Flavor Text and Adventure Format

April 19, 2013

This will be brief. I posted a rant a few days ago about flavor text and description. I hate the box text that appears in adventures for a lot of reasons and think the whole practice needs to drink some lead-based paint and die. At the same time, Twitter pal @DreadGazeebo was ranting about the formatting of adventures in general. At the same same time, certain events have caused me to suddenly start thinking seriously about how adventures are formatted. As part of some side projects, I have had to read a couple of different published adventures from different systems and eras and have had to give some thought to my own methods of formatting.

Anyhoo, this really won’t come to anything other than me saying “you know what might work.” I’m just speculating on a format here and just felt like sharing. Seriously. That is it. You know what might work for formatting? Check this out:

19. The Forgotten Shrine

  • This square chamber with a high-peaked ceiling has a cracked flagstone floor and waterstained masonry walls.
  • The room smells of dust and mildew, like an old cellar.
  • There are iron-banded wooden doors in the northern and southern walls.
  • An alcove in the eastern wall contains a marble statue of a stern-looking woman reading a book. A Religion (DC 10) check identifes her as Iuon.
  • The ceiling is choked with thick spider webs.
  • A spider hides in the webs (Perception check (DC 25)). The spider drops onto the first person to walk more than 10 feet into the room.
  • There is a pit trap in the center of the room (Perception check (DC 22)). Anyone walking across it triggers it.
  • Searching the western wall (Perception check (DC 25)) reveals a secret door.

The northern door is locked. The key from the Orc Guard (Room 17) will open it. The lock can be picked (DC 22) or the door can be smashed open (DC 24).

The southern door is unlocked.

The alcove contains a shrine to Iuon. The statue stands about 5′ tall on a marble pedestal and the goddess holds a book in her open hands. At the base of the pedestal is a small bowl for offerings that contains 22 gp, 4 sp, and 2 cp.

The spider webs are about nine feet above the floor, so they are out of reach of most creatures. They are filled with the bones of dire rats and fire beetle husks that the spider has been feeding on. The webs are highly flammable. If set abalze, they burn away completely in three rounds.

Hidden amongst the spider webs is a large hole in the ceiling that leads to a narrow series of tunnels the spider uses to access other parts of the dungeon. The tunnels vary from one to two feet wide, so it is unlikely the party will explore them.

The hunting spider will drop down on the first member of the party to walk more than 10 feet into the room. Once engaged, it attempts to bite each member of the party in turn, injecting its paralytic venom. If it is seriously injured, it will attempt to scuttle up the wall and escape into the tunnels in the ceiling. If cornered, however, it will fight to the death.


The pit trap will be set off if more than 50 pounds enter the marked area. The pit is 10 feet deep (1d10 damage) and scum-covered standing water fills the bottom few inches. The simple trap door is disguised as a section of the floor and simply drops away, so it is quite difficult to disarm short of laying something large and sturdy over the top of it to walk on. However, a party that spots it can easily avoid it.


The secret door is nothing more than a section of wall that swings away if pushed at the right spot. PCs that locate the door will have no trouble opening it with a few minutes of experimentation.

The key is that the bullet points contain very brief information the DM needs to know at a glance or when the PCs do certain actions, arranged in a logical order from the most noticeable features to the features that require specific interactions. The use of bold-facing highlights items about which more detail is available in the paragraphs below. The key is that, if the DM has read the adventure, the bullet points serve as reminders of the important points so that DM only needs to consult the detail paragraphs when those items become important in the game. If the DM is running the adventure blind (or after a brief skim), the bullet points serve as a sort “if the players do this, consult this” guide.

The whole thing works on paper as a sort of visual hyperlinking, putting the essential information needed immediately right in front of the DM and allowing the DM to quickly scan for more information in response to particular actions.

The same format could work for event based scenarios or when providing details about locations in a town, summarizing first the descriptive elements, than the variable elements, and finally the interactive elements. For example:

The Olde Mille Ponde Tavernne

  •  The tavern consists of a single, large common room with a dozen mismatched scratched and battered wooden tables scattered around.
  • Lanterns hang from ropes from the ceiling beams, filling the room with dim, flickering light and foul-smelling smoke.
  • The tavern is owned by a cheerful human woman in her middle years named Rowena.
    Before noon, the tavern is locked up.
  • Between noon and six in the evening, Rowena is here getting ready to open and too busy to talk.
  • After six in the evening, the tavern is crowded with farmers and laborers filling the tables and standing in small knots around the room, raucously chatting and enjoying their ale.
  • The patrons do not trust outsiders and give them a wide berth, but they are not openly impolite.
  • If anyone asks Rowena about the Beekeepers, she will agree to talk to them after hours.
  • If anyone asks any of the patrons about the Beekeepers or asks about Gunthar, they will resist giving information but might be talked into it.


