Review: Eureka (from Engine Publishing)

Eureka Cover

Eureka Cover

I’m always on the lookout for adventure ideas, and in 2010 Engine Publishing (the publishing arm of Gnome Stew) released Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters.

This is a good book to have, and I’ve got the physical book on my list of books to buy.

This is a tricky review for me to write, though. The book delivers, in spades, what it aims to. After having finally read the book, though, I find that what it aims to do does not align well with how I design scenarios. I do not wish for my biases to affect the review, so will try to identify explicitly where they align and are in conflict.

Book Description

It’s important to understand that the writing duties were split between ten writers, under the direction of Martin Ralya. The writing is of quite consistent quality, and I while I suspect that each author likely has some common design elements, I would need to look more closely than I have to spot them.

The book itself is fairly large, the PDF I’m looking at is 314 pages.

The first twenty pages or so include some GMing advice, how to read the plots, and how to adapt them for actual use. The plots themselves are presented in a fairly archetypal form as seeds, and will often need some development before use. For instance, there are no proper nouns, so even if a plot precisely matches a situation in your campaign you will need to identify the various people and places involved. In other cases you will want to reskin or replace (and the book describes the difference) elements to better fit your campaign, and there is some description of how to adapt between genres. This section alone will be quite useful to many GMs, especially those who have never had to adapt other work.

This section also gives a very brief overview of Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations. These were used in writing the individual plots to great effect, and I will be making use of them myself in future.

After this, most of the remainder of the book is split into three sections, each containing 167 plots for a single genre (fantasy, horror, and science fiction). Each of Polti’s 36 dramatic situations has at least four examples in each genre, and each plot in the (genre, situation) pair was prepared by a different writer. This increases the variety within each such pairing. They took some liberties — announced ahead of time — with Polti’s dramatic situations to make them fit the story better, but the dramatic situations are still evident.

Usually there are two plots presented per page, with the occasional plot presented on a page by itself (or with art). each plot includes not only a textual description of the plot, but identifies other genres and subgenres the plot could be easily adapted to, and has tags indicating key elements of the plot. The tags are derived from things such as location (‘city’, ‘isolated’), nature of challenge (‘investigative’, ‘tactical planning’), and other elements (‘magic’, ‘spirit’, ‘villain’).

At the end are four indexes: by genre (and subgenre), by tag, by title, and by author.

What I Like

Lots of ideas. The title claims 501 plots, and while I’m only about halfway through the fantasy genre I have no reason to think there will be significant duplication, outside fitting within the dramatic situations described by Polti. That is, while there will be at least twelve examples of ‘Supplicant’ (at least four for each genre), they will vary in sufficient degree to be considered different plots.

Good ideas. I’ve seen ‘plot seeds’ and similar ideas before that did not gain my interest nearly as much as the ideas in this book. The ideas presented in this book are consistently interesting and broad variety, even within a single (genre, situation) pairing.

Consistent presentation of the information, including writing style and grouping by dramatic situation and tagging. I suspect I could see more differences in the writing if I tried, but I have not yet reached the point of recognizing from the writing or design elements the writer. The consistency of this work is very good indeed, and greatly increases the usability.

What I Did Not Like

Some of the plots presented had surprise elements. After the main line of the plot was described, at the end there might be “surprise dragon”, or some other element not even hinted at previously in the plot description, as a means of ramping up the difficulty or to introduce a wrinkle. This is not a huge problem, in that such things can easily be resolved in developing the seed into a full scenario, but it doesn’t set well with me.

I would have liked a layout that could make triaging the plots more convenient. This is not a big deal, but even something as simple as going to full-page descriptions of each plot (increasing white space and making it easier to read) and moving the tags to a more convenient location on the page could make a big difference in usability. I can easily understand why it wasn’t done that way, it would immediately almost double the page count, but it would be nice to have.

What I Would Have Done Differently

These are almost entirely personal on my part and largely due to differences in design philosophy.That is, these are things I do not consider actual faults of the book because the book delivers what it says it will, and for the most part I can understand why these things were done this way. However, the book would have been better for me if the following things had been done.

Situations, Not Plots

I try to design around situations, not plots (as described by Justin Alexander in Don’t Prep Plots). The book presents plots, so there’s an immediate conflict of application. For me to make use of the ideas I need to deconstruct the plots into situations that incorporate elements of the plots. This usually is not a particularly difficult thing, but I would find it more useful if instead of telling me how the plot plays out they describe the situation, the actors, and the impetuses so I can take it from there.

That said, plots tend to be easy to understand. The chain of events is fairly predictable, all elements are evident (to the GM, before they are revealed to the players), so not much information is needed.

Also, plots are generally fairly concise. I plan to demonstrate one or a few follow up articles where I do this deconstruction and I expect that even after ‘hiding my work’ to show just the end result each situation could take a full page or two to describe. That’s partly because of how I lay such things out, but partly because I will expand somewhat on things outside the described plot because I expect less ability to predict the players’ actions.

