Recently I published The Beast of Graenseskov, a Ravenloft mystery adventure for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, on the DM’s Guild. The 79-page adventure can be found for sale here: http://www.dmsguild.com/product/180558/The-Beast-of-Graenseskov-An-Introductory-Ravenloft-Adventure. VP Quinn graciously invited me to share my experience writing the adventure with an eye toward providing other aspiring DM’s Guild authors with helpful tips mined from my extraordinary intelligence. In other words, you can learn from my mistakes.
Let me introduce myself first! I’m Aaron (going by “Quickleaf” on-line), and I’ve had a few forays into RPG writing in the past, notably writing Tales of the Caliphate Night (Paradigm Concepts, 2006), a winner of Green Ronin’s True20 setting search, as well as a handful of articles for Dragon, Kobold Quarterly, and EN5ider, ENWorld’s Patreon journal supporting 5th edition. I’ve been fortunate that my RPG writing has always been a passionate hobby rather than livelihood; in real life, I’m a doctorate architecture student with a love of the outdoors. I recently started publishing on DM’s Guild with The Beast of Graenseskov and The Buccaneer’s Bestiary, and plan to release more adventures in the future.
My 5 pieces of advice are:
1.Know where your concept falls within the Gothic Horror genre
2.Understand the differences between Curse of Strahd and the old Domains of Dread
3.If you’re writing to tie in with Curse of Strahd, identify a “window of opportunity”
4.Design for an evening of horror
5.Incorporate the Tarokka (optional)
6.Assemble your resources & polish your technique
1. Know where your concept falls within the Gothic Horror genre
Haunted houses, ill-fated poets, moonlit graveyards, vampires, flying buttresses. That’s Gothic Horror, right? Certainly those are elements common in Gothic Horror, but what us writers are interested in are the deeper themes that constitute the genre. These include an obsession with the past, an examination of madness and other psychological states of distress or darkness, and heavy use of symbolism and repeated motifs (e.g. dreams or the dual nature of humanity). Some concept clearly fall entirely within the domain of Gothic Horror, such as the character study of Strahd in the original Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd, while others stray into the more generic Dark Fantasy or Faerie Tale genres. A good way to get a sense of where your intended adventure falls on the genre spectrum is to list a couple influences for your project. If these influences are mostly Gothic Horror, then it’s a good bet that’s the way your adventure is leaning.
With The Beast of Graenseskov, my original concept was very clear: A who’s-the-monster mystery amidst the backdrop of a hag’s curse. I wanted a deceptively straight-forward concept to make the twists and turns of the adventure stand out. Early on I identified my three influences:
Be aware that there are are aspects of Gothic Horror that are harder to translate into the D&D adventure medium; notably, an emphasis on sexuality, the Gothic anti-hero, and experimental writing techniques like shifting narrators or literary tableaux. In The Beast of Graenseskov, I diluted the sexual themes of Allerleirauh and made the relationship between boyar Borje Volchykrov and his illegitimate daughter Ruzina one of unrequited parental love and betrayal, rather than inappropriate erotic love. Likewise, I introduced the possibility of the PCs using the cursed wolfskin as a weapon against Strahd, opening up the opportunity for one of them to step into an anti-hero role if they wish. Finally, I incorporated an experimental approach to the adventure by designing it so anyone of four suspects might be the Beast, depending on the DM’s choice (or the drawing of a Tarokka card).
2. Understand the differences between Curse of Strahd and the old Domains of Dread
Curse of Strahd is a re-imagination of the original I6: Ravenloft adventure by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Thus, there are key differences between Curse of Strahd and the overarching Ravenloft setting described in Realm of Terror, the Ravenloft Campaign Setting, the Domains of Dread, and subsequent releases. Now, it’s possible to write an adventure that reaches a broader audience including those running Curse of Strahd and those running a Ravenloft campaign, but you’ll need to understand the differences first.
