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.


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


Victoria Rules
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.

Sounds like a party I ran with once which included a Cieran, a Khurin, and a Curunir (I was Khurin).

Commentator's nightmare, that was. :)

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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.
And practice saying those names aloud. If you can't say them, or say them the same way twice, how will anyone else. Also, helps for ending up with bad-sounding NPC names - like "crooked" Fallis.

Also, on the playtest front, some advise I got from the old TSR team - if you can, don't playtest it with you the author running the adventure yourself. You'll fill in things and do things someone else whose encountering it for the first time might not. Have someone else run it, take notes, but DON'T step in, correct the DM and whatnot. You'll then find the holes in your writing.

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