Game Design 117: Adventures

What role do adventures have when designing a game?

Upon creating a good game design, it’s only natural that you’ll want to follow it up with something. I’ve always thought it was a good idea to include all the essential rules in the opening books so that people don’t have to arbitrarily buy extra books just so they can play with the full rules. That said, I certainly don’t mind optional additions, supplements, campaign settings, and—most importantly—adventures.

I think adventures are one of the best additions to a line of game-books. This is because adventures are almost universal in their usefulness. Nobody can have too many good adventures, even if they use them only for ideas. Not only that, but good adventures are like good stories. They’re fun to read, fun to play, and they add depth to your whole game setting. Good adventures can also be adapted to other systems. While your game system might be the best thing ever, chances are that the readers will already have a preferred system they like to play. If your adventures are easily adaptable to their own favorite system, they might take a second look at your game system when they’ve enjoyed a few of the adventures you’ve designed.

Another great thing about designing adventures for your game system is that no matter how many books of adventures you add to the line of books, you can’t really trash your game system with new rules. When you add in new elements to the core of the game you always run the risk of making something too powerful or creating a combination you never intended. It also becomes more of a pain on the GM to remember all the crazy rules you’ve added in. With adventures, about the worst damage you could do is to give away too much treasure in a particular adventure which is easily modified by the GM.

A more obscure virtue of adventure design is the double benefit of seeing how your game operates in action. While it might make perfect sense to you, and the adventures you design might work fine, that’s not always the case when people pick up your game and try to play it their way. The whole process of writing out your adventures in minute detail gives you a whole new perspective on how your game will be played. It might turn out that your adventure design style is completely at odds with the way you tried to design your game. You might notice glaring omissions in the rules or lack of rules you normally take for granted. Just like playtesting your game thoroughly, carefully designing and writing out adventures for your game system can give you some really valuable insights into its inner workings and how other people might interpret the rules.

When I was writing some adventures for one of my game systems I quickly noticed a couple of things. One was that I wrote adventures much as I always had with other systems before my own. The disparity between the emphasis of the adventure and the emphasis of the system was interesting. I also noticed right away that my experience point values were way off the wall and that eventually led to some changes in the rules. I noticed that the stat blocks for enemies were incredibly small, but that was actually kind of fun to play with. Another thing I noticed was that I was using all kinds of vehicle chases and combats, but I’d never included vehicle rules in the game because I’d always thought of them as kind of useless. Adding them into the core rules later on was very satisfying and made the game feel more complete and polished. If I’d never designed these adventures for the game system chances are I’d never have seen these small details in the game. I’d run quite a number of playtests before this, but I’d always managed to GM my way through any little hiccups in the rules. The act of writing everything down exposed the weak areas much more clearly because you can’t fudge your way through something written down on paper.

Whenever anyone finds anything confusing in my game systems, I always get the urge to just grab the rulebook away and take over the job of GMing. “Hey, you’re not doing it right. ‘This’ is how you do it.” However, that’s not really the best way to improve the game. I try to always resist this urge and try to figure out how to make the rules more clear afterwards. Some of the best ways to find problem areas involve watching other people struggle to make heads or tails out of things you just assumed everyone was going to ‘get’ about your game.

Something else I haven’t mentioned yet is that adventures are purely fun to create. It could be said that all game systems are merely the framework upon which we build our great stories and epic game sessions. Nobody really reads a core rulebook and then sighs happily, and says, “What a great story.” At best, you’ll merely be excited about the cool potential stories you could create with the rules. The real fun is when you actually put your own pen to paper and decide to create something extraordinary with the rules you’ve been given. It’s the same thing with character creation. All the rules are merely tools to help you create something great you’ve just imagined.

Good adventures are like good stories. They have strong opening hooks, mysteries, challenges of extraordinary proportions, great villains, strong supporting characters, and plot twists. More than that, they are open-ended. The story can change purely based on what the characters want to do with it. Because it’s a game, the motivation of the characters will also be of pivotal importance to the story. Fabulous treasures, epic deeds, and intriguing magic will all help to get the players interested in the story you’ve created. Good stories are primarily built upon outrageous opposition and harsh conflict. This is fine, but you must keep in mind that the players want to basically win and be awesome rather than get beat up. Creating a blend of opportunities for them to be awesome and also for them to get pummeled may be the order of the day. If you merely offer them the chance to get tromped on in epic fashion, they may just turn around and walk in the other direction. A mix of epic victory and incredible opposition tends to create a good game. Players like tough challenges just like anyone else, but they also like reaping the rewards of their hard work. It’s fine to have them battling for their life for 5 hours on end, but afterwards it’s a good idea to reward them with a nice magic item, some hero worship, or something else equally as coveted.

