JP On Gaming

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Writing Good RPG Adventures, Part 1

Recently, I have been thinking what makes a good adventure and how to write something that is fun, interesting and entertaining. This question is of particular interest to me since I have responsibility with the Living Forgotten Realms campaign and I like to think the adventures for the Moonshae Isles (those I have responsibility for) are a cut above the rest. And I want to keep them that way.

Having been guilty of putting together some good and some (usually very) bad adventures together, I have been thinking about those mistakes I did in the past and how to avoid them over and over (it's called "Gaining Experience"). So that each adventure I come up with learns from the mistakes of the previous one I wrote, ran or played in.

I mean it is easy enough to tailor adventure specific to one's gaming group, but writing adventures and campaigns when you don't know exactly who will be playing, what they will be playing and what they like to play. Those good adventures I am thinking about are those adventure one writes for everyone. Like those published adventure you would buy and run for your friends.

My Quest

First, I hit my friend looking for "tips on writing good adventures". There amongst a number of methods and ideas, I found a few sites that kinda hit the mark... Most of them offered a variety of formulas and tricks in writing adventures. Many of the formulas present make for very repetitive adventure formats. While they are definitly good for a game system that lends itself well to formula (I'm looking at you D&D 4th Edition), I wanted my article to be generic. I may yet write about formulaic writing at a later time, I wanted this article to be useful for all genres of RPGs.

However, I strongly believe that "Variety is the Spice of Life" and what I like writing and playing mirrors that. So the ready-made formulas for adventure writing don't do it for me... I find them predictable and after a short while, boring. This caused me no end of angst. How could I write an article about writing good adventures when I did not even believe that a unified formula existed...

Another thing I found were how to find inspiration. That is definitly a topic I will want to cover in a later entry, it really was not what I was looking for.

Next, I sat back and began making a list of those adventures and campaigns that have marked me the most as player or a GM. Maybe there were some similarities there I could find.

  1. Call of Cthulhu: The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep This campaign is really the supreme overlord of all campaigns. It has everything: a world-spanning and affecting plot, memorable villains, action, exotic locales and best of all, a deep and complex storyline. If you have not played this yet, you are missing out.
  2. Rifts: The Aliens Game This game was run by a guy named Alex back when I was in high school. This adventure ranks as my favorite all-time game. We were sent in this complex that was full of Aliens (like the movie)... This is the only time I ever saw dead PCs come back for part 2 just to see what was going to happen. My own operator (Bob Mackay) managed to live through somehow... Awesome! Alex killed no less than 8 PCs as only Sim & I got out. Although this one ranks #1, it was not a published adventure, so I'll have to count it out... But take those things I like from it as Alex didn't know or care who showed up, only that his adventure could handle it.
  3. Call of Cthulhu: The Winged Stalker I ran this adventure in Sherbrooke on a cool evening. It was greatly inspired by "The Family" in the "Adventures in Arkham County" book by Chaosium but expanded it. The tempo of the game was right, the dangers were right, the players' participation was awesome.
  4. Macross ][: The Fringe Wars This campaign I ran in the 90s was largely inspired by a mixture of Macross II, Robotech, Gundam (the good stuff, not what's on now) and battletech. It pitted the PCs, who were pilots for the UN Spacy against asteroid belt miners and enemies. I later integrated all of Robotech: Strike Force into the campaign.
  5. D&D: Eye of the Phoenix I remember running this one early on while in high school. A lot of investigation, nasty dungeons, cool plot twists and uber-elemental evil. This one had it all. Although I don't remember the PCs living passed the Necropolis, the rest of the adventure was pretty cool.
  6. D&D: Eye of the Phoenix I remember running this one early on while in high school. A lot of investigation, nasty dungeons, cool plot twists and uber-elemental evil. This one had it all. Although I don't remember the PCs living (or playing) passed the Necropolis, the rest of the adventure was pretty cool and a storyline I always hoped I could run all the way through.
  7. WHFRP: The Lustria Expedition This was a campaign I pieced together from a number of ideas I had. It took the PCs from being dirt-poor in the Empire and forced them to join an expedition that landed them in Lustria. This was one of my first true attempts as incoporating downtime into the campaign. Thus the PCs were given tasks and X time later they were done and adventure called once again! I haven't published it or anything, but during my design, I had no idea of the PCs who would play through the campaign.
  8. Rolemaster/MERP: The last Retid This campaign was my first and most successful historical campaign. To this day I salivate at the idea of this mix of history, fantasy and epic greatness... Campaign that pitted us PCs against the gods at the dying of an age. Just awesome. I originally thought my DM had run us through the Mythic Egypt stuff but he went far above and beyond. I still hope to find his notes and stuff he had about his campaign on-line so I can run it for others...

