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Friday, January 10, 2014

Designing an adventure, matters of style, Art, and Falling towers.

Designing an adventure, matters of style, and falling towers.


Adventure design is a personal art. I use the term art with purpose. It's telling that everyone does it differently and that a hundred GM's could take the same subject and wind up with a hundred different adventures.

Art: (according to Merriam Webster's) The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

OK, so that is a bit off my point but still “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” definitely applies to the topic.

I have a very defined method for creating my adventures game to game. This method comes from years of habit, laziness and problem solving. I am going over it here only to start a discussion about what other peoples processes are like, not to say (DO IT MY WAY HEATHEN!)
The Heathen count around here makes Mr. Goat happy


Step one: Story Arc.
I figure out the overarching story as to what's going on behind the scenes. This might be at the level of the player characters or way out of their depth , it doesn't matter at this point.
I have a very hard time writing one shot games or stand alone side quests. As a point of fact I 'm terrible at it. I find a quick story arc even if it is one sentence gets my feet grounded as I work on an adventure idea, so that I know the world and the player characters place in it, even if they don't right away.

By way of an example a game we started then moved away from a few months ago started simply with: “The merchants of Dairhouse are trying to squeeze the people of Torin out of the Fur trade.” With that I could start to build a starting point and move forward.

The most important part of this is to remember if the players ignore, don't catch onto, or dismiss the story arc, keep it moving in your head, have it bear fruit. If the characters would rather open a bar than face down the un-dead legions moving into town, so be it, but eventually there will be a litch stopping by for drinks and as they say, "the shit will be waist deep and tauntaun warm."

Step two: The hook, The hook can be touchy. That first adventure, where everyone kind of looks at the gm and their eyes say “Ok what do you have this time?”
This is the tipping point, I say most games live or die on the that first session. I know this is an aside but I think my work on Phase Abandon (our groups house rules or as I like to call it The best game no one plays) and a lot of my work on Shards of Thimbral boils down eliminating this tipping point moment to one degree or another.


The hook is “character level” sensitive, regardless of the system being used, powerful characters are not going to be grabbed by an overabundance of rats in the sewers. When I brainstorm the first session I think of the power level of the party, I have to give them something they can handle something they can invest in. In my last game it was bands of wolves raiding one local farm. The party was low level, and they can scare off some wolves, they have a Druid and an elf-ranger in the group that would want to know about the behavior of these wolves. It was enough to get the characters out of the inn and into the fields.

3, The Physical thing: Writing things down, (maps, charts, and the rest.)
I am SO bad at this, I take notes, in a notebook, I scribble, I draw, and I pretty much make a ham handed job out of the whole thing. So many times I have made adventure maps with notes and details, and frankly the characters blow the damn thing up any way. I hardly ever use written encounters and if I do, the entry in my notes will be something like “Orcs leading ogres shackled and pissed, will swing chains at everything.” Not exactly a stat block.
 I know some of my players read this blog and I might be tipping my hand too far, but they know as well as I do, players will piss gasoline on any grand plans a GM makes, then toss matches, in a library when one is available.

(side Story: crushing a masterwork one brick at a time)
A great example of being over planned: Another DM whose game I played in created a detailed keep that was in fact a huge tower of many smaller towers. At the top of one of these towers was the grand Viser and to save time, as is usually the case in such matters, he had to die.
I use the word detailed as in he wrote many pages of maps and a huge deck of index cards numbered and cross referencer for each room, with encounters and descriptions, the works.
There was a choke point in the tower where the building narrowed then sprouted off into a plethora of smaller spires. We were probably supposed to die or get captured in that choke point but we hatched a plan. Once the group made it to that choke point we began (with the help of my master stonemason dwarf, a hulking barbarian, and a large amount of unlikely die rolls) to dismantle the wall, to be blunt we collapsed the second half of the tower... boom.
The DM was to say the least crestfallen. (to this day I have no idea why he let it happen but ...Hindsight.. God did we loot, for hours we looted...)
+ Dwarf  will fuck up yo whole tower




 I call it getting Seb'd. I try not to get Seb'd, I saw it, I was part of it, I dread it.
I don't use my energy to write up amazing things to show off and then try and protect my precious creations, I use my energy to keep the adventure flexible enough that if a tower falls, I can dig my way out. I present the amazing things just the same. I just go in knowing something unexpected and unforeseeable is going to happen. I wing it a lot.

As another aside, far as after the adventure is designed and played I am still bad at the leg work. I have managed over the years to write game synopsis and post them to the internet to keep players informed, but even that I mess up. (I owe the group one right now.)

Finally my last step to how I approach creating adventures game to game:
Before each adventure I sit with my notes such as they are from the last game. As a direct result of my willingness to “wing it” more than I should, sometimes I get these nagging loose ends hanging off of a previous game. I do my best to mentally jiggle those loose ends into the story arc I laid out at the beginning, or I branch them into a parallel arc that I might be able to use latter. I try to keep the story behind the adventures cohesive, so the players never have to feel like they are just floating out in a fake world going from contrived scenario to contrived scenario.

This is particularly important when characters go all Dennis Rodman and run off somewhere unexpected. I feel it is absolutely necessary for me to start another story branch using the new opportunities that the players have given me while continuing to move along the original story arc. In other words if you tell the characters that there is an evil army marching a crossed the moors, that army should end up raising hell somewhere regardless if the players want to address it or not.(OK that's obvious)
To further the point, if the players do wander astray of the main story arc, get them involved in SOMETHING in the next game, a branch of the arc a new arc that runs parallel as long as the adventures don't become totally aimless, this will only save you time and effort when working on your next adventure. In fact I feel that as a GM if you watch closely what your players do with their characters you can figure out what kind of action they would like to be involved in, and plan adventures accordingly.
Always use what the players give you.
don't let this  throw off your whole adventure


That's pretty much all I have to share on this topic. I draw some maps (which I treat as drawings they are not as functional as they should be) and keep NPC notes. For me it comes down to rolling with the unexpected, and playing off the characters as much as I can, while moving the main story arcs along in as logical a fashion as possible. It's and Art not a science. (wow! that could have saved us 1400 or so words.)

How do you approach preparation and design from session to session?
Does it affect you if you have more time between sessions?
Does it affect your process if you know the game will be longer or shorter than normal?
Do you do different things for at the table game as compared to internet sessions?


Thank you for reading!

As always question comments and shenanigans are encouraged.