“How do I write an adventure for an RPG”? A question I see often over social media. It seems simple but many a Game-Master has encountered that lost feeling of not knowing where to begin or what materials they will need for their adventure much like the artist to the blank canvas and the writer to the empty screen. To break this impasse it is necessary to have a core idea to work from, a central idea that the adventure will focus on. Of course, you need a distinct starting point to initiate it, which is for a Game-Master (GM), as the writer, a starting scene.
The easiest way to start an adventure is to find a concrete starting point then make sure everything after progresses the adventurers to the end. Most commonly, the starting scene occurs in a tavern where some information given to the players in a novel way sets them on their way. This may be cliché when it comes to RPGs but it is effective. Its effectiveness is why it is so often used.
That is, know where you are starting, have a scene complete with the necessary and background NPCs as well as the backdrop. When you have this, know what information you will use to bait the players. As well as the information that they will need to pursue the thread that will lead into the adventure. In addition, also know where you are ending. Construct the ending just like the beginning except that it is where the thread terminates. Everything in between is moving from Point A to the finish. Focus on designing maps and encounters that lead to a definite and well-defined end-point i.e. you know it’s over when they obtain such-and-such, eliminate such-and-such, or arrive at such-and-such.
Players and the GM work together to weave the story of the Player Characters.
RPG Structure Primer
As with any written piece, an adventure has a basic underlying structure as do tabletop roleplaying games in general. Understanding the basics of this structure can help a GM to ferret out what parts they may already have or are missing as well as helping to spot any weaknesses after writing. Generally, RPG sessions have a structure consisting of (in descending order) Campaign, Adventure, Episode/Scenario, and Play Unit.
A Campaign is the largest component of a tabletop RPG equating to a novel in fiction writing. It is composed of connected adventures along with a few that may be unrelated (i.e. side quests). An Adventure is an extended section of a campaign, which has a beginning and ending. Adventure would relate to a story arc or group of chapters in fiction writing. Standalone adventures would be similar to a short story in this context. In the broadest sense, several adventures that involve mostly the same group of Player Characters (PCs) is a Campaign.
An Episode is an incomplete part of an adventure where a group of things happens that seem to be leading to the next episode or a conclusion. In the world of fiction writing, these are roughly analogous to scenes. A Scenario is Identical to an Episode but has a definite self-contained beginning, middle, ending structure. An example being a short combat or random monster encounter, this does not mean the enemy is dead at the end but the battle definitively ends. Other scenarios or episodes can lead into these and a scenario can either terminate a story thread or lead to the next episode/scenario. This is useful as you can always write up a scenario that precedes the first scene of an adventure just to start with some action.
A Play Unit is the smallest component of the RPG, which is an exchange of information between the GM and a Player or Players. Note that Play Units may occur out of sequence as real-world table chatter and meta-gaming discussions counts as Play Units as well. These units accumulate to produce the game world and underlie all tabletop RPGs.
Play Units also string together to create story threads. A Story Thread is a metaphor that refers to an event or clue etc. that leads to another eventually merging with another thread or it leads to the end of the adventure or to something that will help the PCs reach the end of the adventure or the beginning of another thread. This fits into the weaving a tapestry visualization of story and is very appropriate to the world of RPG narrative as the Players and the GM work to weave the story of the PCs. As with the narrative aspect that emerges from gaming sessions the adventure itself, has a discernible structure. However, although adventure structure resembles that of traditional narrative it is in a more simplistic way. This allows the Players and GM to construct a unique narrative as the adventure unfolds supplying a central plot line whose accumulated detail can get quite extensive.
The Basic Structure of an Adventure
Adventures much like their fictive counterparts, Chapters and short stories, have a general three-part outline consisting of: beginning – episode(s)/scenario(s) – ending. Every adventure has a Beginning and a definitive Ending with a body composed of episodes and scenarios. An adventure module is essentially gamified fiction but with a thin and flexible plot.
