Friday, November 18, 2011

Review of Tome of Adventure Design

I knew it would take a while for a reviewer to assimilate the length of Tome of Adventure Design enough to write a comprehensive review of the book, but now a long review has been published over at And it's an awesome review. I don't know this reviewer, but he really managed to notice a lot of the finer points, including making the comment that: "The design philosophy also leans more toward the old-school than most products these days – with an emphasis on traditional dungeons, high magic, and challenging the players rather than their characters." For someone who already knows that I'm an old-schooler, that's no revelation, but apparently this guy identified it solely from the material in the book, which is kind of impressive.

The link to the review is here at rpggeek
Link to get the book is here at Frog God Games.

Now I'm going to quote the review in full, for those who don't want to click through on the link. Everything below here is quotation of the review:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the RPG hobby has a long and nearly sacred tradition of random tables. Perhaps it is because we must improvise during games, or perhaps it is because such tables link the disparate source material together, or perhaps it is simply because Gary Gygax used them with abandon in the early D&D products.

But Matthew Finch, creator of the Swords and Wizardry retroclone of OD&D and author of the Tome of Adventure Design (henceforth ToAD), believes they serve a much higher purpose: inspiration. And not just in the ordinary list-of-interesting-words sense, but as creative fuel for subconscious connections that generate great stories.

The ToAD is Finch’s collection of tables for adventure, villain, dungeon, and monster design, collected over the years into a volume meant to inspire others. Does it succeed at this lofty goal?


ToAD is currently available in pdf; the hardcover is available by preorder. The pdf is 308 pages long and is divided into four “books.” The material was originally intended to be presented in four separate products (the Mythmere's Adventure Design Deskbook series, the first volume of which was Volume 1: Principals and Starting Points), but the ToAD consolidates all of the tables into one book. The division into separate “books” within the product does help to keep things organized, and it doesn’t appear to have much

The editing is solid though there are a few minor typos – nothing to interfere with your reading of the book, at least so far as I have detected. There’s occasional black and white art, and the tables are nicely laid out so as to be easy reading.

The pdf is bookmarked but not hyperlinked (which would be very helpful in a reference document like this). There are multiple indices, however, so navigating the hardcopy should be fairly easy.

The book’s cover bills this as ”A comprehensive adventure-creation sourcebook for Swords & Wizardry and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game” but that’s just marketing – really this will work for any fantasy game, with the proviso that it is built to tell classic D&D stories, so you’ll get the most use out of it if you head that direction.

The Tables

The ToAD contains 409 distinct tables by my count (I wouldn’t bet my life on that number…though I would probably bet The Crab’s ). That’s quite a few, of course, but it’s fewer than half as many as Ultimate Toolbox. On the other hand, many of these tables are much bigger – most use a d100 and some even a d1000 (though most actually have only 10-20 options), and many have multiple parts (such as the four separate columns to the “Locations” table that lets you define a structure and its name – each column gets its own die roll).

More importantly, nearly all of these tables take a “big picture” approach to the game. You won’t find any lists of names or many lists of details here. You won’t even find a generic list of interesting villains to grab in the midst of a session. In fact, Finch warns in the introduction that “most of [the tables] are too long, and contain too many unusual or contradictory entries, for use on the spot at the gaming table.” Instead ToAD contains “high-level” tables meant for use in “deep design” during the preparation of a game.

Most interestingly, some of the tables are not really lists but processes: their separate parts, taken in sequence, provide a method to construct your own solutions. A good example is the three-part table for generating magical symbols: begin with a real-world source (such as a letter), then execute two operations upon it (from the second and third columns) to produce a plausible-looking runic symbol.

Creative Sparks

Finch subscribes to a very particular style of creative thought, which builds off of two crucial premises. First:

”Albert Einstein” wrote:
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them.

That is, good design will spring from the strange and turbulent whirring of your subconscious. Finch further believes that the essential process in the subconscious is “the manipulation and recombination of concepts” – usually, strange and contradictory concepts juxtaposed together. The tables aim to provide that juxtaposition by drawing forth a host of ideas that are interesting on their own but produce tension when combined. It is that tension that Finch believes will produce a great adventure – but the role of the tables is simply to provide the tension, not to offer a solution to relieve it. In fact, Finch clearly does not advocate slavish devotion to the tables’ results.