A good primer to writing for Curse of Strahd was published for free by Wizards of the Coast:
Barovia, as it appears in Curse of Strahd is a demiplane of its own, with no connection to any other “domains of dread.” It is quite literally Strahd’s prison, frozen in time at 735 on the Barovian Calendar. All creatures ensnared within Barovia are doomed to spiritually stagnate, their souls trapped forever, reborn again and again in a tragic cycle. Because of this separation from the Outer Planes, much of Barovia’s population is actually soulless shells. Another interesting trick is that Strahd can essentially “hijack” any divination spells used to contact beings from other planes, disseminating falsehoods as if he were the entity in question. In Curse of Strahd no one escapes the ring of choking fog around Barovia. Not wishes, not artifacts, not a Vistani potion. Nothing. The exception to this are the Vistani, who in Curse of Strahd can leave the realm because of the nature of Strahd’s curse, not because of their own powers. Finally, sunlight in the demiplane doesn’t function as sunlight for creatures with Sunlight Vulnerability or Daylight Sensitivity; this makes vampires and similar creatures much more dangerous.
My approach with The Beast of Graenseskov was to embrace both the original Ravenloft setting and the more isolated Barovia presented in Curse of Strahd. To that end, I kept the core of the adventure neutral in regards to setting assumptions that would make it unsuitable to either group of DMs (those favoring original Ravenloft setting, and those favoring Curse of Strahd). However, I included plenty of peripheral elements that speak to the greater Ravenloft setting, such as mentions of merchants from Nova Vaasa traversing Old Svalich Road and the invaders from the Mists worshipping a wolf-headed god. A DM running the Curse of Strahd can ignore these little tidbits, or interpret them as he or she sees fit, without the adventure suffering. Whereas a DM running a campaign using the AD&D Ravenloft boxed set might play up the Nova Vaasan border with horse thieves and mountain goblin raids, and interpret the wolf-headed god as the arcanoloth Inajira or Harkon Lukas, Darklord of Kartakass.
3. If you’re writing for Curse of Strahd, identify a “window of opportunity”
I know this sounds like trite advice, but identifying a potential market for an adventure is an important step in design. Ultimately, you’ll need to be passionate about what you write to push through the rigors of design that (hopefully!) you’ll put your product through. However, all the passion in the world will fall short if your adventure duplicates material in Curse of Strahd or is superfluous to that adventure. For example, if I’d made my adventure a paint-by-numbers werewolf hunt, it would fall flat compared to the Werewolf Den already in Curse of Strahd.
You can refer to the Curse of Strahd table of contents to help with this process:
When I sat down to write The Beast of Graenseskov, once I had my concept in mind I had to determine what level I would write for. My original “playtest” of the early form of the adventure was made for about 6th-8th level. However, after reviewing Curse of Strahd it was clear there were two “windows of opportunity” when it came to a dearth of material. 1st-level characters had to face the Death House to advance to a sufficient level to tackle the challenges in Curse of Strahd. A lot of people online were saying how deadly they found Death House, and personally I found it to be a bit rushed and lacking in good adventure hooks. It’s a great haunted house dungeon, don’t get me wrong, but should it be the only entry point into Curse of Strahd? I didn’t think so. The other window was a gap in content for 3rd-4th level characters. Given the size of my adventure, I realized that toning it down for levels 1-4 would be the best window for me.
Other “windows of opportunity” might include exploring other border areas of Barovia not detailed in Curse of Strahd, exploring what happens when a character (or even an entire party) dies and is resurrected by the Dark Powers, giving the PCs more opportunity to interact with Strahd as a NPC rather than fight as a monster, reintroducing an old Ravenloft monster and designing an adventure around it, reintroducing the old idea about “reality wrinkles” for outsiders, giving greater narrative time to an NPC like Van Richten, etc.
