This post is part of a series where I discuss Robin D Laws’ seminal work on GMing: Robin Laws’ of Good Game Mastering, written at the end of the 90’s . I compare it to my personal experience and opinions and I check how well the guide has ‘aged’.
With a new edition of D&D around the corner, some GMs have new campaigns on their mind. Others, less inclined to play D&D are setting up their summer games or are playing various RPG products whose available pre-published adventures might be limited.
I bet that many from both groups have adventure design on the mind.
In fact, July is Worldwide Adventure Writing Month, so I think the timing for tackling the Adventure Creation chapter of Robin’s GMing guide is perfect!
Let’s dive in shall we?
Robin starts by saying that, be they fully detailed module, a few scribbled notes to help you improvise or somewhere in between, your adventure needs to have a clearly defined plot hook. A plot hook is a sentence (that starts with a verb) that lays out what needs to be done.
- Escort the Duchess of Tropia through Orc-infested lands so she can sign peace treaty with the Kingdom of Clee-Shay.
- Find the lost tomb/lair of El-Veess the Lich-Bard and stop the enchantment-infused music that is driving the whole continent mad!
- Enter the cave, kill the Dragon and fence his hoard
- Prevent the marriage of the warrior daughter of the Barbarian King to the half-human scion of the Ophidian Empire.
A simple plot hook makes it easier to players (who aren’t privy to your adventure plan) to know what is expected of their characters. It will gave them a clear point of reference to base their first actions on.
Of course, you have to ensure to convey this plot hook in a straightforward manner to your players (or their characters) as early as conveniently possible in the adventure.
Laws mentions that the plot hook must clearly set out the adventure’s ‘victory’ condition that defines a clear ending. Once those conditions are met, the adventure is over (except maybe for a last epilogue scene).
Structure vs Player Type
The next part hammers the core point of the whole book: The strategy you take to chose the structure of your depends entirely on your player types.
By structure, he means the type of scaffolding on which you build your adventure’s flow.
He argues that some player types are more inclined to appreciate structured adventures (Storytellers and Method Actors) while others (i.e. Tacticians) supposedly hate any kind of climactic buildup because it defeats the purpose of out planning the opposition to gain a complete victory.
However, I feel that the narrative structures you decide to build your adventure upon doesn’t have to take player types into account. That is, it doesn’t provided you include plot elements and challenges in them that will cater, at least in part, specifically to each type of players you have around your gaming table.
So when he says that tacticians hate an adventure whose structure leads him to a big boss fight, I disagree. Just make sure to put in a planning scene where the tactician’s decision will have a significant impact on the last scene and you should have a satisfied player.
In fact, very few players belong to one player type (thankfully), so feel free to adopt the structure you prefer (I’ll get to them shortly) when you design your adventure. In fact, I suggest that you mix and match them based on your campaign needs and the time you can spend prepping.
The (myth of the) Unstructured Dungeon
The first type of adventure structure is what Robin calls the unstructured adventure, represented by “”the plot-less dungeon” (his words, not mine), where players knock down doors, kill monsters and loot the room. The order of encounters is set by the whim of which area of the adventure the PCs chose to explore.
While Robin was careful not to bash this play style, he does mention that Storytellers find this form of adventure insufferable.
This is where I got my first point of annoyance with Laws’ tips. I understand that by the late 90’s, Storytelling games were on the rise and there was an emergence of new design philosophies around new RPGs (or new editions of current ones).
However, having played Adv. D&D 1e from quite a few years, I can attest that all published adventures (except possibly the tournament classics of the ‘S’ series) had plots, although it wasn’t spelled out in an ‘Adventure background’ section. You often had to hunt it down through the room by room descriptions.
The Against the Giant series of modules, while very hack and Slashy, had surprising politics, stories and mysteries hidden in the few pages each of these 3 adventures took.
I won’t dwell too much on this as I’ll probably make it a different post, but I really prefer the more modern term of ‘Site-based’ adventure which can include mindless dungeon crawls but are certainly not limited to such type of gaming.
I strongly believe that the site-based adventure has evolved in the last 10 years, incorporating most (if not all) of the other adventure structures Laws’ talks about in this chapter.
In fact, I invite you to have a look at Paizo’s adventures (From the moment they got stewardship of Dungeon Magazine up to and including Pathfinder and Gamemastery modules), the Goodman Games Classic adventures and especially Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeonscape to see how ‘the Dungeon’ has been treated.
The Episodic Adventure
This form of adventure is a series of unrelated (or thematically themed) encounters presented in an order set by the GM. Similar to an episodic campaign (where one adventure has no obligatory link with the next one), an episodic adventure is basically a linear dungeon where “rooms” can be switched for “scenes”.
The archetypal episodic adventure would be a trek where static unrelated encounters are met one after the other.
Using the 5 room dungeon adventure model as an example I could get:
- Plot Hook: Bring back recently freed slaves from mountains back to civilization.
