Adventure Writing Basics: Part 2

We previously recommended some writing tips on adventures. Rather than talk about how to create a scenario or how to plot an adventure, I thought I’d focus on common pitfalls in the nuts and bolts of writing and presentation. You may find these useful for any adventure or community content project as much as anything offered to a publisher.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Break it into Scenes​

When writing an adventure, break each encounter or scene down with a title. It helps the GM keep their place and find individual encounters more easily. If your section ‘Into the Dark Forest’ has five encounters, make each encounter a new scene within that section.

As a side note, try to avoid ‘double headering’. This is when you have a section title immediately followed by a new heading. It can look a bit odd on the page and can sometimes make a mess of the layout. Usually if the scene is large enough a small intro will suffice.

So, instead of this:

Act II: Into the Dark Forest

Scene I: The Goblin Attack

As the player characters enter the forest they get close to the goblin encampment and may fall foul of one of their scout parties…

Do this:

Act II: Into the Dark Forest

The Dark Forest has a large goblin encampment, where the player characters will find the prince. As they adventure through this area they will potentially come across one or more goblin war parties or some of the enchanted plants in the area.

Scene I: The Goblin Attack

As the player characters enter the forest they get close to the goblin encampment and may fall foul of one of their scout parties…

As a side note, try not to give away spoilers in your headings, such as ‘Entering the Villain’s secret airship’ or ‘Chasing Bob the murdering butler’. While they shouldn’t, players can sometimes flick through adventures and will catch most headings. So don’t give too much away in them just in case.

The Player Characters Will…​

Never assume anything of a player character group. If you are using the words ‘the player characters will then…’ you may well find they won’t. You can say ‘if they locate the key the player characters will probably want to try it in the door’. Remind the GM of the reason the PCs have to go in any particular direction. This will help them figure out if they have given the right clues to lead them in the right direction. But if you assume there is only one path to the next scene and the players will automatically take it, you could be leaving the GM high and dry when they don’t.

Your adventure must be able to cope with the PCs going in a different direction rather than following the set path. Now, quite often, the set path is the only sensible way to go. But the best adventures predict some other possibilities and help the GM figure out how to bring the PCs back on track. This might be “they might decide the leaf design of the notebook is the real clue and set off to the forest. But after an hour of searching they will come across nothing but a few rabbits. Old Ned, who lives in the forest (see scene 2) might be able to help them by pointing out the clue they missed in the notebook.”

While there is no way you can accommodate every possible direction the PCs might try, you can cover some of the most obvious ones. Essentially, help the GM where you can in herding the player characters. Just offer a few options to help manage any journeys off the beaten path.

Empty rolls​

This is my personal bugbear and happens more often than you’d think. Make sure every roll is there for a reason and that a failure doesn’t bring the adventure to a halt. The way to avoid this is to make sure there is detail for what happens for both a pass and a fail at the roll. If there is only an option for what happens on a success, you may be looking at an empty roll.

Let’s say there is a secret door in the room. If it just has treasure behind it, or a short cut, you can just call for a perception test to see it. If the PCs pass the test, huzzah, they find treasure. But if they miss the roll they just have to go the long way around or don’t get rich. But if the secret door is the only way to the villain’s lair, failing the test brings the adventure to a stop. It leaves the GM fudging the test so they succeed, or offering the test again (in which case why make the test at all) or leaves the PCs standing around with nowhere to go. So, for every test, make sure you have details for the consequences of both success and failure.

So make sure you analyse which aspects of the test need to succeed for the adventure to continue, and if necessary, add other consequences for failure. So, if the PCs need to see the secret door to continue, make seeing the door itself a result on both the success and failure. But place an extra consequence for failure. So, on a pass they see the secret door, and also the trap on it. On a failure they see the secret door, but fail to see the trap and get hurt. You must make sure they can always move forward, but that doesn’t always mean without consequences. After all, the plan here is to make running the adventure easier for the GM, not a walk in the park for the players.
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

payn

Legend
Great posting. Under the "PCs will" section I often flip that around on the NPCs. When adventure writing I will say, "NPC plans to do X, but if they cannot, they will do Y instead." This sets up the goal of the NPC and allows room for them to react to the PCs, perhaps even become proactive in the future depending on how long the adventure is. In total agreement on empty rolls and adventure halting on failed checks.
 

