Chatty’s Adventure Scaffold #1 : Words with Fiends

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last few weeks working  preparing my latest batch of seminars and writing freelance assignments. Last March, I sent off  a 4e article for Kobold Quarterly (to be published in the Summer issue). I’ve since been working on two big projects for Margaret Weis Productions (publishers of the Leverage RPG among many other licensed RPGs).

One such project is the upcoming Dragon Brigade RPG, a Swashbuckling game  in a world of airships, dragons, intrigue, and magic .  The other project is a series of hacks destined to get people who already own the Leverage or Smallville RPG books, to play alternate themes or with new options.

Just like when Wil Wheaton works on a TV series and can’t talk about it, there’s a ton of things I’d like to share with you that I can’t right now (one of the infuriating aspects of freelance writing for a blogger).  My need to blog is driving me nuts and I feel the strongest urge to blog about what I’ve been doing lately… and I know that very few people want to read about my “Writing effective Standard Operating Procedures” seminar.

So here’s a little something something related to my working in the freelance cave this last month or so.

In one such project, I came up with a few tools to help me playtest the material I wrote. I can’t share the tools outright but I can surely discuss the new form  my prep session output has taken, which I dubbed “the adventure scaffold”.

What’s this you ask? Well have a look, it’s better than 500 words of explanation.

Words with Fiends

Quest Summary: One of the heroes’ older brother, a crippled ex-adventurer, obsessed with finding the one responsible for slaughtering his old adventuring party, comes up to the party with a solid lead to the killer who’s apparently working some sort of dark ritual hidden somewhere in a natural cave formation near a mining port city.

The crippled brother wants revenge and asks the party to exact it. However, the villain is not quite what the party expects. He’s a damned soul sent back from the infernal planes with an impossible diabolical mission. But the soul is quite the hustler and found a loophole to achieve its goals…

The Patron: Family/Ally

An older, handicapped brother comes to one of the heroes, convinced he’s finally tracked the man that killed most of his adventuring buddies 10 years ago. He implores his sibling’s help.

The Quest: Red Herring + Stop the Villain’s Plan

Exact vengeance on the villain. The Dark Lord is up to something involving dark elves and people from the city disappearing into the Mines. Find what he’s up to and stop it, making him aware who sent the heroes (a red herring, see The Dungeon’s Secret).

The Dungeon: A natural cave formation

The various mines surrounding the port city are  connected to natural sea caves that pepper the rising cliffs forming the city’s natural harbour. The caves go deep, reaching the Underworld, where a dark elven outpost lies, guarding the way to one of their undercities.

The Dungeon’s Secret: I am NOT your Father!

The Hell-bred Dark Lord’s body is that of the sibling’s party killer… but it’s just the shell of a low-grade villain who signed away his soul and lost it while his body was still useful. The Dark Lord, a damned soul, got a reprieve to return from Hell in this body in exchange for turning in souls at an impossible rate… which the Dark Lord has managed to deliver so far.

The Lord has NO idea who was the person whose body he now occupies.

The Main Villain: Dark Lord

A reincarnated damned soul, living in the body of the ex-villain who killed the brother’s adventuring party. A very powerful infernal being, with one wing, horns, claws, Hellfire and all.

Features:  Soulburning; Great sword; Soulforged armour; Hellfire blasts; “I’m smarter than everyone”; Greedy; Deadly afraid of getting caught

Agents: Devilish Thugs and Dark Elf Scoundrels (see below)

Minions: Imps and lot’s of them!

The Villain’s Plan: Harvest a Resource + Perform a Dark Ritual

The Dark Lord harvests souls from surrounding humanoids by having them mind-controlled and sign faustian deals with devils… a few hours before they die.


Faction #1: Goblin Warren, Outlook/Plan: Seeking

Goblins are among those being “stolen” by the Mind Parasites the Dark Lord uses (see below). Goblin elders are aware of the Dark Lord’s presence and suspect he’s behind the disappearances, but are afraid of confronting him.

