Night Fears

So, this happened.

Long ago, in the before time ((Which is to say, back in the heady days of Unknown Armies and D&D 3.x.)), I wrote some RPG stuff for pay. I’m not sure if Fred Hicks recalled that ((Though possibly Chad Underkoffler remembers some of our shared credits on UA stuff.)) – I had used it as a selling point to get in on the Dresden Files bleeding alpha playtest, but that was a long time ago – or if he was asking me primarily as a courtesy because of all the stuff I’ve written about DFRPG on this blog, but he asked me if I’d consider writing one of their free one-shots.

I had to think about it for a while. There are reasons I stopped writing for the industry, but the main two were that it ate up a lot of time and creativity that I could be funneling into my home games (or even work), and that the people I respected and trusted as editors and publishers weren’t looking to buy the kinds of stuff I wanted to write ((Though the ever-charming Dr. Michelle Nephew encouraged me to write a card game for Atlas when they stopped doing the d20 stuff. I really wish I could have figured out how to do that.)) and I didn’t want to work with the people who were buying it.

This was going to be a short scenario, though, and I already knew the folks at Evil Hat were good, professional folks, so I said yes, and pitched them some ideas. Night Fears was one of them ((It was originally called Dare, but I changed that when it was suggested that I follow the Dresden Files naming pattern.)), though not the top option on the list. It was, in fact, number two.

The one Fred and I liked best was a court trial, where the bulk of the action would take place in flashbacks, allowing the characters to build the backstory dynamically as the trial proceeded. I thought it was a cool idea, and could make for some great storytelling, but it was kind of daunting, so I decided to test the concept in my Fearful Symmetries game. After playing, I was reluctantly forced to admit that it would take way too much work to hash it into a pick-up-and-play form that anyone could run at a convention or evening of play.

So, we fell back on the Night Fears idea. I liked this one because it let me work a standard haunted house horror scenario into a DFRPG world, and to focus on being scared, rather than on being hurt ((Don’t get me wrong; the characters can get hurt bad in the scenario, but that’s not the primary focus.)). It also let me cobble together an interesting group of young teens to tackle the problem – I’m really happy with the characters as they turned out, and I think they’re good enough to lift out of the scenario for other teen-centric one-shots.

The other thing I think is important about these characters is that they’re set at Feet in the Water level, the lowest power level in the game. I’ve got a bit of thing about games with sliding power scales – I like to see if they work as well at the lower end as at the higher end. And by “work as well as,” I generally mean they can tell stories that are just as interesting, just as threatening, and just as heroic. I took the low power scale here as a challenge to myself, to put together something that would be as fun to play as dueling Submerged wizards ((The other thing about the low power level is that the characters are very simple to play, so it’s a good scenario to spring on newbies, even if it doesn’t show off the magic system.)).

Hopefully, I succeeded. You’ll have to let me know.


The whole experience of working with Evil Hat has been awesome. Matthew Gandy has taken his place in my list of top editors ((The other three names on that list are John Tynes, Greg Stolze, and Michelle Nephew.)) to work with – he asked the right questions, called me on my flaws, and just generally dragged the stuff I’d written up to a higher level. Thanks, Matthew.

Fred Hicks is just magic. I mean, you’ve seen his layout stuff – he does an amazing job of making his books look both classy and fun, which is a bit of a balancing act, in my mind. Beyond that, he is great to work with, very communicative, supportive, and (maybe most importantly for freelancers) quick to pay. He went above and beyond keeping me in the loop on where things stood with the book, sending me art previews and layout previews. It’s great to feel so involved in a project.

And Kathy Schad is an amazing artist. I don’t know enough about art to discuss her stuff intelligently, so I will just say that she made the stuff in my head look better than I imagined it could. Check out her site.

One of the coolest things about this project happened today, when I got to follow Ruben Smith-Zempel’s tweets as he pulled the map in the book together in an amazingly short time. It’s a great map, and I can’t believe how quick he was with it.

That’s about enough of me prattling on about the scenario. I’ll shut up now. But I encourage you to go check it out – it’s free, after all – and let me know if you run it. I’d love to hear your war stories.

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

Last of the Freaks

Here we go: last of the supernatural characters we’ve created. This is Gerhardt Rothman, a policeman with a dark secret he’s trying to hide from.

I’m working on putting together actual play sessions starting next week, so I hope to have some reports on the actual games around then. I’m going to set the adventures in Magical Winnipeg, and will be brainstorming this weekend. I need to create two separate adventures, each of which may take one or two sessions to play out, because of the size of the group. I’d like to tailor each adventure to the group playing it, but I’m not sure how workable that’s going to be in the time I’ve got.

Anyway, the actual playing is coming up. Stay tuned.