The GM's Art of Adventure Design
So My Players Are Here, Now What Am I Supposed to Do?
"The presence of an active force and the possibility for change based on player decision are what make a true role-playing encounter."
— AD&D 2nd Edition DMG, p. 94
No matter how much your group likes to battle, you can't just run them through one combat after another. Otherwise, you'd be playing Warhammer. Since it's an RPG you're playing, though, your scenarios should have a plot your players can follow and, ideally, some twists and turns to keep things interesting. But you don't have to be Shakespeare to come up with a storyline that'll satisfy your PCs. Here are a few tips on how to put together a good adventure.
What's My Story About?
"Creating a scenario begins with finding a problem for the PCs to deal with. A good problem is relevant to the PCs, cannot be resolved without their involvement, and cannot be ignored without dire consequences."
— FATE Core System, p. 227
The first trick when you're writing an adventure is to decide the subject. A good campaign gives you a wealth of options from which you can draw, from ongoing storylines to character subplots to developing current events. Even if you have to come up with a concept cold, it doesn't have to be difficult. Draw on shows or movies you've seen recently, books or comic books or manga you've read, or exciting ideas that spring into your mind unbidden.
A fitting subject is something that's vitally interesting, a question that makes you sit up and say, "Oh! I wonder how that will work out!" Loosely speaking, it's also known as the hook because it hooks your players' attention and drags them through the points of your plotline. The author Mark MacKinnon explains the concept: "One technique that can help spark a story line is to think of one evocative image or idea that will help make this adventure different from the last, and then use this as a seed to inspire the story." (BESM 4th Edition, p. 287) The hook is that powerful, core image or idea that makes this plotline exciting and fresh. It'll fuel your players' imaginations and make them want to engage the scenario you've devised for them.
I like the way they explain devising a strong plot in AEG's revised Spycraft manual. They propose five rules. (Spycraft Roleplaying Game Version 2.0, p. 427)
- Every plot should involve conflict and give the players control over the outcome.
- Every plot should involve risk.
- Although a plot can start off based on characters' routine lives, it shouldn't stay there.
- Internal conflict is fine, but in roleplaying, external conflict is easier to initiate.
- The plot has to matter to the characters from the very beginning.
In the World of Darkness rulebook that was the precursor to Chronicles of Darkness, they had one of the best explanations I've seen: "Conflict is the essence of drama. Conflict does not have to be physical (although it quite often is in roleplaying games)… conflict is simply about setting an obstacle before the characters, giving them some challenge that bars their way to easy victory." (World of Darkness (2004), p. 191) The key here is that conflict impedes the characters. A car wreck may be an event, even an important one, but it isn't a conflict while the PCs are dealing with goons on the other side of town. If the PCs hop onto their bikes to chase down the goons' leader before he makes it to the train station, the wreck might become a conflict. Interaction with protagonists turns simple circumstances into sizzling conflict.
When you're plotting your plot, don't forget the risk. This doesn't have to represent a threat to the PCs or their lives or loved ones, although it can. It can compromise someplace the PCs like to hang out or someone with whom they interact. If your campaign scope involves generals and kings, it can imperil a province or country. In a city, it can endanger a district or ward. If you know your characters and their players well enough, you may be able to threaten their consciences or convictions.
To make your plot feel significant to your players, you have to raise the stakes. Peril brings out substantial opportunities for excellent roleplaying. It's what makes combat exciting: knowing it's not just your life on the line, but the life of everyone in your entire village. Even your slice-of-life stories will feel epic to the players involved if you get good at identifying ways to tune up the pressure.
I've played with gamemasters before that didn't like to prepare. Sometimes it works out well. Other times, however, the session devolves into: I go to the store. I buy some rations and some ammo. I flirt with the girl selling pork buns across the road until some urchins decide to pick my pocket. I chase them around town.
Boring! Even if there's combat involved in the session—because there's no way battle can be tedious, right?—the story feels limp because it's unimportant. I know my character has to go to the bathroom. That doesn't mean I want to roleplay him going unless it's to have a shootout in the crapper. See? We're back to conflict. My PC going to the loo? Not conflict. My PC smashing the lavatory sink with a bad guy's head to recover the MacGuffin before his sale can go down? Epic conflict!
