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How to Write an RPG Adventure

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“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.

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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.

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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.