Goblin Hunters: Spears and Shortbows

Goblin Witch Mother Crone: “I Curse You”

Faction #2: Infernal Lawyers, Outlook/Plan: Trading

A Group of devils are present in the dungeon, happily drafting and signing up very lucrative faustian pacts with appallingly short lived humanoids. They are unaware (and uncaring) of the loophole the Dark Lord is using.

Infernal Lawyers: “What we do is legal”; “Is the Paperwork in order?”

Infernal Assistants: “This Book of Law is Heavy!” “Right away boss”

Faction #3: Psychic Worms, Outlook/Plan: Trading + Allied With Main Villain

A race of physically weak sentient parasitic worm-like creatures (2” in length, mouth like Carrion Crawler, very slow) that feed on brains. They’ve entered a bargain with the Dark Lord. The Lord provides relative safe transport to defenseless “hosts”, the Worms burrow in the hosts’s spines, take control of the bodies and return to the Cave where they sign away their hosts’ souls shortly before consuming their brains.

Dark Lord: It’s the perfect symbiotic deal!

Psychic Worms: Hidden; Psychic Blast; Psychic Explosion (kills the worm); physically weak

Faction #4 : Dark Elves

Outlook/Plan: Seeking

Dark Elven Scoundrel are paid by the Dark Lord to seek out and deliver canisters of mind worms into the vicinity of likely targets. They use the gold and gem to finance a future excursion/invasion on the surface.

Dark Elf Scoundrel: Sneaky; Poisoned Weapons; Infravision; “We Hate elves”

Faction #5: Battered Infernal Auditor

Outlook/Plan: Hiding

An infernal auditor and his retinue of agents were on the trail of the Dark Lord’s scheme, trying to catch him red handed. However, the auditors were bushwhacked by the Hunter Construct (See Wandering Threat below) and barely survived. They are hiding from it, trying to find a way to achieve their objective.

The Auditor:  Red Pen of Doom; ” Just one more question”; Badly wounded

Repo Devils: Grabbing Claws; lack of imagination; Badly wounded

Wandering Threat:Crafty Beast

The Discordian Hunter Construct

Sensing a significant infernal disturbance affecting the multiverse’s balance, the Discordian Council has sent a Hunter Construct to seek and destroy it. So far the construct hit the auditors but has managed to miss of the faustian lawyers who are protected by the Dark Lord’s forces.

The Discordian Hunter Construct: relentless; Crushing claws; Single Minded; Inflexible programming

How to play this Adventure

As you can see, the “Scaffold” makes no mention of maps, scenes, encounters, treasures or anything. Yet, I find it  easily  adapted to any fantasy RPG.  By adding stats for the Villain,  its Agents and Minions; factions and the “Wandering Threat”, an enterprising GM could improvise scenes solely based on setting an initial scene and then running with it based on player choices. More classical GMs could draw (or borrow) a dungeon map and create areas with the various factions, traps and treasures in the purest Gygaxian form.

However, where the model really shines for me is that they are totally compatible with “Mouseburning” game play. Players miss a skill check?  Something goes wrong?  Your game of choice wants you to implement a complication? Just look at the Scaffold and pick what could happen… maybe the Hunter Construct shows up?  Maybe PCs get caught in a Goblin Trap?  The Auditor may send his Repo Devils to try to enlist the PCs…

The possibilities are there, ready to be exploited!

Chatty’s Playtest

For instance here’s how my game went:

Scene 1: Players inquired in town about the mine. They were told that mining stopped in the northern shaft because it was run over by goblins.  They were also told that people rose up at night and could not be prevented from walking into the mines short of killing them, they never came back.

Scene 2: Heroes laid watch at the nearest exit of the mine and caught a pair of Dark Elves carrying 4 ivory tubes each. After overpowering them, they found the tubes to contain disgusting, hostile worms with psychic powers, which they dispatched.  Nobody came form the city that night…

Scene 3: Using a map found on the dark elves, the heroes navigated the mines, caves and upper underworld to find the dark elf outpost.  They ambushed and kidnapped a sentry and learned about the deal with the Dark Lord, the worms nursery and the gold and gems mined by the enslaved goblins.

