Adventure Writing Basics: Part 1

Writing an adventure is a good way to get into games writing. Most games companies are looking for more pre-written adventures as they are a good way to get people playing. While plenty of GMs write their own, many don’t have the time and given the choice between picking something off the shelf and writing their own, time may force the hand of the beleaguered GM. I thought I’d share a few hints and tips about common mistakes people sometimes make in adventures they might be submitting to a publisher.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Follow the Style Guide​

This may have been overstated but it never hurts to mention it again. You need not always get every capitalisation detail etc. correct (although it will make you stand out if you do). But you should follow the broad strokes at the very least. If they have a template, use it. Check if you are using English or American spelling, if they ask for a particular font or font size make sure you use it, and include any information or structure formatting they ask for. If you haven’t done everything you may still be ok, but if they open the document and it looks like you’ve at least read and paid some attention to the style guide they will begin reading with optimism rather than pessimism. Also, spell check, spell check, spell check…

Mix Your Capitals For Names​

This is a minor point but it is amazing how helpful it can be if you follow it. Basically, don’t use the same starting letter for any of your NPCs. For instance, Sarah and Simon might be quite different, but if they are Sarah and Kevin they are easier to differentiate. This is mainly as people often just remember the first letter of the names so they are really remembering them as S and K. If you have a lot of NPCs you might have to break this rule, but few adventures have more than 26 named NPCs. Having said that, you need not stretch to Xerxes if you are running out of letters. If things get tight keep the capital letters of names of characters in the same scene different at least, and even if you have to reuse the same letter somewhere, never reuse the same name.

Tell The GM What Is Going On​

You are writing an adventure, not a novel. The GM does not need to be surprised or excited, by each turn of the plot; in fact they need the opposite. They should have a broad idea of what is about to happen before it happens. If you introduce a character, don’t leave it until the last act to tell the GM they are actually a spy. If you introduce a character or an object, detail right there what their purpose in the adventure is, even if you just say ‘the key fits the door in area 67, see later’. When the GM has forgotten what any specific item or person is meant to do they should be able to find it quickly. Usually that means returning to the character stats or where they were introduced, rather than looking for the section their denouement occurs.

Ideally you should start the adventure with section explaining the broad strokes of the adventure as well. Then the GM can read each section knowing what is coming and seeing how it all fits together. Ideally they should be able to run the adventure as they read it, as some GMs may be doing just that.

Don’t Rewrite the Rules​

Whether you like the rules or not, your adventure must follow the published version, not your house rules, even if they are much better. The company will want the adventure to fit what they have already published. It is also possible that your ‘fix’ may prove you don’t actually understand how the rules work. They may already cater for what you have in mind, just be rather obscure about it. If the rules don’t cater for what you are trying to do in the adventure you may have to add some new system. Although even then try to simulate what you want to do with a few tests rather than a new rules system.

Conversely, if you can use and illustrate some of the lesser known rules of the game, you will really impress the company. If there is a social combat system that few people use, and you put such an encounter in your adventures the company will be more inclined to publish it. Quite often such rules get sidelined because people don’t quite get them, either from them being too complex or just badly explained in the rulebook. Sometimes you just need a really good example. So an adventure that illustrates that rule and offers an opportunity to explain how to use this lesser known part of the system is gold. Additionally, it will also be going to places most adventures don’t (or they would use this obscure rules system) so you are usually doing something different and interesting.

We’ll pick up with some additional tips in the second installment.
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Yora

Legend
I agree that Rule 1 is: "Just tell the GM what the adventure is about from the start."

Rule 2: "Adventures are about the PC, not about the PCs being observers of someone else's story."

Rule 3: "Let the players engage with the material how they want to, don't tell them what they have to do."

Rule 4: "Failure is always an option. That goes both for finding hidden things and for not winning the adventure."
 

aco175

Legend
I just started the Against the Giants series in the Yawning Portal book and it has no DM adventure summary to use. There is a hint of something behind giant attacks in the region. Maybe the 5e update thinks we remember 1e and the drow behind the whole thing, or they still think just killing monsters is a good enough plot hook. The whole lead-in to the next module is- you find a magical chain and you make a circle to step in. I wish the updates to make Yawning Portal had some thought put into them.
 


Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
I just recently wrote my first adventure for EN5ider, which was published a month or two ago. It's way more difficult to write than any of the other types of articles.

I managed to avoid all of the mistakes you mentioned in this post (which I did for a couple of them without making a conscious effort to do so).

Anyway, great article! I'm excited to see how I managed to do for the guidelines you recommend when Part 2 comes out!
 

Weird Dave

Adventurer
Publisher
Excellent advice! Also, as an adventure designer, absolutely understand the failure state. Anytime you call for a check in the adventure, you risk failure. If the adventure requires something to happen or be found, don't gatekeep it behind a check. Instead, consider changing the framing of the check/roll/mechanical game interaction - how long does it take to find the clue? What are the consequences of it taking too long?

One of the adventures I wrote, Jade Waters Job, features tracking some locathah smugglers in the icy layer of the City of Glass known as the Freezer. Getting lost around the Freezer wasn't fun, so the tracking checks determine how quickly the characters arrive - roll well, utilize resources, and/or interact with the scene to meaningfully affect the pace and you'll arrive faster, catching the locathah by surprise. Roll badly, take your time deliberately (the scene is meant to focus on the urgency!), or something along those lines and the locathah are better prepared for your arrival. The characters are going to find the locathah as they are engaging with the scene at this point and following the clues, but how they approach it and how quickly (with at least partial reliance on luck, which is the nature of D&D specifically and many RPGs in general) is the purview of the players.
 

Corone

Adventurer
Excellent advice! Also, as an adventure designer, absolutely understand the failure state. Anytime you call for a check in the adventure, you risk failure. If the adventure requires something to happen or be found, don't gatekeep it behind a check. Instead, consider changing the framing of the check/roll/mechanical game interaction - how long does it take to find the clue? What are the consequences of it taking too long?

One of the adventures I wrote, Jade Waters Job, features tracking some locathah smugglers in the icy layer of the City of Glass known as the Freezer. Getting lost around the Freezer wasn't fun, so the tracking checks determine how quickly the characters arrive - roll well, utilize resources, and/or interact with the scene to meaningfully affect the pace and you'll arrive faster, catching the locathah by surprise. Roll badly, take your time deliberately (the scene is meant to focus on the urgency!), or something along those lines and the locathah are better prepared for your arrival. The characters are going to find the locathah as they are engaging with the scene at this point and following the clues, but how they approach it and how quickly (with at least partial reliance on luck, which is the nature of D&D specifically and many RPGs in general) is the purview of the players.
Thankyou.
Ah yes, ‘empty rolls’ my favourite bugbear! Coming up in part 2 :)
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Please no 4 pages of backstory the players will never know.
While I really like knowing the details as a GM, this can certainly be overdone. Tons of space used up explaining why X monster is in Y location because of Z reason. I'm never sure exactly how to explain these convulsed situations to the players. I often end up rewriting it to be simpler or add in items that help the players understand easier and in a more logical way.
 


J.M

Explorer
Great topic. A couple of other suggestions:

1. Playtest your adventure.

2. Be really clear on whether you are writing the adventure to be read like a novel, or to be played. If it is to be played, then your priority is to give the GM enough information to run it (no more!), and to make it easy to reference and use at the table (good organization, succinct/efficient paragraphs, evocative words, bolding, bullets...). No "walls of text" unless it is background information that does not need to be referenced at the table. Note: Most adventures, including those published by the top companies, are terrible at this in my opinion. As a result, they demand more prep and are more difficult to use than they need to be.
 

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