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


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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Rule 5: Stay flexible. This is a shared story that you are writing with your friends, not a novel that you are writing alone. Let the story evolve, let the heroes and villains grow/change/die, and let the actions of the players shape the world around them.
That's great advice for playing the adventure, but it's not yet a shared story when you're writing it.

As for the other rules in the OP, some of them seem to assume - not always correctly - that one is writing for a specific publisher and-or using a specific system, rather than writing a more agnostic adventure with the intent of it being easy to convert to any number of systems (many OSR adventures are like this, for example).

Good idea about the naming convention, though! (in my setting's calendar I very intentionally made sure no two months started with the same letter, for similar reasons)

And while I somewhat agree with @Morrus about too much backstory, too little backstory can also be a problem in some types of adventures, particularly investigative ones. The solutions to the mysteries almost always IME grow out of the backstory and are connected with it, which means it kinda has to be there. :)

For a simple site-based dungeon crawl, though, next to no backstory is required.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Please no 4 pages of backstory the players will never know.
A perennially contentious issue. I've bought a lot of Frog God Games material and they are notorious for bloating their books with large amounts of world building fluff. It can make it difficult to prep and very hard to just sit down and play hoping you can just read ahead enough to keep ahead of the players. I understand why a lot of DMs hate these books. But they also have a hard core fan base. I like them because of the mix of lonely fun with the at-table gaming. I like reading through all the back ground content, time lines, etc. The players may never learn or engage with a lot of the content, but I still enjoyed my time reading it. Also, while I'm not going to remember every detail, it helps me get into and flavor the world.

But I do wish the organization was better. Perhaps divide the core adventure content in one section, written and designed with a minimalist, easy to run at the table approach. Put the fluff in another section for those who enjoy it with liberal cross references between the two sections.

I realize I'm in the minority here. My favorite books for 5e have been Volo's and Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. But these are now "legacy content" and we have a Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse. An arguably more easy to use, but also much more boring collection of stat blocks.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Good idea about the naming convention, though! (in my setting's calendar I very intentionally made sure no two months started with the same letter, for similar reasons)
I don't know, I don't think that folks have much issue confusing March with May. As for NPC names, I worry it would start feeling less organic. It is not always bad for players and their PCs to be confused with names. We confuse names in real life, often to interesting ends.

"Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother, Darryl, and this is my other brother, Darryl."
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't know, I don't think that folks have much issue confusing March with May.
If one wants to abbreviate them you can't just use M. And for June-July you can't even just use Ju. (and people and institutions who use numbers for the months should be thrown out of the airlock)

But in my game I can write down A 8 1087 and know I mean Auril, as that's the only month in the calendar that starts with A.
As for NPC names, I worry it would start feeling less organic. It is not always bad for players and their PCs to be confused with names. We confuse names in real life, often to interesting ends.

"Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother, Darryl, and this is my other brother, Darryl."
PCs are confusing enough with their names IME, they don't need any help from the NPCs. A party I played in recently had three (or four?) characters in it whose names all started with "Ar...". A party I'm in now has 5 characters out of 9 whose names start with B - hence our calling ourselves the B-Team - which is hell for the DM who I know likes using 1-letter abbreviations when he can.

More to the original point: giving the NPCs distinctly different names helps keep them sorted during the actual writing process. I'm finding this now with a module I've just got done writing* for my own game: there's a significant NPC named Marc Villanova (a.k.a. Don Marco Villeva) and the boss dragon's name is Villaroto. In play it's no big deal as they come up at different times in the adventures, but in the writing process it was a headache sometimes.

* - one of the few I've actually done out in full printable form, I suppose I should throw it up on Dragonsfoot and see if anyone's keen...
 

talien

Community Supporter
More to the original point: giving the NPCs distinctly different names helps keep them sorted during the actual writing process. I'm finding this now with a module I've just got done writing* for my own game: there's a significant NPC named Marc Villanova (a.k.a. Don Marco Villeva) and the boss dragon's name is Villaroto. In play it's no big deal as they come up at different times in the adventures, but in the writing process it was a headache sometimes.

* - one of the few I've actually done out in full printable form, I suppose I should throw it up on Dragonsfoot and see if anyone's keen...
So much this. Players often forget who is who from session to session, and a unique name can make a tremendous difference in remembering who they are.

Also, there's just a lot of mental load on the game master, not to mention anyone who has cognitive issues, or even is low-sighted where certain names look alike on paper.

Fully-fledged interesting characters hopefully have names to reflect them. It gets harder the more NPCs there are, but unique names are one shortcut that goes a long way to making the GM's job easier!
 

practicalm

Explorer
One thing that I find missing from most of the recent published adventures is the true goal of most of the foes or NPCs the players encounter. It helps to know what levers the players could try to use to peacefully resolve the encounter. But too often there isn't anything the GM can use to negotiate towards peaceful resolution.

I mean how many minions really want to fight to the death.
 

Richards

Legend
Sometimes starting your characters with different letters of the alphabet isn't enough, either. My current campaign has two PCs named Xandro and Zander. I've gotten confused enough by them I'm now calling them by their last names, Silverstrings and Quilson.

Johnathan
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Sometimes starting your characters with different letters of the alphabet isn't enough, either. My current campaign has two PCs named Xandro and Zander. I've gotten confused enough by them I'm now calling them by their last names, Silverstrings and Quilson.

Johnathan
Yeah, that's a good point. At least for some readers, the sound of the names can be important for reading aloud and for those who "aloud" in our heads, even when we're not literally reading aloud. That's a reason that, personally, I dislike names that are complex and unpronounceable, especially ones with unexplained diactrical marks. Giving a "nickname" to such a character of course, is a great tried-and-true method to bypass this.

Alien or unusual names are awesome, but I do think they appeal to the broadest audience when kept relatively short and made for human mouths.
 

mysticflame

Villager
One thing that I find missing from most of the recent published adventures is the true goal of most of the foes or NPCs the players encounter. It helps to know what levers the players could try to use to peacefully resolve the encounter. But too often there isn't anything the GM can use to negotiate towards peaceful resolution.

I mean how many minions really want to fight to the death.
agreed! Ive seen a few campaigns get this right, but so many treat monsters as simple stat blocks. I worked really hard to make sure all of the major players in the last campaign I published had distinct motivations and needs that the DM could manipulate at will
 

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