A little mystery in an adventure is a great thing. Whenever the players are guessing, they’re ‘into’ the game. When they don’t know what’s coming next, they’ll be working their hardest to figure out what will happen. When you can get your players to engage with the game at their highest level, awesome things will happen. The story will evolve unexpectedly. The players will add countless dimensions of depth to the game. Hilarious moments will spontaneously occur and be recorded forever in the minds of the players. The only thing you must watch out for is making things a little too hard and mysterious. If the players start to groan and give up altogether trying to figure out your crazy plots, you’ve lost all of your momentum completely. The challenge must be great, but they must almost always have a way to figure it out. Figuring things out is a reward. If the players learn that extreme effort yields fantastic results, they’ll employ it. If they learn that extreme effort fails, they’re liable not to bother trying. This isn’t to say you should hand them victory whenever they try hard, but rewarding hard work is certainly not against the rules.

GM Fiat #3: Marching Order

Do you remember marching order? Did anyone actually ever figure out what that was for anyway? For those of us who don’t recall, marching order was the determination of who was in the front, who in the middle, and who was in the back. This would allow the GM to figure out who was getting ambushed from behind, who was falling in the pit traps, and who would yell loudly if they were ever targeted by an attack seeing as they were hiding in the middle.

I’m not a terribly big fan of marching order, but it definitely has its uses. Mainly, whenever you ask for it, it scares the bejeebers out of the players. It’s kind of like asking them to start mapping, and then they figure there’s a maze or a secret door somewhere.

One thing you can do is to keep track of who continuously ends up in the front and who keeps hiding in the back. Who yells the loudest that they weren’t anywhere near the monsters or traps the party has just encountered. Then, when the party sees a valuable doodad, you can make the call that the people in front actually have an edge in getting it. The things found can be: maps, treasures, and helpful NPC companions. The things avoided could be: traps, monsters, and nasty spells.

Or…you could just have everyone roll initiative and let the rogue keep taking all the treasures.


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First Post
While I love to crunch, writing adventures is probably my favorite. I'm mainly into mysterious and scary adventures, murder solving and adventures that are resolved by learning the truth of things. I spice this with a strong villain, new location and a personal background. It all adds up to a fun night. I noticed that my players love "hand outs" (or however they are called). Sometimes it's a new map, a letter that hides a secret, bunch of glyphs and runes and how to translate them, piece of paper that hides the lemon writing and so on. They are amazed that I went an extra mile to create it and also about a new challenge that is tangible. While we play it I write down how hard were the challenges and the battles so I can correct that while creating stat blocks and puzzles for the final version. I sometimes game in more groups so they get the "tested" version of the adventure.

My failure as a DM when it comes to adventures can be seen in combat. I admit it's often bland and that's something I've been lately working on the most. I try to spice it up with another simultaneous action like a carriage chance scene while fighting, or in a dangerous environment with pit falls, or with a sense of urgency that time is running short and something bad can happen and so on.

Adventures are the most important part of any rpg. Rules are merely the procedural technobabble that handles operations. The adventure is all about what the PCs actually do during the course of the game. From a design standpoint I prefer beginning with simple scenarios that offer players the opportunity to interact with them. This usually involves a basic rundown of the four W's- who,what,where, and when.

Who: I usually begin a scenario with who is primarily responsible for whatever is happening. An evil priest, a band of smugglers, a tribe of orcs, etc. These npcs will be the primary focus of the scenario. They will usually have particular motivations, resources, and plans that they wish to carry out.

What: This is the primary reason for the scenario. It can be an object, a murder plot, a hidden conspiracy to replace all villagers with giant chickens, or whatever. It will often be a fixation or goal of the who, in the scenario (not Roger Daltrey or Pete Townsend).

Where: The area where the scenario is taking place. It can be an entire barony or the old dungeon beneath the ruined castle depending on how site focused the scenario is. There could be multiple important sites in play at any given time.

When: Campaign time continues to flow so its important to know when certain events in the scenario will take place. I usually sketch out a rough timeline of what generally will take place assuming the scenario plays out like its principals intend it to. If the players decide not to get involved with a particular scenario there is an established timeline of what will happen when. It is also useful to know exactly where things are currently sitting, situation-wise, if the PCs decide to get involved at a date later than the initial hook is presented. This presents the world in motion and demonstrates to the players that adventures are opportunities and can slip away if the moment is allowed to pass.

As players explore new areas there will be several of these scenarios available for involvement. Some of them may be interconnected and draw the PCs into much more than they originall bargained for. Then again, that is the nature of adventure.

Argyle King

I think that a good intro adventure helps to learn the rules by including situations in which the different parts of the rules get used. A good intro adventure should also have plot hooks which can be used to build later adventures onto.

Challenger RPG

First Post
@Fetfreak : The idea about handouts is awesome! I've loved using them in a few adventures, and the players think they're absolutely great, too. Writing down which parts of the adventure were too hard and too easy would be a great learning tool. Thanks so much for mentioning it!

I've had a few adventures with bland combat as well. I usually just try to think out the monster's mentality a little farther and it opens up all kinds of interesting situations.

@ExploderWizard : Excellent points. I especially like your idea about the timeline in an adventure. It really does help a lot and I think that's one of the things missing in quite a few otherwise great adventures.

@Johnny3D3D : Well said, I totally agree. Plot hooks for later adventures are one of my favorite things to include, too. I really like good cliffhangers at the end of adventures as well.

@alms66 : I agree that they're tricky to find. There are one or two out there with some really neat stuff. I tend to just 'steal' things rather than use them outright most of the time.

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