Spycraft disses on internal conflict, but World of Darkness welcomes it: "The very best form of conflict is the characters themselves, both Storyteller-controlled and player-controlled. Stirring up the hornet's nest of envy and pride among the players' characters is often enough conflict to fill an entire chapter." (World of Darkness (2004), p. 191) The trick is, you have to know your PCs well to capitalize on this form of conflict. What's more, your players have to know their characters well. They have to be willing and able to roleplay complex emotions for the conflict to work out compellingly. If your players are more comfortable annihilating raiders than roleplaying arguments, it's best to stick with external dilemmas. Leave the moral and emotional conflicts as icing on the plot cake.
The final point in the list Spycraft provides, of course, is simultaneously the most vital and the easiest to forget. When you're busy planning contingencies and alternatives for your evil master plan, don't forget to bring your PCs onboard by giving them a reason to care. Suppose your dragon cult is marauding in the valley, but your PCs only care about the highlands. In that case, you'll have trouble getting them to buy into your glorious, seven-part epic about Lilly from the valley and her doomed romance with the kidnapped Count Morningstar. If it's an NPC about whom the PCs care, you can plan three sessions around rescuing her stuffed bear. If your players couldn't care less, your plot can threaten an entire country, and they won't lift a finger. Spycraft says it well: "No plot can survive apathy or rejection, no matter what epic destination the GC has in mind." (Spycraft Roleplaying Game Version 2.0, p. 427)
"Each 'chunk' of story should convey information, be entertaining, and help provide excitement by pushing the plot along in some visible way."
- Cyberpunk RED, p. 395
There's a lot of theory about this, but ultimately there's no 'right way' to outline your plot other than to do it. Cyberpunk RED sets forth a catchy five-point Beat Chart that alternates between handing out information and challenging the players in action scenes. You start out with the hook that draws the PCs into your story. Then you swap between development scenes that provide information and cliffhanger scenes: action segments, like fights or chases. When the story comes to a head, you have the climax, the pivotal scene where the PCs win or lose. You cap it with the resolution, where you get into the fallout from the player characters' actions.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game by Last Unicorn, they propose the same three-act structure underpinning most of the Star Trek series back in the 90s. Simply put, it breaks the plot down into introduction, confrontation, and resolution, with one or more scenes making up each act. Act One introduces the dilemma the players will be facing. It ends with the first plot turn, which brings the problem into focus. It challenges the PCs to commit themselves to solve the problem. That kicks off Act Two, the meat of the episode, where the PCs uncover issues and decide how best to deal with them. They're often in control of the action here. Several minor conundrums arise that lead them to the root or mastermind of the problem. Act Two ends in the second plot turn. The chief antagonist challenges the PCs directly, or the central dilemma reaches its full destructive potential. Act Three is the resolution: it starts with the climax, where the PCs finally have to face the problem at its core. They'll either resolve it, one way or another, or lose the fight and have to retreat. This brings us to the ending, which provides closure on the story's plot threads and sometimes sets up the next episode.
That's basically the same way the DMG for 4th Edition D&D spelled out their adventure-writing guidelines, too. Instead of Acts, they talked in terms of "Beginnings", "Middles", and "Endings". At the beginning of an adventure, you need to introduce it and convince the players to get involved without forcing them. The middle should bring in different challenges and choices for the characters to make and overcome. It raises the tension, but it also allows for lulls so the PCs can reflect and plan. Most of all, the middle should draw your players in and drive them toward the climax. The end of the adventure ties the rest of the plot together and reflects the choices and victories the PCs accumulated. It should clearly reflect their success or failure in the story's scope, and it may set up new beginnings for them.
No matter what model you choose to outline your plot, keep your players in mind and engage them in every part of the process. Try to focus on what's fun for them and yourself, and you won't go wrong.
"When building a campaign, adventure, or encounter, try to think in terms of heroic goals. What must the heroes achieve or accomplish?"
-- Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook (2002), p. 254
It might seem counterintuitive, but you'll have a firmer grasp of your adventure if you start out thinking about the final outcome: What if the PCs weren't around to save the day? Darth Vader would recover the Death Star plans, Princess Leia would be executed as a traitor, and the Rebel Alliance would be crushed under the Emperor's heel like an insignificant insect. The Enterprise would come out of warp at Vulcan, and the Narada would obliterate it with the rest of the Terran fleet. The four Nexus-6 replicants would kill Tyrell and probably Rachel, and their life spans would run out.
What does your climax look like? What's your goal? At this point, it's okay to be as vague or as specific as you like. If you're picturing a boss fight inside a crumbling underwater temple with wards failing and air bubbles collapsing around the party like rushing geysers, that's great. If all you've got is that maybe the boss will be wearing a wig, that's okay, too.
