Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Elements of Adventure Game Situations

No matter what kind of campaign you run, you are sooner or later going to have to create adventure situations of your own out of whole cloth. Maybe you’ve picked out an adventure seed to develop. Perhaps when the players have wandered off to an essentially random location on the campaign map. Maybe the players have botched things so badly in the current story arc, you have to come up with an entirely new scene in order to give them a fair chance at salvaging things. Or maybe you’re just having to do the usual referee thing by “determining the course of subsequent events.” Whatever corner it is that you’ve painted yourself into… just knowing the fundamental components of an adventure situation should give you a leg up on keeping things going.

Scenery — Wherever the adventure is set, you want to get a sense of that location across to the players as quickly as possible. You can do this by describing the backdrop and making up a few things that are going on that have nothing to do with the players. The great thing about scenery is that it all has absolutely no effect on the game scenario. Because of that, you have free reign to make it whatever you want as long as it communicates the exact feel that you need. Beware, though: such backdrops and background noise often ceases to remain as being just scenery in a role playing game. You’re liable to need additional stuff for players to interact with at any point and it will be easier to build off of something you’ve already introduced– so your throwaway random events will sometimes emerge later as pivotal components of the game!

Places to Go — You can have the entire world mapped out, but at the end of the day the players will just go to the tavern. (That’s player-speak for “please, please, please give us an adventure without making us work too hard to find it!!”) You really don’t need that much, though. I’ve run entire sessions that are really about just one adventure location. Once the players take the job, make a plan, and travel to the location, half of our game time is used up! For a situation (as opposed to an outright dungeon crawl) you’ll rarely need more than a half dozen locations. Contrasting tone is going to be more important than any sort of extraneous detail. (Players can only keep so much in their heads at once….)

The Locked Door — The most fundamental adventure game puzzle is finding a door (or door-equivalent) in one location… knowing that you need to get through it to win the game… and then to some other location to find the key (or key-equivalent) that will get you through. You can dress this up in a variety of ways. It may even be that the old man at the bar knows something you need to know… but he won’t tell you… but if you talk to other people you find out his nephew is in jail… you then pull some strings to get him out… and then… the old man tells you what you need to know. No matter what chrome is on it, it’s still just about needing a key for a particular door.

Stops — Normally players will have free reign to go and do as they please. Usually they are looking for keys to whatever they think the doors are. A stop is a type of scene that eliminates this freedom temporarily until the players figure out how get out of it. If you want to keep the illusion of total player autonomy, then you’ll want to use these sparingly. (On the other hand, a cliffhangers adventure will often be one “stop” after another!) If players suddenly lose their freedom of movement when they are used to having it, then dramatic tension can escalate and you’ll really get their attention. The trick is to have the “stop” be consistent both with the scenery while also fitting in coherently with the actions of the players.

You probably do all of these things instinctively as a game master, but perhaps having a name for what you’re doing will help you in your planning. There are several more pieces that I haven’t discussed here, but these are the core components of adventure. I find it ironic that something that sounds so exciting is at root somewhat dry… even vaguely topological. The human mind is a funny thing, though… and you’ll find that the players can become thoroughly immersed in the emerging narrative anyway. A simple, but firm under-structure can be an extremely useful anchor in what would otherwise be a free-form improvisation.

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4 responses to “The Elements of Adventure Game Situations

  1. earlburt October 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Yesterday, I ran the first game of a seconnd B4 campaign. I’m using the exact same intro, background, etc. as with the first group, so I have virtually no planning to do. These are two players entirely new to tabletop RPGs. They only know the tropes from movies and video games. They don’t have a lot of intuition about what’s “important” and what isn’t, what’s dangerous and what isn’t.

    This comes to mind because I was able to embellish the Scenery some with this group, since I know the material so well. I had mental latitude to be more creative. After a while, I realized that every time I described something in detail, they would stop and ponder what to do. I eventually had to tell them, point blank, that the mere fact that I am describing something does not mean they have to interact with it, or even care at all. That Scenery does not always involve Significance.

    • jeffro October 29, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      The old Level9 text adventures would tell you straight up, “that’s just scenery” if you tried to fiddle with the irrelevant stuff. (I think Infocom was always a little less direct about that sort of thing…. I was shocked the first time I got that message from a Level9 game!)

  2. Pingback: More Elements of Adventure Situations « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

  3. Pingback: Random Adventure Elements and Embellishments « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

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