Adventure Writing

Adventure writing can be very fun.  It can also be very laborious.  Sometimes it is both!  One thing that I have noticed in my reading of Role Playing Games (RPG) is that some systems have excellent advice for writing adventures while some ignore the advice completely.  The truth is that most systems offer something up that falls in between these two extremes and so I have decided to dedicate todays post to how I usually write my adventures.

The truth of the matter is there is no right or wrong way to do this.  What works for one group will not work for another so try to know your target audience.  If you are writing adventures for your group this should be a target market you know well, unless it is your first game of course.  If you are writing to try to make money from your adventure then you will want to try to make it as broadly appealing as you possibly can.  In a game like D&D or Pathfinder that means going as far as considering the adventure from every alignment and seeing that there is something that would interest them in the content to get involved.  An adventure about rescuing a missing Paladin is not going to appeal to your diabolist unless the Paladin is the only one who knows where the key to a prison for a devil is to be found.

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

The above diagram beautifully designed and created by me is a diagram that could be titled how to write a novel.  It is a structure that is well used by writers everywhere.  In most cases it will not win you a Pulitzer but in general it will provide you with a good framework for a great story.  I am afraid that if you started reading the post in the hopes of finding the magic of coming up with a topic (or conceit) for your adventure I do not cover that here.  You have to come up with the purpose of the adventure.  Sorry.

Adventure Writing

The following details about writing adventures are pretty standard when it comes to adventure writing and even just straight narration.  I often vary these “rules” when I am writing but they are a valuable set of rules to follow and should have you producing some great adventures in no time.

Exposition

The exposition phase is akin to the set-up of your gaming table.  In order to game it needs to be done.  The exposition involves introducing all of the elements that you need to begin getting the players involved in the actual adventure.  It should be short, sharp and to the point in most cases.  It may be the conceit of meeting your Mr. Johnson at the bar or a shadowy stranger in the Inn.  It may be noticing on your way into town that the fields normally abundant at this time of year are filled with weeds.  In essence you want to pave the road for the adventure to come.

The important thing in this phase is often to provide something very memorable and valued to the adventurers.  You utilise this to return to at the end.  It is a sign that everything is right with the world and that things are a better place because of what you have done.  In the above example it may be as the players leave town the fields are filled with farmers sowing the new crops.

This section of the adventure is important because it gives the remainder of the adventure context.  The players will know what they are doing and why they are doing it because of the material that they receive in the exposition.  You may throw in a twist to the story but the effects of that story are what they are seeing initially here, and twist or not they still have a reason.

Complication

The initial complication to your adventure should surface fairly quickly.  The characters investigating the pestilence come across a group of orcs tipping some kind of waste into the river system upstream directed by an ogre mage.  This should be an increasing rise of tension to this scene.  Perhaps the characters run into some creatures being used as scouts.  Then they come across a site where one of the barrels of waste has been spilled.  Finally they catch site of the main force as they descend on the river.

You can see that the above example offers up a build of tension as you reveal components of the problem one at a time.  First the scouts point to this not being a natural phenomenon and then the waste gives the characters the understanding of what is actually involved but still not the full story.  Once past that they face the main force in the resolution.

Resolution

This is the first major win of the characters in most cases although it does not need to be.  Consider that the whole pestilence scenario as described above was actually a set up to capture the players!  In that case the resolution may be their capture and this leads to the next build toward the climax.

The resolution is often an action scene but again this need not be the case.  A huge battle where the players fight an enemy may just as easily be replaced with a tense stealth mission into the heart of the enemy camp.  The point here is the players should relieve the initial problem that they were investigating or trying to solve by their actions here.

Easing Tension

The players at this stage need to receive feedback that their actions are having an effect on the fabric of the adventure.  Let’s say that the ogre mage and company capture the players to move them on to the next phase of the adventure.  You could design a short scene where they see the orcs abandoning their waste barrels and forming ranks to escort the players back to where they are headed.  It is not a huge solution to the initial problem but at least they can breathe a sigh of relief that the initial problem faced by the town is over.