Scene 4: Heroes found cave where Dark Lord was hidden, discovered he wasn’t who they thought he was, fought him until he surrendered, begging for mercy. Heroes exposed his soul-stealing con and refused to let it pass so they dispatched him.


Many elements of the Scaffold never came into play, but that’s all right, they could fuel a further quest…. or not. We had fun for a few hours and that’s what counts.

Do you find an adventure “crib sheet’ written in this format helpful? Would you want me to share another one soon?

Let me know!

Soon, I’ll reveal how I got that adventure plan made.


  1. You lost me at “Dark Lord.” Sorry! 😉

    In all seriousness, I’ve found that prep like this involves creating plots filled with villains with hidden machinations and red herrings that usually lead to adventurers only ever learning a fraction of what’s going on. Too much behind-the-scenes stuff and you have to railroad the party toward the events that reveal all the intricate plot revelations that you planned ahead of time.

    How exactly do the players learn that the worms are sentient or that the villain’s body is inhabited by someone other than the original villain? Will the players ever learn about these demonic lawyers and all this pact-signing? Don’t they attack demons on sight?

    Is this information meant to be relayed to the PCs by hostages? Do your players always take hostages? Do they execute them afterward? Just curious.

    If the main quest is to exact revenge on the brother’s party-killing villain, shouldn’t the Dark Lord have some idea of where that soul has gone? Seems anti-climactic to end that mission with “He’s already gone, too bad. Dead end here.”

    Who is the Dark Lord harvesting these souls for? What is the ritual leading toward? If the players fail to stop him and go off on other adventures, what are the ramifications?

    I’ve found that with my games, the most effective prep comes from creating a very barebones outline of a handful of possible encounters that I’d like to run during a given session, with a few clues and leads at each so that they’re interconnected. Creating the connections is more important than setting up hidden motivations or other such details. I’ve seen a similar method on The Alexandrian. Clues that lead to these connective branches provide the illusion of choice, so the players never feel like they’re on a railroad.

    Choice quotes or “read aloud text” come in handy for scenes that I absolutely want to nail, but I try to avoid overly complex plots, because the players only ever get to enjoy things on a surface level.

    Anyways, interesting read. Thanks!

  2. All valid points.

    Much of your questions about connections are answered by “I make it up on the spot according to what seems most likely”.

    My players got the whole thing by piecing together info I gave them whenever they performed an action that brought them forward in the story (i.e. success).

    The towns people knew a little, the Dark Elves delivering the tubes had a good idea of what they were doing… etc.

    Were I to replay it, it could turn out entirely differently…each time.

    Now, I get that you’re probably not comfortable with that level of uncertainty in this “plan”. 2 years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of playing such a game. But I’ve sublimed a lot of my desire to see where an adventure needs to go before I run it. What I liked about it is precisely that I had no real idea where it would go…

    …and even so, my players never noticed that I had a 2 page adventure in my hands instead of my usual 10 pager.

    But yeah, maybe not for everyone 🙂

    Thanks for the honest feedback.

  3. Two pages of prep would be great! DMing seems like a part-time job for me sometimes. I usually end up with about six pages (landscape, not including printed stat blocks) that cover what I’d like to run in any given game session. Mind you, my game sessions are all-day-and-night 10+ hour affairs that start Sunday morning and end in the evening, so it doesn’t seem too excessive.

    The biggest time-wasters at the table that I’ve learned are important to prep in advance (this is for 4E):

    Encounter setup. Stat blocks, strategies, locations, unique environment notes. I generally try to plan out four or five encounters for any given session and end up using three. Even better if I can pre-draw the maps on my chessex battlemats and have them ready to unfurl right before combat.

    The aforementioned connections to other key sites/locations of interest are key. It’s important to include ways to funnel the players from one encounter to the next.

    Notes for major NPCs, including read-aloud text. I try and have one “read-aloud” section for each new locale, and a couple pre-planned quotes for each major character, or at least an interesting piece of information I want to relay.

