The problem with being old is that most of your cultural touchstones and pop culture references are only meaningful to people within your particular age group. And the few that have proven enduring enough to be known by succeeding generations are generally either ruined by reboots, reimaginings, prequels, and unnecessary new installments. Those few that DO endure and haven’t been ruined by new generations leaving their “mark” on the thing in much the same way an incontinent cat leaves its mark on your furniture are inevitably ruined by the fact that all people, no matter how beloved, are eventually shown to be idols of clay. So, the creators of particular cultural memories are eventually revealed to have been s$&%y people who did (or do) s$&%y things. It could be as minor as minor personality flaws or simple accusations of small malfeasance, or it could be as serious as terrible crimes and reprehensible behavior.
My point is this: I can’t help the fact that Jell-O brand gelatin treats were a major part of my formative years and probably played no small role in helping adult onset diabetes set on as I reached adulthood. And I can’t help the fact that a particular Jell-O dessert is extremely important when talking about certain types of adventure structure. And I can’t help the association of Jell-O products with a certain sweater-wearing spokesperson who was extremely popular when I was a child. And, I also can’t help that that spokesperson’s stand-up comedy, commercials, and sit-com appearances were also a big part of my childhood. And thus, I will not apologize for any Cosby references that slip into this article. I refuse to let one monster’s moral turpitude rob me of my beloved childhood memories. Also, Jell-O is wonderful and he’s not ruining that either.
Open Structures and Jell-O Molds
A few weeks ago, we talked about the linear adventure structure. That’s basically an adventure in which the scenes all come in a row, like an obstacle course, and the main source of challenge is in surviving to the end. And, despite the fact that such adventures SEEM to lack freedom, I defended them as perfectly valid adventure structures provided they were built by a competent GM who understood that there’s more than way to give a cat the agency to decide how to skin itself.
This week, we’re going to talk about the open adventure structure. In many ways, the open structure is exactly the opposite of the linear adventure structure. And thus, most folks LOVE the idea of an open structure. So, whereas I defended the linear structure last week, I’m going to be a little harder on the open structure. It’s a good structure too. It’s fun. It’s a great way to build adventures. But it’s also badly misunderstood and therefore usually implemented badly. The problem is, it’s popular. And so people use it because they make certain assumptions. And those assumptions are usually wrong. So, in addition to poor implementation, the open structure is overused by a certain class of smarmy elitist GM who will have you think it’s the ideal form of adventure. We’re going to rip that viewpoint a new one.
First of all, let’s talk about what the open structure is. The open structure is a structure of adventure in which the scenes are just kind of floating out there. The players can choose which scenes to engage in and when and in what order. They might even decide to skip some of the scenes. Or they might fail at some scenes. The point is, the players have complete freedom to define the structure of the adventure.
An open structure is like one of those Jell-O desserts. You know the kind I mean. It’s basically a big blob of Jell-O that’s coagulated into a specific shape. And in suspension, hovering in the Jell-O in defiance of the forces of nature, you have these bits of things. Usually fruit. But one time, I did make such a dessert out of blue Jell-O and Swedish Fish in an attempt to make a Jell-O aquarium. And I do not recommend doing that. Something… horrible happened. I made an important discovery about how Jell-O chemically interacts with Swedish Fish candies (and also the colored Jujubes you’re using for the “gravel” in the bottom of the aquarium).
Anyhoo, assuming you’re just making one of those delicious fruity Jell-O Mold treats for which I have been told there is ALWAYS room, basically, you end up with a solid mass of Jell-O with chunks of fruit floating in it. And those chunks of fruit are the scenes in the adventure. The PCs are like Swedish Fish that can somehow swim through Jell-O (and aren’t weirdly semi-dissolved by the Jell-O). And because of that, they can swim from chunk of fruit to chunk of fruit, devouring whichever ones they like in any order they want.
THAT is an open adventure structure.