Pretty bizarre bunch... A lot of fantasy, some historicals, some sci-fi, some "Modern"... Though there are many campaign I loved, I have not mentionned in here: my World of Darkness Montreal & Dark Ages stuff and then some games I played while at Sherbrooke's or in Europe.

Not to narrow it down to some of the stories/chapters adventures is even harder... Still what did each of them have.

  1. Introduction Okay not a revelation but each of them started by making sure the PCs were situated. Why are they here? What is their immediate goal.

    • The Masks opens with the PCs getting a telegram from one of their friends.
    • The Aliens Game opened with us money-hungry mercs meeting with a local king (or was it a wizard?) who offers us money to clear out and investigate this strange place.
    • The Winged Stalker also opened with a telegram.
    • The Fringe Wars opened with the PCs being assigned to the Asteroid belt, the ass-end of space.
    • Eye of the Phoenix had the PCs hired by a church to investigate some strange indentured servants in a remote village.
    • The Lustria Campaign opened with the PCs committing some crime that inevitably failed and they were thrown in jail.
    • The Last Retid opened with us low-level PCs being offered a position in the Pharaoh's administration. We were put in charge of an outpost and charged with meeting our quarry's quota.

  2. Development I will not go into complete details about each of the above games. However, suffice to say that each of them had the PCs evolve from that introductory level.

  3. Conclusion If there is one thing I can say that made all those games great is that they ended. I know it sounds strange, but the fact that they ended (most of them with a bang) made them memorable. To this day, I always prefer campaign or games that have a stated goal or a projected end... Than those that just go on and on... Nothing wrong with ever-going campaign, it is just a matter of personal preference...

Hummm... So to me, the Introduction and the Conclusion are the two most important parts of such a game. While important the Development can have some lame duck parts and still have the whole work and leave a good impression on the players.

The Introduction

The intro is very important. It gets you hooked into the situation and changes the PCs. The introduction is what makes them the focus and center of the story, not just average joes. The hook that takes the PCs into the story needs not to be completely different and unique. As the name implies, it needs to capture the imagination, draw the PCs into the story and interest the players so they will want to know more.

The introduction is unique in that usually the course of action taken by most PCs (not the ones who always refuse any hook offered to them) can be predicted. Most PCs will try to see what has happened if they find an overturned carriage on the road or a burning farm or castle in the distance. I have found that players are not as opposed to have circumstances somewhat imposed upon them during the introduction of an adventure. "You all walked in from the rain to warm up" is something we have in every Moonshae Isles adventure so far. Beyond the very early stages, PCs should be freed from any DM-imposed action. This is what happens in the major MMORPGs' storylines and Fighting Fantasy books.

I have found that a number of DMs put so many fireworks into the introduction that the rest of the adventure cannot live up to the hype. To me, movies like T2 and Gladiator are exactly like that. The opening scenes are just awesome... but then the rest of the movie is well... not as interesting.

As long as the PCs are drawn in and want more, the introduction has done its job...

The Conclusion

This I find that many authors have issues with. A terrible ending completely ruins a good adventure. It leaves the players with a bad taste no matter how thrilling or exciting the rest was. Rigid solutions to problems/riddles or single path through should be avoided. That the PCs have to defeat an opponent is not a "single path". That they have to defeat the opponent by saying some strange key word and dance the macarena is fine, but if that is the only way to do so when the Big Bad Guy (BBG) is standing under a big chandelier with a balistae in the corner of the room while he is surrounded by highly-explosive power crystals, is. And it is bad.

I can't help but think of a local Dark Sun adventure that a DM wrote for a local con. I took part in the playtest for his adventure. The hook was good, the plot proceeded forwarded in a decent manner. When we got to the finale I was thinking. "Wow! This is gonna be good" There were so many plot elements to play with. A nasty defiler performing some rite that would transform him into some kind of lich being, a giant chained to the wall struggling against his bonds, chanting cultists, a powerful tree of life. The party spent a good deal of time plotting what we would do next. Finally we had one of the players turn invisible and free the giant, hoping the giant would rampage through the room killing cultist and (we hoped) soak up a number of the defiler's higher-level spells.

After all this plan, using as many of the provided elements of the setting, the DM went "Okay, you all die because the defiler kills everyone." I was stunned. My reaction was "Dude! If I'd've paid for this I would be punching you in the face right now for wasting 8h of my life!" I was fuming! The worse part is that most of the comments we gave him did not register and his rigid ending where we had to wait for the defiler to turn into the lich then kill him remained. Players who played at the con hated the adventure as well. I have NO issue saying that I will not play under that DM again. I like the guy, but won't sit as a player with him DMing.