No Assumptions of PC Action

Many plots describe actions the players will take (something like “the villagers say they need this taken to the temple on the mountain. On the way to the mountain, the PCs will encounter…”). I would instead describe what is between the village and the mountain and stop there, in case the PCs do something else.

This initially struck me as very railroadish design (“we all hopped on the plot train” — Best Game Ever, Mikey Mason), until I realized that unless the PCs do certain things the plot doesn’t even happen. If the PCs do something else, this plot doesn’t apply, so it is arguable that to some degree the plot is not ‘forced’ on the PCs, the PC action determines whether or not the plot even applies. This does lead me to my next point, though.

Make Plots More Robust

Many of the plots are written with choke points, places where certain things must happen in order to continue. “The PCs find this clue”, “this person escapes and the PCs track him to his lair”, and so on. If these things don’t happen, the plot can come apart. This can lead to the heavy handed approach described above, or GM intervention to get things back to the plot.

I don’t mean conscious decision by the PCs to abandon something, by the way. “The dragon took her? Too bad, I ain’t fighting no dragon. I guess we might as well go back to town.” should be a legitimate choice, even if inconvenient for the GM, and trying to force the issue is not cool. I’m talking about cases like “this NPC will tell the PCs…” and the PCs accidentally kill the NPC before he can. Having them find a note in his pocket with the same information can get the same information to the PCs, but if there is no reason for such a note to be there it can be out of place.

Back to The Alexandrian for Justin’s Three Clue Rule to resolve this, it’s better to plan for multiple ways of getting certain information to the players or around critical choke points in the design. The plots in this book often present only a single path or choke points, which can make them harder to use.

Make More Paths

Speaking of which, the plots are presented as sequences of events. Some identify some decision points or alternatives, but most are pretty linear. They generally describe good stories, and sometimes exciting ones, but they tend to present only one. Those that offer non-trivial decisions or variations in solution are marked with the ‘sandbox’ tag because they stand out.

I would rather present the situation and play the scenario out based on paths the players choose. Ultimately they will settle on a single path (possibly with loops in it) through the elements of the situation, so if I were to tell the story later it would look like a story plot, but I would not be able to predict ahead of time what that will look like. I describe this in more detail in Campaign Setting Design: Scenario Structure.

This is likely where I would start to start to work in other situations. Many of the plots presented in the book work better if groundwork was done ahead of time, including events such as running into recurring NPCs or visiting a particular town again. This is an excellent opportunity to lay this groundwork — even if not used it doesn’t cost much, and if it does become relevant I look like a genius.

Explicit Situation Description

I have come to accept that I am a data and structure freak sometimes. Polti’s dramatic situations may be viewed somewhat like design patterns (as used by computer programmers and by architects). Rather than base the work on these structures and hide them, as done in this book, I would probably emphasize them.

In fact, I might add this to my List of Things To Be Done, a “Polti for RPG Scenario Designers” document that describes the dramatic situations and how to apply them in a structured manner.

The plots might have been (and I think as situations almost certainly would be) better presented with the dramatic situation explicitly referenced and used. For instance, Polti identifies ‘Vengeance of a Crime‘ as a dramatic situation, with elements “an avenger” and “a criminal”, and summarized as “The Avenger wreaks vengeance on the Criminal for past crimes”. Adding the summary immediately below the section heading for the “Vengeance of a Crime” plots could help guide the reader. Explicitly identifying the elements for each plot as summary information (“gutter thief”, “corrupt watch commander” for avenger and criminal in “Vengeance of a Crime” might be interesting), especially if presented conveniently with the tags, could make it much faster and easier to triage the situations for use.

I think it might also make it easier to chain situations. The gutter thief above could end up a “wandering jack” in another situation (regardless of how this situation plays out, if he survives), while the “corrupt watch commander” could easily be the link between several situations in the same region.

Closing Comments

This is a great book. It delivers what it says it will. It gives me many great ideas and I am considering using ideas from the book in developing other work. I am, and this work will be, better because of this book.

It doesn’t fit my design philosophy and the information is sometimes presented in ways I would not use. For the most part I think the presentation decisions are likely the result of trade-offs in the design process (such as presenting as plots that are easily understood rather than as situations that will need resolution, or tightening up presentation to reduce printing, storage, and shipping costs). Similarly, making the material more concise and easier to understand could encourage a design contrary to what I would have done.

My primary differences with the book lie, I think, with me. This is a good book, and I recommend it to anyone who isn’t already an adventure idea factory (or who is, but wants to introduce some variety). Having ten writers adds to the variety possible, a firm hand on the design kept the quality high and consistent.

I expect I’ll be making regular use of this book for quite a while.

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