Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me.
Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review
Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links.
Organized Chaos by Dialectrical
An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 1.
We’ve all had one of the those days. A day where you just wish that your entire work would just go to hell. Well, now you can see how that would turn out in: Organized Chaos! Ok, it’s the abyss, not actually the Nine Hells, but still! Your party will spend their time trying to find a way out of Abyssal Sorting Services, a little corner of order in the chaos that is the abyss, that the abyss is desperately trying to get rid of, like a body trying to expel a foreign body. The adventure itself is pretty open in its flow, indeed its almost obliged to be slightly meandering given the format. Its sandbox nature leaves the players with a lot of responsibility for the pacing and flow of the adventure, suiting those that like a sense of agency, and also surreal humour.
The adventure starts with the party being transported to the entrance hall of Abyssal Sorting Services following one of three adventure hooks, each of which will determine what different complications the party might face when they try to leave. The stated goal is the same for every hook however: find a way of putting an end to this little corner of order that is perturbing the natural state of the Abyss. Though the party’s real goal is more likely to be just trying to find a way out of the Escher-like existence that they are now trapped in.
The players will have to find their way through a dimensionally challenged modern office building, trying to understand its internal logic (or lack thereof) and meeting it’s eclectic range of workers and inhabitants. These include a literal example of the infinite monkey theorem, a very hungry washroom intendant, a boardroom meeting engaged in a very hostile takeover, and Herbert from accounts. If they’re feeling a bit claustrophobic, they might like to step out into the courtyard to get some air and maybe have a wander around the enchanted forest that just happens to be there.
Most of the joy in this adventure will be found exploring this weird and wonderful location, discovering all the references, figuring out the strange puzzle like situations, and generally just messing about with the group and having a laugh. There are occasions where a skill check or a saving throw might be needed, and even a couple of combat situations, but to be honest the mechanics aren’t really why we’re here. It is very much a sandbox for the players, and a toolbox for the DM to insert their own extra level of challenges if that’s what they feel will maximise the party’s enjoyment, or to just go with the flow, as the players deal with each of the encounters in whatever way they feel like.
On a more visual level, Organized Chaos doesn’t follow the traditional D&D adventure layout, and can at times be slightly hard on the eyes, though it does provide both a dark and light background options which can help alleviate this slightly. It’s laid out in landscape, rather than portrait, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on how much screen space you can dedicate to the PDF while running the adventure, though on the plus side it does leave plenty of room to admire the wonderful pieces of classical artwork that are dotted throughout. Generally, this very much feels like the format reflecting the theme, which is something I always enjoy in a layout. While it might be a bit rough in places, it very much reflects an organised form of chaos.
This sandbox adventure is a quite wild mix of absurdist humour and referential jokes. There is probably something for everyone in here, no matter what your general media preferences, though it is likely to appeal more to fans of The Stanley Parable, Ionesco, and Pratchett. It will require the players to be there mainly for the ride, willing to explore without an immediate or pressing goal. To get the most out of it, you will have to be willing to lean into the humour and generally be ready to poke any mechanism and push any button just to see what it does. An irreverent adventure that can easily be slipped into the flow of a campaign to shake things up a bit, or if you need a low preparation one-shot to amuse your group.
Behind the Screens
Hello Dialectrical, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start, perhaps slightly unusually though quite fittingly in this case, by talking not about the content of the adventure, but its presentation. You’ve eschewed the traditional D&D format, included several classical pieces of art work, gone for a landscape presentation rather than the more usual portrait… Was the intention to have some of the “organised chaos” theme reflected in the format?
Hello! This is actually kind of an ideal starting point–I made the adventure layout rather nonstandard because I wanted the form to immediately make readers realize this wasn’t going to be a familiar adventure and at the same time I wanted the form to make readers and DMs engage with the adventure in a potentially unfamiliar or new way. Now that I step back and think about it, there’s an element of organized chaos in that. On the one hand, the adventure is organized and in some ways I was meticulous about certain formal constraints (like encounters being one page in length max!) but on the other hand there were many things that aren’t well organized and by attempting to defamiliarize the reader/DM’s approach to the adventure through the layout I’m sure I’ve made more than a few people feel something like chaos.
At the same time, I also don’t particularly like the standard layout for 5e adventures. They aren’t usually very functional for me and I end up making notes for games that look an awful lot like my one page encounters or the map-as-table-of-contents in Organized Chaos. I also don’t enjoy writing expository or descriptive text when I make content and notes for my home games, instead leaving those details up to improv or asking my players to fill in details. The flip side of that is that I don’t always find those details helpful when I’m running another published adventure either because it’s just another element of prep and execution I need to worry about. So, some of the layout was also the result of me wanting to make Organized Chaos first and foremost an adventure for me, as a writer and DM.