Rowena is friendly and welcoming, unlike the rest of the folks in the town. And she genuinely wants to see the town accept outside help for their problems. She just doesn’t want the townsfolk to know about it. She will generally be helpful toward the party if they have the best interests of the town at heart, but she doesn’t want to be seen doing so.

If the tavern is locked up, the party can pick the lock (DC 22) or batter down the door (DC 24). Rowena is upstairs, asleep and will be roused unless the party succeeds at an easy Stealth check (DC 10). If anyone batters down the door, that will wake her automatically. She will respond to any assault by slipping out the back door to get Sheriff Doren (see page 27)

Rowena is too busy to talk during the day. If the party approaches her before she is open, she will insist they come back after she closes. If the party presses the issue, she will chat for a little while but will become generally less polite toward the party afterwards.

Getting information out of the patrons about the beekeepers or about Gunthar is difficult. They do not want to talk with outsiders and want to keep their problems to themselves. Most believe the sheriff can handle the incident. Any attempt to prise information out of a townsperson requires a hard check. However, if a townsperson can be gotten alone away from the others, the DCs will drop to moderate and the person will admit to having some doubts about the sheriff, though they won’t say exactly why. The townspeople know the following facts which they can reveal as a result of successful interactions. (1) The beekeepers…


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7 Responses to Flavor Text and Adventure Format

  1. Graham on April 19, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Nice stuff. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from your description on twitter, but I rather like it. (I tend to like having readaloud text, as it tends to impart more description than the general description that follows, but you include that nicely here.

    A couple suggestions:

    – I’d include a note about existing lighting, such that the DM knows how the room is lit if the party doesn’t actively have their own light source.

    – For the lines that require skill checks, I’d list that check at the very beginning. This way, if a DM zones out for a split second and begins reading the next line, they will stop. For example:

    (Perception check (DC 22)) There is a pit trap in the center of the room. Anyone walking across it triggers it.

  2. Graham on April 19, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Also, just noticed the lighting note in the tavern one. Specifically, I was talking about the upper example. Just saying “There is no light source in this room.” would go a long way.

  3. Jan on April 20, 2013 at 6:05 am

    I’m currently reading many Pathfinder adventures and I’m pretty annoyed by Paizo’s writing style. There’s a lot of text for everything and toy need to read it all through to grasp its meaning. My own preparations look much more like your stuff. I’m pretty fine with having some intro paragraphs to each sections, but the key facts should be in some bullet point manner.

    I like your idea of using bold words as visual links between sections. That makes it easy to jump from the initial brief description to the long paragraph following up.

    It rather go for even shorter bullet points. I’d like the first one of the tavern to be “single, large common room, a dozen mismatched scratched and battered wooden tables scattered around.” It gives the key points, but not a bit more which you have to filter out in your mind while reading.

  4. Geek Ken on April 21, 2013 at 7:01 am

    As usual, nice stuff. I tend to agree that read aloud text can be clunky. Having bullet point lists of the things players see and hear (and occasionally smell) is far better and allows the DM to be more natural describing critical points of an area.

  5. Alphastream on April 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    I don’t necessarily disagree with what you have written, but the devil is in the details… especially when we bring in complexity. Take the encounter you provided, but add a puzzle and an NPC who could be either an ally or a foe. It becomes a lot harder to organize all of that.

    Having to introduce rules or situational parameters also makes organizing the text very difficult. A trap-filled room where different traps activate over time, a foe that changes form depending on PC actions, a dinner banquet where various guests come and go over time – these all complicate the already text-heavy description of the static parameters. Those might seem like special cases, but they are usually what causes a rant (Jerry’s rant was due to a room with a puzzle, where the puzzle’s solution was directional based on a certain perspective and on top of that referred to terrain descriptions not in the boxed text).

    My inclination is to reserve judgment on any solution until I have seen it applied to 5 complex encounters. That’s what I’ve had to face in organized play, where a series of adventures (featuring very different encounters) all use the same template. Under those situations I usually find that what I would do for one encounter won’t work well for another. The end result is usually returning to a more neutral position, where the text still will have problems in various situations. It ends up being the best of the options.

    That’s not to say that improvements can’t be made. They can, and they should. But it isn’t simple and isn’t solved by looking at a few examples. It takes looking at many different troublesome and complex encounters and trying to find a new organizational format that will communicate better for all of those situations. A hard task!

  6. Red Ragged Fiend on May 13, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I like bullet points better than long form at the top of any encounter/room description. It saves me from annotating the text myself to note important bits while at the table. I suggest adding reference marks as used on reference footnotes on the list, the room diagram, or both to make it even easier to look the appropriate entry up.

    Hopefully adding such a mark would distinguish when you have multiples of the same type (door/trap/chest etc.) in play.

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