Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Maxims of Adventure Design

Here are a few maxims of adventure design:

  • Design your adventure to be played.
  • Write your adventure to be executed.
  • Gamemaster to engage.
  • Expect gamemasters to alter the details, but do not depend on them to do so!
  • Plan on being surprised by what happens when it’s actually run.
  • It should still be fun even if it’s played badly, run poorly, or otherwise messed up.

I guess they are all so self evident that they go without saying. Just as obvious should be the fact that this is not how role playing games are done. Rpg books are written to be bought, of course! And any decent game master can look at any pile of gaming stuff and frame up an adventure out of it on the spot. And he can do it all again once the players have thrown a monkey wrench into all of his well laid plans. In this environment, designing an adventure is a largely futile gesture.

It really is that bad. You just don’t need all that much to have an adventure. Marc Miller wrote Space Gamer #40 about running a Leviathan session in Classic Traveller just on two paragraphs. Two paragraphs. His near encyclopedic command of science fiction stories no doubt played a large part in his ability to keep up with his players’ demands for details and verisimilitude. Even so, he still didn’t have time to use all of the material. I used to be really impressed by this feat until I managed to run a complete D&D session on a similar amount of information.

That sort of thing ought to give one pause. Why would I fret so much about adventure design, then? Why do I get into an abject state of panic whenever I have to run a session? And why do other GM’s seem to want to burn through one adventure product after another…?

Well, that last one… some of it is due to the fact that they just play more than me. But if you have adopted a gaming style in which there is no death, no chance of failure, and no restocking, reuse, or development of established adventure locations, then you will need an almost constant stream of products to keep you going. You can always spot the people that game that way because they talk about “cleaning” dungeons. They can expect to go into these things and systematically obliterate everything than stands in their way.

I don’t know about you, but that whole approach to gaming seems pretty strange to me. It ought to sound strange no matter which angle you come at it from a GNS standpoint. If you’re a “gamist,” you should be asking where the challenge is in all of this. There’s nothing to master! If you’re a “narrativist,” you should be asking what the heck kind of narrative is this supposed to be. I get that you railroad people along into an epic story when the outcome of each scenario is assured, but here… each component of the narrative is just pure nonsense! And as for the “simulationist,” that guy should be flipping the table over because this just doesn’t model anything. But it’s how people play. Even before the role playing game rule sets were re-engineered to be optimized for this type of strangeness, it was how a lot of people came at it.

Role playing is a weird thing, though. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything to it beyond smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand. If the occasional session didn’t just work in spite of everything, I’d probably have quit by now. Still, if you’re actually going to design an adventure for this scene… then you might as well do it right.

  • Do not assume that the gamemaster can effectively improvise material for the session. Marc Miller can pull some crazy things off, but not all of us are as well read as Gary Gygax and James Ward.
  • Provide the gamemaster with enough specifics that he can give the impression of realness verbally to the players on the fly. This does not mean data or box text– it means just enough detail that a sense of place comes across.
  • Do not force the gamemaster to be completely fluent in the adventure’s details in order to run it. Set it up so that he can reference things easily and explore the nooks and crannies alongside the players.
  • All adventure situations have the potential for reuse and development. Do not assume that this is obvious or that it will actually happen, but at least make note of how this can be done in the afterward.
  • If your situation is robust enough to allow for failure, degrees of success, or multiple attempts, then spell that out. Help the gamemaster visualize everything that could go wrong and how the scenario can be adapted in response to actual play. If you don’t do this at all, you can assume he will try to shepherd the players towards the most obvious “you win” outcome even if he is relatively impartial.
  • If your adventure is being used by a novice, then you have to make him feel like running this thing isn’t an impossible chore. Do not require him to interpolate a whole lot to get things off the ground. If you can just get him playing, he’ll have enough to deal with that the game can take on a life of its own. Until that happens, though… your objective is to bolster his confidence.
  • If your adventure is being used by a seasoned gamer, then he doesn’t need you. He’s probably run more games than you anyway. Do not insult him by leaving the important parts of the adventure as an exercise for him to work out on his own. He should be able to run your adventure with almost no prep!

