April 10, 2012

Halt, human female!

Normally, I never bother to fully read the adventures that come out of Dungeon Magazine (call it DDi if you really must). As a whole, they're insipid, uninspired and worthless. My usual modus operandi with these sorts of things is to simply skim the article in question for anything useful for me to use in my home game, generally technical or crunch material, and then just ignore all the drivel and fluff surrounding it. I don't mind flavor text, fluff pieces, and the like. But for the overwhelming majority of DDi content, that aspect of the articles is simply not very good so I ignore it.

Today was a little different. Today I took the time, slowed myself down a bit, and decided I would really sink my teeth into an article. In my list of PDFs to get around to reading I still had an epic tier adventure, Flame's Last Flicker, by Shawn Merwin. This adventure was hyped up quite a bit, with a Design & Development article preceding it, and the adventure itself being a sequel of sorts to a verified classic Dungeon adventure about as historic as they come.

By Page 3, however, I was already sorely disappointed. Again. The writing in this is simply terrible. I haven't even had time to absorb the linear plot or stale, safe, by-the-numbers combat encounters. No, this was some froo-froo roleplaying bullshit that tanked it for me. The following line is what really grinds my gears, something that many D&D authors throw into their writing that is one of my pet peeves (emphasis mine):

"Amid the destruction lies the crumpled form of a human female in plate armor."

Human female? Is that how the author describes a woman? Who the fuck talks like that? "Hey guys, let's go down to the bars and see if we can pickup some females!" It's as though the author was an alien zoologist studying human beings from afar, never having actually interacted with them, and now must describe them in detail.

Some may say I'm being too harsh and judgmental, that I'm kind of an asshole who tramples on a lot of people's D&D picnics. This is just throw away fluff text, right?

Well, fuck you, I demand better. The authors of these articles get paid, not a lot by any stretch of the imagination, but pretty good compared to the writing industry at large. I would think that a paid author would know better than to write something so boring, dry, and technical. This also isn't just throw away text that doesn't matter. This is, by the adventure's own description, part of the first paragraph of text the players will ever hear at the table. This is the adventure's first and thus most important impression, and the author sets the tone to that of a car alarm installation guide.


  1. My god is that drivel! 'Human female'?!? Speaking as one who has been known to play such characters, I sincerely hope I am never described that way. Gads, 'female humanoid' would have been slightly better. Well, I'm offended. Thanks WoTC!

  2. I think "armored chick" is much more appropriate... *ducks!*

    1. As politically incorrect as that would be, I'd much prefer something potentially offensive like that than something boring and clinical sounding.

  3. Hey, I hope you aren't grouping my tavern profile under that bad writing banner! ;)

    As for "Human Female", I guess it's more a feature of D&D's heritage than overtly bad writing. It harkens back to the days of: "You are approached by a human female wearing chainmail, who uses the chaotic good language to introduce herself as a fight/thief/acrobat. She is... *rolls die*... ambivalent about your presence here."

    That said, a well written adventure can be a thing of joy, so I feel your pain.

  4. Interesting indeed. The way I see it is somewhat similar, though I think I might be able to justify (at least only a little) in my own mind.

    First off, in an attempt to be politically correct (unlike the awesome, yet un-pc "armored chick") it turned into a, as you put it, clinical description of the body in question. Yeah, it sounds forced, clinical, dry, and boring. We agree here.

    But, and there is always a but, right? But, at the same time this is a fantasy game with a myriad of options for race and the fairly typical two for gender. In this case saying "human" may sound clinical, but in reality it is a descriptor of the race. The same would be said if it was an "orc female" or a "drow female." Clinical sure, but necessary to avoid confusion. As far as the female part goes? I feel it's similar, "half-orc male" is the exact same description in many ways to "human female."

    I'm not sure how one would improve it, but with all of the different races it does seem like an almost neccesary evil.

  5. I am curious what you would suggest as good text for getting across what the PCs see while improving it.

    1. How would you describe a female halfling then?

    2. A short woman. A bare-footed woman. A curly-haired woman.

      A woman wearing plate armor, face down in the mud. Blood has pooled into the mud, staining it red. The figure seems short, between 3 and 4 feet tall.

  6. Thanks. This is Shawn, and I am trying to get better at my craft, so I am interested in opinions and advice. I understand that "human female" is clinical and not-so-evocative, but read-aloud text has to serve the dual purpose of succinctly supplying information to the PCs while still showing the details. I did try to follow up the clinical "human female" with some better descriptive prose:

    "The stone walls of this room were once lined with polished oaken shelves and cabinets. However, these fittings have been savaged, the items held there now stolen, or shattered
    and strewn across the floor. Amid the destruction lies the crumpled form of a human female in plate armor. Long raven hair spills from beneath a decorated helm. A dazed
    expression shows on her pallid face, but her eyes are devoid of life."

    Can you offer suggestions on how you would make this writing better? Thanks!

    1. Well let me start out by saying "thanks!" It's pretty neat to see a published D&D author (or whatever title you go by) read my little blog.

      Secondly, sorry if I came off as brash, arrogant, or rude. I've been called all those things, and worse, and rightly so!

      So, one of the rules I like to stick close to is "show, don't tell". For the dungeon master, you might describe somewhere in the room description, not the read aloud text, that the fittings have been scavenged. For the read aloud, however, I'd go with sticking to the senses and obvious, and not leaping to any conclusions. You see that kind of thing in older edition modules, especially from 2E era and earlier, all over the place. In my personal experience, the players get a lot more investment and enjoyment from the experience if they draw their own conclusions, even if they're painfully obvious. Even better, they tend to create their own reasons and backstories, oftentimes things the author/DM hasn't thought of.

      And of course, swap out "human female" for "woman". Not only is it more natural sounding, but it gives one tiny step of discovery and mystery to your players. It might seem pointless to you, and for many it is, but some players feel rewarded for piecing together disparate clues and descriptions.

  7. Here's my take:

    "The stone walls of this room have the ripped and torn remnants of polished oaken shelves and cabinets. The fittings to the cabinets are missing, and there is shattered glass and torn papers strewn about the floor. Amid the destruction lies the crumpled form of a woman in plate armor. Long raven hair spills from beneath a helm of shining steel decorated with brass eagle wings. A dazed expression shows on her pallid face, but her eyes are unblinking."

  8. Thanks Casey. I've got no title. I'm just a human male. (IT'S A JOKE!)

    I appreciate hearing your take. Boxed text is one of those areas of adventure design where preference swings wildly. Some DMs want everything spelled out in the boxed text so they know the players get all the important bits up front. Other DMs want almost everything placed in the room description so they can mete it out slowly as the players explore.

    I've taught creative writing at a couple of local colleges and online for Vermont College, and I always tell my students to be careful with the old "Show Don't Tell" rule, because sometimes the story gets stalled if you never tell. A more important rule is "Don't Both Show AND Tell." Of course, that applies for fiction; adventure writing is a different animal.

    Your point about the players liking to piece things together and draw their own conclusions is an excellent one. Sometimes I forget that and appreciate the reminder.

    I was writing an article for Critical Hits on dealing with reviews and criticism. Would you mind if I either quote your thoughts on "Flame's Last Flicker" or link to this blog page?

    Thanks again!