The clearest explanation of these tables’ role in the creative process comes in a section on dungeon design (in part three of the book). Finch identifies four stages to building an adventure: creative overload, where the tables bombard you with contradictory information; synthesis, where the stewing of the subconscious creates a powerful image or connection from those ingredients; sculpting, where many of those early ideas are pruned back or eliminated based on the imagery created during synthesis; and finally building, where genuinely new ideas flow into the adventure to complement the high concept. The tables are nominally designed with the initial step in mind.

Of course, there is a secondary purpose to these tables – inspiration of a more conventional variety, producing large lists of story hooks, monster parts, dungeon elements, and villains when a designer is stuck on a particular topic. This is certainly the easier way to use the book, and though it lacks the depth of the , it is probably the way most will end up using this book. Even during the building process, those of us with relatively little experience in adventure design will find the extended lists of motivations, types of countdown clocks, and dungeon connections useful in the building process.

Fortunately, the tables hold up well to this kind of use as well: although using lots of tables will almost certainly generate the sort of contradictory creative tension Finch desires, they also function as near-comprehensive lists of villain motivations, enticement to peril, etc. Moreover, there are a number of straightforward tables that help do a lot of the scutwork of adventure design – lists of monster attacks, dungeon corridors, tactical features, etc. I expect many will find these very useful in generating secondary aspects of adventures,

The Contents

The four “books” inside ToAD focus on different elements of the fantasy game. The first, Principles and Starting Points offers a set of tables designed to jump start adventure design from the initial phases and to construct the overarching plot of a scenario. It contains tables to generate evocative if odd names like “The Dank Hut of the Feral Titan,” lists of patrons and ways to involve PCs in adventures, and a long series of tables detailing the insidious plans of the master villain, from subversion to food-gathering.

The second book, Monsters, contains a long section with tables focusing on different types of monsters – from beasts to fey to undead. Each of these gets several tables that highlight key abilities, attributes, or flavor – unusual breath weapons for dragons (sorry, no streams of bears), various contracts for fey creatures, etc. A set of more generic tables – focusing on attack methods – follows those.

The third book, Dungeon Design, focuses on this iconic adventure environment. This part is my favorite – we get a set of tables to inspire decisions about the major adventure elements, tables about generating backstory, generarting an interesting map, extensive list of “tricks,” and lots of compilations of dungeon dressing. The miscellaneous tables are similar to those found in other books, but the dungeon design section is excellent.

Finally, the fourth book, Non-Dungeon Adventure Design is basically the leftovers. The largest sections include tables for cities and the wilderness, but it also discusses aerial, planar, and water-based adventures. The tables in this chapter feel most similar to those in other books, perhaps because most of the topics receive just a cursory treatment.


Given the tone of the tables – not to mention the title - it will likely come as no surprise that ToAD contains a fair amount of advice sprinkled throughout – advice that goes beyond simply “How to Use These Tables.” Some of the tables do contain commentary on their elements (what do all those gemstones look like, after all?).

But there is also fairly extensive advice on the creative process as applied to adventure design. Finch identifies the crucial components of a good adventure from two angles – the “story” elements and the mechanical ones – and explains how best to use them. Both are illuminating. There is also advice on how to think about a dungeon map, how to incorporate traps and puzzles into a game, how to evoke the “classic” feel of monsters, how to engineer a unique villain, and much more.

The advice mostly has an “old school” feel to it – adventures are pulled out of the GM’s mind, not constructed by the mutual interactions of the entire group. “Megadungeons” are just fine, though they do deserve special treatment. The tricks and puzzles are meant to challenge the players, not their characters. There’s not a single discussion of game balance, at least that I noticed. While the tables make an excellent resource for any kind of game, the advice centers on a more traditional approach.

In my experience, there are two kinds of advice you can hope to get from RPG supplements. The first is to articulate clearly those things you already “know” in your gut but that never rose to a clear expression in your consciousness. These kinds of things will usually happen in your games – because they feel right – but may not be perfectly rendered and may sometimes miss out by accident. On many practical points, the ToAD does an excellent job of articulating these kinds of things.

The second is to approach a design problem or concept from an entirely new perspective that opens your eyes to something new in (or out of) the hobby. For me, the ToAD did this as well – especially with regard to the beginning stages of adventure design. It is a rare book that succeeds on both levels!