4. Design for an evening of horror
There are several ways even a well-written adventure can fail. It can fail on its technical elements (e.g. the presentation, arrangement, and layout are not well done). It can fail if it doesn’t provide the experience that it advertises (e.g. a “mystery” being solved in the first game session leading to a hex crawl for the rest of the adventure). And it can fail if the design of the adventure itself doesn’t support the desired experience; this last type of failure is the most elusive to pin down…
When a group buys into a Ravenloft adventure, they want that thrilling sort of chill to crawl down their spine that comes from watching a horror flick or curling up with a scary book on stormy night. There’s a lot of advice out there for horror authors and for DMs in how to evoke horror in their storytelling technique, but what about advice on how to design an adventure to evoke that feeling? For example, if you look at an adventure like the AD&D RA1: Feast of Goblyns, you’ll notice that it provides several towns with lots of adventure possibilities along with a strong framing scenario. Each town provides something creepy and unknown, such as the Old Kartakan Inn which embodies all those childhood fears of monsters under the bed. There is a sense of continuous mystery, of the ground moving under the players’ feet. This is essential in designing a Ravenloft adventure, and just as essential is keeping the mystery balanced. On the one hand, you do want a driving source of dread, a known antagonist hounding the characters, but on the other hand you never want the players to slip into being too comfortable or too blasé about the direction the think the adventure is headed in.
Negotiating that balance between revelation and concealment is an art, but there are a couple lessons I can extrapolate from The Beast of Graenseskov which may be helpful:
5. Incorporate the Tarokka (optional)
I mentioned the Tarokka deck earlier, and it stands out as one of the defining features of the both the original I6: Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd. While you certainly don’t need to include a drawing of the Tarokka to make an adventure feel at home in the Ravenloft setting, it does serve as a potent touchstone for players that signals “you’re in Ravenloft now.”
In The Beast of Graenseskov I deliberately made the Latrova Vistani a tribe that doesn’t use the Tarokka to the same extent as other Vistani. I made that decision because I wanted to preserve Madame Eva as the Tarokka reader par excellence, and because I set up the raunie of the Latrova as have psychic powers pertaining to object reading — potentially critically helpful to the PCs during their investigation of the Beast. However, even with the Tarokka cards deemphasized, I wanted to incorporate them into the adventure as a way to randomly determine which NPC is the Beast. By creating an alternate Tarokka reading (without the High Deck “crown” cards), I provided a means for the DM to not only determine the Beast’s identity and motives, but also to locate the Beast and the hag Pretty Kolchya when the PCs come looking for those antagonists.
Anything that could be randomized in an adventure could involve a Tarokka reading. For example, if your adventure involves substantial use of random encounters with named NPCs you could create a chart attaching each NPC to a card or suit of the Tarokka. Alternately, if there is a magic well with illusory Tarokka cards floating in it that acts as a random portal in your adventure, you could attach destinations in Barovia to various Tarokka cards.
6. Assemble your resources & polish your technique
How do I make my product look good? Where can I find art? These questions come up a lot in conversations about publishing through DM’s Guild and its sister sites. Even though these questions aren’t specific to adventure-writing or Ravenloft, I see them come up enough that they probably deserves some explanation. As an aside, there are a lot of products on DM’s Guild that are thoroughly mediocre in terms of writing, layout, and overall polish; anyone serious about publishing on DMs Guild should NOT use those as an example of what to do. To some extent, you’re going to need to invest time to get proficient with your software of choice, add polish, and find images that are legal for use, but I can provide some online resources that I found helpful in drafting The Beast of Graenseskov.
Layout Program & Workflow
My best advice is use programs you know and are comfortable with, otherwise be prepared to treat your project as a time-heavy learning opportunity. Personally, the three programs I used the most in putting together The Beast of Graenseskov were OS X Pages, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Acrobat. The best bang for your buck with Adobe is to buy an Adobe Creative Cloud membership as a student or teacher. Usually I begin my draft in a word processor then copy that into Adobe InDesign once I’m done with spell checking. However, I’ve become thoroughly impressed by OS X Pages allowing me to do basic layout in about half the time it would take me to do similar layout with InDesign. I’ve been told that recent versions of Word and Libre Office can accomplish a similar look as Pages, but I’m less familiar with those word processors.
My workflow involved three basic steps (with a lot of going back and forth):
1.Making ample use of text styles in OS X Pages, and setting up the document with custom borders/headers, and the background image watermark using section masters. Word has the same features, just with different names.
2.I spent a lot of time with the magic wand tool in Photoshop cleaning up images into PNG format, then placing them into the Pages file. I also created a few maps in Photoshop.
3.Once everything was done, I exported the file into PDF, opened it with Adobe Acrobat, and went through creating bookmarks. I had to edit and reorganize some pages, but for the most part that was the final step.
