Adventure Construction

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about building adventures over the past couple of months. I want to talk about what got me to thinking about this, and about what thoughts I’ve had.

When D&D 3e came out, for a long time, I ran nothing but D&D. Right up into 4e, in fact. And D&D made up the bulk of what I was playing, too. Now, before 3e, I was running a much broader variety and range of games – Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension, Call of Cthulhu, Nephilim, Amber, stuff like that. But D&D was fun, and easy for people to get into, so I started doing more and more of that.

Lately, I’ve been running less and less D&D, and more and more other games. I’ve found that – well, this sounds needlessly harsh, but it’s the best way to describe it – running so much D&D has caused my adventure-building muscles to atrophy*.

Don’t get me wrong: I love D&D. I love playing it, I love running it. But it focuses on a very specific type of adventure – one that is easy-to-access, simple to understand, and driven by external conflicts. Now, I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about all the exceptions to this because, yes, it can be run in other ways, with different types of adventures, and all that. The fact is that the support material – the adventures, the articles, the advice in the books, the entire Building Adventures chapter in the DMG – all focuses on producing that specific play experience, for good or ill*.

So, when I started looking at running other, different types of game, I found myself reiterating the D&D adventure model, whether it fit the game or not, because that was the style of game I was most familiar with, and most comfortable with prepping and running. That left me* vaguely frustrated and unsatisfied with the way I was running these games, which led me to go back to first principles and start thinking about what adventures are, what they aren’t, and how I like to build adventures. Here’s what I’ve come up with: my universal adventure-building checklist. It’s high-level thinking, and doesn’t get into the specifics of how to build a good adventure for any specific system – just my sort-of metathinking about adventure construction.

1. Know Your Audience.

The group playing in the Storm Point game is very different from the group playing in the Hunter game, which is different again from the group playing in the Armitage Files game, which is different from the group in the Fearful Symmetries game. There are a number of factors that contribute to the kind of adventure you’re going to create:

  1. The focus level of the group. Storm Point is beer-and-pretzels D&D, with a lot of out-of-character discussion, distraction, socializing, and occasional viewings of YouTube videos. Fearful Symmetries tends to focus strongly on the game pretty much from the get-go, with few tangents, and the players keeping track of multiple storylines. They require different kinds of adventures.
  2. The interests of the group. My Armitage Files players are interested in the creepy mysteries, with nice touches of historical accuracy, and the opportunity to risk death or madness for the chance to make the world a marginally brighter place. The Hunter characters are more interested in following a trail of clues and solving a puzzle, rather than in the mood created by the puzzle, but also in the interactions between the PCs. If you’re not giving the group what they’re interested in, they’ll stop being interested in the game.
  3. The size of the group. I’ve got six players in Storm Point, three in Armitage Files, two in Fearful Symmetries, and five in Hunter. Smaller groups mean you can give more individual attention to the characters, and focus more on their own agendas. Larger groups mean that you can throw more complex and varied problems at the group and they have a good chance of solving them.

Gaming is a social activity, is what I’m saying, and the dynamics and interests of the group should have an impact on the types of adventures you build for them. Also, remember, you’re a member of the group: your focus level and interests count for something, too.

2. Know Your Game System

This is not about knowing all the rules of the game you run, though you’ll find that makes things easier in the long run. What’s more important is knowing what kind of play experience the game has been designed to produce.

Every game has a play experience that it excels at producing. It has to, because it’s the product of human minds that value certain aspects of play over other aspects. These assumptions – conscious or not – seep into the design of the game, colouring the final play style. After all, no system can do everything equally well, so any system is going to be stronger in some areas than in others.

Examples? D&D focuses on set pieces linked by either geography (site-based adventures) or time (event-based adventures) or both, producing strong, well-defined climactic moments of conflict. Dresden Files RPG focuses on creating strong emotional investment by the characters (and the players) in the events and settings. Hunter focuses on the inner emotional life of characters in crisis situations. Trail of Cthulhu focuses on the desperate struggle to find enough information that the characters have a chance of confounding the threats they face.

Now, all these games do more than what I’ve listed above*, but these are the play experiences that the designers seem to value, and therefor that the games support most strongly. You can build a dungeon crawl in Trail of Cthulhu, sure, or an introspective game of personal horror in D&D, but the game system does not offer as many tools to do those things. Knowing what the game system does best helps you figure out what sorts of adventures will work well in that system.

3. Get an Idea

The first two steps are pretty passive*; this is where you need to start doing the real work. You need an idea for your adventure.

Writers always get asked where they get their ideas, and if you weed out the flippant answers that they give because they’re tired of the question, the true answer comes down to “I get my ideas wherever I can.” Adopting the same approach for designing adventures is the best way to ensure that you keep the ideas flowing strongly. How do I get my ideas?

