The Run as Written Debate

There is some cross blog debating going on that I’m interested in. It is worth thinking about.

Can adventure scenarios be run as written?

Yes, I think they can but often are not. There are several reasons for that. I’ll get to my opinions on the matter after pointing out a little of what’s already been said.

Never As Written

Luka Rejec of Wizard Thief Fighter wrote a post in November of 2021 expounding the notion that you cannot run an adventure as it was written.

Not in the sense of “a hard thing to do” or “something I am not capable, but others are capable of”. No, I mean impossible quite literally.

Luka Rejec – Never As Written

I’ll sum up the moves that lead to his thesis. I encourage you to go read it yourself.

Luka states that a writer/designer cannot provide a “total roleplaying experience.” A game designer cannot achieve the perfect game or adventure whereas the end result is a 1 to 1 match between the text and the play experience.

The writer/designer cannot write a game or adventure that a game master will pick up and read, interpret precisely and completely as the designer intended and play with any group without any alteration whatsoever.

Therefore…

Players should accept that every rulebook and adventure module is a skeleton that they must animate and make their own at their table.

There is no perfection, only the roleplaying that comes to life with every session when some friends sit down to imagine they were someone else, somewhere else, embarking on some quest with ends unknown. Players that fit their roleplaying to themselves will have a kind of perfection.

A Withering Refutation

The Age of Dusk blog published a fiery rejection of Luka’s post. It is quite the rant.

The comments section is lively.

If you’d like to check it out you can read it here.

And there we have it. A justification for incompetence. Not only should you not strive for making something that can be run as written, as a player you should just accept that nothing you buy will be runnable without you doing considerable amounts of work. Just ‘make it your own.’ Of course, guidelines to doing that would almost be procedures so we will omit those also. 

Monsters and Manuals responds…

David McGrogan of Monsters and Manuals had this to say.

However people end up using modules, it is probably important that those who design them aspire for them to realise the ideal of being consistently playable, whatever the group or circumstances, “out of the box”. The alternative – aspiring to create modules which will not be played, but merely read, plundered or pastiched – is likely to end in sloppiness and a kind of grab-bag mentality, with the author simply putting together a jumble of related ideas or impressions that lack coherence even as reading material.

An odd definition of “run as written.”

The major problem with Luka’s argument is how he’s defined “Run as written.”

There is no perfection, only the roleplaying that comes to life with every session when some friends sit down to imagine they were someone else, somewhere else, embarking on some quest with ends unknown. Players that fit their roleplaying to themselves will have a kind of perfection.

He seems to be saying that a game designer can’t write an adventure that players and game masters will adhere to with perfection. I’m not sure what “perfect” is or could be in a tabletop roleplaying game.

No one I know expects perfection of this type.

Who says the standard of “run as written” is perfect fidelity to what the designer put down on paper? If that’s his standard then his whole argument falls apart before it even gets going.

In a clarification post-script, Luka writes:

There is an inevitable gap between idea, intent, and execution. Every rpg product is thus necessarily incomplete and doomed to failure. It can still be good. It should be good.

This is a bizarre and contradictory statement. He’s laid out that every RPG product is a failure because it can’t be perfect but even though it’s failed it still has to be good?

Because a game designer can’t anticipate every possible action by game masters and players, the inevitable gaps makes it a failure?

A product that doesn’t take into account a player’s clever use of a unique magic item created by the game master to circumvent the most difficult obstacle in the adventure, makes the product a failure?

I reject this.

They are not the same thing, necessarily.

Whether a game is “run as written” or a failure are two different questions.

A game can be run as written, and still be a failure. I’ve played some “story” games that were run as written by the person who designed them and were terrible failures. They didn’t produce the intended experience for the intended audience and were boring.

In my experience, most of the games that have came out of The Forge scene must be played “as written” or the game completely breaks down. It is intended to produce a specific experience and if you go messing about, it collapses.

What Do I Think About Running Adventures as Written?

Can it be done? Yes. It usually isn’t and that doesn’t matter all that much.

