I speak to a lot of GM’s all the time and most of them roll their eyes at the word linear. They will attach the term railroad to it and talk about how it takes away player freedoms and are truly against the grain of what tabletop Role Playing Games (RPG) are about. I do concur with some of this conversation but I also believe that linear can be good in the right circumstances. I will be leaning heavily on an adventure presented in Conan Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of Jeweled Thrones of the Earth that I have run just recently as a positive example of a linear adventure.
What is a Linear adventure?
For those of you confused with my introduction I offer up this as an explanation of what I am talking about. Imagine you sit down to a game and the GM tells you that the Lord of Huntingdale has fallen ill as he has been poisoned by the Red Hand assassins. The only antidote to this is the cliff creeper lotus bloom that can be found only on the peak of Galetrine Peak. You say that is terrible. I hope the guards get to the flower and save him, but let us face it he lied to us about the magical treasure in the ancient crag of Watoombay.
The GM returns and tells you that the Lord is sorry for that and hence has added 1000 more gold to the 500 he was offering as he wants capable heroes to retrieve the flower. You still say no, looking at the decanter of endless diamonds you stole last week. The final missive comes back. The Lord has taken hostage your true love and the family of everyone you have ever known. If you do not do this adventure then they will all die publicly in your name. Once you take the adventure you travel to the peak where it is one preplanned encounter after the other and you get back with the flower.
In the above example, I may have gone a bit over the top. It also may not be – I have heard horror stories. When I play I want to explore my character and experience growth from them. The above adventure offers little to no growth. It fills in an evening and may have some exciting points. Maybe I will talk about fending off the Wyvern whilst hanging from the rope to get the cliff creeper lotus bloom. But in the end, it offers no real substance to my own character’s story and makes me feel that the character is just a marionette of Non-Player Characters (NPC). In truth, I wanted to investigate the ghost that we avoided at the Crag and see if we can find his release.
The above example is true to the style of a linear adventure. It assumes player involvement and has a linear path once undertaken. Many travel styled adventures are linear adventures. The reason that this is the case is travel normally has an obvious route. Therefore to get from point A to point B you follow that route, in a linear fashion. Other linear adventures are designed for adventures where you follow a set path of finding out information. You go from encounter 1 to encounter 2 which gives a bit of information to encounter 3 and so on. Perhaps an NPC is acting suspiciously to a player and they want to investigate them but the adventure does not allow for it. The GM brushes over it with a single die roll and tells you that there is nothing to it.
I pride myself in making linear adventures that have flavour and character development. Also, I am in the process of running Devils Among Green Stars from the Conan book Jeweled Thrones of the Earth by Modiphius and it is brilliance wrapped around a linear adventure. So they are not all bad. But what makes them different? How do you craft these adventures to make them awesome?
Devils Among Green Stars
This adventure uses two methods to make the linear nature of it fade to the back of the player mind. The adventure is very Conan – searching through a lost city that has been taken over by rampant jungle. Three tribes fight each other for supremacy in the lost city and then the Legendary feathered ape appears and starts slaughtering a tribe. The tribe are the first to come across the outsiders. the tribe can help the outsiders if the outsiders help them get rid of the feathered ape.
Sounds the same as the horrible adventure! Well, in a way yes – and that is the linear part. I used this adventure as a way for one of the players to win over a patron so they can learn sorcery. The player needed to get the glowing green fruit from the lost city. The player convinced his companions to help with the promise of great riches. On arrival, the tribe they meet are adorned with jewellery galore and offer it in payment. They are on the trail of the feathered ape and everyone is getting what they wanted. Buy-in to a game needs to be personalised. Too many games try to run a linear adventure with the idea that the player is altruistic. Instead, find out what the player character is after in their career and lace the adventure with hints of it.
Why does it work?
The linear nature of this disappears into the nature of the adventure. To kill the feathered ape one must find it – and that is all about tracking. To find where the ape went to the party uses their investigative skills to follow the trail. This is horrendously linear – but that is the nature of tracking! It fits perfectly for the adventure. Then, with the tracking being skilfully done they catch a sign of the great feathered ape ahead of them. He taunts them and runs through an arena that then triggers the next event. This adventure is a linear one done brilliantly. The players feel they are in control of the action while they are being led through a trail of encounters. Each encounter has a little nugget that keeps the player character intrigued right through to the final confrontation.
When I was running fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) many of my adventures were travel adventures. The player characters were trying to save their community from an insulted dragon and so they needed to go do what he asked to appease him. Of course, this would also build them to a point where they could confront the dragon. Initially, this saw the player characters sign on to a merchant caravan as extra help. I laid down a timeline of encounters for the seven days travel. The encounters were designed to help them through the early levels and were also very linear and had the potential of boring the players.
To combat this possibility I added a strong role-playing element to the travel. An investigation around weird happenings among the camp itself. The caravan had four to five developed NPC’s that the player characters became very familiar with. Then things started to happen on the trip. Things would not be where they were when they awoke from sleep and in one place most of the cookware was a hundred yards away from camp. There was a haunting going on. A subplot that centred on the merchant himself whose wife had died and child had gone missing.
This combination of sub-plot softened the effect of the escalating linear travel that the characters were experiencing. The subplot played out over a week and culminated in a major discovery by the investigative players when they reached their destination. The group I was running this with still remember that trip and remember both the subplot and the linear events as one story. As a Dungeon Master (DM) I was ticking off days and encounters. The subplot had dot points surrounding it and so I had to work embellishing that but it was one of the best adventures of that whole campaign that lasted over a year.
My Linear Conclusion
I once wrote a blog (way back in the day) stating how adventures should “not be linear”. The diagram I have included above is from that post! But I do not necessarily agree with myself. There are ways to write linear adventures that make them engaging and fun. Do not to dismiss player based ideas in your plot. If they want to investigate the suspicious character – run with it. Let them follow it even if you decide it is a red herring. Or even more excitingly you could have that NPC suddenly take on a role in the plot – just run with it. This way you avoid the railroading of your players. They can expand into what they find interesting and not just what you had prepared. A good game has a mixture of linear plots and non-linear, the secret is in making them both equally engaging. Keep rolling!