Conclusions, I believe should be broadly scripted because two groups of PCs are likely to get there using very different means. "The PCs confront the evil Duke in his castle" or "The PCs must race to stop the cultists" or "Using the artifact of greatness, the PCs lift the curse upon the Country". Those are clear enough an allow for some variation. Let's just take the first example where the PCs have discovered that the Duke is a BBG. Some parties may be given to stealth and try to sneak into the castle at night, ninja-style until they reach the Duke's chamber. Other parties who have a more social-bent may try to pass themselves off as travelling knights to enter the castle. Finally a third party who is more magically inclined might scry upon the court for a few days before teleporting into the castle.

In the end, any group of PCs should be able to complete any given adventure. Some groups might have an easier time than others but all should be able to complete the adventure. By "all groups", I assume that within a certain setting a given group has a decent chance of success without relying too much on one PC or one given ability. "You guys don't have the Open Lock skill or a knock spell so the unnaturally resistant door of unmoving can't be open. You guys can't access the treasure room of awesomeness!" Ends a game pretty badly.

Do not mix a good conclusion with a mega-happy end. Some adventures end with some character death. That's fine. Sometimes heroes die too, make their plight more real. I mean if Frodo fell into Mount Doom with Gollum, it would've been a victory for Middle-Earth even if one of the protagonist did not make it out alive. Call of Cthulhu is a common game where player deaths are more than commonplace. But vanquishing an enemy they thought they could not do is often a bigger reward and makes for stories one can tell to generations.

One such example was the culmination of The Last Retid campaign where in the final act, we took on the God Set himself! Our warriors and the archmage fell fighting. I, the priest of Anubis, was the only one who remained standing (barely). When our Pharaoh arrived, crowned with the Glory of Horus. He told me "stay down and witness this for the ages." As he and Set began fighting it out for control of Egypt. In the end, they killed each other, ending the rule of the Gods upon the Earth. My character lived to tell the story. It was grandiose!

Some authors have what I call the "Forgotten Realms Syndrome" where each author (and each adventure by an author) tries to out-do each other by having bigger and bigger impact on the game world. The first one levels a small tribe of barbarian, the next one levels a town, then a country, then a plane of existence with bigger and more ridiculous spells and artifacts. While it is true that in most fantasy RPGs, as the PCs go up in levels they begin to weild bigger and greater items. While it is true that level 15s should not be travelling around clearing out level 1 goblins, every adventure does not need to, and indeed should not, end with the destruction of the world.

Another good thing about Concluding adventures and campaigns is that after that, you are free to start something new or different. Now that the evil duke is dead, the PCs can begin to search for his long-lost brother he had imprisoned in the Fortress of Veryfaraway. Though sometimes conclusions are just that ending, they can also lead to other, greater things to come. I know many DMs are scared of ending adventures just because they are under the impression that nothing comes afterwards. If the DM's intention is to continue or expand the adventure into a campaign, then the Conclusion should lead into the next one. The chapter has ended and the PCs are ready for the next phase of their lives.

For example, the Fringe Wars featured a number of different story arcs that concluded and rolled into each other. When the PCs got off planet Italia, they returned to their lives at UN Spacy only to be reassigned to another sector and more adventures.

In The End...

I started this trying to find out how to write good adventures... And this is turning into much more as I drift and mingle Adventures and Campaigns... Still the two parts that I personally find most important in either is the begining and the end. Start Catchy and End Strong.



  1. I am currently writing a playtest scenario for Agents of Change, an RPG I'm working on. I find the process to be extremely difficult but the suggestions and advice you give are really useful. So thank you.

  2. Great to hear!
    A lot of this is stuff I learned the hard way (by making bad decisions). Feel free to contact me to discuss more things. I love to talk about writing RPG adventures.
    I would also like to hear more about Agents of Change. The name intrigues me.

  3. Glad I stumbled upon this blog. I think your two main points are very worthy of consideration. Have you further developed the writing/design necessary for a world setting?
    [the Fringe Wars featured a number of different story arcs that concluded and rolled into each other. When the PCs got off planet Italia, they returned to their lives at UN Spacy only to be reassigned to another sector and more adventures.] Having not played Fringe Wars, I assume leaving planet Italia is akin to concluding a module/adventure. Returning to UN Spacy is going back into the world setting/sandbox?
    Again, thanks for this post

    1. Yes. When they returned to home, they got into it again. The characters' lives had progressed and they were ready to get back into them Main/book setting. Now with more levels and experience.