The Importance of Jell-O and why Sandboxes Suck
Now, many GMs are suddenly perking up their ears at the mention of DEE-LICIOUS Jell-O adventures and saying: “I’ve run those! We call them sandboxes. Or hex crawls. And they are SOOO much fun! AH-HAHAHA!” Well guess what, Mr. or Mrs. Sanbox – no you haven’t. Shut up. You suck.
Here’s the deal. When most people think of an “open adventure,” they think of handing their PCs a big ole map (usually marked in hexes) and saying things like “somewhere out there are delicious chunks of fruit; go find them!” And THAT isn’t an open adventure. THAT isn’t an adventure at all.
Why? Because it’s lacking three of the major components of an adventure. And that’s pretty terrible because, you might remember, there ARE ONLY THREE COMPONENTS TO AN ADVENTURE: motivation, resolution, and structure.
First of all: motivation and resolution. Remember that these define how your adventure ends and how it starts. Basically, they provide the heroes an end-point and a push-out-the-door. The promise of exciting adventure out there SOMEWHERE is a push-out-the-door. But only in the same sense that pushing someone off a diving board is the same as inviting them to participate in a swimming race. They are just going to flail around, try to recover, and then swim to the nearest edge of the pool. That isn’t a race. A race has a finish line, a starting line, and a clear objective.
Second of all: structure. A Jell-O Mold dessert is a thing of beauty. It’s this mystical blob of goo that has delicious chunks of things floating in it. And the Jell-O is as important as the fruit. Without the Jell-O, you’re just throwing fruit in a bowl. That’s a fruit salad. And fruit salad sucks. Fruit salad especially sucks if you hide each individual piece of fruit in a different bowl. The Jell-O is literally the structure of the dessert.
Remember that an adventure’s structure refers to how the scenes are linked up. That is to say, how the PCs can transition from scene to scene. That only works if the PCs are actually aware of the different scenes and can choose to freely transition between them. If you bury your fruit in a sandbox and say “go digging,” the PCs don’t really have any say in the structure anymore. All they can do is deal with the scenes they manage to find. In effect, this sort of sandbox gameplay is a much more complicated hybrid structure. It requires a good deal of planning to make it work. And often, it ends up being a macrostructure: a way in which multiple adventures get linked together. We’ll be discussing it later. But for now, we’re focusing purely on an open structure adventure.
The most important thing to remember about an open structure is that an open structure still has to be an adventure first. There must be a clear resolution and that resolution needs to provide a motive. And there needs to be a way for the players to transition between scenes in a way they understand. Once you apply those criteria, true open adventures are actually kind of rare. Most GMs either don’t use them or half-a$& them through poor understanding. Or they use complex hybrid structures without realizing it. Or they run sandboxes that aren’t as much fun as they think they are for the poor players who are just looking for the fun.
But the thing is, open adventures can be a hell of a lot of fun. Just like Jell-O mold desserts can be delicious. You just have to make them right. You can’t forget the Jell-O.
Making Room for Jell-O
So, what does a true open structure adventure look like? Generally, they are adventures that involve a series of different tasks that add up to the accomplishment of a specific goal.
For example, imagine the PCs need to secure a council vote. And they have to win the favor of a certain number of council members to secure the vote. Each councilor represents a specific scene. The PCs are free to choose which councilors to approach and which to ignore, provided they have a majority of the votes in the end. And each scene might involve a specific task or obstacle. That’s a perfect example of an open adventure. Another example of an open adventure is one in which the PCs need to recover the five crystals from five different shrines and each shrine has a particular obstacle inside of it. I once wrote a convention adventure in which the PCs had to appease several nature spirits. Some types of mystery investigations can also be open structures.
Those sorts of adventures are perfect for an open structure. They provide a clear resolution, a good motivation, and they provide ways for the PCs to transition between the scenes.