Let’s start by making sure we’ve framed the question properly.

What does it mean to “run as written?”

It means that the game master presents the material contained in the adventure without substantive alteration and the players play through the scenario without major deviation from the intended play experience.

Some names of places, characters, locations, or minor mechanical changes may be made to fit a game master’s campaign or player group may occur. Overall, the game master doesn’t alter the adventure in a major way. If the location maps, obstacles, challenges, the general characteristics of the NPCs, monsters, and elements the players interact with played without alteration then you have run the adventure as written.

I don’t run many published adventures. Several of them I have run them as written, as I defined it above.

  • The Tomb of the Iron God by Matt Finch
  • Death Frost Doom by James Raggi
  • Tower of the Stargazer by James Raggi (I’ve run this, as written, 3 or 4 times)
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes by Chris Kutulik
  • Misty Isles of the Eld by Chris Kutalik
  • Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie

Out of all the published adventures I’ve bought, this little handful happened to fit my needs with next to no alteration. I simply read the book, told the players what it said, made dice rolls where appropriate and we played through pretty much as it was written on the page.

Does it matter?

GMs can and do run adventures as written as long as you don’t think “run as written” is the impossible standard of perfect translation between the page and the table. If you have a broader definition of run without significant deviation from the published material, as I do, then it can be and has been done.

There’s three blog posts on this topic up above. I’ve spent a lot of time on this post and we’re just now getting to the key point that we ought to have been talking about all along.

Is “run as written” a useful standard of evaluation and criticism?

Yes, if you ask the question properly.

When the adventure gets into the hands of the specific group of people it was written for, do they or can they run it as written?

If the game master with a play group in the target audience using the adventure as intended is unable to run the adventure “as written” because it is vague, poorly formatted, the information design is terrible, the concept is poor, or some other design failure then it this is a problem with the adventure.

If the game master is not part of the target audience and using the adventure in a way it wasn’t designed for then that may not indicate a problem with the adventure.

The adventure might fail as a commercial product because the audience for that specific thing is very small. You can design an adventure that suits the tastes of a very small and very specific audience who love it but fails to earn a profit.

Who is the adventure for?

“Run as written” can be a metric for game design within the proper context.

The critical questions are, “Who is it for?” and “What is it for?”

If you have a specific person or group of people in mind and a clear goal for the way the product is going to be used and the kind of experience the target audience is intended to have, but your adventure fails to deliver that experience then it’s inability to be “run as written” is a failure.

If the GM, who isn’t part of the intended audience, uses the product in a way that isn’t intended and doesn’t have a good time of it, that may not be the designer’s fault.

If I try to go mudding in a compact car with low wheel clearance and get stuck, I’m the idiot. If I buy a vehicle marketed as appropriate for offroad use and it gets stuck in 4 inches of mud then there might be a design problem.

That group in the center is who I’m trying to satisfy.

I’ve been working on a project intermittently for over a year called Hogwater: Village of Lies. It’s a campaign seed. It is a village with a lot of problems that the players can help with, exploit for their own gain, or ignore if that’s what suits them.

Who is it for?

It’s for game masters who like Swords & Wizardry, building campaigns as they go along, in an interesting starting location that has problems besides the usual monsters in the dungeon eating the peasants.

What is it for?

It is a campaign seed. It is intended to be the starting place for a campaign that the game master uses to build out from. It’s foundation for a longer campaign or a mini campaign of its own.

Hogwater needs to have a structure and information design that makes it possible for the referee to run it as written. That’s the point. I don’t want the referee to have to spend a bunch of time preparing the thing. It should be robust. It shouldn’t break when players do something unexpected.

The referee should be able to read through it, print out the reference sheets and tables for ease of use and go. As players interact with different parts of the village, the NPCs and locations around it; the referee can make an assessment about what to build out in more detail to expand the campaign or they can use it as a short campaign of 10-20 sessions and move on to something else.

If you don’t’ run it precisely as I’ve written it, that’s fine. It is a design goal but I’m not going to get bent out of shape if you don’t.

Ignore the others.

