It’s said that mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns. I think it was in one of Aesop’s fables or the Fable video games or some bulls$&% like that. And frankly, I don’t care. Because I don’t give a s$&% about acorns. What I care about is the trees themselves. Because trees have branches. And, if you’ve been following this series about adventure structure, you know why that’s important. It’s because we’re talking about the third type of adventure structure today: branching structure.
And, the thing is, it’s nothing like trees. Seriously. Don’t even picture trees. Trees won’t help you.
The problem with trees is that, if they were adventures, they’d have a really crappy structure. See, with a tree, everything starts in the trunk. And then it spreads out into a bunch of branches. And then it keeps dividing and dividing and dividing until you’re at the end of some little twig. And then, you’re stuck hanging out in space. The twigs don’t go anywhere.
So, as we discuss branching structures, I want you to forget everything you know about plant biology. Don’t even think about plant biology. And I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say “I wasn’t even thinking about plant biology until YOU brought it up, Angry. Why did you bring it up?” Because f$&% you, that’s how I do things. Now forget about trees and let’s talk about branching adventures.
The Most Common Structure
Branching structure is easily the most common structure for an RPG adventure. In fact, it’s the structure most people picture when they think of an adventure. Especially when they think of a dungeon adventure. Because most dungeon adventures follow a branching structure. And, now that you know that Every Adventure is a Dungeon Adventure, you understand why that means almost all adventures are branching adventures.
In a branching adventure, each scene is connected to a few other scenes, such that players can choose a route through the adventure. Unlike an open structure, they can’t choose to go from any scene to any scene. Instead, their choices are constrained. The classic example is, as I mentioned just one paragraph ago, the standard dungeon crawl SDC. In the good ole SDC – where each room is a scene – each room generally has a few different exits. Players can go north or west or take the stairs. And that determines where they go next.
But a good murder mystery can have the same branching structure as a dungeon. In fact, they usually do. For example, when you visit the scene of the crime, you might learn the name of a suspect and you might find a broach bearing the insignia of the hunter’s guild and you might find a trail of wet boot prints that lead into the sewers. Each of those things (which we call “leads” in a murder mystery) represent transitions to other scenes. Questioning the suspect. Visiting the hunter’s guild. Exploring the sewers. And when you question the suspect, he might give an alibi that leads you to question someone else.
Now, even though it’s the most common type of adventure structure, I didn’t start talking about branching structures because branching structures are really a sort of compromise. On the one hand, you have the totally unconstrained open adventure structure. On the other hand, you have the totally constrained linear adventure structure. And in between, you have the moderately constrained branching structure. And the reason that the branching structure is so popular is because it strikes a balance between choice and constraint. We’ve already talked about how agency is important. Let’s talk about how constraints are important.
The Terror of the Blank Page
Quick, take out a blank piece paper right now and write an adventure. Go!
Pretty tough, right? Why? Because the most terrifying thing a creative type has to face is a completely blank piece of paper. When you can do absolutely anything, when you have no constraints at all, it’s hard to start doing something because there’s nowhere to start. Sure, some people THRIVE in such an environment. But those people are rare. That’s why writers and creative types – if they are any good – have ways to pick topics or store away seeds for later use or generate ideas.
And it’s the same with absolutely anything. Imagine if that Elder Scrolls Skyrim game – which was already kind of a blank slate – began without the story of the dragon attacking you and the first quest to escape to Whiterun or whatever. Imagine if you just appeared in the middle of the tundra with no idea of where anything was or what to do?
Most people do best when they have to choose an option from a limited list of options. And that’s why, even in an open structure, it’s important for people to know what scenes are out there. Remember how I said that? This is why? If you drop people in a void and ask them to find something fun to do, most people have trouble getting started. Not all, but most. And when it comes to writing adventures, you want it to be approachable for as many people as possible. Just so you don’t run the risk of leaving some of your players out of the fun.
The other problem with RPGs is that you have a group of four to six people trying to make decisions as a unit. And if you have ever tried to order a pizza with a group of friends or decide what movie to watch, you know how difficult that can be. Now imagine one of your friends is a chaotic rogue d$&%nozzle who is only in it for the money and another of your friends refuses to take on any quest that isn’t sanctified by her bulls$&% goddess. Group decisions are hard under the best of circumstances. And RPGs tend to bring out the a$&hole in some people.