Mega Man vs. Jell-O Man
Do you remember when we talked about linear structures and I pointed out how linear structures have particular issues that need to be dealt with when you design them? Right? Like agency and dealing with failure? Well, every structure has particular issues that – well, they aren’t exactly automatically problems, but they are things you need to be aware of when you design the adventure. For example, whereas in linear adventures, you have to make sure you build in different forms of agency (player freedom) to make up for the fact that the players can’t control the structure, in open adventures you have to be ready to deal with the opposite problem. The players have too much say in the structure of the adventure.
Why is that a problem? Well, it ISN’T automatically a problem. I SAID THAT! But it can be tricky. See, we’ve talked before about how stories have a particular structure and RPGs tap into our expectations about how a story is put together. So, during an adventure – or any story – we expect the tension to rise and fall, but to trend mostly upward. We expect the stakes to rise. We expect to build toward a climax.
Now, ALL adventures end with a resolution and start with a motivation. But right before the resolution, there’s usually a climax. The climax is basically the most exciting scene. The most pivotal. It’s the scene that leads into the resolution. The final boss. Right?
Well, in an open structure, you have no idea – as the adventure designer – the order in which the PCs will confront the various challenges. You don’t know which challenges will be last and which will be first. You don’t know where they will fail and where they will succeed. In short, you can’t build a narrative structure into your adventure structure.
And that’s about more than just having the most exciting part last. There’s a complex rhythm to a good story. And all of the beats have to happen pretty much in the right places for people to be satisfied with them. There is an absolutely horrific, terrible series of movie reviews that are utterly disgusting and not meant to be viewed by human beings. They feature an elderly serial killer who describes his various failing bodily functions in disgusting detail. They are extremely long and overwrought – and this is coming from me – and they are utterly brilliant analyses of film and story structure. It’s kind of a shame, really. Because they are brilliant. And yet, horrible. If you absolutely have to see them, check out Mr. Plinkett’s reviews of the Star Wars Prequels. But I WARNED YOU.
I only bring them up because there’s this brilliant catch phrase thrown in throughout the series about narrative structure.
“You may not have noticed this, but your brain did.”
That’s brilliant. F$%&ing brilliant. And honestly, it’s all you need to get from Mr. Plinkett. I’m not even linking to him. Sorry. You have Google installed, right?
The point is: you don’t notice narrative structure on a conscious level, but when it’s not there, you usually don’t like it. You’re just not sure why. When we say something “drags” or “moves too quickly,” those are usually signs that the narrative structure is out of whack somehow. And when we say something is “tight,” we usually mean the narrative structure is SPOT ON.
Now, once upon a time, a video game appeared in which a robot butler was programmed to battle evil industrial robots to save Monstropolis from the evil Dr. Wily. I s$&% you not. That was the first Mega Man. Anyhoo, the game presented a unique structure. The player could play the levels in any order. And that created a unique problem: difficulty and pacing. See, normally, in a linear game, narrative tension and challenge increase over time. And you can also present challenges that build off previous challenges. So, if I teach the players how to beat Flying Squirrel Assault Robots and later I teach them how to navigate Moving Spike Platforms, I can later ask a player to fight Flying Squirrel Assault Robots WHILE moving across Moving Spike Platforms. See?
But how do you do that in a game where the players can tackle the challenges in any order? Well, in Mega Man, the key was to design each stage to have its own narrative and pacing structure. Each level was a self-contained story with rising stakes and a climax. And it worked so well that Mega Man went on to do it a kajillion more times and then, the creator left the company to try to do it one more time but then he discovered why companies employ public relations experts and everything sort of fell apart and Might Number Nine can go f$&% itself.
What’s my point? My point is that every scene in your open adventure has to be “tight.” It has to be well designed. Each scene has to be worthy of being the last scene in your adventure. Each scene in the adventure has to be the best. You can’t get away with throwaway scenes. You can’t just have two goblins in a cave playing canasta until the PCs show up to kill them.
