Mini-Dungeon author Bill Buchalter gives us the first behind the scenes peak at his process for creating a Mini-Dungeon.
An author for AAW games faces a number of struggles which are part and parcel of writing a Mini-Dungeon. You only have so many words and so much space to communicate an idea or a concept; the front and back of a single page, roughly one thousand words. Yet as writers we must concisely give the game master all the information needed to adequately run the encounters. We also need to craft a cohesive story which challenges and entertains a table of players, as well as interests a game master enough to want to run the adventure.
What might not be immediately obvious is, as writers, we have no control over the maps we are assigned. With each new assignment we are given a map we have never seen before. We offer no input into the design of the map and have no ability to revise it. What we see is what we get. Herein lies what I believe is the greatest challenge of writing a Mini-Dungeon: inspiration.
Often the first week or two after receiving an assignment, I won’t put a single word on paper. I’ll simply mull over the map, thinking about what possibilities every small detail would play in the overall story. Most of the inspiration comes quickly, but inevitably there is some aspect of the map which just doesn’t fit into the story. Such was the case with Slumbering Titan.
As soon as I saw this map, I knew right away that the party’s job would be to awaken the giant statue lying on the ground in Area 5. The pillars around the statue would definitely play a part in that endeavor; part of a ritual to reanimate the statue. But why awaken the statue? To what end? The rift in the ground at Area 4 gave a convenient motive. Demons pouring from the rift are overwhelming the countryside, and only the slumbering titan can help stop them. The party’s job would be to enlist the titan’s aid in defeating the demons.
The story was solid, and I was satisfied with the idea. It was something I could build on. But as usual, one element of the map just didn’t fit. The well, marked as Area 2 on the map, had no obvious use in this narrative. The challenge for this Mini-Dungeon would be figuring out how to incorporate the well into the story.
Meanwhile, I had been working on preparing a puzzle for a session of my home campaign. It involved a series of runes and determining the proper order for them. I wasn’t happy with how the puzzle was working, and it didn’t fit neatly into the session I was building. It felt forced. I set my home game prep aside and decided to work on my Mini-Dungeon assignment to clear my head. With the puzzle still fresh on my mind, I started to think maybe instead of using the puzzle in my home game, I could work it into the Mini-Dungeon.
I experimented with a few different ideas. The concept I liked most involved the runes carved into the pillars. The party would need to activate each pillar in order with Intelligence (Arcana) checks as part of a ritual to awaken the titan. He would rise disoriented and attack the party, but they could parley with the titan and explain their intentions, turning him from foe to ally. In the end the titan would close the rift, but not before drawing out a demon far too powerful for the party to defeat on their own. They would need the titan’s assistance.
I fleshed out the encounters and wrote the foundation of what I felt was a solid adventure. But one element continued to nag at me: the well. I still hadn’t found a way to integrate it into the story. I felt like the best option would be to somehow involve it in the ritual to wake the titan, but exactly how was escaping me.
I started to think a possible solution would be to have something emerge from the well every time the party made a mistake on the puzzle. But that didn’t make sense to me. If anything was going to arise and attack the party, it should be coming from the rift in Area 4, not the well. After all, the rift is the true threat, not the well.
So, I switched directions and asked, “what could emerge from the well to aid the party?” Again, I felt the titan would represent the aid to the party, so I didn’t want to downplay that by having something else helpful appear out of the well.
As it turned out, I ended up shelving this Mini-Dungeon for quite a while. The holidays were approaching, and life became hectic as it tends to do around Thanksgiving and Christmas. My writing sat for almost two months before my editors began (gently) reminding me I’d missed my deadline, and could I please try to complete the Mini-Dungeon as soon as possible. With a mix of guilt and frustration (with myself, not my editors…) I agreed I would complete it as quickly as possible.
It turned out getting my mind off the problem for a while gave me a new perspective. I sat down to once again tackle how to use the well in Area 2, and it came to me almost immediately. In order to complete the ritual to wake the statue, the party would have to retrieve something from the well. Instead of the runes being carved into the pillars, the runes would come from the well, and the puzzle would involve placing the runes in the proper order. My initial version had gems appearing in the well, but after thinking it over, I decided on runestones instead of gems. The ideas began to flow as quickly as I could type them, and within hours I had my rough draft.
The most rewarding part of writing a Mini-Dungeon is when all the pieces finally fall into place. You write, edit, and rewrite, tinkering with every little aspect of each encounter. The editors give their feedback and sometimes you realize you need to cut out parts which you are very attached to. But in the end, when it all comes together, and you have an adventure both you and the editors are happy with, it is a genuine feeling of accomplishment. You submit your final draft, and all that is left to do is wait for it to be published, and hope that the community enjoys playing it as much as you enjoyed writing it.
I sincerely hope you enjoy playing Mini-Dungeon #248 Slumbering Titan. Thank you!
Thank you, Bill!
Tuesdays blog feature is an author’s chance to wax poetic about their process, give us some behind-the-scenes content or bonus material for the Mini-Dungeon of the week. Want to give writing a Mini-Dungeon a try? Check it out, here. Want to connect with Bill and chat about Slumbering Titan? Find him on our Discord server!