When writing an adventure you need to know where you are going to start and where and how you will end it. The beginning and ending are more inflexible than the body giving the GM a definite starting point and a definite ending point so that the body of the adventure may be adjusted as the PCs play through it allowing them freedom of movement and exploration. Linked episodes and/or scenarios construct the main body of the adventure allowing the GM to improvise more effectively in response to the indigence of the PCs.
As the middle or body of the adventure will be a series of linked scenarios and/or episodes keep it simple. Narrow the main body of the adventure down to a few (3 or 4 at most) Scenarios/Locations/incidents which are all connected in some way, preferably one leads to another rather than just a series of events happening one after the other. It is best if there are clues left for the Players to mull over which will if followed lead them to the next scenario.
These signs can be subtle or cryptic but not so much so that the Players are clueless even when they do pay attention to them. However, the clues or signals do not have to give away the game either.
Basic Adventure Plot Points
While writing your adventure you need to keep in mind the three vital points of plot found in the structure of an adventure. An adventure has three plot centric parts, which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. These component parts need not be in equal size or executed in roughly equal spans of time (either real or in game). Each component is however, an episode or occurs within an episode.
A Presentation is an exchange initiated by the GM that presents something to be solved or acted upon by the Players in such a way as to lead them to another scene or episode. Although whether the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to make another go at the Presentation or put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent.
The next in the strict sequence of plot episodes that build an adventure is Complication. A complication is the consequences of the players’ action(s) or an additional bit of information that throws a wrench into the players’ plans. It is a bump in the road or any type of unpredicted or previously non-existent obstruction separating the players from their goals. The solution that they find should ideally lead them to the next component episode, the Twist.
‘Twist’ refers to yet another unforeseen consequence of the players’ current action(s)/previous solution, or the addition of another element by the GM, which the players probably did not plan on appearing. This element however should have had clues as to its nature and its possible appearance scattered throughout the previous episodes. If the Players and their characters ignored these signs then you should provide some sort of flashback such as an I.Q. check or sudden memory if the Players do not already recall it. Note that these signs can be subtle or cryptic but not so much so that the Players are still clueless even if they do pay attention to them. However, the clues or signals do not have to give away the game either.
Where to Begin
You need to know where you are beginning and where to end in terms of quantifiable ending conditions. The beginning is where the adventure starts that is, a place where the PCs are gathered together and about to take the first step on the adventure (taking the bait/biting the hook). The PCs are all in the same location and in position to receive the information that will begin to lead them into the main thread of the adventure. There are two elements required here: the location where all PCs will be and the information needed to send them following an adventure plot thread.
First, a place to start, begin with any location even a generic cliché such as a tavern taproom and add in details to flesh out the expected for such a place, a list should suffice here, and then try to characterize or give details as to what is unique about this location. Focus more on the unique aspects of the location with your writing. Go heavy on atmosphere, which in the cliché taproom, would be warm and well lit with a background crowded with pipe smoke and cheery chatter. You would use a more intense atmosphere for locations further down the line in the adventure or as a foreshadowing device. Include background NPCs to populate it aside from those necessary to the adventure. You can also build a location around an interesting Non-Player Character (NPC) or creature as well. Maybe even just using a strange or unique feature as a centerpiece then constructing the scene around that.
Really all you need are the bits that will carry the players through the scene, everything else is window-dressing and bonus content. However, you need to gain the attentions of the Players and their characters. To do this you need to start with a Beginning Incident. This is a scenario executed at the beginning of the adventure. It either signals the beginning of a new adventure and connected in some way to the adventure hook or happens before or at the initial location. The latter means it is solely to grab your players’ or maybe an important NPC’s attention. This also supplies some action at the very beginning.
A beginning Incident can be small; it does not have to be a Set Piece. The initial incident should not overshadow the rest of the adventure allowing you, the GM, room for escalation later. Note that although it does not have to connect to the overall adventure at all but it does need to be a through line into the adventure hook. This brings us to a useful and (and uncopyrightable) metaphor that helps in brainstorming as well as structuring your adventure.