Now, of course, if you’re following my advice, your scenes are probably pretty good already. But you need to look at each scene and ask yourself “if this was the only scene we got to play at the table tonight, would it be a good session?” Seriously. Imagine you start your game and you play that ONE scene and then there’s a terrible disaster that forces you to immediately cancel the game and send everyone home. Would that be a good session? If the answer is no, you need to do better. THAT’S what open adventure structures require.
Optional Scenes and Failure
The other issue that most open adventure designers DON’T think about is whether the scenes are optional. Think about it. If you have five scenes and each one is required to finish the adventure successfully, does it really matter that you have an open structure? The answer is: probably not. Open adventures benefit more than other types of adventures from having optional scenes.
So, as you’re planning your resolution and figuring out your scenes, you should think about why each scene is optional. And how each scene contributes to the resolution without being required for the resolution.
Let’s go back to our examples. In the “sway the council to vote your way” adventure, you don’t need all the councilors to agree. You just need a majority. Right? Same with the “appease the nature spirits” thing. The PCs were playing for a high score and being graded on each task. And in a murder investigation, you don’t need ALL the clues, just enough clues to lead you to a conclusion. But what about that “gather the five crystals” thing?
Well, that one is actually kind of a sucky open adventure. Because the way it’s stated, there’s nothing inherently optional about the scenes. But what if the PCs are trying to power up a magic weapon with those crystals and each crystal carries a particular power. They can succeed with some, none, or all. That works, right? As long as you build in a clear end point. Remember, you never want the players stuck in an endless adventure where they just keep trying to do things they’ve failed. So, maybe the crystals and the staff have to be joined during the magical aligning eclipse cosmic event thing. So, in three days, whatever crystals the PCs have, that’s what they are stuck with.
And notice how the structure of the adventure helps you troubleshoot it. It helps you spot issues. “How do I make these scenes optional?” “How do I tell the players they’ve failed?” “Is this exciting enough to be worth an entire scene in my open adventure?”
The dirty little secret is that between 50% and 90% of an adventure is written by fixing the problems in your s$&%y initial idea for the adventure. That is to say, adventure writing is 10% having an idea that doesn’t suck and 90% making that idea into something actually playable.
Making the Jell-O Visible
The moment you start discussing Jell-O mold desserts, a gamer will immediately start making gelatinous cube jokes. And those gamers are f$&%wits. Because, first of all, gelatinous cubes are not delicious and they will dissolve your esophagus if you try to eat them. And, second of all, Jell-O mold desserts are NOT invisible.
It’s important that the Jell-O of your adventure be visible. The structure of the adventure has to visible to the players. We already discussed this. They have to know what scenes they can transition to and how. So, as you’re writing your adventure, you have to decide how the players know what scenes are out there and how to get at them. Obviously, it’s easier in some adventures than others. The PCs might just be handed a list of the councilors involved in the vote. Or the ones who might swing voters anyway. The spirits might appear and say “you must complete these tasks to the best of your abilities.” The murder investigation might include a list of suspects and witnesses to interact with. The crystal staff might come with a map. Somehow, some way, the PCs have to know what scenes they can get to and how they can get there. Otherwise, they aren’t controlling the pace, they are just bumbling around.
Does that mean you can’t have scenes that are hidden and need to be discovered? Well, that’s actually a harder question than you might think. Because the answer SHOULD be no. No, you can totally have some hidden scenes that need to be discovered. Things can be uncovered by taking certain actions in other scenes. Or scenes that can be created by player ingenuity.
But, if you want to get technical, that creates a situation where suddenly, the structure isn’t open anymore. Look, imagine this: in the shrine of fire, there’s a clue to a secret burial site. And in that burial site, there’s a hidden treasure that makes one of the other shrines a little easier to deal with. Classic exploration-based reward, right? But technically, there’s no way to visit the burial site BEFORE you go to the shrine of fire. So, that scene is dependent on a particular action taken in a previous scene. The transition isn’t freely available and now the adventure structure is no longer open.
