are, of course, books, movies, and videogames. Tolkien’s impact on my writing, and life really, cannot be measured, although I rarely reread any of his books. I usually stick to the movies or the BBC audio play when I want to tap that wellspring. Also, I love the Dragon Age franchise, which is a huge help whenever I am at a loss of what I am doing in my creative efforts.

Outlining, Mind Maps, and the Adventure Maps

Outlining is a topic near and dear to me after more than two years of writing fiction.

I have always believed my plotting is my strongest suit as a writer, while the actual prose is lacking. My fiction often starts as a simple line or idea, which turns to bits of fiction using the snowflake method or a bullet point list of story beats. I’ve done this hundreds of times and have scrapped most of these lists. A dozen still linger in my big outline file and I occasionally move them around, and only a handful has evolved further into actual fiction.

The RPG Writer Workshop spend a full lesson on prewriting, and rightly so. I would argue that while improvising an RPG session is fun and an art form on its own right, writing one by the seat of your pants is counterintuitive and would require needless revision.

Game prep is about setting up some story points, providing a structure and a foundation, but is the characters who capture the story, not the GM. A good adventure is about clarity, structure, and setting up story beats.

My takeaway for this lesson is the part regarding mind mapping. I know the concept, of course, and have briefly tried it, most recently while trying the Scrapple software to illustrate branching plot points for a heist adventure. Getting a Scrapple license is something I consider, in which I especially loved the ability to move nodes around. Freemap is a free alternative. Downloading and trying Freemap enabled me to quickly visualize my adventure.

The Goblins of Duskwood mindmap using Freemap.
The Goblins of Duskwood mindmap using Freemap.
The Goblins of Duskwood Mindmap using Scrapple.
The Goblins of Duskwood Mindmap using Scrapple.

Not sure I really need a mindmap for a one shot, but I’m working out the basics here, so the prewrite and organization lesson of the workshop was worthwhile.

Finally, there are the actual maps for the adventure, and I figured I needed at least three: an area map, a cabin in the woods, and a cave. I set out mapping the two first with Profantasy‘s Campaign Cartographer 3, with alright results, while postponing the third as I always struggle with dungeons in that particular software. That’s me in a nutshell, saving the hard part to later.

Accessibility

Accessibility is important. The D&D community is one of the few things I enjoy about Twitter, and has been an eyeopener to what D&D can be beyond my own experiences. I write for others and want the readers to enjoy what I do. I have written for myself for years, and I want to push it further, which is why I signed up for the workshop in the first place. I want potential readers to understand what they are getting before they download or make a purchase. I do not want to waste anyone’s time or money or sell an unwanted product.

Accessibility means both the actual content and the presentation. I need to understand terms like trigger words, tagged PDFs, Stylized Doc, and Simplified Doc – all new to me and means a bit of learning curve.

I usually do not shy away from mature content, but there is a difference between challenging the reader and just being a douchebag. There is lots of douchebaggery out there disguised as humor or (worse) free speech, and I have no desire to add to that.

Potential trigger words for my adventure would perhaps the grey morals and betrayal, topics I take for granted in a D&D adventure. How do I portray different species like humans and goblins? I grew up reading Tolkien, I know goblins, right?

Then there is the presentation. For instance, ensuring the adventure accessible to blind gamers never occurred to me, which shows how important this is. I should ensure I described the maps as well as I could with words.

The technical side remained a bit unclear to by the end of the lesson, although standard word processor formatting like “body” and “heading #” is familiar and appears to be important also for accessability.

Writing the Damned Thing, or Crafting a Narrative

Part two of the workshop begins in the fifth lesson: crafting the narrative. I’ve written a synopsis and begun the first draft on my goblin story while following the initial lessons. The draft is comfortably at 3000 words and is nowhere done, so I’ve already overwritten the damned thing. Some parts I clearly need to expand, while others need trimming. I do not plan on attempting any freelancing, so keeping to the word count is unlikely to be an issue for me, but a facade of professionalism would be nice for a change.

