On the Style and Structure of Writing Shadowdark RPG Adventures

This article is a bold declaration to clarify one form and style of writing adventures for Shadowdark RPG. As a student learning from the Experienced and the game's creator, Kelsey Dionne, I am here to shed some torchlight on the Structure, Style, and Form of Shadowdark Adventures. Chris Bissette of Loot the Room inspired this article. You can find that article here: Form and Structure: The DNA of Adventure Modules. Other inspirations are selfish; I'd like this clarification to inform my writing after completing one self-published adventure.

The Basic Elements of Shadowdark Adventures

If you have yet to discover Shadowdark, the roleplaying game, pause and pick up the free quickstart guide from The Arcane Library. If you're here, most of you are familiar with Shadowdark and are as curious as I am about Shadowdark adventure writing. Let's dive in.

Writing adventures for any roleplaying game has its challenges. Adventure writing is a unique form of storytelling that informs Game Masters how to guide their players step by step into the world of the writer's creation, ideally communicating enough to help the GM embark their players on a thrilling quest.

As the Loot the Room article illustrates1...how you construct an adventure and present it on the page is very much determined by the system you're writing for. That's not to say that it's inherent to the system in any way...but because the first party publishers include this stuff, the audience comes to expect it., to connect with your Game Master audience, you must write your adventures in the style recognizable by the established content, typically written by the "house" or original creators. With this in mind, The Arcane Library is the source. 

Today, an Adventure for Shadowdark is limited in its example content. The complete edition of the game has been available for about a year as of the writing of this article, and the official adventures in the Cursed Scrolls 1 through 3 come in slightly different formats. After studying Kelsey's changes, I have selected Cursed Scroll 3 and the zero-level adventure "Hoard of the Sea Wolf King" or "HotSWK" as my example adventure. It is crucial to understand that your style can be different from my proposal.

If you've read Adventures designed for Old School Rules (also known as OSR but defined as Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance), you know that the styles and structures vary quite a bit. Again, this article aims to define a "house" style for Shadowdark Adventures. Let's delve deeper!

Analyzing the fundamental elements that make up a Shadowdark Adventure helps GMs get on board and quickly gain perspective on what story they're trying to tell. Using the example of HotSWK, here are the elements that make up the anatomy of a Shadowdark Adventure:

Title, Room Description, Bulleted Details.
The first element, Title, is self-explanatory.
Elements two and three, Room Description and Bulleted Details, need more explanation to understand what details to include.
Let's start with an example from The Arcane Library's HotSWK:

Room Descriptions in Shadowdark use bold keywords. These keywords may be bold to draw attention or to denote content to be elaborated upon within the Bulleted Details. Room Descriptions intend to be shared with players. Early adventures, including the "Lost Citadel of the Scarlet Minotaur," use the Old School Essentials style with bolded keywords followed by a colon and sharable descriptors. What changed in the long-form adventures in Cursed Scrolls 2 and 3 were descriptions written in sentence form, making them easier to read aloud.

Bulleted Details have two parts: the Main Bullet and the Secondary Arrow. Both types have the most information for the GM. 

The Main Bullet introduces the scenario and gives some detail, usually starting with a bold keyword mentioned in the Room Description followed by a period like this:

  • People.

Sometimes, the bold keyword is unique and is not mentioned in the Room Description. More on this later. The Main Bullet may also have additional bold keywords that emphasize an idea or refer to a keyword defined in a Secondary Arrow. This content may also include italicized item names found in the Shadowdark rules. 

As you may have guessed, the Secondary Arrow bullet provides detailed information about the Main Bullet. This bullet content may also have bold keywords for emphasis, refer to a monster name, or reference italicized items. It is also worth mentioning that both bullet types may use parentheses to give descriptive context to NPCs, list the value of items, or give context to the previous part of the sentence. To reiterate, elaborating on the host bullet content and providing details and specifics for the main bullet topics is what the Secondary Arrow bullets accomplish. Remember, bold keywords may add emphasis only, calling attention to the eye for quick reference.

As mentioned earlier, there is another form of a Main Bullet bold keyword. It is displayed as a bold keyword and ends with a period, referencing no keyword in the Room Description. Rather than referencing a keyword, this Main Bullet defines vital information for the GM.

Let's break it down piece by piece: 



Room Description - 

In this example, people and river are bold. People is an example of a keyword that will have a Bulleted Detail. River is an example of emphasis, drawing attention to GMs who may need to consider how the river comes into play.

Bulleted Details -

The Bulleted Details for People shares information informing the GM about the scenario's essential aspects and how to describe them once PCs investigate or interact. The bolded word "bandits" is an example of a reference to Shadowdark rules, requiring the GM to remember the monster name in the game rules to be able to reference the stats. 

Bold keywords in the first Secondary Arrow refer to the names of the NPCs, while parentheses add helpful traits of the NPCs to convey to players if they engage. 

The second Secondary Arrow explains the leader's traits and plants elements of the future story, hinting trouble lies ahead. These details help GMs formulate the NPC's roleplay motivation. As the GM brings this NPC to life, this text enables GMs to have a better understanding of how to play the role of Thurgston.

The third Secondary Arrow gives the GM the task of stealing the PC's boat if present. It also sets the GM up to start a fight. After all, these are bandits!

There is No Design Guide

There is a lot more to say on this topic. This article is not a Shadowdark Design Guide. This collection of paragraphs is my attempt at creating one for myself and anyone else interested in defining a structure, a style, or a form for writing Shadowdark Adventures.

You'll find multiple styles if you read through the Cursed Scrolls. Cursed Scroll 3, the same zine used in my example, contains a one-page adventure that doesn't use bullets, uses bold keywords (differently), and places GM-only content along with player-shareable information. This form, style, and structure still work as a format. It is not the focus of this article.

I selected to focus on HotSWK due to a couple of factors. I like it! The adventure concisely conveys more information and gives GMs something to share with players immediately. This structure also creates a system for organizing GM information that reinforces, gathers, and aligns key elements shared in the story.

There is so much more to say. For now, let me know if you have anything to add.

In the future, i will be adding my thoughts on what content finds its way into this format.