All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG and RPGnow. Bring these games to your table!
Today’s guest post is from “Tomcollective” Thomas Puketza, a frequent guest poster. Today he talks about adventure design.
I noticed something. There are zillions of articles talking about *running* an adventure. There are volumes of information on campaign design. There is a lot of writing dedicated to campaign and world building. But there is comparatively little written about creating adventures and story arcs. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide finally contains some helpful advice and tools, but still, in my mind at least, could have gone farther. Besides that, with the exception of some half assed EHOW articles, and one very obscure TSR book, virtually nothing exists about building the actual adventures themselves. I have a big problem with this. One, because it turns our entire hobby into an inside conversation, which in turn makes “taking up the chair” that much more difficult. Two, this hobby is decades old. Some of us are teaching it to our kids. It’s about time someone just set this down like stereo instructions. (I’m going to say that’s a Beetlejuice reference, and not a statement that carbon dates me.)
This is my attempt to describe adventure design to someone who hasn’t done it before. This is by no means the only way to do this. But it is a functional way. This may look like playing scales to more experienced GMs, or (hopefully) they might find something they like in this approach. Either way, everyone is more than welcome to contribute their ideas. That all being said:The 8 Parts of Adventure Design
Adventures can be broken down into these component parts:
- What is the objective?
- Who are the bad guys?
- Who needs the help?
- Where does it happen?
- How many/what kind of fights?
- How many/what kind of crime scenes?
- How many/what kind of challenges?
- What is the hook? Why will the players want to get involved?
This is what happens when an adventure lacks a clear objective.
A solid objective gives a game a sense of direction and purpose. It unifies the other elements in your adventure, and it unifies and focuses the players. It is why your players are adventuring in the first place. A good objective is always an actionable goal (break into a tyrant’s treasury vault and rob him blind). But, an objective that also contains a possible consequence is often better (the treasury actually belongs to a sleeping dragon, and it is expected to wake up sometime very soon).Bad Guys
Who is the villain? What does the villain want? Who is the villain employing/working with to achieve this goal? You develop the villain and the villain’s objectives because these all inform the villain’s methodology and actions. You don’t need to write a novel of backstory, but development here allows bits of the adventure to write itself. For example, Hissy Fit the Halfling Barbarian leads a growing gang of bandits that now rivals a small army. No longer content with taking tribute from surrounding villages, she has set her sights on a nearby city and, some say, a campaign of conquest throughout the region. With this premise, you have your main villain, your villain’s objective, and the main troops involved.Who needs help?
Who benefits from the actions of the players? Why do they need the players’ help? Are they being completely honest with the party? Common examples include a town’s mayor asking for help against a hostile army, a rich benefactor who needs to work outside of official channels, a simple farmer trying to locate a missing child, or perhaps even the player characters themselves have scores that need settling. As a side note, you know your objective is a good one if failure causes bad things to happen to these people.Where?
Where does the adventure take place and how does its location influence the player’s actions? Also, when does it take place? What time of year? What is the weather? Who are the locals? What is the local culture like? What types of terrain and conditions predominate? Also, where are the inevitable battles going to take place? Who will be attacking who? What will be the backdrops? What sort of terrain features will affect the outcome of the fights? Will the party be operating in a city? The wilderness? Underground? In a shipwreck? A fully operational clock tower just before it strikes midnight? Also, how many different places will the players need to travel to before they accomplish their mission? World and local city/town maps can be very useful aids here, assisting in role play and also allowing everyone to be on the same page.The Fights
How many combats will this adventure contain? Who will the party be fighting? Under what circumstances will the fighting start? Will there be an ambush or will the villain pause to do some boasting before sending his lackeys against the players? How hard will the fights be on the party? How lethal will the injuries be? How smart are the enemies? Can they be reasoned with or talked down? Maps used here cut down confusion and also allow the use of minis.Crime scenes
Sometimes the players will be investigating actual murders. Most times they will simply be searching for clues about the bad guys. In either case, they’re often acting like detectives, and detectives need chains of evidence to follow toward a conclusive end. People leave behind all sorts of things, and spells/sci fi tech allows all kinds of novel ways to discover hidden information. Perhaps the most important rule to remember here is to offer more than one trail to your next scenes/encounters/sets of clues. This is because players will often ignore the things you think should be obvious, and yet somehow find new and ingenious methods that threaten to unravel your plans. Also keep in mind that if an adventure fails because a player failed to discover relevant evidence, players will tend to feel cheated, railroaded, or both.Other challenges
RPGs aren’t just about fights and playing Scooby Doo. A party might encounter a physical challenge, get stuck in a game of riddles, negotiate, or need to perform any number of other interesting tests of capability. Consequences for failure may be expensive, or harmful, or slow the party’s efforts. Such challenges are associated with the terrain or location the party is in. They may need to win a game of cards to get the attention of a crime lord. Encounter a sphinx in a dessert tomb. Or simply need to climb a rope over a chasm after the rotting rope bridge breaks apart. Occasionally, adding such challenges to a combat can make both the combat and the challenge more fun and interesting. Perhaps the sphinx insists on playing riddles while a host of undead mummies tries to eradicate the party. Or maybe that rotting rope bridge fell apart because it couldn’t support both the party and the bad guys sent to stop them.The Hook
Why should the players even bother? True, there is no game unless they take the job. But logically speaking, adventurers are in the business of doing very dangerous things. They need a compelling reason to take on the risks found in the endeavor. Money may not be enough. They might not care if a town gets destroyed. They may hate the long lost brother who shows up asking for a favor. Never assume that your party will just dive into your adventure. You will need to sell them, pull heart strings, make them angry, or otherwise find some sort of genuine motivation. The more personal investment you can get out of your players, the more likely they will experience all of the highs and lows your designing into your day’s events. You don’t have to think too hard on this, just be sensitive to your players, what they want, and the type of characters they build.