Additional Complication(s)

What follows is a steady escalation again to the major conflict or climax that you envisioned for your adventure.  The players bit by bit uncover the problems that are truly at the heart of the adventure.  Think of the Star Wars prequel where the Emperor has Annakin uncover Dooku’s control of the Trade Federation and destroys him.  The remainder of the movie is the step by step uncovering that the Emperor is himself truly the threat at the heart of the downfall of the Jedi, of which Annakin only plays a small part in.

This is what happens to these additional complications.  They increase tension as the players realise what the ramifications will be if they do not act!  The players arrive in a ruined castle at the heart of a swamp and are thrown into a dungeon to rot.  They escape and find that the creatures here are much different to the mercenaries that delivered them.  They are aberrations that seem to have alien motivations.  Then the party finds a tome in a laboratory that details the blood line of one of the group that leads back to the ruling family of the country.  They later uncover a plot that seeks to use that players blood in an attempt to assassinate the ruler and replace them with a doppleganger to rule in his place.  A plot designed by a lich who was once one of the ancestors of the bloodline of the rulers but was dismissed unduly.

Step by step the plot becomes revealed and with these revelations they up the ante of the overall adventure.  It should overall be a smooth increase of tension but in the case of a mystery it is OK to throw in segments to the adventure that have the players dumbfounded if somewhere in the escalation the reason is revealed.  Again though, if you do not know the audience you need to keep checking; is this going to matter to this type of character?  What about this type of character?  If at any stage you say no to these questions you need to alter the design.  If the group reach an encounter and it just does not matter to them then the adventure will likely be derailed.

Climax

This is the point where the players are aware of everything.  It is Goldfinger revealing his plan to take Fort Knox.  It is the instigation of Order 66 to the clones by the Emperor or the Sam and Frodo finally making it on to the incline of Mount Doom.  It may not be the point where the battle is fought or the One Ring is thrown into the active volcano.  No, that is part of the next section.  The climax can be the moments before this but not the actual resolution itself.

The climax is the moment the players realise the entirety of the plot or the adventure.  It is the moment they realise that the Lich of the above example spurred himself into this twisted undead form because of a sleight so many hundreds of years before.  At the basic level it is when the players have the light bulb moment and all of the encounters they have fought through to this point take form into a cohesive moment.

Fall Out from the Climax

This is the battle itself that brings the enemies low.  It may be stealing the data that Mr. Johnson sent you after.  In essence, this is the work that relieves the tension that built to the climax of the adventure.  It is how your player’s are meant to solve those issues and bring the enemy down.

This can be one large scene or it might be many smaller scenes.  The tension of the whole adventure needs to be solved at this point.  If the adventure is part of a larger campaign then it will not solve everything but it should resolve most of the push that you sat down to design the adventure for.  You may have started with the idea of writing an adventure that would involve the machinations of a red dragon.  Perhaps it was the complications of star crossed lovers.  No matter what the conceit of your main idea the players should have a path (or many paths) that they can take to resolve the process.

Denouement

Wow, that is a fancy word!  It simply means the resolution to the actions of the players.  It is the reward of the players for their work.  This is the time when the locals cheer the players for how they assisted or how the vampire thanks them for killing Van Helsing.  Whatever the point of the adventure this is the reward.  Often in literary circles it is where things have come full circle and we return to the start to see the improvement the players have wrought.

Adventure Writing: Conclusion

This is in most cases the style of most movies, books and adventures.  They mainly follow this pattern.  Although it appears to be linear in style it does not need to be a linear adventure.  There can be many interactive paths that take you to the climax and also a number of different ways to resolve it.  Make sure that you design things so that it is not linear and many people will enjoy the story in many different ways.  After all, as is often quoted to me, no amount of designing ever survives contact with players.  Until next time, keep rolling!

2 Comments


  1. Great article!
    I’d just add: to all the fellow GMs:

    Use the one thing no author (screenplay of movies, writers of books or comics) has at their disposal.
    The reaction of the audience (the players) as the adventure unfolds.

    The climax should happen when the audience is ready for it.
    Not sooner, not later.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Nikola, really glad to see you are enjoying the posts!

      Reply

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