Friday, 1 October 2021

[Review] The Anatomy of Adventure

A few years ago I was browsing some books in a bric-a-brac sale outside somebody's house in rural Suffolk, when I came across a copy of Lord Denning's Landmarks in the Law. Denning is probably the best-known judge in the country's history (and an absolutely terrible one in practical terms), so I bought the book on the assumption that it would provide special insights into his judicial philosophy. 

It did not. A more accurate title for the book would have been Lord Denning: Great Judgments Wot I Have Handed Down. It is nothing more than a catalogue of reminscences concerning what Denning perceived to be his greatest juridical hits, shorn of any insight into his character or beliefs (except in regard to the size of his ego). It is like listening to a rather obnoxious uncle buttonholing you at a party: "And another brilliant dissenting judgment I gave was...."

I felt a little bit like this reading MT Black's The Anatomy of Adventure, which bills itself as some "thoughts on adventure scenario design for roleplaying games" from an apparently famous and successful designer, but which in reality consists mostly of some vague reflections about writing a litany of fabulous 5th edition adventures, liberally sprinkled with self-congratulation. ("As it happened, my next adventure would succeed brilliantly in this genre..."; "It is a platinum best-seller and currently has a 94% approval rating"; "[It] is one of my most popular adventures, having sold thousands of copies and enjoying a rating of 96% from nearly 50 reviews"; "The feedback has been consistently excellent ever since I released it"; "[T]he editor at Dragon+ got in touch with me and asked if they could feature the adventure in the magazine..."; "The success of this adventure, and the delight it has brought so many people, is one of the reasons I will never apologise for riffing on past classics"; "[S]oon after I wrote this adventure, I began earnestly using another idea-generating tool, one that proved to be immensely powerful", and so on...and on...and on. It is always a bad sign when a writer describes passages of their own work as "harrowing" or "poignant" and the like, and we get that in spades, here.)

So, it is safe to say MT Black is never backwards about coming forwards when it comes to the subject of his own talent. Who knows? This may be justified; he can certainly write clearly and effectively, judging by this volume, and that's more than can be said for about 99% of people writing RPG adventures. But hearing about how wonderful the author's adventures are is not, I suspect, the chief reason why anybody would buy a book about "The Anatomy of Adventure". Where, then, is the beef?

The answer is that, sadly, there is very little. It would not be fair to say that there is nothing useful in the text. MT Black does have some interesting observations about marketing, and his comments in support of the use of random tables to spur creativity are bang on the money, and, I would imagine, an important contribution within the sphere of 5th edition adventure design. But advice is otherwise thin on the ground. What we have instead is, for the most part, a collection of breezy accounts about how some of MT Black's adventures came about, broad descriptions of what happens in them, some reflections on what he would have done differently, and back-patting about the results. Not so much Stephen King's On Writing - more along the lines of an interview with a minor pop star on the release of a "Best of" collection. 

Not recommended. 1 1/2 becs de corbins.

1 comment:

  1. to jump off, ive seen something like this continue to happen year over year and have wondered why until just now with your 'minor pop star' statement: most of this stuff wont last and doesnt, but more gets made every day so it feels like low-effort 'pop' (for lack of a better term, i quite like pop music) is ever-present and expanding.

    im beginning to really dig your comments on the osr space as a scene as it seems to be the most accurate description of how the piblishing side of things works: stuff gets made new, the oldheads age out and are nostalgic for the hits while ignoring the misses, the younguns are only vaguely familiar with the old hits and adopt the new trappings, and the dross piles up and composts. Every so often, the newbies adopt the oldhead scene, sometimes theres a smash hit thats liked by both, sometimes an opus is ignored by both, and the wheel keeps turning