I also have only effectively three weeks until release, so I am short on time. I know the release date is optional, but the spirit of professionalism haunts, as I mentioned, and I want to benefit from the zeitgeist the release date generates.

Tough Choices

Regardless, the fifth lesson is about crafting tough decisions. Nice, I like that, as I believe I have mentioned in previous posts. What I have not done is clearly define what that actually means, what choice categories (not examples) are we talking about. Mentioning the Mass Effect 2 suicide mission gives readers an example, but how do I categorize this mission? The workshop provides some categories to consider and reminds me a choice is missing in my draft (the goblins want to make a deal).

Taking a Shot at the Plot

I have a plot and a draft at this point, but its overwritten and lacking at the same time, and needs severe tightening to meet the word count goal and still make sense. It depends on how long this one-shot is supposed to be. My games are typically three hours, and I have previously reasoned this gives me perhaps four or five scenes to play around with. Anything more is likely to feel rushed, very easy, or both.

World Building, Names, and Believable NPCS

The world building and believable NPCs are separate lessons, and while they are short, the work is vital. Tutor Kaleb Kramer emphasizes world building through evocative names and dialogue, rather than info dumps. Although I love writing info dumps, many agree that it not a great read. Imagine that! I need to go through my list of locations and NPCs and make sure backstory is incorporated in names, possible dialogue, and other details, and not just the adventure background at the beginning of the adventure.

Tutor Jeff Ellis emphasizes who the NPCs are, what they want, and why the characters are picked for the job. Damned good questions. Everyone in the story should want something even if it is just a glass of water (freely from Kurt Vonnegut).

My backstory and summary clearly showed that the exciting part of this (at the time overwritten) one-shot is the NPC motivations and character choices – as the norm is in my homebrew game. The games I run are rarely about fight set-piece combat and fantastic locations. My stories are about characters and choices. That is what I do best, if anything, and is what I should focus on.

That said, I very often have weak villains, partially because I’m an obsessive world builder, but also because I do not want caricature villains. Villains are ordinary people who set out doing their best, and somehow to lot along the way. I find stick-characters boring. Darth Vader is not that interesting unless you know who Anakin was. Denethor and Grima Wormtongue is much more compelling than Sauron.

A minor problem with my outline was that I had this idea that the adventure should fit early in my Sword Coast-based modules, from the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (2014) to Baldur’s Gate: Decent into Avernus (2019), which meant I had not included a quest giver. I could always add one, but the character would take up word count without really adding to the story. I had five interesting NPCs already, so the adventure was already crowded for a one-shot. On the other hand, the adventure is about betrayal and regret, and it is tempting to add another layer with a deceitful quest giver.  If that means the combat encounters will be thin, so be it.

Maps

I developed the maps at the tail end for the first draft. I have used Campaign Cartographer for my homebrew for years, and while my overland maps are alright, the dungeon maps is always a problem. I quickly put together a nice map of the area using the Mike Schley art style, which should resonate well with D&D players as long I include proper credits, but I immediately hit a wall once I got around to do the cave. So I had to choose between dubious computer-generated maps or my own Dyson Logos imitations.

The workshop added more nice-looking maps from Foot of the Mountain Adventures and others, at this point, but I had no time or desire the rewrite the adventure, so my own mapping skills would have to do.

Editing the Damned Thing, or Making the Adventure Actually Work

My first draft hit 6000 words by the time all the scenes were in place and hit 7292 words by the time the first draft was done. I loved my idea of the two factions of regretful villains. I thought it was a good idea, and I still do.

However, the adventure was a front-loaded set up with lots of backstory and intrigue, no middle-part, and a weak resolution. They say the first draft is telling the story to yourself, and I hoped that is true. There was no space for a new monster, and I probably needed one for a goblin warlock, so edits are required. I was determined to stick to the 3500-word count as an exercise.

Most of the backstory had to go, and the DM would have to figure out their own story as needed – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The middle part had to be buffed up, while there would be no space for the optional second encounter with the goblins. The social encounters and the dark secret had by the tightened and punched up a bit. Hopefully, I would find space for a goblin warlock as well.