The GM Tacklebox
This metaphor, one that has found extensive use in the hobby, is a fishing metaphor relating to a tackle box: the Game Master’s Tackle Box. Using this metaphor as method helps to kick-start and structures your story line.
The GM Tackle Box pulls the players through the adventure and its scenarios using steps called the Bait, Line, Hook, and the Sinker. Bait refers to attracting and catching the attention of the fish (aka your Players). Line refers to letting out the line to wait for the fish to bite so you can jag them back and reel them in. The Hook is the act of hooking the fish and setting them on course to the inevitable. The Sinker brings the scene/scenario to the conclusion. Essentially this is the standard hook, line, and sinker trope but a tackle box is more fitting. It can have more than one of each some specially tailored to ensure success like different lures for different situations and types of fish.
Bait, Line, Hook and Sinker would outline the basic structure of an adventure but a Game Master may have more than just one of each written and may improvise creating new or altering existent points. The main idea is to keep the PCs on track aimed at the ending of the adventure without making them feel that they are being railroaded. Multiple options and improvisation prevents actual railroading all the while keeping the adventuring group pointed in the right direction.
The various types and general ending conditions that are common to fantasy roleplaying for example are the Bug Hunt, Retrieve the MacGuffin, the Dungeon Delve, Solve the Puzzle/Mystery, Snipe Hunt, Rescue Operation, Defeat the Nemesis, Play Security, and the ever dreaded Escort Mission.
How to End
Now that you have a basic idea of how to plot an adventure, how and where to begin, and a general idea of how to get the players to go along, you need a definitive ending. That is, you need to decide on the event that will culminate in the climax of the adventure and that will close out any remaining story threads, at least the main ones. Having the end of the adventure in mind is as important as knowing where to start it.
Firstly, to know where to end you must specifically define what constitutes the ending conditions (exiting a dungeon, returning with the MacGuffin, the death or downfall of a specific villain, etc.). The various types and general ending conditions that are common to fantasy roleplaying for example are the Bug Hunt, Retrieve the MacGuffin, the Dungeon Delve, Solve the Puzzle/Mystery, Snipe Hunt, Rescue Operation, Defeat the Nemesis, Play Security, and the ever dreaded Escort Mission. Each has an ending condition built into the very idea however general that ending may be.
It is the GM’s duty to define the ending in the strictest of terms. For example the idea of a Bug Hunt is where the PCs track down and kill some sort of monster(s) or pest(s) with the included idea that it is over when all of the creatures are dead. However, for the ending conditions to be defined is to know how many creatures there are and if there is another power at the center of it all meaning that only when that target is neutralized is the adventure over. That central power could be a traditional villain or something like a hive mother etc. The GM would specifically define those ending conditions so that they and their players will know when and if the PCs have met those conditions defining success, failure, or incompleteness. Of course, the Twist in the adventure can be that the expected ending conditions change at the last minute but be careful with that kind of twist.
Besides setting the ending conditions, the GM can also signal unmistakably that the PCs have reached the end of the adventure by using a Set Piece. A Set Piece ending incident can help to punctuate the end in the Players’ minds. These are often major battles with the big bad or a clash of armies, a big battle with all the blood and thunder that can possibly be mustered. If it is a standalone adventure then the ending set piece can be as big as you please but if you are running a campaign then keep in mind your spectacle may need to be downsized in order to leave you a place to go in later adventures.
With the ending defined, the GM may also want to continue after the climax in order to close out any loose storylines or give certain characters closure. This is an optional Catharsis to borrow a term from fiction writing. After PCs satisfy the definitive ending conditions, the GM can use an optional denouement to put a capper on the entire endeavor cutting all of the loose ends. However, this also means that you will have a harder time connecting the closed adventure with another if you are conducting a campaign although in a campaign adventures do not necessarily need to connect to each other. Of course, the denouement of the adventure need only close out those threads and answer those questions directly connected with its central plot. The catharsis occurs when the Players and the PCs feel satisfied that this specific adventure is complete.
