Interview: Harley Stroh
Harley Stroh mostly writes adventures—good old, down and dirty dungeon crawls reminiscent of the AD&D modules of yesteryear. His scenarios feature vengeful rat kings, bat-riding goblins, and twisted, giggling evil gnomes who worship the eldritch crystal that deformed them.
In a Stroh adventure, there are plenty of new monsters, exotic magic items, and more than enough room for a spirited DM to improvise and for curious PC’s to wander off the mapped path. Mostly, there’s a lot of hacking and slashing without restricting role-playing and character development.
For the last few years, Stroh has kept busy writing adventures for Goodman Games and serving as the Line Editor for Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC). Recently, Stroh has written a few adventures set in the world of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor and the first installment of the Master Dungeons (MD) line for Goodman Games.
Stroh’s 4E GenCon releases, DCC #53: Sellswords of Punjar and MD M1: Dragora’s Dungeon, show his range, as well as his love for books found in Gygax’s Appendix N. Dragora’s Dungeon has all the over-sized wonder of Robert E. Howard, as well as the grit, wit, and steel. Sellswords of Punjar, on the other hand, leaps from rooftops and races down back alleys, much like a Fritz Leiber Fafhred and Gray Mouser yarn.
The second paragraph of every DCC begins with the following: “Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back.“
Harley Stroh remembers those days, and he’s doing more than his share to keep those days alive. Early this year, Stroh and I talked about writing adventures that hook GMs. [More]
Jones: What’s the best part about writing Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCCs)?
Stroh: I was in 4th grade when TSR hit its peak during the 80s. I clearly remember the joy of going to toy stores and discovering mammoth racks of adventures, hard covers and box sets. It seemed like there was an endless supply of fully realized worlds, just begging for exploration. Any adventure I could imagine could be found on those racks, if I just looked long enough.
I like to think of the Dungeon Crawl Classic line as the selection of TSR adventures “that should have been.” Writing DCCs gives me the chance to imagine adventures that — as a 12-year old — I always thought I’d find hidden at the back of a magazine rack.
I knew there were scores of adventures that needed to be told. Flip through the World of Greyhawk folios, and you’ll come across dozens of place names and villains that all deserved detailing. The kid inside is still waiting for that next adventure that will fill out the world just a little more.
Some day they’ll crack open a vault in Lake Geneva and discover hundreds of unpublished modules that will put anything I write to shame.
Anyway, the best part in any writing project is thumbing through the artwork. Jim Holloway, one of my favorite TSR artists, illustrated several of the handouts for my first adventure, Legacy of the Savage Kings. Opening up my copy of Legacy and discovering my words brought to life by one of my own heroes — nothing quite compares.
Jones: Was there a break through or a moment when you said, I want to try this professionally?
Stroh: After graduate school, I followed my future wife to New England, leaving my gaming group behind. For three years, I didn’t game at all. Finally, frustrated for lack of a creative outlet, I wrote up a D&D adventure for a friend from my old gaming group. I was living vicariously through his gaming. A few weeks later I wandered into a hobby store and came across DCC #10: The Sunless Garden, by Brendan LaSalle. Immediately I knew that I wanted to write a DCC. I sent in a synopsis of the adventure I had written for my friend, and that became Legacy of the Savage Kings.
Five years ago, anyone would have told you that I had misspent my youth buried in imaginary worlds. Now I have the enormous privilege of putting those “wasted” years to work, writing the same adventures I love to play.
At heart I’m just an incredibly lucky guy that fell in with a handful of great publishers. There are better writers than me receiving rejection slips every day. That I get to wake up and look down the barrel of a deadline is the fulfillment of a dream that I never imagined I’d get to witness.
Jones: What the most satisfying part of writing adventures?
Stroh: Without a good GM and passionate players to bring the game to life, the very best adventure is worthless. On an intellectual level, RPG writing is a form of interactive entertainment unmatched by nearly any media. Having the opportunity to witness a group enjoying something I’ve written is by far the most satisfying conclusion of any project. Industry awards, getting the check in the mail; any writer will tell you that these are meaningless compared to seeing a group of gamers enthusiastically enjoying something you’ve penned.
Jones: And conversely, what’s the toughest part?
Stroh: The toughest part about writing is never having enough time too fully develop a project. At my best, I’m a slow writer. Under pressure, I can be marginally quick, but the work inevitably falls short of the ideal.
I wrote Legacy of the Savage Kings over a leisurely three months. At this moment, I’m finishing off three of my own DCCs, in the planning stages for another 2 non-DCC adventures, managing an anthology of adventures and soliciting ideas for the final installments of an adventure story arc.
Through it all I consider myself very fortunate to have a surplus of work, and I know that any adventure I write might be my last. Over the past four years there hasn’t been any time when I haven’t been under contract for some publisher or another, but by the same token I haven’t been truly satisfied by anything I’ve written in a while.
This might be a good thing, though, always knowing that the next project is going be really good.
Jones: Which is a stronger impulse for you, the desire to play with others or the desire to make adventures for others?
Stroh: Definitely running games for others. It’s like four to eight hours of continuous improv, where your job as the GM is to be an entertainer.
Done right, it leaves you exhausted, elated and triumphant.
Done wrong – well, it just leaves you exhausted…
Amusingly, if I had stayed with my original group, I probably never would have had the urge to write adventures. It was the lack of players that drove me to write.
Jones: Where does the writing of an adventure start for you?