And that leads us nicely into a topic I couldn’t discuss until I had discussed TWO DIFFERENT adventure structures. That is the topic of complex structures. And we’re going to end by touching on that topic. We’re going to have to come back to it later. But for now, we need it to answer some questions.
Complex Structures: The Jell-O Parfait
Let’s talk about things that are delicious for a moment. Jell-O is obviously delicious. And so is pudding. And so is fruit. And so is yogurt and custard. If you take some or all of those things and layer them together, you have a parfait.
Well, okay, technically, a parfait is a pretty specific custard-like layered dessert. If you’re French. And if you’re English, a parfait is a horrific mixture of animal liver and booze, smoothed into a hideous paste. But, if you’re American, a parfait is any goddamned thing that you can layer in a cocktail glass. Or a plastic cup. Yogurt. Fruit. Gelatin. I’m pretty sure we’ll make a f$&%ing parfait out of mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. And that’s why America is the best country.
Let’s look at our crystal adventure. There’s five shrines. The PCs have to visit the shrines to gather crystals for their crystal staff. And they have to do it before the full moon eclipses the Tropic of Cancercorn or some bulls$&%.
But what if each shrine was more complicated than one simple scene or encounter. What if the wind shrine was just one puzzle thing? But imagine if the fire and the water shrines were a series of obstacles. A gauntlet. Something like a linear adventure. And what if the earth and the gelatin shrines were more like mazes with various obstacles sprinkled through them. Something like branching adventures. Does “The Adventure of the Crystal Staff that is Totally Not a Ripoff of Final Fantasy” (working title) count as an open adventure anymore? Or is it a very complex branching adventure?
What if we make it even more complicated still? What if the adventure starts with a shrine in the “Tomb of the Dude Who Owned the Crystal Staff?” And they discover the staff and the locations of the five shrines and the instructions about the celestial eclipse and all of that crap. And what if it also turns out that the celestial mystically plot-convenient cosmic event will also summon a five-headed crystal dragon to ravage the world who can only be defeated by using the power of the crystal staff? That open structure with the five shrines is just the middle of a linear adventure. What now?
Well, this gets into the idea of complex adventure structures. A complex structure involves nesting the three different types of adventure structures. So, you have a linear adventure, but the middle scene is replaced by an open structure subadventure. And some of the scenes in there are replaced by linear and branching subadventures.
This totally works. And it totally works because of something super amazing I already told you that you probably didn’t think too much about at the time. Remember how I once told you that scenes and adventures are kind of similar? Scenes have dramatic questions and adventures have motivations and resolutions. And both have structures. Scenes are – to some extent – a little bit like miniature adventures.
And that means a single scene with a dramatic question like “can the heroes recover the earth crystal” can be replaced with something like a tiny adventure that has the resolution “the heroes end up with the earth crystal or lose it forever” and the motivation “the heroes want the earth crystal because of reasons that have already been established.” See? And now, suddenly, I can build a whole series of scenes.
Which raises two important questions. First: how do you know whether you’re writing an entire adventure or just a complex subadventure as part of a much bigger structure? Second: does structure even matter. And these are REALLY IMPORTANT questions. And that is why, they are forming the climax of this article. The final scene.
The Climax of This Article
First, how do you know whether you’re writing an entire adventure or just a complex subadventure as part of a much bigger structure? Realistically speaking, if you run a two-year long campaign in which the PCs are trying to save the world, it’s not absurd to call that whole thing one big complex adventure with a whole bunch of substructures. The difference is where you put it.
That’s not a cop out. That’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a lot. But you’re going to make that distinction based on how you plan your game. Because you plan an adventure around a motivation, a resolution, and a structure; you’re going to decide what parts of your game are self-contained enough to be called adventures. And because of that, you’re going to break up your game based on motivations, resolutions, and structures. As long as you’re aware of it and building motivations, resolutions, and structures, you’re doing okay. The problem is when you don’t do that.