The Bottom Line

The ToAD is the best and most interesting book of RPG tables I’ve seen. That is largely because it is much more than just a collection of lists - a genre nearly mastered by Ultimate Toolbox. Some of this may be the way I experience RPG products these days – as only an occasional GM, I’m less interested in tables meant to be used “on the fly.” But there are several distinct advantages of this book:

Books of tables tend to be just that – lists of lists, with minimal advice for using them under the assumption that they will primarily be used to answer specific questions. As the name implies, the ToAD is much more than that, and it does an exceptional job of integrating solid advice about designing and structuring adventures, encounters, tricks and monsters into the long lists of charts. The advice along makes this one of the more compelling RPG books I’ve read recently.

The tables themselves are pretty impressive, too. Many are “high-level” tables that address big-picture questions rather than fill in details, but they manage to focus themselves on those questions very well.

The ToAD also has a good number of “process” tables, which present a method for solving a problem rather than a simple list of solutions. Usually the method is broken into steps, with each step receiving its own sub-table. These are clever little minigames that let the GM use their own creativity and offer nearly unlimited solutions.

The book is a much more interesting read than one would expect from a book of tables! Finch has clearly thought deeply about adventure design, and his writing is compelling and thought-provoking (see especially the analysis of Lewis’ Carroll’s Jabberwocky). It’s rare for an RPG book to step outside of both the fantasy world and its rules in order to examine the hobby or its process from a larger vantage point, but this one succeeds in its discussion of the creative process.

Why might you be wary of this product? Although it will be useful for any fantasy game, it is heavily dependent on that genre. The recommended design methods may not match your taste, and if you’ve already got your own successful method you may not get as much enjoyment from the tables as otherwise. The editing is also not perfect (though it’s very good by RPG product standards). The design philosophy also leans more toward the old-school than most products these days – with an emphasis on traditional dungeons, high magic, and challenging the players rather than their characters.

In the end, this is a great product that I recommend strongly to any fantasy GM or budding adventure writer/designer, as the pairing of advice and inspiring tables is unmatched in any other product I’ve seen.

Note: This is my twenty-third entry in the Iron Reviewer series.


  1. Yes, that is a really well-done review!

    I'm still on the fence about buying it ... mostly because I'm not sure how much I'd actually use it ... but that review just gave me a little nudge toward the "buy it" side of the fence.

    But Matt: Get back to work on Throne of the Toad King! That is what I want to buy!

  2. Guy, trust me. Buy the thing. If you read it and don't immediately think of like 60 bajillion ways to use it, you should change hobbies. I owned the two Deskbooks that came out before and eagerly awaited the rest. However, I'm much happier to have all the stuff in one volume (with a neat acronym). I'm basically an addict for random tables (I have Ultimate Tool), and these are some of my favorites I've ever seen. Just a superb work and I'm very glad to have it. Thanks for the work Matt!

  3. My dilemma is that my campaign is 80% composed of other peoples' published modules, and I already have a pretty decent "system" for making my homebrew stuff.

    I generally don't need the lists of random high-level concepts; I have pages and pages of notes of high-level concepts that I've already thought of.

    And I think I already use the "let various dissociated, superficially-incompatible ideas stew in my head until an inspiring kernel emerges, and then ride the resulting wave of creative energy" technique.

    Though admittedly, I don't think I could have described that technique coherently until I read the above review.

    But like I said, the review did push me closer to buying. I won't make the decision until the hardcopy book is available, though. I'm not the preorder sort of person in most cases.

  4. I have the original Toolbox from AEG and while it's one of the game books I love to praise, I have actually not used it that much. That makes me wonder how much I will use ToAD, but I now feel more tempted than ever.

    If I did have a regular game group or two, it would be easy to decide, I guess...

  5. Awesome review! I'm just starting out on the road of Old School Renaissance (or is that revolution?) and could use a jolt of creative, higher-consciousness adventure design. Sold.


  6. Working as designed!
    Almost as important as the ways that the book sparks ideas is the way it creates opportunity to depart from a too logical progression of thought. When I create, it is easy to fall into a rut where A leads to B and then to C leaving D pretty easy for everyone else at the table to figure out.
    Thanks for helping my D to be a mystery and a bit shocking when delivered correctly.