Stroh: My adventure writing is a lot like free association. I begin with an image, or an idea, and just start scabbing on layers. These, in turn, inspire new ideas, and before long I have a middle, beginning and end. It’s a slow process, and it only works well when I have the time to let the ideas simmer, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking to become a professional writer.
When I run adventures at conventions, it is a very similar process. I’ve never been able to run an adventure (even my own) as written. They all always go off script somewhere around the second or third encounter. After that, I’m making it up as I go. I feel bad for convention players, because if they go back to buy the adventure at the Goodman Games booth, I can promise that it will be nothing like what they played at the table. It comes back down to being an entertainer: I can’t stand to see the players bored, so as a soon as someone begins stacking dice, it’s time to roll for initiative, whether the adventure calls for it or not.
Jones: How do you build in room for the GM to improvise?
Stroh: Good GMs are entertainers, and the game should always trump any predetermined plot or story line. Therefore my intent as an author is always to get a game master to fall in love with the adventure. If the GM is passionate about the adventure, he or she won’t take a backseat — they’ll own the adventure in the best sense and ensure that it is exciting for the players. The theme will guide the GM through improvisation, even if the actual text falls short. If an adventure doesn’t capture a GM’s imagination, it permits the to GM get lazy and run an adventure by rote.
Jones: But how do you get a GM to “fall in love with the adventure”?
Stroh: Key is remembering that the GM is an audience too. I try to default to Gene Wolfe’s Cool theory of literature: my job as a writer is to share something “cool.” If our tastes agree, you’ll like it as well, and that will make it “good.”
Jones: What is the basic structure of a published adventure?
Stroh: This varies by product line. A Dungeon Crawl Classic reads fundamentally different from a Pathfinder adventure, or a Dungeon adventure. The way an adventure is presented, determines – to a large degree – how the GM presents the adventure to his or her players. But, in one order or another, most adventures are composed of the same basic elements: summary, background, and encounters.
Jones: What is the crucial element — the thing all adventures must have?
Stroh: A hook. Not a hook for PCs, but a hook for the GM. Something that will ignite the GM’s imagination and make him passionate about running an exciting game. That magic is not unique to any one game system or publisher, and is the key to an exciting game. Be passionate about your subject, and that passion will be evident to your readers.
Jones: Do you have a strategy for generating hooks?
Stroh: Again, always remember to place the PCs center stage.
Jones: As line editor, you see many proposals. What are some of the most overdone storylines? The tropes? Pet peeves?
Stroh: No storyline is every truly overdone. There is still another great giants adventure out there, waiting to be published. But there are certain tropes that are harder to write for than others. But find a unique, intriguing storyline, that captures old school sensibilities and the imagination of the GM, and you have an adventure that deserves to be published.
Pet peeves are the basics. Spell-check your submission before sending it in. Draw clean maps. Use graph paper. There are a dozen people that will be working on your adventure to make you look good in print, and the better their raw material, the better you will look in print. Don’t expect a cartographer to draw a great map — give him a great map to work from. Don’t expect a stat block editor to clean up your mechanics — expect them to polish a strong manuscript.
If you want to be a professional author, be prepared to turn in material that a customer is willing to trade hard earned cash for.
Jones: In what ways are writing fiction and writing adventures similar and dissimilar?
Stroh: They both require planning, imagination, and perseverance. But the similarities end there. An adventure is like dozens of story seeds strung together. They don’t require the depth of character or plot that fully realized novel.
Jones: How, as a writer, do you handle the basic elements you listed? First of all, summary?
Stroh: Summary? Poorly. The more I learn about adventure writing, the more I realize that I write terrible summaries. This is the chance to make a first impression on a GM. This is the place to be succinct, and to communicate the heart of your adventure as swiftly and accurately as possible. And I stink at it.
Background: this is where most writers excel. It’s easy to write 5k words of back-story about our adventures — this is what we love. And that is why it is so dangerous. In too many adventures all the good stuff happened in the past and the PCs are just around to clean up the mess several centuries later. It is important — even in the background — to make sure that the PCs are center stage.
Encounters? Drama, drama, drama. Always remember that you don’t have a SFX budget. You castles, caverns and vales can be as amazing as you can imagine them. So there is no excuse for another boring cave full of orcs. But if you do decide to write a cave full of orcs, do it for a reason.
Jones: And, as an editor, what do you look for in these elements?
Stroh: Someone who can write them better than I can. I’m always looking for my replacement, that next writer that gets the spirit of the DCC better than I do.
Jones: How has 4E will affected DCC?
Stroh: I’ve been GMing for so long, I feel like I could run a good game with just the rock-paper-scissors mechanic. A system, to me, is largely set dressing. It sets the tone of the game, and never dictates what the game is. That’s up to the players to decide. 4E, or any other rule-set, can’t make my game into something I don’t want.
Is this true of most players and GMs? That isn’t clear yet. I can say, though, that the first 4E DCCs I’ve written are truer to the roots of D&D than anything I wrote under the 3.5 rule-set. Whether or not that’s a good thing will be up to the players to decide.
I love the shift to simpler, exception-based mechanics. All through my 3.5 material you’ll find items and monsters I wrote that don’t have even a remote relationship to the rules. In 4E, that onus is largely lifted, and I’m free to write what I think might be a fun, exciting encounter, and come back and balance the rules afterwards. Encounter design is less of a math proof and more of a creative writing exercise.