Like many writers, my first real storytelling experiences came about through tabletop RPGs. Like many gamers, I found the fiction sections included with most RPGs to be wasted space. Even worse were the needlessly convoluted backstories to otherwise simple adventures, and despite (or perhaps because of my) owning and reading more than a few issues of Dungeon Magazine back in the day, I was never able to use the adventures to run more than one dog’s breakfast of a campaign.
For the most part, things have only gotten worse since the 1980s. Luckily for us, one man is fighting to change all of that and elevate RPG adventure design out of the muck of ‘failed fiction writer’ and into the stratosphere of ‘actually useful at the table when running a D&D session’.
Bryce Lynch is the best adventure reviewer out there. I’ve bought a fair few adventures from the fine folks at DriveThruRPG based on his recommendations. And now he has a summation of all the things that went wrong (and a few that went right) at Dungeon Magazine in his Final Retrospective.
I have review standards and strong beliefs on what makes a good adventure. First and foremost it has to be useful to the DM at the table while they running it. This is the primary purpose of every adventure ever written, even if the designer didn’t understand that fact. You can use it as inspiration, steal parts from it, or use it as a doorstop if you want, but, judged as an adventure, it has to be useful at the table. My standards are VERY high.
Bingo. The best backstory in the world is useless if you can’t find the relevant information within seconds of being asked by the players.
Dungeon Magazine is an abject failure in this regard. It is VERBOSE. Mountains of backstory, mountains of room text. All of it fights the DM running it at the table. If you are including something in the main text then it has to be directly useful for play. If it’s not then it needs to be removed or moved to an appendix where it can be ignored. Dungeon Magazine didn’t do this. It reveled in useless detail. A LONG room description that describes a trophy room, all of the trophies and accomplishments, and then ends “but it was long ago looted and now nothing remains but dust.”
I remember that adventure, though not that room description. That adventure marked the moment in which I gave up on Dungeon Magazine. Even at the tender age of 16, unable to identify WHY, I could at least recognize that the time had come to turn away from ‘modern’ published adventures.
Go read the whole thing. If you’ve ever thought about publishing adventures, it’s well worth it. The ‘Best Of’ list can be skipped, but his break down of what makes an adventure work is Plinkett-ian.