For the title I used “Black Castle” by Richard William Mueller, a Public Domain font which can be found at: http://www.dafont.com/black-castle.font
For the chapter headers I used “Heidelberg” which can be found at: http://www.fontpalace.com/font-details/Heidelberg/
For other headers I used Andada SC, and for the text I used Andada, both of which are widely available online.
For the dropped calligraphic capital letters I placed at the start of each chapter, I used the AromatCapsSSK font, which can be downloaded from the old Kargatane Ravenloft site (along with several other suitably Ravenloft-ian fonts) here: https://www.adnddownloads.com/en/resource/kargatane-ravenloft-fonts
When it comes to DMs Guild, the five rules of the day for free art are that it must be:
(a)Public Domain (and be sure it’s in the Public Domain!), or
(b)CC-BY 2.0 (NOT Share Alike or any other Creative Commons license), or
(c)Art for which you received written permission to use from the artist, or
(d)Art you have made yourself, or
(e)Art specifically released by Wizards of the Coast for free use by DMs Guild creators. To date these include a bunch of monster images which can be found by searching for Product Type > Resources for DMG Creators.
I can make a couple recommendations here. There are a ton of terrific painters (many Eastern European) who’ve done work that fits the motifs of Ravenloft; some of the ones whose art I used in The Beast of Graenseskov include William Henry James Boot, Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, Konstanin Makovsky, and Ivan Tsarevish. For high-definition images of old paintings, I looked for online galleries. Adapting and modifying Public Domain art is entirely legitimate, and you can see that I tried to emulate the look of the “splash” art in the PHB, DMG, and MM. Best practice is to note any changes you make to Public Domain work in your attribution documentation.
One of the coolest sources of Ravenloft-ian Public Domain art I found was for the Scarlet Heroes RPG by Sin Nomine Publishing, which as part of their Kickstarter released a bunch of fantasy art into the Public Domain.
Do you NEED to attribute Public Domain art? Technically no, but if there’s any question about the legality of art you use, having that documentation can be helpful later. Plus, it’s common courtesy to acknowledge people who’s work you’re using.
You can find a lot of resources at https://www.reddit.com/r/UnearthedArcana/comments/3uwxx9/resources_open_to_the_community/ if you navigate to the Homebrew Creation Root. It’s a terrific resource for designers! However, while some of these resources are freely open to commercial use, others (such as many fonts) are covered by specific licenses. Do your homework to determine what’s legitimate to use and properly attribute others’ work.
Investing in some art can go a long way toward differentiating your product. However, an art commission can easily run upwards of $100 (if not substantially more). Since any profits on a given DMs Guild product aren’t likely to exceed that amount by much, most authors like myself will want to minimize the art budget. Stock art (such as that purchasable at drivethrurpg.com) is one of the most affordable means of illustrating an adventure. In selecting stock art for The Beast of Graenseskov, I had a specific look in mind — reinforcing that look was more important to me than finding the prettiest pieces. If maintaining an overall aesthetic to your work is important to you, consider investing in an artist who produces stock art collections. For my adventure, I chose Maciej Zagorski’s work for The Forge Studios since his collections had the right look for what I wanted to portray. However, I did need to go back and invest time converting the images into workable PNGs / TIFs (graphic formats which maintain the transparency surrounding a free-floating image).
If you’re completely new to RPG writing, releasing a product or two as “Pay What You Want” is a great way to get your name out there. However, be aware that only roughly 1/10 (if not less!) of the people downloading your product are going to pay. For anything you’re producing with a higher investment of time and a more professional level of polish, I strongly recommend against selling as “Pay What You Want.” It’s to your advantage to compare other digital adventures of a similar length and quality and pick a price point.
My last suggestion is to put the word “adventure” in your title, assuming you’re writing an adventure. Why? Because some customers using DMs Guild don’t realize that you can set search parameters to search for just adventures (for the curious it’s Product Type > Sourcebooks > Adventures). Including “adventure” in the title ensures that a customer who enters “adventure” as a search term will find your product in the hits. Also, make use of tags when setting up your product; the more specific you can be the better. For example, there is now a “Ravenloft” tag.
Beyond that, have patience and enjoy the adventure-writing process!
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