Now that you know where you will begin and how to bait your players into the adventure’s main thrust and how it will all end when the players complete the run, you must figure out how you will approach the writing of the material. There are three writing strategies useful for our purposes. These are the Linear Approach, Sandboxing, and Modularity.
The linear strategy is writing each event in order as it is supposed to happen as the Players progress though the adventure. This is the easiest manner in which to begin writing. However, this format is much more fitting for written fiction as it limits the interactivity by laying tracks by which the adventure runs with little or no room for deviation. This writing strategy assumes that the adventure will proceed uninterrupted along a single straight line. It focuses on the predetermined or assumed path that the PCs will take through the playing field. More clever versions of this strategy may present a few extra lines that will eventually connect back up at certain points but though this variation has a higher tolerance for player shenanigans it can still be derailed by them leaving the GM lost or stuck at an impasse.
This goes for those linear adventures that use a branching logic to compensate for certain choices or present certain choices to the players. The linear technique to writing an adventure is a bad idea in most cases because it can be so easily broken and because it leads to railroading. Railroading being the GM forcing players to make choices that they have prewritten and only those that they have preplanned that move the plot forward thus limiting interaction. Of course, improvisation on the GM’s part can improve the performance of these types of adventures. However, even then, the PCs are back on the tracks with a prewritten set of choices.
The advantage of this kind of writing is that it is easy and quick. However, you should not use this method to write an entire adventure from beginning to end. You can still make use of this technique to try to forecast certain PC choices and be prepared when those or similar choices are made. NPCs on the other hand may require a prewritten path. They follow it or always seek to rejoin it if derailed enhancing the plot. Forcing them from their track may even have a relevance to the adventure narrative for the Players. The second technique is much more flexible and builds the setting first fleshing it out to compensate for errant adventurers.
The second technique is The Sandbox or sandboxing. So-named because this technique relies on a wide playing field so the PCs can pretty much do what they want within it like a child’s sandbox. This is writing up a larger area and populating it with descriptions, background stories, NPCs, encounters, and items leaving none of the major descriptive or gaming points blank. Essentially the GM builds the sandcastles and drops in some toys. This allows the GM running the adventure the ease of supplying answers to Player/PCs questions about their surroundings and allows the GM to focus more on improvisation when confronted by an event outside of the supplied material or an unforeseen Player choice.
The main drawback to this strategy is obviously the work involved. You will need the time to imagine and write/gather the details. Sandboxing also has its limitations when writing for large areas such as cities. It is okay to sandbox for a small portion of it (typically a few locations) but the entire thing would simply take too much time. The second drawback is if the PCs find the edges and simply stray over the borders of the defined and into the incomplete or unwritten portions the GM is bereft of material. However, again improvisation on the GM’s part can help to mitigate this as well as employing the third technique, Modularity.
Modularity is as the name implies, writing bits and pieces that you can use to dynamically drop into an adventure as it unfolds like a puzzle piece. However, as a picture puzzle this method requires the GM to recognize what piece to use and at what time to drop it into place. Modularity focuses more on the pieces rather than a limited playing field like the sandbox strategy. Parts or chunks of elements are written with a level of detail according to the assumption of how much the GM will need them during play. The more required it is in game the more detail that piece will have.
The advantages of this writing approach is that it encourages GM improvisation and allows the Players to pry, explore, and deviate as much as possible and not have to worry about breaking the adventure. However, the main drawback of this strategy is that the impetus of keeping the players on track with the adventure falls entirely upon the GM’s ability to improvise.
The advantage when it comes to writing in this fashion is that it is easier to write small chunks of information even if they are quite detailed. You can write pieces that are more general in nature dropped in at any time to fill out any lacunae the adventurers have discovered. These bits of adventure can be of any nature such as a single locale or location, a single but prominent feature in a location, an NPC, a group of NPCs or an organization, an encounter, a shop stock list, etc. A modular blob of information is any mass of text (or numbers) that you as the GM can use like a puzzle piece to fill in a gap.