Have you ever been in one of those games where it’s just continuous action? The PCs bounce like ping-pong balls from one encounter to the next? There’s just this ongoing building toward… something. Some long term campaign goal? Occasionally, there will be a part in the game that you can say “okay, clearly that bit was an adventure,” but lots of times you just keep showing and things keep happening? That’s an example of a GM who isn’t building around motivations, resolutions, and structures. And while that satisfies some groups, lots of players eventually get bored or frustrated with that for reasons they can’t quite explain. You don’t notice it’s not satisfying, but your brain does.
Yep. It comes down to that narrative structure thing we crave. We need rises and falls. We need climaxes and resolutions. We need our stories to be punctuated by clear victories and defeats. We need the tension to be reset periodically. And that’s WHY you build around adventures instead of one long, continuous superadventure with lots of substructures.
I’m not saying you CAN’T make that satisfying. If you’re aware of what you’re doing, you certainly can. But it’s harder. And, in the end, generally what you end up building is exactly what you WOULD build if you planned around motivation, resolution, and structure.
And that sort of helps answer the second question too. If you can nest structures inside of structures, why is it so important to talk about structure at all? Part of the reason is because an ADVENTURE has a resolution, motivation, and structure. A SUBADVENTURE has a structure, but it inherits its motivation from the ADVENTURE and passes its resolution back to the ADVENTURE. If you’ve ever done any computer programming, you understand what I’m saying already. But let me make it perfectly clear to those of you who haven’t.
In the adventure of the five crystals, the earth shrine portion SEEMS like an adventure, right? But if you look closely, you’ll realize the motivation for that adventure is coming from the bigger adventure. There’s nothing IN the earth shrine that explains why the PCs want the earth crystal. That motivation is coming from the bigger adventure. They want it to power the staff and kill the crystal dragon or whatever bulls$&% I said.
Likewise, the resolution – acquiring or losing the earth crystal – isn’t interesting in itself. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s only how that resolution fits in to the bigger story that gives it any meaning. And that’s what I mean when I say that those nested substructures are LIKE adventures, but they aren’t adventures. The motivations and resolutions aren’t really part of them. They come from something else.
Meanwhile, though, it IS important to talk about the different structures because each structure has its own issues. Linear structures require attention to issues of agency and failure. Open structures have narrative and pacing issues and require some way of making their structure visible. And when we talk about branching structures, we’ll talk about issues particular to those as well.
You have to understand the structures to understand the issues. And you have to understand the issues because, when you start nesting structures, sometimes, those issues can infect the adventure as a whole. And sometimes, you can use a nested structure to cover for other issues.
So, if you have a linear adventure and one of the scenes is actually an open subadventure, the whole adventure is going to have an issue with failure and you have to be extra careful to be aware of how failure in the bits of the open subadventure affect the success or failure of the entire adventure. Linear adventures require attention to failure. At the same time, replacing the middle bit of a linear adventure with an open subadventure helps you add a feeling of agency to the adventure as a whole. One problem is amplified, another is fixed.
Likewise, if you replace bits of your open adventure with linear subadventures, that fixes the pacing problem, right? Remember how each part of an open adventure has to be tight and well-constructed to make up for the inherent lack of pacing in the open structure? Well, linear adventures are extremely well-paced by design. In that case, you’re using the strengths of one structure to shore up the weaknesses of another.
And THAT is why this structure crap is so important.
I know when we started talking about how to write adventures, you expected me to tell you how to draw maps and put encounters in rooms and that sort of crap. And here I am talking about adventure planning from this completely different angle. But what I’m talking about is infinitely more useful than telling you how to stock a f$&%ing dungeon. Because, look, you already know (because I told you) how to put together a good scene. You know what a good encounter needs. I don’t need to tell you that. You need to know how to string them together in a way that FEELS GOOD.
And all of this crap works the same whether you’re designing a dungeon or planning a murder-mystery or asking the players to sway the vote in the Council of the Elders. Every adventure is a dungeon. And every dungeon begins with a map. And every map is basically just a structure.