Adventure Writing Should Not Be Linear

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. 

This is the first line of a blog that had referred to my Adventure Writing post that I wrote recently.  It is located on Wayne Rossi’s blog Semper Initiativus Unum and you can read that post here.  It is not the first time that the discussion Wayne makes was raised with me after writing that post but it is the point that I realised that some people may have read the initial post and thought I was talking about how to write a linear adventure.

I am not certain as to why that is the case as I have been back and read it a couple of times and nowhere do I say that you must choose a plot and write that plot in a linear way.  I do say choose a topic or conceit for the adventure and then just give the advice of how the conceit should be handled to provide a good enjoyable adventure.  Honestly, without a plot (read this as adventure seed if it makes you happier) or a conceit then every adventure would be designed like the following;

Nothing happens, nowhere.  What do you do?

But I get what is being said so let me elaborate on my initial post.  Firstly, let us look at the GM and our role;

The GM Does NOT Tell The Stories

They provide the space for adventures to occur and help the players to tell them.  I have a very early blog that essentially deals with this issue.  Your role as the GM is to be the facilitator of a story.  What you should be doing is presenting the world (NPC’s, locations, factions etc.) and allowing the player to interact with those elements in the way that they want to.

It is OK to plot out material from your faction’s or NPC’s perspectives but you will need to respond to the way that the players act on those plots to create a living, breathing, believable world.  In the previous post of adventure writing I discuss the increasing tension.  That tension is always increased by the player’s interactions and the results that come of it.

When you write your adventure you need to consider a likely path that you imagine your players taking and fill out that BUT you cannot ignore the fact that players are players.  You must consider a wide range of possibilities that they may take up and have some preparation done (or at least some notes) so you are prepared for the path they actually take or can easily consider the ramifications if something happens out of left field.


Flowchart of a non-linear plot
This is a simple plot diagram!


Consider the above diagram.  This details the travel portions of a plot and the varied options that could occur.  It illustrates to us that the paths available are rarely linear, in travel or in any situation.  You need to consider as many possibilities as you can and prepare for them.  You also need to consider the adventure from the point of view of the players as well.

For example, if the players are investigating the murders of young acolytes of a particular faith and you rely on them meeting and talking to an NPC to push the plot forward then you have created a bottleneck.  If that NPC is the only way forward in the plot then there likely will be a problem.  After all, what if the players meet them, take a disliking to them and kill them instead?  Then the information they needed to push the adventure forward is in limbo.  you need to think on your feet.  However, if that information is recorded in a journal or there are other clues (as there are likely to be) that can push the adventure forward then you should layer them so that the players have multiple paths to move an adventure forward.

When I create my adventures I will generally produce around 25 to 40 encounters for any single adventures and my players will generally go through 12 to 20 of them to reach the end of the adventure that has been created.  It sounds like a scary ratio but that is just hw it is.  Players will surprise you with intuitive guesses and unexpected solutions to complex issues.  I do not fully flesh out all of the encounters but I have thought about them and have notes prepared for them so I can move everything forward if the players take that option.

With a non-linear path to an adventure it is through the actions of the players and the narration of the GM combined that tells the story.  No adventure should start at point A and travel through B, C and D to end at E.  If you have it planned in that rigid structure then you may as well write a book.  The players need to react to your planning as they want to or the story is yours and yours alone.  You may as well be playing a video game RPG.

Creating Adventures: Sandbox

The ideal adventure is one that is driven by the motivations of the players for many groups.  You may hear the term “sandbox” thrown around a lot by designers when they are talking about this style of game.  It is the idea that the world around the players exists despite of their presence.  There are factions, governments, countries, worlds – all the realistic stuff and all of these things have their own agendas and the world changes according to them over time.  In this style of game the players are expected to take control and interact with the world how they want to be, rather than being lead by the nose through adventure after adventure.  there may be hooks laid out by the GM but it is up to the players to respond to situations as they will.

The kicker about the sandbox is there are often challenges in the world that by design are too hard or easy for the players and they may stumble into areas that prove to be out of their league.  This is the nature of the game and it is expected that the players of a sandbox game will do research on things before they go blundering in.  My first AD&D DM ran a sandbox style game.  My character was chasing a particular person and heard that they were last seen entering Drachmar Swamp.  I asked about the swamp and heard that a famed giant slayer had disappeared in there never to be seen again.  If it was too much for a giant slayer it was too much for me!  I later found out that most other players had lost a character to the swamp as they (like many role-players I imagine) took the dangerous swamp as a place they were expected to go.

The sandbox style can be a very different style of game to prepare for.  It is more likely to involve a list of locations, what lives at those locations, the factions they are connected to somehow and the details of the factions.  The players will come to town and talk to various NPC’s and decide where to take it from there.  As a GM it can be very difficult to predict where the players are going to turn their eye to so you will have a lot of short notes about all of the above things with interesting points highlighted.  Maybe you will have a few prepared statistics of characters but you will surely have a list of names and roles of important people the players are likely to talk to.

Once the players become interested in one of the plots (“Hmm I wonder where those one eyed robots are coming from”) then you can flesh it out or run it by the seat of your pants.  Your initial notes should allow you to get through a nights worth of gaming and thus give you more time to flesh the full adventures out after that night and decide exactly what is happening where, to and by whom.