It's easier to plan a route when you have a destination in mind, neh? That's the way stories are, too. If you know the story is headed to an underwater temple, you know you'll want to get the party on a boat at some point. Or maybe there's a portal in an underwater cave just east of the docks—you know. Options are good. At any rate, if you know where you're going, it's a lot simpler to build a logical progression that leads you there.
"Motivation is what drives the adventure—it's what gets the PCs involved in whatever you have designed for them to do. If the PCs aren't motivated, they won't do what you want them to, and all your work will be wasted. Greed, fear, revenge, need, morality, anger, and curiosity are all powerful motivators. So, of course, is fun. Never forget that last one."
—DMG for 3.5 edition D&D, p. 43
Once you've got your end goal in mind, it's a great time to think up the beginning. It'll be the first part of your adventure your players will see. That makes it, arguably, the most important.
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were all striking thirteen." (1984 by George Orwell) "In this village, when the ripened ears of wheat sway in the breeze, it is said that a wolf runs through them." (Spice & Wolf by Isuna Hasekura) "The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move." (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams) "Listen to the Beat of the Soul." (Soul Eater by Atsushi Okubo) "An impossibly huge castle of rock and iron, floating in an endless expanse of sky. That is the entirety of this world." (Sword Art Online: Aincrad by Reki Kawahara)
Most of the time, we can tell after about two pages whether we're interested in a book. Sometimes it only takes two lines. As GMs, that's precisely how we want our adventures to be. We want to open the session with our introduction and for our players to say, "Awesome! Let's go do that!"
But how is it you nail a truly excellent intro?
That depends on a lot of things. Your group. Your story. How you opened your last session.
It's popular to start a story in the middle of the action. Your PCs are walking along, minding their own business, when a cloaked figure rushes by and stashes something in one of their pockets. Now the duke's personal retainers are chasing after them, and they have to figure out what they've gotten themselves into!
Sometimes, it's good to start out slow. Your party starts out the day with breakfast when it starts to rain. They run a few errands, and the rain turns into flooding in the Choppers' District. After lunch, it's now snowing. They get a message from the king's court magician: they're needed at the castle, posthaste. Giving the players freedom at the beginning of the session lets them experience the same progression as their characters. That way, when the weather changes start to get faster and more severe, the players will know something terrible is coming without you having to explain it to them.
It's useful to start some sessions with a quest giver that hands the PCs a job. This gets boring quickly, but it's more common in some genres than others. The party receives word that their Venture Captain is sending them to Numeria. They look forward to looting an old Technic League armory with some ray guns and maybe a piece of that cybertechnology about which they've heard tales. The PCs wouldn't dream of going against their VC's orders, but they can do things their own way once they reach their destination.
If you plan it well, you can use rumors and gossip to motivate your players along your path. This way is tricky, so it's best if you know your PCs well enough to anticipate how they'll react. Otherwise, you may have to abandon your adventure plans or railroad your players into choices they don't want. Give the opportunity an immediate deadline--don't let them stop and think about it. Lead with the potential rewards first. This way, you'll be more likely to provoke the response you want from your players.
Of course, how you open your adventure depends on where it's leading. If you're planning an ambiance-filled horror session, start out slow to play up the horrific against the mundane. For a pulse-pounding run where your players have to catch breaths whenever they can, you'll likely start off with some action. If you want to run a heist or a job, you'll feed the players their quest through an NPC in authority. On the other hand, reversing norms is also a useful tactic. You can start out a frantic, helter-skelter chase with a slow morning sipping martinis to pose a delicious contrast. That makes it all the more fun when you drop the starting flag in their laps.
Theme isn't the only determining factor in choosing your introduction style, though. You also need to take into account how you want the players to approach your scenario. If the adventure is a formulaic path using an NPC guide or two, starting with a quest giver feels appropriate, even if you're running Call of Cthulhu. If it's a sandbox-style scenario with multiple victory paths, seeding gossip or starting out slow may be entirely appropriate, even for an action-packed thrill ride.
Some players like to have a mission briefing spelling out what they need to accomplish, while others prefer to figure things out as they go along. Don't neglect your players' preferences. Don't forget your own. This is the way to create fun adventures.
It's basic, but don't underestimate the power of asking your players what they want. If they tell you, add more of that to your adventures. If not, pay attention to how they play their characters. Try to figure out what motivates them and use it to draw them into your stories more reliably. This is one reason to have a Session Zero where everyone gets to know each others' characters, but it doesn't stop at Session Zero. Listening to your players is something you should always be doing.
You've Got Them Hooked
"It's always a good idea to reserve a surprise or two. At the beginning of an adventure, you have to give the players enough information so they can plan intelligently—but the adventure will be a lot more interesting if you keep some information secret until later."