There is this wacky idea in RPG land that whatever you put out should be for a “wide audience.” Good luck with that.

I’m not writing it for the people at the center of the diagram. How many people are there in that cell? I have no clue. Probably not many. That’s OK. I’m here to serve them anyway.

If the people I’ve written Hogwater for feel that they’ve gotten good value for their money then mission accomplished! They will most certainly use it in ways I did not anticipate or intend. Does that lack of perfect translation to the table mean it would be a failure? Not in my eyes.

Other people who don’t quite fit the diagram may like the product. Referees who run other OSR games will probably find it worth their time. Some GM’s may run it with GURPS, Savage Worlds, or some other system and it might work. They may run it in a way that is entirely different than I intended it and it still might work. That would be a great bonus.

It’s written for Swords & Wizardry if you don’t use S&W, it may not work for you. It may require a lot of fiddling if you don’t play S&W. If you don’t like mysteries, or morally grey NPC’s, it may not be your thing. Sorry. I didn’t write for you.

Some people are going to mine it for ideas. There are a some magic items, monster encounters, and NPCs that would be cool in other contexts. Go for it.

Your experience is not going to be a perfect facsimile of my creation and it doesn’t need to be.

7 thoughts on “The Run as Written Debate

  1. ericscheid

    Yup. As a rule of thumb, I’m generally suspicious of arguments that rely on the definition of the proposition being supplied by the against-position. Luka Rejec has constructed a strawman argument.
    I like the additional nuance you’ve provided here of audience+system+purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A thing I learned about 20 years ago (from a speech given by Anarcho primitivist Derrick Jensen of all people) is to start by thinking about the underlying assumptions of ideas.

      The idea that you can’t run an adventure more or less as the designer intended assumes much.

      Like

  2. Great post. As always, it’s concise, precise, and well structured.

    It seems that most of the debate comes from the fact that “run as written” (or even “game”, but that would be another discussion entirely) hasn’t been defined by Luka Rejec in a manner that is particularly useful or agreeable (or clear, even).

    I think you gave here – as you often do – the best and most pragmatic definition. Or even more succinctly, a bit further down the page: “The referee should be able to read through it […] and go.”

    If a GM is required to do significant prep before running an adventure (other than minor adjustments – if any – to adapt it to the specifics of their campaign), then the questions are: is this work something that the author could (should) have done instead? If not, why?

    Your definition seems aligned with that of Prince Of Nothing, who wrote: “The issue is that it should be useful as is, so any modification can be easily integrated into an extant framework.”

    But that’s – apparently, and confusingly – *not* what Luka means.

    He wrote: “The ideal roleplaying adventure will be written in such a way that it is easy to pick up and play with minimal preparation. […] But, even this adventure […] will be impossible to run as written.”

    He seems to conflate “run as written” with “perfectly plotted”, as opposed to “a toybox [that] gives the players a sandbox”, and that’s a definition I can’t agree with. Even a “sandbox toybox” can still be playable as written, in the sense that “the referee should be able to read through it and go”. Obviously, the GM must be ready to improvise and follow the PCs wherever they go and whatever they do, but the scenario succeeds on that metric as long as – to quote Prince Of Nothing – it “gives enough tools for the GM so the PCs can meaningfully explore the place”.

    In a comment reply, Luka wrote: “I am not writing about “playing creatively” as far as I recall. I am writing about the impossibility of playing a roleplaying game as written, because the writing cannot capture the live act of play.”, which implies – but again without clarifying – yet another definition, even less usable, and even more distant from how “run as written” (or “run straight”, as in the original critique) is most commonly understood.

    PS: The link to Prince of Nothing’s post is wrong (it points to Luka’s).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One reason why this topic grabbed my attention is that it is the very issue I am wrestling with in my Hogwater project. I could probably declare it done, get the maps and layout going and move on to the next thing. However, I want to make it as useful and efficient of a tool as possible for referees. Much of my current work is around making it possible for a referee to “run as written.”

      Like

  3. Pingback: More Thoughts About “Run As Written” – Grumpy Wizard

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