This dovetails with the art choice, partially, as well. There had been talk in the months leading up to the November workshop about making RPG products on the cheap and how public domain artwork was a great way to save money. The cost of getting started with RPGs is a sizable barrier to entry for many new creators (and to be quite honest I’m amazed anyone can hack it using Microsoft Office or Libre Office for design and layout!) and using free art assets is a great way to cut costs while still making a product that looks eye catching. This was, of course, on my mind, but in a slightly spiteful way that I won’t go into, but suffice to say it was only slightly spiteful! I think lowering the cost of entry to RPGs is a great thing and we should all look for ways to help new creators as best we can.
At the same time, using free assets and material frees the writer up to take more risks. When I made Groceries for Beldok, I had so many things I was worried about financially with it: the Workshop fee, the art and design assets I purchased, the Affinity Publisher price. These were all things that were worth it and valuable (especially the Workshop!) but I had something like 100$ in costs looming over my head that I felt like I had to get out from under with that adventure before I could feel like I was really done with the project. This was on my mind from start to finish with Beldok and it impacted many of the choices I made–I was, in short, making something that was a product first.
With Organized Chaos, as I’ve said, I wanted to make something for me. More specifically, I wanted to make an adventure that enacted and demonstrated an approach to the game I’d like to see more of and an adventure that wasn’t necessarily concerned with the whims of the DM’s Guild audience. I worried quite a lot about Organized Chaos throughout making it–almost every morning I’d wake up and worry about whether or not I needed to be a little more conventional or if this or that encounter would land well. So, the art choice was a way of freeing myself form that financial concern I had with my previous adventure.
There was some fun involved in the art choices, as well. I love going to museums, first and foremost. The cover image, “the Torment of St. Anthony” was something I knew I wanted to use as the cover image from the outset, and it’s also a painting I’ve seen in person and have just always been obsessed with. I had Dali and Bosch in the back of my mind when coming up with the adventure concept, as well, and just enjoy looking at bizarre European depictions of demons and hell and the like. Of course, you can’t exactly go to museums right now and once I got to looking through a few additional public domain paintings it turned into a massive rabbit hole, where I’d have hundreds of browser tabs open and I’d be reading about artists and paintings on Wikipedia for hours at a time like I was at a museum of my own making. By the same token, I also just couldn’t believe that I really could do whatever I wanted with all this artwork! One thing led to another, and then I was committed to including a painting for as many encounters as I could. I hope that readers enjoy the artwork, even if it isn’t standard faire or a direct representation of the adventure’s content, too.
I’d now like to move back to the actual content. Your adventure is almost aggressively non-linear. Why did you want to go for the more sandbox style?
The decision to be so non-linear comes from my attempt to make an adventure for myself and to try and perform the sorts of things I want to see more of. Non-linearity and freedom to explore are something that I feel like those of us in the hobby like to tout as a major attraction of TTRPGs but at the same time, I feel that sandboxes and nonlinearity are often done as half-measures, where choices are captured or things are designed in such a way as to create the illusion of choice rather than a more hard coded choice. I find non-linearity interesting, at bottom, because it encourages exploration in a way that feels more rewarding to me most of the time.
Choice in games is something I think about a lot in general, as well, but never very clearly or decisively. In a way, the decision to opt for non-linearity was a bit like me trying out a new technique to see what I thought of it, grasping at ideas and insights about choices and linearity as I went. If we’re being honest, I also think non-linearity is much easier than linearity, it just grinds against my (and maybe most of our?) sensibilities when it comes to making TTRPG content.
Like the artwork, though, the non-linearity was something I was doing for fun, as well. I wondered just how goofy I could get with it and just how far I could go without feeling like I’d massively piss a group off. I don’t feel like I did as well as I could have with the nonlinearity and I certainly didn’t go as far off the rails as I could have, so maybe there’ll have to be an Organized Chaos 2?
Now that I’m talking about non-linearity, though, something worth noting about Organized Chaos is that it offers players almost no explicit directions in the text. The hooks I wrote are all very vague with NPCs just asking you to go into the dungeon. One of the hooks even gives the players a magical item that lets them leave the dungeon at any time. You commented on that item when you read one of my drafts, actually! You pointed out that players could use the whistle to immediately leave the dungeon and that was part of the point. I wanted the dungeon to be something players explored because they wanted to and I wanted that exploration to be wholly the players–no one tells you to go visit Herbert in Accounting, but if you’re curious, you might just run into him, for example. In short, I hoped that the lack of signposts or NPCs that do any sort of exposition or guidance players would make that nonlinearity felt by the players.
Do you have any advice for DMs on how to prep and run this more open adventure, where they wont be able to know where the party is most likely heading next?