The middle of your adventure is a delicate time. You need to get your players from point A to point B, but you want to let them get there themselves without you having to lead them. How to accomplish it without railroading?
Mark McKinnon has some insight into this. In BESM4, he writes, "It is wise to consider this from the perspective of 'here is the villain's plan' rather than 'this is what the characters must do to make the plot work'. It is usually more rewarding as a GM to set up situations that engage and challenge the characters to make decisions or use their abilities rather than creating a complex puzzle box that they must solve in a certain way to progress to the next plot point." (BESM 4th Edition, p. 288) Flexibility is key. If you design your plot to be flexible, it will serve you better than a thousand pages of contingency scripts.
To this end, plan loosely except in specific circumstances. I've run chases where I planned the bad guy's route down to the minute and forced the players to adapt to the schedule I laid out. It worked great because I kept my timeline in the background and focused on what the PCs were doing.
That won't work for every scenario. Instead of picturing the adventure as a flowchart, try thinking of it more as a reactive web of encounters. If the players do this, this is what happens. When they arrive at this location, they encounter this. If you have clues or confrontations the plot needs to reach its climax, design them so you can tailor their locations and circumstances to your need.
Whatever else you do, it's crucial in the midgame to mix up the types of encounters you throw at your players. If you hit them with combat, follow it up with a skill challenge or puzzle. Use social scenes to impart information, but also to change the pacing between action sequences. When you focus on your fighters with a physical contest, switch it up and throw in a magical obstacle for the wizards to handle. Never forget to give your clerics and paladins a chance to test their devotion. Let thieves be thiefly, and let all bards play.
Don't forget about the terrain, either. Even if your adventure is set entirely within a grey castle filled with 10'x10' stone corridors, make the scenery worth describing. "From a pitched battle on a narrow ledge above a Cloud City airshaft to a death duel interrupted by leaps between platforms and opening and closing energy fields, these elements add twists to traditional combat scenes." (Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Book (2002), p. 258) Go ahead and have the assassins ambush the party in that 10'x10' corridor, where the barbarian has to use his dagger because there's no room to swing his two-handed sword. But then make sure the chase happens in the grand entrance, with sweeping stairways leading up to archers on the second level and a chandelier on which the bard can swing. Have an interrogation set in a nondescript guard room with a wooden table and chair, sure. But then set the grand trial between your cleric and the evil Earl of Endermite in the main dining hall. Stained glass windows shine in the setting sun, and dour-faced nobles preside at tables arranged in a closed loop around them. If you do have to set consecutive encounters in identical rooms, try to distinguish each setting with its own feature: maybe a bloodstain on the floor. Perhaps a small vine growing from a crack in the ceiling. This way, the rooms may seem identical, but these tiny differences distinguish them and keep them from becoming boring.
Advancing the Plot
"Villains can and should be built to illustrate player character weaknesses, but never to exploit them. The point isn't to punish players for building human characters, but rather to take advantage of the fact that the PCs are imperfect, even fallible. In this way, the GC can use the villains to strengthen the player characters, in the process elevating both as more than the sum of their parts."
— Spycraft Roleplaying Game Version 2.0, p. 427
While you're coming up with tricksy puzzles and exciting battles for your midgame, don't lose track of the point. The middle of your session isn't just about calculating a route for the PCs to their destination.
First of all, you need to be informing the players and their characters about the problem they're facing. In the beginning, your players' information should be incomplete, misleading, or plain incorrect. Act Two is when you challenge their assumptions and show them how they're wrong. Armed with a fuller understanding of the situation, the PCs will be qualified to go into the climax. They'll make well-informed choices because of the legwork they've done and the revelations you've given them in the preceding act. Without this knowledge, they can't understand the full import of their choices. This diminishes their weight and effect.
But Act Two isn't just about imparting information. You're also feeding the PCs' sense of dread or expectation. As they learn better the true weight of the situation, the stakes begin to dawn on them. They get a picture of what will happen if they fail. Sometimes, that knowledge spurs a moral quandary where the PCs have to decide whether they're on the right side of a conflict. Other times, it fuels their determination as they learn the extent of devastation their enemy has planned. In a philosophical sense, you're reinforcing the mood and themes of your story. In a visceral sense, you're feeding your players' fears to give them the feeling they have to succeed, or they'll lose something precious.
