Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Adventure-Writing Process (Basic and Advanced)

These are diagrams/sketches I draw when I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna write an adventure--(I've censored out stuff my players haven't seen yet on the off chance they'll be able to figure out what any of it's supposed to be).

Basically the idea is to figure out what kind of monsters and items and tricks are going to be in there--and, to some degree--how it's all supposed to fit together.

But enough about me...meanwhile, Mandy is still working on her creepy enchanted forest adventure but has kind of stalled.

Me: So when are you gonna finish writing that adventure?

Mandy: I don't know--I'm scared.

Me: What's scary about it?

Mandy: Well, I just don't know if it's good enough. I mean, I know what kind of things I want to be in the adventure--I know what mood I want, but I don't know how to get it.

Me: Just remember, the people want to imagine the things that you're saying. Like, if you say "There's a giant red mushroom with green spots" the players are gonna imagine a giant red mushroom with green spots because they want to imagine it--they want to play the game and believe it and have fun. You don't have to describe it all. What you really want to do is focus on setting up a situation where the players do the kinds of things the main characters in the kinds of stories you want to use do. Like if it's a Night of the Living Dead thing then you don't have to worry about describing decaying faces and graveyards and all--the players will already be doing that. What you need to do is set up a situation where the players have to like fortify a location and decide who gets the rifle and worry about who they can trust and whatever else people do in those movies.

Mandy: Well I've already got a map and monsters on it, am I done? I mean, there's all these cool items and treasures and I think "Oh, that'd be cool" and I get overwhelmed, I don't know where to put everything.

Me: When you're starting out, just treat the monsters like problems the players need to solve--they're the main thing. The items are there, if the players run into them, it changes the problem a little. Like if you get a sword that is +1 vs. rabbits and the players know there's a rabbit monster one way and a different monster the other way then they'll fight the rabbit monster first. You don't have to make it all make sense on the first go. Just focus on the monsters and stuff like that and then the items are like extras that can change things around if the players find them.

Mandy: Well, then, am I done?

Me: Do the monsters have stats?

Mandy: Well I didn't do that yet...

Me: Well pull out the books and stat up the monsters you're going to use. You might get some ideas while you're doing that. Just having the books there and having to think about that stuff can give you ideas about what else could be in the adventure.

Then Mandy gets a phone call from her sister.

So anyway, while they're keeping me awake at 5am on a Saturday night with their real problems, I'm sitting here trying to think up some good adventure-writing advice for Mandy.

What I want to do is just sit down with her and the stuff she has so far and just go, "Ok, let's do this and this and this..." but then, of course, it wouldn't be as fun for me when it comes time to go through the adventure as a PC.
Unlike many of us, Mandy didn't spend hours of her youth drawing little boxes on graph paper and filling them with sinkholes and pit traps and crevasses and whatever else was on the Red Box map key and then slowly building up DM expertise from there.

So, anyway, if you can think of any specific ideas about things that could help someone finish off that first adventure, post them here.

What probably won't help is links to pages full of general "how to write an adventure" advice or links to published adventures. We've got lots of that in the house already. What Mandy needs at this point is to simplify the process rather than to have more options laid out for her.

When you're writing your second or third or fourth adventure you can worry about "Hey, why not have a whale's stomach be a dungeon?" and "Why not have a trap that isn't a trap unless the PCs think it's a trap?" Right now the idea is to simply lay out what you need to make an adventure decent and DMable.

Here's an example of a simple tip that worked:

When it was time for Mandy to draw a map, she got a little worried about how to do that right--so I suggested she could print out a map of a forest from a video game and then just change the key and start filling in things she wanted in the forest, and then that'd give her a sort of feel for how maps work.

So, here's where we are:

The adventure has a format (it'll be mostly location-based and mostly linear, I'm guessing.)

The adventure has a setting (a spooky enchanted forest) and it has a map.

The map has monsters in it, and probably one or two distinct "places" within the forest.

Mandy has lots of interesting magic items and ideas she might want to use.

So, if you have any simple ideas about how to seal the deal, or how to tell when an adventure has reached that critical mass where it has enough stuff in it to support at least one session of play, or tricks you can use to push an adventure over that critical mass, post your ideas here.


  1. Here's my take. I would say that, as a basic deal, one of two conditions must obtain:

    1. The PCs are there to Get The Thing (by default, this is lots of money; more sophisticated Things To Get are lagniappe). If The Thing is there, and it's reasonably hard to get, then you're done.

    2. The PCs are there to Get A Thing, but someone or something who lives there has a totally different agenda. There's a monster that needs a bride or groom to escape the forest, or two monsters are in competition over who gets to the the king of the forest, or whatever. In this case, one or more of the monsters need some kind of wherewithal to entice or compel the PCs to take their part. The PCs have the choice of getting on board or saying "Screw you" and out come the knives; either way, the consequences play out however they play out. In any case, as soon as you've got what the monster wants and what it can offer the PCs for their help, and/or what it can do to them if they don't, you're basically done.

  2. Is the adventure a sandboxy thing where the PC's romp around or a plot driven or maybe neither?

  3. I'm guessing, based on what Mandy's said, that it's basically a "sandboxcar"--you can go wherever you want, but you can't get out until you trigger certain events. Like a video game level or levels.

  4. She doesn't need to fill everything with monsters or treasures. Empty rooms/areas with normal or slightly unusual things will still spark the players imagination/paranoia.

    For example--a chess set. The players will wonder if it's a problem to be solved. Does the current set up of pieces mean anything? Do they need to take the pieces with them for a later situation? Could just be someone who liked to play chess lives/lived here. Nothing more.