And, oddly enough, that’s basically it. There is certainly more that can be said about all of these elements. But as long as you’re using each of these eight parts, adventures can (and often do) write themselves. Follow this method long enough and eventually you might find you have the ability to employ it on the fly, which can really come in handy when your players inevitably do something you hadn’t planned.
And this is where I invite the GMing universe to chime in and let the world know what they consider adventure nuts and bolts. What steps do you follow? What structures and skeletons do you use? How do you progress from idea to game day?
There is no such thing as a Strict or Lax GM.
Whoa . . . before you jump to the comments section to yell at me, let me explain. The idea of a strict or a lax GM is an oversimplification. GMing is way more complicated than that. There are too many facets of GMing to simply have the needle buried in one direction or the other. Sure, someone can be more strict than lax, but the idea someone is strict in every way possible as a GM is a bit more unlikely. That said, there are still a few of you that want to hit the comments now, but let me crack this open and explain in some more detail.Previously on Panda’s Talking Games . . .
A few weeks ago on Panda’s Talking Games, Senda and I addressed this topic, and we got some requests on Twitter to put this into some kind of print form. So here we are. I am going to write out the crux of my argument here in this article, but if you want to hear this in some more depth, complete with outtakes, jump over to Misdirect Mark Productions and give us a listen.Strict vs. Lax
As I am wont to do, let’s set some definitions for this article.
- Strict – demanding that rules concerning behavior are obeyed and observed.
- Lax – not sufficiently strict, severe, or careful; relaxed.
Don’t jump to the comments section yet. Yes, I know that you must know someone that you would say is a strict or lax GM, but wait. Here is the rest of the argument:GMing Is Not A Skill
I know . . . it’s like I am trolling everyone with these headers. GMing is not a skill, it’s a bunch of skills. Somewhere I once said it was eight different skills, but honestly, I am not sure if that is true. It feels like it’s true, but it could be more. Regardless of its true number, GMing is a collection of skills that a GM performs during the course of running their game.
So a GM is not strict or lax, rather they are strict or lax in these different skills. Some GM’s may trend towards strict and others lax, but for most of us, it will be a mix.
For this article, and for the podcast episode, let’s focus on a handful of those skills, what they are and what strict and lax would look like.
- The mechanics of the game as written by the authors of the game.
- Strict: We do what is written in the rules, every time.
- Lax: The rules are a guideline that we can follow or not when needed.
- The place where the games take place: location, events, NPCs, etc.
- Strict: No. You can’t have that type of gun because it was not invented until 5 years after the time we are playing.
- Lax: Oh sure, your knight can have a katana . . . I mean a sword is a sword.
- The continuity of the story as it plays out at the table.
- Strict: No, no . . . it was the bartender, not the barmaid who threw you out. Come on . . . keep better notes.
- Lax: You sure Jonesy was dead? If he was, he’s not now. You just thought he was, but he’s here.
- The control you have over the table in terms of getting the game moving, keeping people focused, side chatter, etc.
- Strict: Everyone quiet, eyes forward, and pay attention – the game is about to start.
- Lax: Oh hey . . . hey . . . it’s your turn. Yeah, your turn – can you roll some dice for me?
It matters in two main ways: It influences you as a GM, and it influences what your players enjoy in a game.We will gravitate to games that accommodate our preferences, and we will run games in ways that suit our preferences.
Your GMing style is influenced by your strictness or laxness (Bob, is that even a word? – Yup! OML) in these areas. We will gravitate to games that accommodate our preferences, and we will run games in ways that suit our preferences. For example, I like to run games fairly strictly, but I also have limited time to read and learn games. The result is that I avoid crunchy games where I would have to work harder to keep all the rules in order, and play games with lighter rules that I can run with more control.
Your players have a preference for these areas as well. You may have a player that has a high amount of strictness for Setting, especially if you are playing Star Wars. On the other hand, you may be quite lax on setting, and not want to be penned in by canon. When you go to GM a Star Wars game, the player is agitated because you keep using non-canon information, while you are annoyed that you are constantly being corrected.
So understanding your preferences, and your players understanding theirs, can go a long way for figuring out what games to play, how to play them, and how your table should run.An Exercise
If you want to know your preferences, you can do this exercise with your gaming group. List the four GMing skills I mentioned above, and any other skills you may think of (by the way if you do think of some, put them in the comments). Then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with a one being totally lax and a 10 being totally strict. Now everyone rates these skills. When you are done, share your scores and discuss any large gaps.
My own scores for these are:
- Mechanical: 9 – I love running games as written.
- Setting: 5 – I am a bit lazy about being orthodox to canon.
- Story: 9 – I love a tight story without any logical gaps or plot holes.
- Table: 5 – I’m slow to start my sessions because I socialize a lot with my players.
The idea of strict or lax is an oversimplification. GMing is more complex than that, with many facets. In each of those facets, we can be strict or lax, and that is what makes our GMing style unique. There is value in understanding this both as a GM and as a player.
So take a look, score yourself, and if you are inclined, share your numbers with the rest of us.
If you're making games that could conceivably be seen as "retro", you should know that Amazon has opened a new corner of its online storefront that's dedicated to selling such work: The Retro Zone. ...