If your adventure involves an archvillain, don't forget to introduce hir to the players throughout this process. Unveil bits and pieces about your antagonist's personality and history at the same time you're revealing hir plans. That way, the climax will feel very personal to the PCs: they may oppose the villain because they hate everything ze represents. They may decide that the antagonist is sympathetic, and they'll anguish over whether to resist hir in the end. You've developed your villain into a three-dimensional character, but that doesn't do your players any good if you don't give them a chance to know hir. Be intentional about revealing your mastermind's identity, and it'll make hir feel more realistic and relatable to your players.
In most adventures, be sure to allow time here for the players to work out the plot's details for themselves. For one thing, they'll feel more ownership over the adventure if they figured it out themselves. For another, they might give you ideas or explanations that are even better than the ones you had. (It's not cheating—it's collaborative storytelling!) "Leaving space between key events is also key to encouraging roleplaying. Leaving the characters to their own devices to plot and plan rather than feeding them event after event in a steady stream allows them to make their own fun." (Wraith 20th Anniversary Edition, p. 259) Unless you only want the players to think through the implications of their choices after the fact, you're better served planning rest stops along the way.
Story Climax: A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change.
-- Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Here's where you pull out all the stops and plunge full-throttle into the zaniest wylds of your imagination. Use all the set pieces to create an environment worthy of a dwarven lord or a space emperor. If the final showdown is a fight, come up with the most fiendish enemies you can devise to pit against your PCs. If the plot ends in a social conflict, make sure everyone and their mother is there to witness the PCs' vindication or humiliation. For adventures that involve natural or environmental disasters, save the most spectacular cataclysm for the climax.
Just a few tips. When you're writing a story, it's easy to adjust it to compensate when your protagonists do something unexpected. You can go back and revise previous chapters to give your villain a compelling response. When you're GMing a session, though, things aren't quite so simple. There are a few things you can do to make sure your canny PCs don't derail your entire climax by merely collapsing the cave system in which the big bad is hiding.
Rather than planning the enemy's forces down to their ammo counts, set up a pool of troops you can throw at the PCs as needed. That way, if your players are rolling well and they mow through the enemy's first line in two turns, you'll have something more than a clone wave to throw at them. On the other hand, maybe your players had to use more resources to get here than you expected, or maybe they roll poorly in the opening exchanges. You can hold back some of the enemies you'd planned to use to keep the fight at your desired intensity.
Roll behind a GM screen. This works better for you and for your players. The third time you max out damage against the wizard in a row, you can scale back the hit without the player being any the wiser. "Aw, dang. 2 points of damage that time. He stabs at you fiercely, but your magemail blunts the attack." That also means the third time you roll a 1 for damage against the orc barbarian, you can fudge in your NPC's favor to increase the tension. "Oh! 9 points of damage! The hobgoblin drives his axe into your flesh, and only your steely sinews prevent it from cleaving off your arm! That's going to leave a mark!"
In the same vein, keep track of NPC conditions behind the screen, too. If the barbarian one-shots your troll berserker, you may need to promote his henchmen to keep the fight going long enough for your villain to get that cloudkill spell off. It's hard to do that if you keep all your numbers out in the open. When you hide the exact numbers behind the screen, you give yourself leeway to keep the elites alive for one more round to improve the story—but that's not all. You're also making combat feel more mysterious, and therefore dangerous, to your players. You're taking the math out of the equation and replacing it with uncertainty, and that's how you want combat to run.
At your final battlefield, include places for reinforcements to enter and for wounded enemies to retreat. This makes your job easier if the battle doesn't go as you expect--you can bring in more bad guys if your PCs are going gangbuster. If the heroes aren't doing so hot, you can have some of them sneak out the back without raising continuity issues.
Consider including some environmental challenges like traps or natural hazards in your plans. If the players gain too much of an advantage, it'll make your final fight more anti than climax. Springing a trap or pitting them against an environmental hazard can reduce their lead and make the altercation seem less one-sided and more exciting.
Finally, keep an ace in the hole, just in case your players steamroll everything you put in front of them. High-level potions are great for this because they're single-use, can be hidden effectively, and quickly turn the nature of a fight when your villain suddenly gains 2 HD, regeneration, bark skin, or the ability to breathe fire. Trapdoors, secret passages, or rings of escape can also make useful Plan Cs. However, don't use this too often, and always be prepared for your PCs to give chase.
Writing your own adventures can be an intensely rewarding GM experience. It can also be a massive disappointment if your session doesn't work out in real life like it did in your head. There are things you can do to stack the odds in your favor, though. They don't require spell slots or esoteric material components—just a bit of foresight and some understanding.
What are your favorite tips for adventure planning? Let me know in the comments!
Game well, my friends,