Constrained choices make things easier for the players. The players don’t have to face the terror of the blank page and they don’t have to argue about infinity choices, they just have to pick from a small number of them.
But constrained choices also make things better for the GM. For you. Why? Well, remember this: every scene goes better if you have it planned. Improvisation is cool and its necessary, but improvisation is just planning on the spot. It’s planning and executing in one step. And that puts a lot of pressure on a GM. And GMs end up improvising a lot as it is.
So, if you have a basic idea of what things are most likely going to come up during the adventure, you can plan for them. You don’t have to plan out every contingency. Every GM will find the level of planning they are comfortable with. But you at least know what things to be ready for. And if you like having things planned and structured, you can do that.
Constrained choices enable you to plan for what’s likely to come up during the adventure and can help you avoid falling back on improvisation when you don’t have to or want to.
Now, if you’re writing an adventure for OTHER people to use, this is especially important. Imagine if you sold someone a blank piece of paper and asked them to improvise the whole f$&%ing adventure? They’d want to know what they paid you to do. People who buy adventures – or download them – expect the adventure to be mostly planned for them. You can’t get away with falling back on too much improv if you’re making adventures for others.
It comes down to this: most GM prep is about balancing agency vs. constraints. Create a game that offers the players freedom of choice but is constrained enough to be manageable. And every table has its own tolerances for agency and constraint. Branching structures tend to straddle that middle line quite nicely.
Where Structure Becomes Challenge
Did you know that chlorine is poisonous? It’s true. If you swallow chlorine or inhale it, it turns into hydrochloric acid when it touches your insides and dissolves. And did you know that sodium is very reactive? And by reactive, I mean explosive? Seriously. If sodium comes into contact with water, it explodes.
Now, what will totally blow your mind (figuratively, not like sodium) is that salt – delicious salt – is just sodium and chlorine mixed together. Marketing executives and obnoxious self-help f$&%wits call this “synergy.” Synergy is when a bunch of things combine to have different, better properties than the ingredients. What does this have to do with branching structures?
Well, branching adventure structures combine the agency from open adventures with the constraints from linear adventures and, in so doing, they create something unique and different. That’s why a branching structure isn’t just a hybrid structure. It’s its own unique thing.
Branching structures are unique in that part of the challenge of the adventure – that is, one of the obstacles the players have to manage – is often navigating the adventure. If you think of a branching structure like a maze, you know that finding your way through a maze is a puzzle in itself. But even if you can find your way easily through the maze because all paths lead to the end (we’ll come back to this idea), once you start filling the maze with traps and minotaurs and things, part of the challenge is also finding the most efficient path. If you can walk a path through the maze that minimizes your contact with traps and minotaurs, you’re more likely to succeed.
In that respect, the structure of a branching adventure CAN become part of the challenge. If you plan it that way. But that’s not automatic. That’s a choice you make. And if you want to learn more about building advanced branching structures, I suggest you start following my series on Building a Megadungeon (which is about to start back up after a disastrous hiatus).
But not ALL branching adventures are mazes. In point of fact, branching adventures can have a couple of different types of structures. And the best ones aren’t mazes at all, they are pyramids. Well, sort of pyramids. Ballooning pyramids. But we’ll get to that.
Exploration vs. Pursuit
Remember, every adventure is about starting with a motivation and then reaching a resolution by navigating a series of scenes. And an adventure structure is just the way the scenes are all linked together. But, with a branching structure, you can start to do some pretty weird things with the goal.
For example, imagine the goal of the adventure is to just find the mystical Orb of MacGuffin in the Dungeon of Whatever. Sorry, I’m a little tired and having trouble coming up with examples. In this adventure, the Dungeon of Whatever is a branching adventure with each room representing a scene. In one of the rooms, the party finds the mystical Orb.
In that adventure, the party is just going to wander from scene to scene, looking for the Orb. Once they find the Orb, they are done. This sort of adventure is called an exploration adventure. At least, that’s what I call it. And the reason I call it that is because the party isn’t choosing to go from scene to scene based on anything more than random wandering. They wander from scene to scene hoping to stumble on the endpoint of the adventure.
