Monday, June 20, 2016

What is "Easy to Prep" and Why Haven't the Big Publishers Noticed?

A question I asked a while back on G+: What published adventure "modules" are easy to prep and run? And what makes them so usable at the table?

These were the answers that cleaved most closely to the heart of the question:

Adventure Name: Isle of Dread
What makes it easy to prep and run: modicum of details, regional maps, minimalist npcs

Adventure Name: Stonehell
What makes it easy to prep and run: room maps and keys fit on a two-page spread

Adventure Name: Sleeping Prince of the Feathered Swine
What makes it easy to prep and run: clean layout, concise text

Adventure Name: Tegel Manor
What makes it easy to prep and run: 2-line room descriptions

Adventure Name: Rusted Vault
What makes it easy to prep and run: excellently organized, concisely written

Adventure Name: Castle of the Mad Archmage
What makes it easy to prep and run: two line room descriptions

Adventure Name: Greyhawk Ruins
What makes it easy to prep and run: compact descriptions, cohesive levels

Adventure Name: Death Frost Doom/Tower of the Stargazer
What makes it easy to prep and run: extremely clear, well explained

Some Observations We Can Make From This Admittedly Slim Data:

  • The people on G+ that responded almost universally cited D&D adventures as their examples. (There was one honorable mention of Savage Worlds.) This, in itself, is a fact that asks questions: Did I skew he answers by using the word "modules" in the first place? Is G+ the hang-out of choice for people who like old D&D things? Is it just that D&D is actually synonymous with RPG adventures in our heads? I think all of those became factors that colored the kind of answers I got.
  • The overlap in answers is obvious: people are willing to buy (and recommend) modules with fewer words in them. Words like "compact," "concise," and "minimalist" detail the commonalities of what people agree on that make an adventure easy to prep and run.
  • Most of the things on that list? Made by small-press or hobbyist publishers. Again, that could be an artifact of who I polled, but I think it would be wrong to discount the ideas that small publishers have less at stake (and can therefore take bigger creative risks) and that creative inertia has set in among the major RPG publishers for reasons that are both economic and cultural.
  • Two people noted a preference for two-line room descriptions; is that the Platonic ideal? 
  • The primary skill to master if you want to make a more verbose adventure a better experience to run: taking notes with an eye toward condensing the material. If we were chefs and not gamers, I'd advise you to learn to make reductions, not gravies. 
All of this seems to beget more questions: Why do modules that are a far cry from two-line descriptions outsell those easier to prep adventures? And why haven't modules published by the big dogs of the industry changed all that much in formatting and design throughout the years if there are writing practices out there that are better suited to this kind of creative product?
  • The answer to both, as far as I can tell, is that they don't have to. There is no economic pressure on the big publishers to innovate within the space of "the adventure module"; their adventure lines seemingly must sell well enough to actively promote a mindset that assumes that the wheel does not need to be reinvented.
  • This is, of course, a pretty good example of base-superstructure at work: the economics of what has sold in the past and what continues to sell for the big publishers dictates the assumption that more expansive or dense or maximalist adventure products hit the sweet spot of being both desired and profitable, which in turn feeds into a publishing culture that doesn't have to imagine anything beyond or even explore the boundaries of the way adventures have traditionally been written and sold, which in turn feeds into an economic situation where those products dominate the marketplace, which in turn feeds into a culture get the picture.
  • Which is interesting because that kind of inertia actually dictates that any innovation will come from outside the people working on adventures for the big publishers. Hegemony, even the minor key sort of publishing elfgame books, frequently chooses the shape of its own resistance.
  • We're also going to need to be a bit uncomfortably honest for a second: most adventures that get sold aren't actually purchased by people who will run them. (And this is regardless of who published them.) If that's the case, formatting them for table-use doesn't have to be a priority, counter-intuitive as that seems.
  • Of course, none of this means that change is impossible. Best case scenario: someone who can innovate makes a big enough splash to get the chance to change publishing practices from the inside. Worst case scenario: that person gets the chance and nothing changes in the long term anyway. Most likely scenario: we continue to be better off in most case just sitting down and writing our own adventures.