The most effective way to go about writing an adventure is to make use of all three techniques. The first technique should be limited to NPCs and chain reactions that occur without Player intervention or are its result. However, the PCs can stop or alter these sequences of events. It is also appropriate when the PCs’ choices are limited organically. The sandbox option is best for locations where the PCs will spend a majority of the time or repeatedly return to throughout the adventure. When used in conjunction with Modularity the GM can maximize their flexibility.
The 3 RPG Adventure Writing Strategies
- Linear Strategy – Writing the adventure as if a fiction plot or timeline of events. Pro: Fast & Easy. Con: Railroads Players.
- The Sandbox – Writing and detailing an entire wide area. Pro: Easily compensates for Player choice. Con: Takes a long time and still has violable boundaries.
- Modularity – Writing pieces dropped into the world as the game progresses. Pro: Easiest to write and allows for more GM flexibility. Con: Requires the GM to improvise the most.
Writing the Adventure - An Example
Now that we have gotten through the theory let us make a try at practice. For an example, I will be using the most tried and true as well as very cliché story conventions used in fantasy roleplaying games. These should be familiar to everyone from the most experienced grognard to the newest newbie. These are overused precisely because they do work proven through decades of play.
We will start inside of a tavern; more precisely the PCs are sitting around a table in the taproom perhaps enjoying the first round. They are recuperating from a minor brawl or having slain a monster earlier in the day (Beginning Incident). Here they see a map another group of adventurers is pondering over (the bait). By listening in, they discover that it is a treasure map (the hook). A few other things are happening around the room including perhaps another shadowy figure scoping out the map and the incompetent NPC adventurers (the line). How the PCs receive the map does not matter maybe they snatch it up when the other group begins to brawl over its ownership or they are able to steal it (the sinker). All that matters is that the PCs gain ownership of the map by the end of the episode. Another fact to take note of is that currently this adventure is at its core a Retrieve the MacGuffin plot.
For the body of the adventure we can keep it simple and settle on three semi-connected occurrences that keep the players moving forward. The first deals with moving us from the tavern taproom to the streets (preferably dark and narrow). They take to the streets followed by a strange-cloaked figure presumably in pursuit of the map. Here using the sandbox writing strategy for the location will allow your players to dart around trying to lose the tail without missing atmosphere or background detail. With this method, they may fall into a side quest or a little trouble with a prewritten encounter to apply pressure and some excitement beyond the chase. Maybe they try to confront the mystery figure; if they do, he has a plan to avoid (using the Linear Strategy as a means to think about any reasonable logical digressions).
When the PCs are sure they have thrown their tail the second phase of the adventure body kicks into gear. After doing a little reconnaissance and gaining some easy Intel, they follow a road out of town that takes them into the nearby forest. They have also found out that the map not only points to treasure but also a McGuffin that is highly desirable (a little early twist). On the road, they only have three choices of travel, stay along the road; go the easterly way through the woods on the right on the map, or to the left in the woods, precluding any ability to fly that is.
Here a linear mode of writing with branching choices is appropriate with some random encounters (random encounter tables do count as modular) or other bits that can be dropped in their way to break up the monotony of travel or just braving the elements. Of course, they can try to turn back as well instead of moving forward. Hopefully, they are too obsessed with the idea of snatching the booty or are afraid of running into their tail. The latter achieved by dropping hints here and there whilst they were gathering info in town. Essentially Player choice is naturally limited here in a logical manner allowing the GM some ease only needing to employ some improvisation or to rely on random terrain, encounter, or weather tables. Regardless, after the PCs brave the wilderness and the elements, they will arrive at their destination.