    Skill challenges. I try to include one in each game, or at least present the opportunity for a few. The idea is to sketch out what I’d like them to be like, rewards, consequences for failure, etc.

    XP and treasure rewards that I want to give out. Customized for the player group, somewhat randomized as we’re using inherent bonuses, so I don’t use wishlists. Rolling up and determining treasure on the spot can be a serious time-waster.

    If I can get all that ready ahead of time, I’m ready for a fun game with minimal stalling necessary.

  4. This is very interesting – I love your wry, bare-bones characterizations of the NPC factions. I’d love to see them so self-identifying in a roleplay encounter.

    I think I’ll give this a try for my game tomorrow. I generally outline, but the interesting thing about your scaffold is that it packs a load of set-up into such little space. It’s just brimming with potential, and like a good elevator pitch it allows the audience freedom to imagine a thousand possibilities of what could happen without specifically mentioning any of them. Thanks for sharing!

  5. This kind of a template fits perfectly to FATE games as well (I assume it’s made for Cortex+), stolen immediately for my renaissance Venice Dresden Files! I have already used two-page adventure outlines there, but this seems to give a better structure. It does not make much sense in tring to second guess what are the exact scenes or encounters th eplayers end up having, so listing the factions and their motivations give the GM the needed outline within which to improvise the rest. I even once used oracles stolen from In A Wicked Age ( to create the outline with zero prep. It worked surprisingly well.

  6. Matt Goodwin says:

    This is my favorite Chatty DM article ever. Can’t wait for part 2!

  7. This is just exceptional. Combined with AngryDM’s Slaughterhouse sandbox rules, I think it’s going to do great things for my campaign.

  8. @Gerald: Your D&D 4e prep mirrors my own when I used to play it on a bi-weekly basis. I put a lot of effort in those too. That’s one of the reasons why I focus on low prep games now.

    @DarkPlane: Putting quotes on NPCs has worked well for me in the past. It’s a very evocative way of saying so much in so little. Thanks for the Kudos!

    @MAK: I can’t deny or confirm your assumption but the model does work VERY well as-is for less structured games. FATE and Cortex are really good for that… so’s Burning Wheel (with extra work for stats) and the Old School retroclones.

    @Math and Seth: Thanks guys!

  9. anarkeith says:


    Your scaffold example, and your statement that, “I make it up on the spot according to what seems most likely” are things I understand having read your columns before, and having a general sense how you plot and run your games. I found your example to be pretty complex, and it was hard to judge how some of the factions might interact and/or their motivations. (Maybe that’s just me.)

    Looking at your example I can see the underlying structure: Summary; Trigger/Contact; GM-proposed path; Location; Secret; Factions/Motivations. I’ve been shorthanding my notes this way recently myself, as a way to encourage my players to explore and roleplay, rather than just engage in a series of three combats and call it good. It’s surprising how often players will choose to engage NPCs in conversation and/or explore locations/plot details when you DON’T assume that it’s going to end up as a combat encounter. Equally surprising is how much they say they enjoyed the session afterwards!

    Thanks for posting about the scaffold! Looking forward to hearing more from behind the scenes about how you use this.

  10. Nice framework, it has been accumulating in your last few posts and I can certainly see the Apocalypse World influences: playing with genuine curiosity to find out what will happen and creating “fronts” with their own agendas. I liked the catchphrases – they convey surprisingly much about the person they describe. Your certainly do not “railroad” them, there are many ways for them to be successful. You could probably play a detective mystery in this way. One way of using more of your material would be to have it “kick the door in”: the auditors have called in a heavy and are going to turn the place upside down to find evidence, or expunge it etc.

  11. Agree with Matt!

    This is the type of content I fish for and rarely find. Not having a great amount of time to pontificate on world reaching plot arcs this one example has all kinds of great ideas brewing for short and long term campaigns. Evil worms … I can think of someone who might put those to use, and might also be lurking around your mines.

    Chatty – I’m hooked. Looking forward to more scaffolds!