Enhancing Your Game: Not So Random Encounters

In the adventures that I build I always like to have some random encounters designed so that they offer up plot hooks and the like.  They are random encounters because I will determine when they occur randomly and the encounter that is chosen will be randomly selected on a table as well.  Some of these random encounters though will offer up some side quests to the players though.  For example, consider this Traveller random encounter for an exploratory campaign – the players have landed on what appears to be an unsettled lush green planet that promises rich resources.  I roll a random encounter and this come up.

Stone Bear – So called as their fur is actually replaced with scales of slate that make a natural armour that is equivalent to Combat Armour.  They are larger than the average Terran bear but normally are placid omnivores shy of intruders. UPP FAF214 – This bear charges the group.  If they kill the bear they find a strange steel spike that has pierced the armour on the hind right leg.  It has shattered the armour and wires sink underneath the skin pulsing electricity into the creature causing it constant pain – (Possible alien/human hunters?  Maybe the planet is inhabited?).

With that style random encounter you can catch the interest of the players as they branch of on a side quest.  You can see that the full side quest is not there but I have given myself a couple of notes that allow for me to expand on if the players decide to branch off and find out what had done this to the bear.  They may just as equally take the spike and examine its workings when they return to the ship etc.  This sort of encounter should occur a lot in the sandbox.  Random encounters may appear to happen in a vacuum but in reality there is always a story that can be told.  There are even sourcebooks out there for some systems that give you these styled random encounters like the 101 Not So Random Encounters series by Rite Publishing for Pathfinder of which they have 3 versions (Urban, Winter, Forest).

The Adventure Structure Diagram

Diagram of adventure writing
My diagram of the way to write a fun, basic, adventure

So, when I created the above diagram I had no intention of it implying a linear plot.  I realise now that many people seem to have interpreted it that way.  The diagram is really there to give you an idea on how to structure the adventure components.  The green line represents the players tension and that tension is often generated by the players themselves.  There may be many ups and downs to a particular adventure before the climax is reached but with the above diagram I am outlining the structure of a traditional adventure structure and narrative design.

One of my Earthdawn players offered up a comment that I should add a line that goes all over the place, but nowhere near the other lines to represent what the players will actually do!  I think that may be some of the sagest advice I have received for a long time!  That is also why you have to be flexible as a GM or play games where much of the style is designed for improvisation like Dungeon World and the whole Worlds series.

I am someone that likes to plan things.  I like to have some notes down for my games and have thought about the paths that things may take.  I find that my responses to things fall much more into a realistic response if I have a plan.  I have run games completely off the cuff though and they have run well but I do sometimes find myself regretting some of the aspects that I injected into a game on a spur of the moment.  All of that comes down to style and personal preference of course.

I do hope this has furthered my initial discussion of adventure writing and perhaps given you even more material to aid your own designs.  Remember, there are a thousand different ways to write an adventure and the details I have provided over these two posts have been focussed on providing generic advice to as many people as I can, especially those that are new to writing or are just finding their feet when writing adventures.  In the long run you will find your own style and my advice here may be completely against what you believe.  Let me know either way, because if we get that into comments then others may benefit from your own ideas.  Keep rolling!

1 Comment

  1. Great article! A must read!

    We agree completely in our goals I see, but our conclusions are opposite 😛
    Love your attitude too – that’s exactly what we need in roleplay – let’s talk about this and share experiences! In the end, in the medium that offers the widest playstyles of all the games, why do people still believe there is *a* right way to roleplay or write adventures…

    I’m a person that loves planning, but not the rigid parts. Only the fluffy oooh that’s a cool scene parts. From that perspective:

    GM does tell stories. The reason for this GM negating is usually the fear of railroading, or prewriting the story or forcing avenues of exploration for players. Everyone (all of them are players) must know they can (not should or must) prepare,


    the story happens at the table.

    “For example, if the players are investigating the murders … and you rely on them … talking to an NPC to push the plot forward”
    The story happens at the table. Don’t rely on any specific plot.

    “If that NPC is the only way forward in the plot”
    The plot you have prewritten? Don’t. Planning and preparation is cool (not necessary but very cool), yet it’s miles different from arranging a plot.
    Like you’ve said: “No adventure should start at point A and travel through B, C and D to end at E. If you have it planned in that rigid structure then you may as well write a book.”
    You can create a world, a person, a faction – and in adventure writing – a hook, or an event that spurs action (not just physical violence). Yet how do players cope with this and what happens is something different entirely.

    “take a disliking to them and kill them instead?”
    Then you can have more killings as they’re failing to catch the killer. And you can constantly remind them (if you didn’t like the kill) that that one NPC knew everything!

    There is literally no example you can make up that the story couldn’t move forward. Even in fully open p-gm interaction. (I pick up a sword that destroys the world when touched!)

    “you need to think on your feet.”
    Very much so. All of roleplay is essentially improv. As the graphs can’t be plotted for human interaction. Too much. In the end, there is always at least a little bit improv, even if to answer the specific questions.
    Thus I advocate knowing the NPC, knowing the world (or making all of that on the spot, irrelevant) – and immersing yourself. Only thus can you reply as a proper e.g. wolven warrior.

    When I create my adventures I will generally produce – nothing. At all. Not until we sit and start to play.

    Love the stone bear seed btw


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