Back at the turn of the century, I took a gig as part of the Living Greyhawk triad for the Texas/Oklahoma region (the notorious Bandit Kingdoms). I learned a LOT about adventure writing during those two years. But the most important lesson I learned was this: when you finish your draft, sit in an watch a different GM run your adventure for a new group. This will reveal every unintentional red herring, weak spot, and broken element of your adventure. It really is by far the best bang for your buck in the editing process. You’ll be amazed at how much of your adventure is in your head and not on the page.
I remember sitting down and watching a new group tackle my first published adventure, The Bleeding Moon, which I’m still proud to say enjoys some notoriety in old Living Greyhawk circles (with its baby mimic and hasted-spider climbed-stone skinned zombies!). I probably came away with 4-5 pages of handwritten notes after that session, including what happens if a player wants to learn necromancy from the villain at the end. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience, and the final product was infinitely better for it.
Of course, its easy to find playtesters when you are writing for a big organization like the RPGA. Flash forward 17 years to last year when I was putting the finishing touches on Bloody Misadventures: Dramatic Battles on the High Seas, a sea battles supplement for 7th Sea I published through the Explorer’s Society. The playtest of the first draft with my group was an abysmal failure, with the whole thing falling apart inside of the first action. The second playtest went better, but revealed a flaw in my thinking as the players were all to eager to pool Raises to unleash monstrous amounts of hits on enemy ships. Meanwhile, I was seeding drafts with a handful of folks, trusting them to play out scenarios with their groups. Each time I’d get little snippets of feedback, bringing the project closer and closer to completion.
In the time it took to write Bloody Misadventures, I finished three other products for the Explorer’s Society! That’s how much fiddling I took with it. An idea would hit me and into the book it would go, sometimes only to be ripped out and shredded days later. In the end, I took Nancy Pelosi’s advice: I had to release it to find out what was in it. So the project that started in April of 2017 was released from its cage in the lab in November! Initial Sales were good and have remained consistent.
So last month, Tabletop Radio Hour did a review of Bloody Misadventures on one of their shows. The Cast were positively intrigued and promised to feature a sea battle soon on their Actual Play podcast. About two weeks later they delivered. I was heading home on a road trip through the Texas Hill Country when the episode dropped and I listened. Boy, did I listen!
I listened to every pause. Every rules reference. Every indecision. Every shrug. Every misstep.
Yeah see, its amazing what you find out when you listen to someone else run something you wrote. You’ll be amazed what’s in your head and not on the page.
Oh don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t bad. Most of it played out really well! Everyone seemed to have a good time (I’ve no doubt they’ll reveal all in a follow up review). But there was way to much head scratching for my tastes.
So when I got back to the home office, I wasted no time doing additional edits to clarify the text where it needed it. Because I didn’t want to waste this opportunity. Because Bloody Misadventures was a lot of work to write and deserves to be the best set of rules for what it does that it can be. Because I don’t want play to suffer for my contributions. Because, as a 7th Sea GM, I still want to know what Cross the T! does in play, and hope other seekers to find the answer in something I wrote.
But the moral here remains: before you turn your baby loose, before you add that “-final” tag to the file name, before you send that master file on to Lulu or Drivethru or your publisher, hand over the keys to someone else to take it for a drive around the block while you ride in the backseat. You won’t regret it!