  1. Reading game material. I read a lot of games, even games that I’ll never play, because I never know what will spark the idea for the next adventure.
  2. Reading my game notes. Setting stuff that I’ve developed and forgotten, notes about what the characters have done in game, throw-away comments, anything can lead to a good idea.
  3. Reading other books. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, history, literature, travel, comic books, mainstream fiction, whatever. Wherever there’s a good story, there’s something I can loot.
  4. TV and movies. Don’t be limited to genre stuff, either. Cities of the Underworld has been very helpful for building dungeon crawls, for example. Steal from whatever looks good*.
  5. Paying attention to my players. Sometimes the actions of a character will resonate with an idea in your head, and you’ve got a whole adventure sprouting up out of nowhere.
  6. Ask the players outright. “Okay, gang, you’ve finished this adventure. What are your characters interested in doing next?” Not only can it give you an idea for an adventure, it also shows you what the players are finding most interesting and fun about your game*.

What this all means is that you should steal shamelessly from any source that strikes your fancy.

4. Flesh Out the Idea

I use flowcharts* to build my adventures, and I usually wind up building two or three for each adventure. One always shows the background for the adventure: what is happening, and why. Another may map out the relationships between NPCs (and PCs), or serve as a framework for encounters, events, or scenes. These are usually pretty quick to build – ten to fifteen minutes for each, I find. Once I’ve built the flowcharts, I add detail to them, making sure there are at least a couple of ways that the characters can become entangled in the plot, and this can take a little longer.

One of the important things I decide at this point is how well the idea fits the game and the audience. Sometimes, you can tell right of the hop if things area  good fit or not, but sometimes you need to start trying to fit the peg in the hole before you realize it’s the wrong shape. Questions I ask myself at this stage:

  1. How fluid is the adventure? For Storm Point, I want decision points, but still want to keep things pretty linear. For Armitage Files, I want a solid idea of what’s going on behind the scenes, but not assumptions about how the characters proceed, giving them lots of freedom. For Fearful Symmetries, I try and keep a few different plots simmering, letting the characters wander into whichever ones catch their interest.
  2. How long is the adventure? I try and keep the Hunter games to very episodic single-sessions, while I figure on five to seven sessions for each Storm Point adventure.
  3. Does the adventure leverage the good things about the audience and the system? I try and make sure that the game hits the hot buttons of the players and the sweet spot of the system.
  4. Does the adventure do what I need it to do in the game? In an ongoing game, I’ve generally got a couple of themes I’m exploring with the types of adventures I create and run*. For example, the big theme in the Storm Point game is “What makes a hero?” In Armitage Files, the main theme is “How much of a monster will you become to fight the monsters?” I try and make the adventures look at some facet of the theme in some way, though I try to be subtle about it.

Structurally, at this point, I look at some specific things to make the adventure fit and seem part of an ongoing narrative.

  1. How can I incorporate what has gone before? I always, always, always look for ways to tie an adventure into what the characters have already done in order to provide continuity. Even if it’s just letting them talk to a couple of NPCs they’ve met before.
  2. What will this lead to? If I’ve got an idea of the next adventure, or the one after that, I like to seed some hints into the current adventure, again providing some continuity.
  3. How much do the characters need to remember from earlier adventures for this one to work? If the answer is anything more than nothing, then I need to look at ways to build reminders into the game to avoid having to exposition dump on them.
  4. Where do the characters come into the adventure? I need a few hooks or exposed bits of the background so that the characters have a chance to get involved in my plot.
  5. What happens if they succeed? I need to have a firm idea of what success looks like in terms of the adventure, and what the effects of it will be. Now, success can look very different in different systems: in Trail of Cthulhu, sometimes the best you can hope for is survival, while success in D&D is usually measured in experience points and gold pieces.
  6. What happens if they fail? Similar to above.
  7. Is the complexity of the adventure appropriate to the audience? In Storm Point, I keep the plots simple. In Armitage Files, they’re substantially more complex. In Fearful Symmetries, I go out of my way to make things tangled, with conflicting demands on the characters.

Once I’m satisfied with the structure, and the way the adventure has shaped up, I move on to the next step. If it’s not working, I tear it apart and see if I can make it work. Sometimes, I can’t, and I junk it – not the best answer, but sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

5. Add the Crunchy Bits

Okay, so by this time, I’ve got a fleshed-out idea that suits my audience, my game system, and what I’m trying to do with the game. Now, I need to turn it into something playable.

This is the step when I stat things out, which, for D&D, takes up the most time. Other game systems make it easier to improvise stats for opponents, but I still need to set up some baseline things – a standard mook, stats for a big bad, the difficulty to do something that I know is going to come up, stuff like that. I like to have the mechanical things worked out before I sit down to play.