Another hurdle was balancing the encounters. Usually, I balance encounters by the pitch of the players’ wincing, and I often know I’ve pushed too hard when they look at me with disbelief. That clearly will not work for a published adventure. I wanted to write a 1st-level adventure, but clearly, it is not what I am doing. I had to downgrade the encounters while hinting at a broader conflict. The last thing I wanted to do is screw up someone’s first game.

 

Goblins a-la-carte. Building Dungeons and Dragons 5e encounters with an experience point budget shows how the game is supposed to scale.

Layout, Scrivener, OpenOffice, and the GM Binder

So here’s my problem: I love good design. I would not be able to design an attractive document even if I spent a year doing so. So this is where I hoped the workshop somehow magically would make me a passable layout artist.

Another consideration is whatever I want to do in the future. I want to write and create maps when necessary, and present it to the world as clean as I can make it, and when I need something more elaborate, I would prefer to hire someone to do it for me. My best course of action is probably to finally get a Scrivener license, but that is where my other writing projects seem to be heading. I find myself bogged down in managing files and losing track of what I am working on, and Google Docs do not cut it anymore for staying organized. Do not get me wrong, I love being able to write on the phone and will continue to do that, but it is the other stuff that has become increasingly harder.

The next problem is time. The workshop deadline was approaching, and I was determined to follow the program, so a faster fix would nice, at least for now. Also, Scrivener 3 kept getting postponed, so there was that.

The solution appeared to either be the GM Binder or use an OpenOffice template from the DM’s Guild store.

The GM Binder is a service I was aware of but had not used because I did not who and what they are, and I wanted to control my work as much as possible. But beggars can’t be choosers, and trusting the workshop and Warren means trusting their partners as well. Reading the GM Binders’ Terms of Use was reassuring. Notably, they do not claim ownership of my content, so perhaps it was time to set up my GM Binder account.

I’d previously used an OpenOffice template a bit while exploring options. I had reformatted a couple of blog posts into an adventure about a rough neighborhood, with fair results. OpenOffice was a viable option, and I had not to decide just yet.

Playtest

I had no time to playtest the adventure myself. Worse, the adventure featured potentially hazardous encounters, which I downgraded as much as possible while emphasizing the danger. This is undoubtedly where I can screw up someone’s game, something I absolutely do not want. I may have downgraded too much, and the adventure turned out tame.

The workshop’s playtest format was clear and to the point. Any serious feedback using the form should be a great help for any adventure writer.

If you read it, or even played it, feel free to comment below. I want to revise the adventure in the future if necessary.

Peptalks

Warren and crew have been nice enough to sprinkle the workshop with links and pep talks. I really enjoyed this. My immediate goal for the workshop is to get a tiny adventure out the door, actually, finish something and send it off into the world. My overall goal is to actually learn something and be inspired.

The inclusion of screenwriter concepts like story beats and beat sheets is both useful and perhaps obvious once you are familiar with the terms. The story beats is the action, what actually happens in your three-act story. I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat a few months ago, and there are many story structure similarities with great RPGs like the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (2014) and what Hollywood considers good storytelling. The workshop offers a different take and well worth reading.

The Final Push and DMsGuild Release Day

Returning to the adventure after a week off in the last week leading up to the publishing day was interesting. First, a week away gave me fresher eyes when rereading what I had written. Sadly there were no playtest notes waiting for me, so that would have to wait for a revision if that ever occurred. My progress on the workshop was at 80%, and I had to make some hard choices on how to spend the remaining hours I had available. I have no idea what the remaining 20% actually if as of writing this.

My objectives were the same as when I started:

  1. Meet the deadline.
  2. Meet the word count.
  3. Do everything, or as much as possible, myself.
  4. Write well.
  5. Create an engaging reading experience.

Something had to go, and clearly, the word count would be an issue. I set about self-editing the adventure, cutting what I could, and each pass added more words to set the scenes and make sure I had transitions between the different parts of the adventure and make sure I had room for real player choices.