    A painting where the eyes seem to follow you around the room. Should drive players nuts. It might just be a painting. Does nothing.

    The player's imagination will fill the empty spaces.

  5. I have a couple more questions. Really I'll write something up after that.

    Are the creatures thematically link?
    What about the items?
    Is the map hex based or drawn on plain paper?
    Why are the characters going into the spooky forest?



  6. I recently wrote a German article on how to evaluate open adventures. I listed situations (monsters, traps, riddles), personality for some monsters or NPCs (make conversation interesting), secret knowledge to be gained (make conversation useful), politics (factions within the opposition, allies to be gained), permanent changes for PCs (jobs or titles to be gained, strongholds to get, gates to discover), multiple goals for PCs (free people, make money, solve mission, kill X, steal Y - and having to choose if and when to pursue them).

    I really should translate it. :)

  7. Ara:
    -Are the creatures thematically link?
    Presumably, since they're all enchanted-forest-appropriate.

    -What about the items?
    Again, presumably.

    -Is the map hex based or drawn on plain paper?
    It's on plain paper, though it has a scale.

    -Why are the characters going into the spooky forest?
    I assume the characters are going to be pretty much railroaded into ending up in the location, but I don't know.

    The whole point is Mandy can't say too much or it'll spoil the surprise.

  8. Maybe to figure out which of the encounters are ones that relate directly to the 'goal' (being able to leave again I think?) and which ones don't, and then make enough variations on the ones that don't to make them happen way way more often than the storyline-type encounters.

    And if the woods are weird, make it a lot of weird, because it's there all the time.

  9. Map, creepy creatures, items, she should be good to go.

    Here are a couple of ideas for a sandboxy map based game:

    Random encounter table that changes by area, each with a little drawing like the one here on the blog. So if you have a small map you can break it up into sections or section it by monster, item, location. These encounters don't have to be all monsters, could be weather, minor items, spooky stuff, you touch a tree turn to a frog, etc.. This will fill in for anything that is not done yet. I think I have examples of these kicking around somewhere.

    Just some other custom random tables are helpful: like random search table, random ruin table, etc.. that are keyed to the adventure

    A few small (4-5 room) dungeons each with one special area that is hard to get to. So the Sunken Temple would have four rooms plus a treasure/special room that the PC's have to swim to get at.

    Have a little blurb on what the adventure is about, why it's awesome, what's happening right now, what horrible things are going to happen to the characters.This lets the players know what's happening and what is cool about that. The dirty hippy gamer advice is to use flags so Mandy knows what the players find cool about her descriptions.

    Ability to improvise

    I don't want to swamp a new GM so that's all I am going to write.


  10. Physical boundaries like an impenetrable wall of thorns or overgrown ditches might make it easier to keep monsters/encounters separate.

    A particular, tall/dead/strange tree might be used to bring the players to the encounter or be climbable and used to see another encounter/place of interest.

    As their line-of-sight is restricted, use lots of sounds to push/pull the party into a particular area like: large animal crashing through the bushes/bellowing after the party, ravens cawing, snapping of twigs, wind through the leaves or strangely quiet places...

    Give the party a "safe place" where they could rest/heal without too much bother from monsters.

  11. Simple advice?

    Just run it, already.

    Seriously, first time's more nerves than anything, you really only need to be worrying about this sort of stuff if you still have trouble with your tenth or twentieth game.

    Relax, let the game happen, and resist the temptation to ask "so, how was it for you?" afterwards. And if you do mess up or forget something, remember, anything you do won't be as bad as 12 year old boys who give away millions of gold pieces, and load the surprise roll so you get to kill the sleeping dragon in the first round, in a misguided attempt to impress the older kids.

    Relax, have fun, and think of it as practice for next time around.

    Oh, and celebrate your first kill :)

  12. Yup, take the plunge.

    Actually, if Mandy's really worried about it, try this. Don't actually run THIS adventure, since she's really trying to put some effort into it - build a little mini-dungeon, maybe with one of those random dungeon map generators, stock it with a few monsters, a couple of traps, and a little treasure, and just put your players through that. Get used to knowing the rules from the other side of the screen, so to speak. Get used to managing the players, get used to being the one in charge of how things are rolling. Once you get the hang of taking the ride with the training wheels on, then it's a lot easier to run something like what Mandy's going for.

    A little "test driving" from the GM's seat can go a long way towards building a little confidence.

  13. Yup, I'm nervous. I think D&D seems to help with my social anxiety, but being in charge is a new challenge. The "just run it already" advice feels about right.

    (Social anxiety disorders, from what I can tell, are kinda common among porn girls, strippers, pin-up models etc.)

  14. "(Social anxiety disorders, from what I can tell, are kinda common among porn girls, strippers, pin-up models etc.)"

    Common enough among dorks and nerds as well, so no big deal...

    Seriously, just take the plunge. Like I said, if you don't want to risk shaking the baby on your Enchanted Forest adventure, throw together something fun and maybe just run Zak and one or two other people through it - smaller crowd, less performance anxiety. Once you have a handle on it, then break out the Creepy Forest of You're Totally Fucked Now and have at 'em.

  15. Mandy, do a search on google for fantasy or RPG map and see which ones you think are cool. Either way, draw or doodle something that you think is cool and don't worry if it doesn't look like it was made for the World Almanac or an issue of National Geographic.

    Here's a perfect example of a very non traditional RPG map made for White Plume Mountain by one of the great D&D artist of all times Erol Otus.

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