Jason Paul McCartan at OSR Today wrote a short link to an article from a site called RPG Knights that alleges to give advice for how to design adventures. Unfortunately, it's really not. The advice given is a recapitulation of Freytag's pyramid (in a modified version slightly different from the above, where the rising action is temporarily interrupted), the dramatic structure you learn in middle school, without significant insight into how to make it into an RPG adventure.
This kind of adventure writing is lazy, bad and everything that should be avoided both by referees and by writers creating modules for RPGs. If you've already written the plot, the PCs aren't the protagonists; they are just along for the ride. And that sucks.
In a well run roleplaying game, the elements of Freytag's pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement) arise organically out of player choice. Plotting them in advance prevents this from happening; if your climax requires that a certain character be in a certain place at a certain time, well, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley*.
An RPG adventure needs something completely different. It's a type of writing that is totally different from writing a screenplay or short story, since the referee is not an author and doesn't know what the protagonists will do. So it should be no surprise that the elements needed are totally different as well.
The main responsibility of the adventure is that it becomes plot when PCs are exposed to it. This requires it to have potential conflict, or the seeds of conflict, within it. This doesn't need to be anything fancy; it's just another way of saying there should be monsters and/or NPCs standing between the PCs and what they want. A dungeon will often do this literally, for instance by having the quintessential orc and pie. If the PCs decide they want pie, that instantly transforms into conflict between the PCs and the orc. Nothing fancy is required, and it can be as detailed or simple as the referee prefers.
Conflict can be between factions, or between NPCs, or simply with the PCs. The more complex your potential conflicts are, the more ways that adding PCs can make the plot go pear-shaped. What is critical is that nothing ever be indispensable. There can be no NPC who can't be killed, no monster that must get away from a fight, nothing that the PCs need to find or know or do that will stop the adventure cold.
Everything else, really, is optional. A dungeon with monster and treasure keys is a baseline for a solid adventure. But there are a few different elements that help a good adventure.
- Background. This can be revealed through exposition, items, and dressing. The real shame of a lot of professional adventure writing is that it has extensive background that is not revealed to the PCs organically through the elements in the module.
- Methods of discovery. Ways to reveal background and information about the world and their enemies to the PCs are helpful. This can be through books, talkative NPCs, visions of the distant past, or many other strange and odd ways to show the world to the PCs. Rumor tables are a classic method for revelation and point up the key fact that they are not necessarily reliable
- Physical obstacles. Sticking a chasm between the PCs and a goal, or making an adventure location particularly dangerous to approach, are good ways to add to the conflict without reference to more NPCs or monsters. Traps, of course, are a personal favorite.
- Dynamic world elements. A good adventure has elements, usually random, that can happen throughout the adventure so that it is not static. For instance, a random encounter table indicates that events outside the PCs' adventures are happening, and it is not necessarily a good idea to respond to all of them. Other examples include timed changes to the setting, such as the Swedish Army that will be coming soon in Better Than Any Man.
* The English for this line from Robert Burns's Scots poem "To a Mouse" is usually given as "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."