The other thing that I try and put together are a couple of well-described, atmospheric scenes that I think are going to come up. That might mean writing a description of a spooky old house, or it might mean coming up with a set of personality traits for a major NPC, or it might mean doing up a hand-out of an old letter that’s found in a flooded cellar. These are the little touches that can bring a game to life in play. These may be set pieces, or floating events that I just want to be prepared for, and sometimes they don’t get used. That’s okay, though; I can usually recycle them for other adventures or purposes.

What I have at the end of this is a set of game notes, with my flowcharts and stats and atmosphere pieces. I usually tuck everything into a folder, and put it away for a bit, taking it out for a last review a couple of hours before the game.

6. Postmortem

This is, in many ways, the most useful step in building adventures. After you’ve run an adventure, take a look at it, and ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. Be honest – both about the good and the bad – because you’re only doing this for yourself*, and this is how you get better. Look at how the players reacted to things, where they did something unexpected, where they ignored the clues, and where they were right on board. Write some notes.

Also write notes about what happened in-game: I’m a big fan of consequences for actions, and like to build what the characters do into the world. This helps the setting seem more dynamic, when you have others reacting to what the characters have done, and again builds in more emotional investment for the players. It also can help you spark a lot of ideas for the next adventure.


So, I don’t know how helpful that is for anyone else, but it’s helped me sort out my process for creating adventures for games. How about you folks? Any tricks you use to put your games together? I’m always willing to steal a good idea or three.


*Atrophy isn’t the right word, really. I dug myself into a rut, and it’s taken some effort to first recognize the rut, and then to start working my way out of it. Back

*Generally, I think it’s for good, but too much of anything gets stale. Back

*And my players, at least to a degree, though they’ve been kind enough not to say so. Back

*And, indeed, others may differ on my take on what their strengths are, but these are my takes on them. Back

*Though the implication to “Know Your Audience” is that, if you don’t know your audience, you need to learn about your audience. Back

*I still have plans to someday build a campaign arc based on the song The Riddle by Nik Kershaw. Back

*Added, subtle bonus: it shows the players that you value their input and gives them a feeling of control over the game, which leads to emotional investment and heightened interest. Back

*Actually, I don’t. What I use are more like mind maps, but that’s such a pretentious phrase, I hate using it. Also, I tend to use flowcharting software for this step. What I’m building is a visual representation of the relationships between different elements of the story. Back

*What can I say? I’m a literature geek. Back

*Unless you’re an exhibitionist GM with a blog, that is. Then you get to talk about your failures in public. Back

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3 Responses to Adventure Construction

  1. Milo says:

    When you say you use flowcharting software, do you actually use something like Visio?

  2. Rick Neal says:

    I have used Visio, but lately I’ve been using Idea Sketch on my iPad. It’s nice and easy. My only complaint is that it doesn’t let you label the links between items.

  3. Zooroos says:

    A really great article, as usual! 😀

    I’m a really lazy GM, spoiled by years of rules-light systems and ongoing campaigns that just fed from previous events (mostly WoD). It can even be said that, in my games, consequences keep the wheels turning. I do make a lot of prepwork, especially background like history, political structure, geography and the like, but just at the campaign start. I hate statting NPCs though, so I tend to shamelessly clone stats from a few sources or asign trait values on the fly. Therefore, my games tend to be slow-moving, with lots of plots threads opening every time I see an oportunity, long investigative scenes and complex, multilayered stories which need a lot of note-keeping (mostly from my players. I am, as I mentioned before, pretty lazy…).

    Having said all that, I do have my tricks. I read as much as I can, always looking for fresh ideas, in game books and in other reading material like magazines, novels, etc. I’m not ashamed to ask my players about the highs and lows of the adventure, what they would like to see next, and what are the “characters’ opinion” of the story events. I love the feeling of continuity in bringing events and NPCs from the past to haunt (or assist) the PCs. Over the years I have acquired a good hand at improvising, feeding from the players expectations (or counterpointing with something they never saw coming!). I still think I such at characterization and good, interpersonal drama, but I have a very cerebral, analytical personality that tends to present everything in a sort of detached, mostly-facts view.

    I realize I could use some more structure in my games (and in my life, but that is another story… ;)) and learn some tips to handle NPCs dialogues better (they tend to either infodump or antagonize the PCs, with little emotional conflicts to show or challenge my PCs with). I recently began using OneNote to keep my notes organized, but without a reliable printer it feels they just get forgotten somewhere.

    I like compating notes with other GMs, but my personal GM style is not very elaborated. If any of you have any specific questions I’d be happy to answer. I’ve found these questions help me realize aspects of my style I did not previously acknowledged.



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