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Worlds of Design: The Core of the Adventure

I was editing an old (1984) adventure I’d written, in order to include it in reprints of my articles from back then, when it occurred to me that adventures often have particular cores, a particular “something” that makes them go. The idea is to build the adventure around the core. It’s “the star of the show” in other words.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R Tolkien

I like to categorize to help me understand things, so here goes:
  • A story
  • A monster/species
  • A situation (mission?)
  • A puzzle
  • A location (perhaps only a map)
  • NPC(s)
  • A new character class (rare)
[h=3]Story[/h] Nowadays, the core is often a stand-alone story, or occasionally a story that fits into a much larger story for the campaign. I’d guess this is the most common core nowadays, but was not 35 years ago.
[h=3]New Monster/Species[/h] An adventure built around a new monster has the virtue of any new monster: surprise. Much of what a game designer does is attempt to surprise the players, often with some new rule, sometimes with a story, with a new combination of things, with misdirection, and so forth.
[h=3]Situations[/h] “Situations” are pretty obvious. For example, situation: someone robbed/sacked the monastery, characters need to recover the goods and punish the wrongdoers. Or situation: the princess/heroine has been kidnapped, we have to get her back (always good for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories). Or situation: we need to scout out the approaching enemy army. I suppose these could be called “mission adventures,” but that would apply to lots of others as well.
[h=3]A Puzzle[/h] I don’t like puzzles, but lots of players do. Lots of adventures amount to giant puzzles with some active obstacles (monsters, some kinds of traps) as well as passive ones.
[h=3]A Location[/h] Long ago I searched for diagrams of a cathedral (much harder to find in pre-Web days than now) and populated it with religiously-oriented badguys. Cathedrals are relentlessly 3-dimensional, and you can find pictures to show to players who haven’t had the opportunity to be inside one. They’re organized differently from other kinds of buildings, too. This resulted in fascinating adventures (I GMed it several times for different parties). A fortress is another common kind of location that can be unique. A treasure map can easily lead to this kind of adventure. The map itself can be “the location”.
[h=3]NPCs[/h] An adventure might revolve around NPCs that players need to get to know, or that have a great deal of influence over the player party. The NPC might give players a quest leading to further adventures. In video games, there’s a strong tendency for games to provide players with several quests, and most of the play is following/completing those quests. Sometimes meeting the quest-giver is an adventure in itself, sometimes they seem to just about “come out of the walls.”
[h=3]A New Character Class/Skills/Spells?[/h] This may be a form of monster, where the “monster” is an NPC with an unfamiliar character class or related powers such as skills or spells, not available to players. Or it might be a way to introduce a new class/skill/spell a player can adopt.

A likely difference between my 35 year old adventure, and ones written today, is that I’d played it with three different groups. I suspect most published adventures, and especially other kinds of supplements, aren’t tested as much these days. But if you’re more or less writing a story, “testing” feels less necessary.

What other adventure cores can you think of? And what kind do you favor?

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
Lewis Pulsipher



I think you have pretty well broken down the possible hooks or plot points/devices that provide the impetus for creating an adventure. I have used 1 or more of most of these ideas in the adventures that I have run or created for my players. Sometimes combining these elements makes for a good story - a new artifact or spell involving an NPC in a location as yet unknown to the players (ala, Raiders of the Lost Arc type of story). I tend to agree that play-testing "seems" to be less these days rather than more, but I think that is driven by the nature of the business.

I think another way to put it is you could start with 1 of the 7 basic story plots and go from there in a fantasy (or other) setting:
1. The Quest
2. Overcoming a monster/foe/rival
3. There and back again (voyage and return)
4. The Tragedy
5. The Comedy (always nice to have some elements even in a serious adventure)
6. Rebirth
7. Rags to riches/"Prince and the Pauper"

Of course, some of these plot points are easier to translate to a setting like D&D than others, but subplots can be incorporated that use more than 1 of them.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This sounds similar to the Five Room Dungeon concept that's been floating around, though you predate it by a couple of decades - it might be based off your work, if not it's parallel implementation of an idea.


Had not heard of Five Room Dungeons (no, not anything of mine). After some reading: it seems more like a limited version of The Hero's Journey than like core adventures: how to organize a dungeon crawl, not "what adventures arise from." Certainly interesting, though.


One core that I think deserves mention and that we see regularly is the MacGuffin. A lot of adventures are built around getting a specific object or person.

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I'm pretty sure I use all of those to some degree.

Usually I use Story to motivate the connection between specific adventures or locations, with other aspects showing up more in terms of specific encounter or location design. For example I once riffed on some elements of a train station near my apartment for a combat location and I've taken things from buildings of all sorts: Things at college, family members' houses, random people I've met in the street, things I've read about or seen pictures of, etc. I often get inspired by things in novels, for instance once using a good bit of the ideas from Guy Gabriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium/Lord of Emperors, which is in turn based on Justinian I-era Constantinople, including chariot racing, factions, and massive urban riots, although I removed the emperor and replaced him with a Lankhmar-worthy Overlord who was batspit crazy. I stole much of the plot of Casino Royale for a Fading Suns game.

I also find that I tend to throw in some interstitial sessions such as one that involves travel, so I may have a sequence in mind. One thing I've taken to doing is making an abstract "dungeon" of locations that are connected, much like the way subway stops are, allowing the players ways to choose the path they take even if it ultimately leads to the same location in the end. Video game designers do this a lot to make the path through a story less linear. I often map these out as nodes and edges in a directed graph. Using a directed graph works well to design a power structure in an urban environment, too, something that White Wolf did way back in the day with the early V:tM releases. I used this heavily in the pseudo-Constantinople setting.

Finally I want to highlight how important it is to listen to your players---lots of times they'll drop ideas about what their characters fear or want, which you can weave into the game later on! A villain from the pseudo-Constantinople was evidently so memorable the players remembered him long afterwards... so, of course, I made sure he kept showing up somehow, often a bit.
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This is a useful roadmap to keep on hand for designing adventures. I think it could really help new GMs feel less overwhelmed when starting into adventure creation, and he useful for everyone, especially when facing a blank page.


High Priest of Kort'thalis Publishing
Campaign: several compelling things happening at the same time.

Adventure: one compelling thing happening.

The PCs should feel compelled to get involved because the hook is right up their alley.


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