I changed my mind on the quest giver to make the adventure more accessible on the fly, which, of course, came with a new subplot. The goblin warlock was cut.

Any Forgotten Realms references were long gone, although I doubt I contradict the setting. Everything regarding the hunter’s cabin was cut, including  my best looking Campaign Cartographer map. There was no way I could trim the adventure down to 3500 words. After three-four readthroughs and lots of red ink, I just had to let it go of the text and lock down the actual document. The writing was as good I could make it at this point.

I settled for the OpenOffice template found on the DMsGuild, my hand-drawn maps, and set to work assembling the file. I had hoped to find a better tool than OpenOffice, but I am no design artist, so it just had to suffice. Plotting in two small maps should be within the range of my OpenOffice skills, and fortunately, it worked out.

As for the maps themselves, I gave up on the computer-generated dungeon map and settled for my own drawings to keep the maps roughly similar. The layout went surprising well, all things considered.

I updated my drivethrurpg account, put up the file, and it was online shortly after. Scary. It was done.

Five Lessons Learned From the RPG Writer Workshop

As mentioned above, this is just my takeaway with the time I was able to devote to the workshop. I wish I had more time and made better choices when I wrote the adventure. This post has not been a review of the workshop, but rather my journal as I stumbled through the lessons.

In summary:

  1. Create the Encounter List Early. I lost wasted time by adjusting an overly ambitious plot involving goblin and bandit bands to fit the restrictions of a 1st-level Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Worse, I had no desire to wipe a beginning party
  2. Focus on the Beginning and the End. A great start and finish are essential for RPG sessions, and the word-count adds up so quickly when you are meticulously explaining  what’s going on. There was no way I could stay below the 3500 word-count without butchering my idea, and in the end, I had no time to do that. Make the cuts in the middle part of the adventure, or better yet: write the middle part last when you know how many words you need.
  3. Self-editing is Hard. Alright, I already knew this, but the looming deadline drove the point home. Every re-read unveiled new errors, up to the point I just had to let it go to meet the deadline and upload the damned thing. In hindsight, I also missed a beat by not creating a sufficiently dark mid-point of the adventure.
  4. The Bare-Bones Technical Side is Easy. It turned out the technical side of DMsGuild publishing is just as easy as it promises. I made the Goblins of Duskwood with OpenOffice and a scanner, using the template found on the DMsGuild site. The document is primitive but clean and functional for the reader, and I did everything myself. I can actually do this, even if I never find a team to give my adventures a professional polish.
  5. Gamers Have Many Options. Uploading the adventure was a thrill and a tiny milestone in my writing life, and earning a five-star review and few bucks even more so. But, as expected, gamers have a lot of options, and primitive, clean and functional may not be what paying gamers are looking for. That is ok – I knew this, and the workshop warned me. It is also an excellent opportunity to remind myself why do I do this.

My experience writing Dungeons Dragons adventure as an RPG Writer Workshop participant.

So Was it Fun? Was it Worth the Money?

Hell yes! The Workshop offered sound advice and structure at the bargain price of three soggy burgers, and any shortcomings in the Goblins of Duskwood is clearly on me.

This post turned out just like my process during the workshop slow and meticulous at the beginning and half-assed and choppy at the end, so I am having a circle of life moment here.

This post turned out longer than the target word count, but shorter than the adventure I uploaded.

You can look forward to a free follow-up adventure, the Zombies of the Marshland, coming soon on the DMsGuild, and this time I’ll finish the workshop before uploading the file.

It would be fun to return to my “sun temple” idea as well sometime in the future. We’ll see.

Related Posts

The Reading List

So who is Ashley Warren anyway? I can’t say I know, but here’s an interview on Nonzersumgames.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is a textbook on Hollywood story structure and an interesting read for anyone who wants to write stories. Just to show how relevant this is, check out the blog post on Five Lessons from Star Wars Episode VIII The Last Jedi.

The Goblins of Duskwood is found on the DM’s Guild.

The Goblins of Duskwood is a Dungeons Dragons RPG Writer Workshop one-shot adventure.

 

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