GDGD

microscopic
While empty rolls are well-avoided, it's great to sprinkle other rolls, like skill and ability checks, liberally throughout. I find it's a great way to bring the adventure background, which often the PCs don't get to see much of, into the foreground. Give the druid a chance to notice something interesting about the flora, or the dwarf to see something odd in the architecture, or the wizard to learn something from translating a fragment of ancient writing. Gradually, these tidbits contribute to the players gaining insight into the back story. Not to mention that it gives PCs a chance to use those flavour- or utility-oriented skills and traits that many times get overshadowed by combat abilities.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules

The Player Characters Will…​

Never assume anything of a player character group. ...

While there is no way you can accommodate every possible direction the PCs might try, you can cover some of the most obvious ones. Essentially, help the GM where you can in herding the player characters. Just offer a few options to help manage any journeys off the beaten path.
This. Cover off some of the more obvious what-ifs.

Don't write room or encounter descriptions from a specific point of view, as who's to say the PCs won't arrive at that encounter from a different direction. Use neutral descriptors such as compass directions or references "in the center of the chamber" or "against the east wall" rather than subjective descriptions such as "in front of you", "to your left", etc. That way, the GM isn't left having to amend encounter narrations on the fly.

Also, account for likely PC abilities. For example, any D&D or D&D-adjacent module written for 5th+ level characters has to (but IME rarely if ever does!) account for the medium to high likelihood of at least some of the PCs being able to fly.

Empty rolls​

This is my personal bugbear and happens more often than you’d think. Make sure every roll is there for a reason and that a failure doesn’t bring the adventure to a halt. The way to avoid this is to make sure there is detail for what happens for both a pass and a fail at the roll. If there is only an option for what happens on a success, you may be looking at an empty roll.
Now on this I disagree.

There's nothing wrong with including intentional red herrings; nor - at least in my opinion - is there anything wrong with the PCs being able to outright fail the mission. If it's relevant, in-story it's easy enough to somehow later let them know they must have missed something vital:

"You get back to town after a successful journey and the Mayor is waiting impatiently. 'You told us you'd cleaned out that old castle,' he says angrily while pointing up the hill, 'but there's still strange noises up there at night, and the farmers' livestock is still being ravaged! We paid you to clear it up, so get back up there and do it right this time!'"

Behind the scenes: on their first trip, while the PCs did a fine job of clearing out the castle's obvious occupants they completely missed the Werewolf's secret hideaway.
But if the secret door is the only way to the villain’s lair, failing the test brings the adventure to a stop.
Fine. Let it stop. The villain wins this time.
It leaves the GM fudging the test so they succeed, or offering the test again (in which case why make the test at all) or leaves the PCs standing around with nowhere to go. So, for every test, make sure you have details for the consequences of both success and failure.
The failure consequence is easy: the PCs fail on the mission. Clearly note this in the write-up, sure; but instead of building in a fudge "They see the secret door anyway" or giving the GM ideas for workarounds so the PCs succeed, note what comes next if they fail e.g. what the villain's next moves are or how far/fast the curse spreads or whatever.

TL; DR assume the PCs are going to succeed but give them the opportunity to hard-fail, and advise the GM what happens if they do.
 

GDGD

microscopic
The failure consequence is easy: the PCs fail on the mission. Clearly note this in the write-up, sure; but instead of building in a fudge "They see the secret door anyway" or giving the GM ideas for workarounds so the PCs succeed, note what comes next if they fail e.g. what the villain's next moves are or how far/fast the curse spreads or whatever.

Great point. That falls into the "fail forward" design philosophy. You don't write an adventure where failure is impossible, rather you empower the DM to keep things rolling even when a failure occurs.
 

Augreth

Explorer
As a side note, try not to give away spoilers in your headings
As a GM I heartily disagree on this one :)

The reason is simple: when I just skim an adventure, I want to understand what’s happening as quick as possible, and that’d be just from the headings.

I think it’s not the designers job to help nosy players keep their nosiness in check. It’s their problem if they ruin their own experience. You anyway can’t keep them from reading adventures, so why not make it easier for GMs to get the main plot?
 

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