13 responses to “Maxims of Adventure Design

  1. Alex March 26, 2014 at 8:53 am

    I’d also like to add, stop sticking silver pieces at the bottom of ale barrels in the locked cellars of otherwise unimportant NPC farmers. Seriously, no one is going to check for that shit, and if they are insisting on diving head first into people’s secured foodstuff supplies in search of treasure, they should probably be punished (a wadded up piece of paper to the head) rather than rewarded, even if it’s only a few pieces of silver.

    • jeffro March 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

      If ever there was a situation where “you find nothing special” was justified…!

      • Alex March 26, 2014 at 9:10 am

        I’m just always frustrated by the asinine amount of space devoted to dinky treasures hidden where no sane party would look. Really, the whole accounting of every peasant’s hidden stash of ‘wealth’ buried under 3 inches dirt and mud in the floor of their hovels bothers me.

  2. Jason Packer March 26, 2014 at 9:09 am

    The minute you write down any specifics, you begin to establish – even unintentionally – an optimal path through your adventure. Take all the monsters – add up the XP for defeating them. Take all of the treasure, even the stuff they’d never have looked for – add it all up as well. Anything less than that result is a sub-optimal run through the adventure, even if it meant that the players got through with their lives intact, few resources burned through, and a bit more experience and gold for their troubles.

  3. Robert Eaglestone March 26, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I get a sense of panic when it’s time to run a game. Every time. It’s as though I never ran a game before. Railroading is a thing of the past… but then I write down an optimal path, as Jason mentions above.

    • jeffro March 26, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      I don’t quite grok the “adventure synopsis” that comes with a lot of Traveller adventures. None of it means anything until I read the details…. Weird.

  4. Robert Eaglestone March 26, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    “His near encyclopedic command of science fiction stories no doubt played a large part in his ability to keep up with his players’ demands for details and verisimilitude.”

    I can’t see this. My players want to do very specific things, want to see the places they’re in, as in maps. I can’t invent maps on the fly. Next, they interact with the universe in ways I don’t expect. Since I don’t expect it, I don’t know how to handle it.

    Maybe the problem is that I plan the WRONG THINGS for my games. But today, last week, and next week I continually ask myself “WHAT SHOULD I BE PLANNING?” and I don’t have an answer, partly due to the stress of having to prepare.

    • Alex March 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      The ultimate truth is that different groups, different gamers, will want different things, so there’s no single be-all end-all approach to running an adventure.

  5. PeterD March 26, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    “some of it is due to the fact that they just play more than me.”

    Might be a lot of it. I look back and running groups all the way through T1-4, clearing the Caves of Chaos multiple times, playing PCs from 1st to name level with the same group over and over . . . yeah, modules didn’t come out fast enough for us back then. Now, it’s too, too fast.

    I do agree with your admonishments at the end of the post whole-heartedly. If I’m paying you for an adventure, or using what you wrote, I need it to be easy to understand, easy to run, and fully completed. None of this “it’s up to the GM why the monsters are here” or “7 pieces of jewelry” with no value . . . yes, it’s all up to me, but I need you to provide your answer. I’ll fix it if I need to but I don’t want to find out the adventure is less than 100% ready to run during the time I’m running it.

  6. Radpert March 27, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Lacking the time and ingenuity to create narratives populated with monsters, I find published modules invaluable, at least right now while I can’t find a game someone else is running to play in. There don’t seem to be enough to call a glut, but I’m not counting the entire campaign settings games like Pathfinder like to put in a book! I never seem to be able to find enough adventures for first-level characters, but I’ve had to start over sooo many times…

    We already disagree about the utility of The Caves of Chaos, so I’m not going to dwell on any peeves I have about how challenges are organized. It does seem to me that EVERY module is written as an exercise in dungeon clearing. That may be because I cut my gaming teeth playing AD&D that way, or that I’m just looking at the modules I own because, obviously, I only bought the ones I liked, but it does explain why I thought it was such a great idea to camp out in the middle of the Steading of the Hill Giant King!

    • jeffro March 28, 2014 at 6:37 am

      >> I never seem to be able to find enough adventures for first-level characters, but I’ve had to start over sooo many times…

      Oh yeah– me, too!

      >> It does seem to me that EVERY module is written as an exercise in dungeon clearing.

      Okay, that blows my mind. That just seems so contrary to what archetypal dungeon masters would want to do.

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