As I’ve said, I wanted Organized Chaos to have a defamiliarizing effect on readers/DMs and players. When you find something defamiliarized or made strange, you regard it at a distance in a way you don’t necessarily do with the familiar. You attempt to pick out the familiar elements and, at the same time, comprehend the unfamiliar. Understanding the unfamiliar necessarily involves a reduction of its strangeness to something familiar to you. If you’re paying special attention, an encounter with the strange gives you a glimpse at your own patterns of understanding and familiarities–you can become conscious of why something unfamiliar is unfamiliar to you and gain a kind of control over how you make that unfamiliar thing familiar.
Put another way, I made Organized Chaos rather obtuse with the complete and total expectation that DMs will make it their own and possibly even confront their own preparation and table practices. It feels somewhat flippant to say, but my piece of advice to DM’s would be to trust themselves and do whatever feels right. Take a step back, consider what you need for yourself at the table, and allow yourself to make mistakes. After all, you’re with a group of friends spending time together, it’s ok if my module isn’t run with total fidelity!
Your title page proclaims that this is an adventure suitable for “characters of any level”, and I can certainly see that it would be possible to do so here, though they probably wouldn’t handle things in quite the same way if they’re level 18 rather than level 3. Was the something you consciously designed for, or was it something you realised after the fact? And do you have any advice on how designers can approach “level neutral” adventures?
A high level and low level party would definitely have very different experiences! I’m sure there are even lots of high level spells and abilities that would do all sorts of bizarre things to some of the encounters that I didn’t really consider, but good on players if they figure out how to use their spells in a creative way. As for low level parties: please don’t disturb The Meeting, trust me.
I didn’t exactly consciously design for level neutrality. Instead, I just didn’t consider level or even many mechanics at all for most of the process. I made The Meeting use the bone devil statblock because the artwork for bone devils reminded me of the image of The Meeting in my head and I used a yogoloth statblock because it fit my idea of No-Name. I included random tables for generating the dragon in the courtyard because I thought that would be more interesting to make it random. I also try to avoid mandatory combat slogs in my games (my players won’t believe I said that, but it’s true!) and so I naturally drifted towards Organized Chaos having critical paths that did not require combat. There were a few things I saved for finalizing until the end, like the damage dealt by the door puzzle, and by the time I was finalizing those details I was consciously making tweaks to allow for a wide array of PC levels, but I made very few tweaks at that point.
Again, though, the “parties of any level” banner on the cover is also a bit of a joke! It’s there to make DM’s roll their eyes and come up with reasons why it’s not suitable for this level range or that level range and sort of in the process come up with their own idea of what level range they’d like their party to be at for the dungeon. For players: it’s a challenge of sorts–it’s less “you can do this at level 1!” and more “can you do this at level 1?”
I would say my major point of advice for designers is paradoxically to both understand the mechanics of yours system thoroughly and also to design as much as possible without considerations for your games’ balancing mechanics. You need to understand the mechanics of your games so that you understand how to make encounters along your critical path that don’t totally eradicate low level PCs but you need to throw out a lot of mechanical concerns when coming up with challenges and let your imagination flow because, in my experience, your imagination already thinks of adventures in terms of level neutral! Go back over your imaginative ideas for your dungeon or adventure with mechanics and tweak as little as possible, and you’re off to the races.
There are a lot of references in your adventure, often for humorous purposes, far more than I can mention here. What were your main influences when writing this adventure?
I actually thought of including an appendix listing all of the references in the adventure but decided against it! If anyone can catch them all, maybe there’s a reward in it for them. In graduate school, I spent a little chunk of time reading about intertextuality and poked around trying to do work with references, but it never really went anywhere. So, in a way, Bakhtin and Kristeva were minor influences insofar as I really wanted to go to town with intertextuality. I even thought of including a reference to Bakhtin but scrapped it.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, my major influences were phenomenology and theories of affect. I find thinking about perception, understanding and comprehension, and feeling really fascinating and in a way it lead me to lean so hard into trying to make the defamiliarization and self-reflection I mentioned earlier happen. Similarly, for players, I wanted to encourage them to wonder why they feel the need to continue and possibly even grapple with why they did or did not enjoy the dungeon. I wanted, in other words, for Organized Chaos to put those playing with it in a kind of phenomenological mode. Did I succeed? Probably not!
Of course, there are plenty of other influences that aren’t as silly sounding! Bosch and Dali were huge influences, as was David Lynch. The Talking Heads are probably worth mentioning, too, since I listen to them a lot when I work. The Tomb of Horrors was a major influence, as well. Whenever I’d doubt myself I’d just take a step back and go, “y’know, if Gary Gygax made that awful dungeon and people are still playing it? I can do whatever I want.”
Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
Well, thanks for having me, of course! I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more things to talk about in relation to my adventure, but, I’ll just say I’d love to hear stories from anyone who has had a chance to run my silly little dungeon! Good or bad, really!
And, also, keep an eye out for my next project, which I unceremoniously announced recently on twitter! It’s a collaboration inspired by the surrealist’s exquisite corpse drawing game that should be really interesting!
Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!
Until next time, be more kind,