- Scene 1: A Group of slavers ambush party in order to recuperate ‘stolen goods’.
- Scene 2: Avalanche!
- Scene 3: Trolls requires an outrageous toll per head to allow passage.
- Scene 4: Wolves attacks at night.
- Scene 5: Hungry Dragon Family fancying a free meal jumps on ex-Slaves.
While technically well suited for exploration-type games for world-building DMs, I really don’t picture myself doing such an adventure often. I could be tempted to use this structure when I need to create a transition adventure between two larger plots.
(However, I would use this as a sub-part of an adventure…)
The key characteristic of such an adventure structure is that the party’s performance in a prior scene has no impact on later ones (except total party kill, unless players can create new PCs). Each scene is a self contained Roleplaying/Combat/Puzzle challenge.
I heart the Set-Piece!
The Set-Piece is based on a technique used (among other things) in movies/TV shows where the action revolves around a few successive scenes leading up to a big finale (the Set piece). All scenes are built around common areas and NPCs.
The first Matrix movie or some of the episodes of the 1st season of Heroes are great examples of the Set-Piece approach (The Save the Cheerleader or the season finale episode comes to mind).
In such adventures, you have a central plot idea and a set of characters and ‘props’ on which you build your scenes. Each scene thematically leads to the next one.
Contrary to the episodic structure, what characters achieve in one scene can help or hinder their progress in later scenes. So here’s an example, using the same 5 room dungeon/scene approach.
- Plot Hook: Rescue kidnapped children taken by a Chaos cult who consider monstrous mutations as signs of divinity (with thanks to Monte Cook’s Chaositech).
- Scene 1: Character witness and possibly interrupt a kidnapping attempt at an Orphenage
- Scene 2: Character Investigate clues to find out who cult is and where it operates
- Scene 3: Mutant monsters and cultist minions ambush nosey party
- Scene 4: Party finds HQ and Rumble against Mutant Mooks (or possibly sneak in without being noticed)
- Scene 5: Boss Fight against Ogre-Sized, Acid-breathing, Wall Climbing Boss (and assorted failed mutant turned into oozes) in a multi-storied underground aqueduct.
This is my natural adventure design philosophy. By combining this with the 5 room/scene approach, I can churn out an adventure in about 2 hours.
I even sometime nest an ‘unstructured’ 5-room dungeon in this (The Cultist’s HQ for example) to flesh out the adventure into a 2 sessions arc.
While players have choices that can affect the outcome of current or future scenes, the adventure itself remains pretty linear.
In fact, since the adventure is linear, Laws’ mentions that such adventures must not have choke points where a failed skill roll or missing piece of information prevents the adventure from moving forward.
A Branching structure is, according to Laws’ the hardest one to pull. It is the true, non-linear adventure.
The DM creates his plot hook and the initial scene and tries to work out in advance the most likely outcomes and plans possible (usually 2) scenes that can develop from there. Each scene can then lead to more, branching out the adventure in multiple directions.
As you can imagine, this can get out of hand pretty quick, even if 90% of the scenes are improvised by the GM.
That’s why the various published adventures who try to emulate a branching out structure will either be very light on details, leaving them up to the GMs, which often makes for frustrating reading (been there!) or actually have scenes branching out and then converging back to the ‘trunk’, creating an hybrid type of structure.
You may have guessed already that I think that hybrid = good in my (yet unwritten) book.
Puzzle-Piece adventures are a way of creating apparently non-linear adventures while limiting the ammount of work.
As the name entails, this is the structure for investigation-type adventures. The GM sets the plot hook, defines the adventure’s victory conditions and breaks up the required conditions to achieve victory in bits and pieces.
Such bits and pieces are then spread over various locales and NPCs that PCs have to investigate in order to solve the “puzzle”.
Dante of Stupid Ranger has already tackled this and I invite you to checj it out as I’m close to hitting the 2000 word mark!
Suffice it to say that investigation adventures can become some of the most unfun RPG sessions when they start running in circles or when Players start pixel bitching each and every scenes.
GMs using such an adventure structure are encouraged to keep a sharp eye on his player’s enjoyment level, pacing and should really hand out far more clues than what one usually expects to solve a puzzle.
In the end, whatever the structure you chose, Robin Laws hammers repeatedly that
Whatever the Structure you use, Tailor the adventure’s content to your player’s tastes.
Yeah, it’s like the take home message of the whole book.
This post has run long enough. I’ll post a follow up article soon that distills my ‘Adventure Prep’ series to extract my personal adventure designing philosophy as I tend to disagree with some of Robin’s approach to adventure design.
Bottom line is that you should pick and chose any structure, including combining them in the same adventures in order to be able to create the adventure that you feel like prepping and that your players will enjoy the most.
Any other adventure structures out there that have evolved since? Feel free to share!