  12. @Anarkeith: The complexity of all these factions is a by product of what I used to generate the adventure. I had to deal with a villain and 5 factions which is a lot of potential plots and agendas to mix and match. I perceive that as you were writing your comment, you started “seeing the Matrix” for what it can do and the scaffold is a bit like your own shorthand notes.

    My next scaffold I’ll post will be a bit simpler.

    @Tim: Yeah, the influence is totally there for sure. I wanted to the aim for the whole “dynamic dungeon” approach and I think I nailed it with that. I look forward to playing it again to see how different it plays out.

    Cappen: My work is done here! Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

  13. I’ve always used that 😀 The thing is that I don’t write anything. I have the factions and possible scenes in my mind, and I go where my players take me. The thing is I’m a D&D DM since OD&D. This method is the best.

  14. Finally came back to the blog and boy, am I so ever amazed at what’s been going on! I absolutely love this scaffold idea, and think I am going to run with it and see where it takes my new group (they don’t even know they’re my ‘group’ yet, heh heh).

    Thanks for keeping up with such quality posts. Off to read the archives and play catch up…

  15. @Balard: My friend Yan would say the exact same thing. I jested that I re-created, in template format, his thought process behind the way he preps for games. 🙂

    @Tenach: I’m genuinely happy to see you back. Thanks for the kind words on the scaffold. You’ll notice I’ve been writing a lot less intensely, but I hope you’ll appreciate the higher quality of posts.

  16. Looks like I’m going to be running a game sometime soon and I’ve been hitting a brick wall on preparation. I’m still not all that comfortable with my outlook on preparation yet, but this article has definitely cleared up some of my approach. In my thought processes, I’m trying to blend together the scaffold/factions concept with the 5×5 approach. So, what I’m steering myself towards is a set of five different factions with five tiers (if possible) of challenges to it. But this is just for my own story goals. I’ve figured that the 5×5 is just not enough and that my players will create their own goals (maybe unknowingly to them, from their background writeups) that I will add into the mix. I’m not sure yet on how many players, but I think I’m looking at something more like a 10×5 approach: 5 general story arcs, 5 personalized story arcs (1 each for 5 players), each having up to 5 tiers. At least now it seems that my general story arcs are starting to fall into place.

  17. @ChattyDM: I think that the new format of posting is working swimmingly, it’s easier to keep up-to-date on your posts, and they’re quite satisfying to read.

  18. Prep time is always a valuable asset, especially if you have a full-time job, a wife and two kids…
    I now try to use the “one page of notes per adventure” rule, to avoid writing 14 pages full of text that never come into play.

    This “scaffold” you presented is interesting, but it requires the DM to be able to improvise a lot, and I believe that if you’ll look at that scaffold two month from now you might say “Features: Soulburning?, what did I mean by THAT?”

    Being a software engineer, I tend to believe that writing good “adventure scaffolds” is like writing good code – you need a good structure, self-explenatory parts (your “Goblin Witch Mother Crone: I Curse You” is a good example) and loosly-coupled scenes that can be arranged in different ways according to the players actions. Your scaffold is probably one of the best ways to do it, but I miss the structure visualization.

    I find it hard to have more than one A4 worth of text infront of my eyes when running an adventure, so I usually use flow-charts to present the structure. But by doing that, I lose the fine letters, and have to rely on memory to fill in the gaps.

    Any chance you have a way to combine both methods? A visualized scaffold..?

  19. I’ve been implementing a version of scaffolding and now I’ve run into another block: how the heck does one keep good notes for post-game evaluation? This one has been relatively story heavy (character driven) and with a large group, it is hard to keep notes. Should I ask others to? A few of them have been keeping notes from their character’s perspective, which are a blast to read as DM.

  20. @Tenach: As you suggest, the trick is to ask the players to write/relate one highlight they remember about their PC and one about another. That usually jump starts your brain to remember enough to build a passable post-game eval. I’d even consider rewarding the party with XP/plot points (or the equivalent) whenever someone does it and entertains the group with the yarn.


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