Review of The Anatomy of Adventure by M. T. Black

An easy-to-recommend handbook of practical scenario design blended with an indie writing career retrospective. 

Alex G. Friedman

Students of writing and design absolutely crave practical composition advice. I personally remember trying to explain as much to a professor or two during my graduate writing programs. As a neophyte, I was under the impression that if I could just follow a step-by-step guide to finish a first novel, regardless of quality, I would glean the core structure of the process. From there, I figured, it would become a skill to be honed instead of a feat to aspire toward. These days, as a professor of English myself, I see both how absolutely accurate and witheringly naive my scholarly desires were. In The Anatomy of Adventure, M. T. Black is largely successful in distilling classic TTRPG design within an accessible, entertaining essay collection. 

The Anatomy of Adventure collects ten essays about the composition, publishing, and marketing of independent D&D 5e compatible adventure content. For fans of his popular D&D 5th edition adventure line, he provides very specific behind-the-scenes examples drawn from his own library of works. Even if you haven’t read his modules, Gen-X and elder-millennial lifelong fans of D&D and other old-school TTRPGs will be treated to some tasteful nostalgia about the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons era of gaming. Those with less of a background will have picked one up by the time they finish this book. The classics provide a context for Black’s writing and business advice. It’s a fun choice that also reinforces the legacy of the hobby. 

Legacy is present in many of these essays. Black’s first essay, “Goblins in a Cave,” is about his beginnings writing adventures as pastiche projects. He describes the design and play of the famous module The Keep on the Borderlands. Black goes to lengths to explain how important “copying what you love” is to getting started as a module writer (a phrase he borrows from fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, very career forward my dude). In the third essay, “Nightmare in Amber,” Black traces the legacy of his own adventure Shadows on the Long all the way back to ideas first lifted from Clark Ashton Smith’s pulp fantasy stories by TSR author Tom Moldvay. Black’s scholarship really shines here due to his awareness of the shoulders upon which he built his career. 

These essays encourage the reader to invest in their own careers as well. Aside from practical writing advice, the fourth essay gives readers real insight into how Black has successfully marketed his work. He includes his own early missteps as well as his breakdown of his own sales and marketing numbers, down to his spreadsheets and experiments in bundling products. Another essay describes practical dungeon design with randomly generated elements. Another details incorporating interactivity within your dungeons. The Anatomy of Adventure could easily serve as the text for a junior year college course on writing adventures. If the right people read it, that scenario may actually come to fruition. M.T. Black has even written an expanded reading list to accompany his TTRPG essays on his blog.

Overall, The Anatomy of Adventure is an easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in adventure design. Even veteran players who just want a peak behind the curtain will be educated and entertained. Pick it up on his site or on DriveThruRPG. 

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