Monday, August 25, 2014

How Not to Write an Adventure

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.
Again – none of this relates directly to plot, and if the players want, no story other than "PCs go in, get gold and leave" needs to be told in the game. Each of these points can be covered whether the adventure is a good dungeon crawl or a solid city adventure where a sword is never drawn and a spell never uttered. What's important is that the adventure be open-ended and have several potential forks, because no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and no plot survives contact with the PCs.

* 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."


  1. Wish I'd realized this sort of thing much sooner. My first D&D books definitely showed Douglas Niles' influence, so while I knew a good DM doesn't railroad their players, I was still taught to view adventures as a story. Essentially, I imagined the DMs job was to create both a sandbox AND a railroad, but the players were more like Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern than a train

    It wasn't until a couple years ago, after taking this notion to ridiculous extremes for a (now aborted) campaign — imagine an infinitely complex CYOA — that I realized how wrong this approach was. It just adds extra work with no significant payback. Just as well, I wasn't interested in telling a particular story anyway. It's kinda liberating to know it's a completely unnecessary component to the game!

    I feel it needs to be added that, when planning an adventure, descriptions should be thought of as game elements rather than a chance to unleash your inner storyteller. D&D, as originally envisioned, is an interrogation game (among other things). If there's something to be found or avoided in a room, it must be discovered through questioning, and so a fair referee will plant the seeds for that discussion in their initial description. This is so much more satisfying than a die roll. However, too much information can act as noise, drowning out what the players actually need, so it's best to cut the fat or distribute it in smaller parcels, like when players start asking you about the various contents of the room

  2. If you look at many of the earliest modules they are simply locations with each area described. Maybe some notes regarding what will happen if the PCs mess with something in an area. Locations meant to be explored, not stories meant to be told. The stories come about naturally, and are what the PCs do, and what happens because of it. It's always something new, and unexpected, and memorable because it happened organically. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to take that away from the players or deprive themselves of as DMs.

  3. I liked this post so much, that I translated big parts of it to Polish and put on my blog:

    I hope you don't mind, Wayne?

  4. All great ideas Wayne! this of course is now going to make me re-think my entire adventure module sadly. I have a section in it titled "its not necessarily a railroad, but here's the plot". As well, in order to get into one specific section of the dungeon, a certain amount of keys will be needed. And I had written in a NPC that will magically appear at a certain time. ugh. LOL!

  5. The best adventures specifically do not have plot. They have characters, setting and theme. The plot emerges and can be seen in retrospect. But it is not present in great amount prior to the adventure.

  6. Well, that is an interesting point of view and one that has been espoused to me since writing the article on RPG Knights.

    Where as your point of view is valid in a certain style of game I find it narrow considering the overall weight of evidence against it in the industry. Your point is one of the sandbox point of view of creating adventures. There are locations, factions and stuff happening that the player can choose to get into or not at their leisure and once they do the escalation comes from that.

    My discussion on RPG Knights does not denounce that style being fit in the same module and nor does it promote linearity. Had it not been for us dealing with a death at the RPG Knights family then I would have been following up with a post in that regard.

    I ask that you make these comments on my own site rather than slamming the content outright. The material in my post is tried and true method of delivering a story, not just a linear one.

    1. Foremost, my condolences for the death in your family.

      It may be that the idea of delivering a story, as you put it, is primary for the majority of the RPG industry. I consider most RPGs and most adventures for them unsatisfying, and my blog is directed toward that segment of the RPG community who likes OSR-style, sandbox play. If that puts me in a minority, so be it.

      If you do write a rebuttal to this piece, feel free to link to it from the comments here. Please note that if you add a comment more than 48 hours after the original post goes up, I have to approve it manually and it may not appear immediately.

    2. No worries Wayne. I am not writing a rebuttal but a clarification because there is nowhere in my original post that suggests it should be a one line railroad adventure. In fact there is nothing in the post that suggests it could not be used as you use it so I am going to give an idea on how that can be applied across different styles.

      I love sandbox adventures and am writing an adventure for Pathfinder that is hugely here is the place, here is the situation, have at it. This still follows the style that I espouse but it just focuses on a more player driven story.

      I focus my blog on really trying to help new and intermediary GM's hone their craft. The blog got cut back a lot due to the size it became and the complexity of the issues. I did not want to confuse by then going into another 3000 words of how different adventure styles fit with that model but if you read it carefully there is no inference anywhere that says "This must be plotted as one event after another based on your story idea". In fact I agree with you wholeheartedly in that the best adventures are where the tension that is created comes from the actions of the player. That is not to say that it is the only way though.

      It is just as valid to have tension generated by a mysterious stranger wander into town that starts murdering people and the players find out that it is because the Sheriff was once his accomplice and left him for dead after making off with the gold/credits/plutonium, whatever. Thus the tension grows from the investigation of that situation.

      I do also apologize if my initial response was a bit harsh. Just got up and your response was the first thing that I read on G+. Had not yet had my coffee! Plus we are in mourning at the moment due to the passing of one of the administrators sons here at RPGKnights. Everyone is welcome to their opinion and I welcome yours just as eagerly. In fact I enjoy reading the criticisms more as it generally creates more content.

      I will offer up a clarification in time and will link it here. But first we must attend to our own and make sure that everyone here at RPG Knights are getting the support and love they need.




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