You can learn a lot from a snow globe. Like how to design a good Dungeons & Dragons adventure for mass distribution!
The design of snow globes embody many of the same principles behind some of our favorite adventure modules. .Watch the video below, or continue reading after the break to find out more!
Have a good (narrative) base
Every snow globe is held up by a base. Some are simple. Some are decorative. All of them keep the globe from rolling away and crashing to the floor in a spectacle of water, shards of glass, and broken dreams.
The base of an adventure is its narrative. A plot. A “big idea”, if you will. Not the story that the players create out of it, mind you, but the idea—the skeleton—of the adventure. Whether it’s a death curse pervading the world, a city being pulled into hell, or escaping the realm of a despotic vampire lord, every good adventure has a narrative.
Everything else about the adventure is built upon this narrative. This base.
Just like you don’t see a snow globe with a leprechaun in it on a base that says “Happy Halloween”, you don’t see many adventures whose constituent parts don’t somehow align to the base narrative.
There’s millions of Christmas snow globes out there with snowmen or Christmas trees inside. Other snow globes have city skylines, little villages, or cute little animals. Even though every globe contains something a little bit different, each globe has a particular thing it features and focuses on.
You can bet your bottom dollar this theme and the base of the snow globe have some things in common.
Unlike snow globes, adventures aren’t just one big thing—not usually. They’re often a collection of smaller pieces like quests, locations, and characters that all fit together to serve the narrative—and of course, are fun to interact with. Each of these smaller pieces should have its own theme, while still having some relation to the big picture—the base narrative.
Here are some examples from published modules.
- In Descent into Avernus, the theme of the city Baldur’s theme is wealth and possibility, tinged with corruption. It’s that corruption that puts the city in danger.
- Just a little south of there, Candlekeep’s theme is scholarly and arcane knowledge, which allows the players to learn about their ultimate goal.
The two locations have very different individual themes, but they both serve the overall narrative of diving into hell and saving a city from ruin.
This focus and integration, when used in your own designs, can provide a richer storytelling experience for those who play your adventure.
That little snowman? He’s not going anywhere. The entirety of his world exists within the bounds of the glass globe. Sure, he can see the world outside, but he can’t reach out here and do anything. This is encapsulation.
This encapsulation of the subject in the snow globe can be seen in adventure design all the time. NPCs that live in a particular settlement don’t show up in other settlements. Even extremely important NPCs like Ireena in Curse of Strahd don’t receive much more than a small mention elsewhere in the adventure. Everyone’s stuck to their own little patch of land and mainly only mentioned in the context of that area. And for good reason.
In a tabletop game adventure, players have nearly limitless freedom. Freedom of movement, freedom of action, and freedom of… nearly everything. Players can do anything, and designers have to account for that when creating the game’s content. One way that they do that is by separating pieces of the adventure, and keeping them apart. You won’t find a good adventure where people and places are tightly connected to one another.
The more connected different areas of a game are, the more “if then else” logic that has to be built in, and the higher the chances of that logic failing because the players did something unexpected, or because a certain NPC was killed. In extreme cases, whole swaths of late-game content can be negated because the players did something to break the logic of these interconnected pieces.
This issue is largely resolved by keeping NPCs and other elements isolated in little bubbles, like snow globes. When creating your game or adventure, be careful not to make elements too dependent on other elements. What happens in Town A generally shouldn’t have any effect on Town B, at least in your writing. If GMs want to tie things like that together, they can. Their job of doing that is made all the easier by you—the designer—not trying to do it for them.
When you tip the snow globe over, all of the snow—or whatever loose particle is in there—goes floating around in the water. They swirl to-and-fro, round and round. Any good snow globe provides lots of space for all of that snow to swirl around in and be pretty and fun to watch.
Look closely, and you’ll notice right away that you can’t accurately predict the path of any of the snowflakes. There’s too many variables at play. The position of other snowflakes, the solid decorations inside, swirls of water, the temperature of the water… It all adds up to make a unique snowfall experience every time.
But what if you could predict the path of the snowflakes? What if, instead of a globe, we just had a thin tube? You turn it over and the flakes fall to the bottom. You turn it over again, and they fall the other direction. Although that’s predictable, it doesn’t sound very fun.
Designing an adventure is a bit like that. If you have any amount of luck, your adventure will be played by more than one person. Hopefully it’s played worldwide by thousands of people and their friends. But as long as more than just yourself is playing the game, you can be sure that you cannot predict the actions of every player and game master. Just like the snowflakes, there’s too many variables at play for you to accurately predict everything.
You don’t know what the party makeup is going to look like. Are they all humans? All half-orcs? Is it just a band of bards, or a well balanced party? Are there three players or seven?
You. Do. Not. Know.
You have to take this sort of uncertainty into account, and leave room for the semi-random activities of the players. If you’re designing a town, don’t make assumptions about where a party will go first and then hinge every design decision on that assumption. Don’t craft quests that break because there’s no wood elf in the party. Be flexible. Let your design be fluid. If you want to promote certain outcomes or limitations, provide recommendations in a sidebar. That way, those recommendations can be used or ignored at the GM’s discretion.