They find that ‘X’ marks a ruined tower that begs exploration (use architectural detail as bait here). In addition, they know the McGuffin is in there due to some clues found on the map (probably a riddle or two, invisible ink, moon runes, etc.). They also have a plan of attack, made during the few quiet breaks they had during travel. Here another sandbox, a dungeon complex consisting of a couple of levels, is appropriate where the entire thing should be prewritten. When they get to the final chamber where the McGuffin sits on its pedestal surrounded by treasure and the dungeon is clear of traps and beasts, their shadow confronts them. The shadowy figure that had been tailing them this entire time turns out to be a wizard. A wizard and a few of his servants who also want the McGuffin and so the final fight begins at the top of the tower.
The End begins with the PCs getting within sight of their goal, the McGuffin and treasure. The Climax is the battle with the wizard and his allies. The reveal of their enemies is a very slight twist. However, this wizard should have courted plenty of animosity from the players as he has been shadowing and harrying them since the start. Perhaps he even used some magic and summoned monsters to retard their progress. Granted that the PCs survive this final encounter they return to town. The ending conditions here are gaining possession of the McGuffin and/or the treasure as well as defeating the wizard and returning to town. Once these 3 or 4 conditions are met, the treasure was just a baiting tactic so whether or not they actually gain it is inconsequential, the PCs have arrived at the end. A real twist can occur here or slightly after such as the defeated mage screaming out for his demonic master or evidence left on the corpse of their fallen foe turns the players on to a larger storyline or another better-hidden enemy. The last twist could also apply to the McGuffin just as easy, is it what they expected, is it a fake, is it cursed, or does it give faint hints to a greater mystery?
The adventure for all practical terms is finished but you can continue on to a denouement. Any loose ends that will not connect to the next adventure can be closed out neatly and any wanting stocks can be taken. Here the PCs take the time to heal, eat, rest as well as split the take. They get a little respite and quiet time. The PCs may even get to have alone time to pursue personal storylines. The PCs then get the McGuffin appraised only to find that it has more of a back-story than they initially knew and has certain magical properties that may open the way for yet another adventure. Of course, this last piece is not necessary but is an easy start to another adventure.
It is probably best to focus on sandboxing those locations that will play either a pivotal role in the adventure or where a large portion of the adventure will unfurl. Using modularity for all other potential points of interest is best.
Know where you are beginning and ending so that the body of the matter is just trying to coax and/or direct PC’s to the preplanned ending. Make use of the tackle box to give your ideas a definite shape and structure and use them to lure your players and in nudging them in the direction of the adventure. Use the sandbox strategy for areas where there is a need for room for the players to move freely and for those places where most of the action will take place.
Use the modular strategy to fashion puzzle pieces to allow you to fill in the areas that are not so finely detailed, are too large, or less contained. Really, the linear approach should only be used in connection with the Players when they do not have a wide range of choice. Such as when cornered and there are only one or two paths to freedom, during a chase scene, or left with limited options. Even so, these conditions are limited and so choices should open back up after they are weathered.
The Important Points of RPG Adventure Writing
- Know Where you are Beginning
- Know How it will End (assuming the Players will be victorious)
- Know the information that will kick off the adventure
- Have your Tackle Box ready to urge the PCs into that information and act on it.
- Use the Sandbox writing strategy for any location(s) where the majority of the adventure will take place.
- Use the Modular writing strategy to create pieces dropped in during play to assist in improvisation during play.
Writing an RPG Adventure Module, a prepackaged adventure, is one thing and the modularity strategy is less useful there. Writing an adventure for your group is another thing altogether. Here, the most valuable skill a GM can have is improvisation and knowing your players and the potentials of their characters. Therefore, any technique that can assist you in shooting from the hip or in hooking your Players is valuable.
© 2018 Robert A Neri Jr
Lewis Pulsipher on June 25, 2018:
As I read this I thought, "this comes very much from the 'adventure as story' side of RPGs. You relent some toward the end when you talk of sandboxing, but even then, there's little of 'adventure as game'. You seem to be guiding the players rather tan letterin gthem write their own story.