In exploration adventures, the goal is simply to navigate the structure of the adventure. That’s all there is to it. Many dungeons fall into this structure. And, in fact, a lot of mysteries and investigations also fall into this structure, since they generally rely on the players stumbling into the right final scene.
But contrast that to an adventure wherein the party has to reach a village ahead of the invading army of the Empire of Whatever. Along the way, they have to decide to try to ford the river or go out of their way to a river crossing. If they ford the river, do they cut straight through the dark forest in front of them or do they circumnavigate it. In the dark forest, do they stick with the old north road or go via a more direct route across country. And so on. Each scene presents a series of choices, but the goal is always ahead. The party knows their goal and can choose the scenes based on which are most likely to let them accomplish their goal.
Those adventures are pursuit adventures. In those adventures, the challenge isn’t to locate the goal somewhere in the structure, but rather to navigate the structure as efficiently as possible.
Now, here’s the dirty little secret that most adventure designers and GMs hate to admit: pursuit adventures are always better than exploration adventures. Even if the players don’t know they are in a pursuit adventure. Why? Well, it has to do with a thing called pacing.
The Hidden Pursuit and the Ballooning Pyramid
We’ve talked a few times now about how all stories have a sort of hidden pattern to them, right? We call that pacing. They begin with a motivation, they peak at a climax, tension wobbles up and down, and so on. As a GM, the more you can make an adventure fit the expected narrative structure, the more your players will enjoy that adventure even if they don’t know why.
Now, exploration adventures have the same problem as open adventures. The pacing is out of whack. You can’t know how the players are going to navigate through the adventure. So, you can’t know what scenes they will see when. And so on.
This is where a pursuit adventure shows its real power. Because the party is always moving generally forward, you know what direction they are tending toward. In that adventure about trying to beat the evil army, you know they aren’t going to double back from the forest and try to get back across the river. Unless the party fails and is forced to backtrack, you pretty much know which scenes will come early in the adventure and which will come late in the adventure, right?
And this leads to an idea called pyramid construction. And, if you read my stuff about building encounters, you’re already going to recognize this. Basically, it works like this: early in the adventure, you want the players to have a lot of choices about where to go. If it’s a dungeon, you want them to have a lot of places to start exploring. If it’s a murder mystery, you want a lot of leads. As the players get closer and closer to the goal, the paths should start to converge. There should be fewer and fewer choices the later in the adventure it goes until everything converges on a resolution.
You can see why I call this the pyramid structure.
But why do I call it a ballooning pyramid? Well, here’s the thing. Imagine a dungeon structured like that pyramid. The Orb is in the middle, the last scene, the room to which all other scenes lead. So, how do the players get into the dungeon? Well, if you’re following the classic pyramid structure, you’d want to have eight different f$&%ing doors into the dungeon. Right?
Well, that’s just stupid. You don’t build a dungeon with eight doors unless you’re making the Caves of Chaos from Keep on the Borderlands.
See, most adventures start with one scene: the hook. That’s the first scene of the adventure.
So, in a good pyramid structure, the first few scenes have lots of transitions leading away from them to other scenes. They expand the number of options. And then, after that, as the party gets deeper into the adventure, the number of transitions leading out of each scene contracts. See? Ballooning pyramid.
Now, you can structure any adventure as a ballooning pyramid whether the party knows it or not. You can map out a dungeon so that the early rooms have lots of exits and the deeper rooms double back on themselves or become more linear. Right? In that case, you can turn an exploration adventure into a pursuit adventure without telling the players. That means, they get the feeling of free exploration, but you get the benefit over additional control of the pace.
That said, you don’t HAVE TO restrict yourself to ballooning pyramids. But they are so useful and so easy to work with compared to other adventure types that I’d be a s$&%y game mastering mentor if I didn’t talk them to death. The good old Standard Dungeon Crawl doesn’t NEED a strong narrative structure and most players won’t care. They are happy to wander and kill orcs and spiders and loot treasure chests and deal with spiked credenza traps. That’s fine. But any adventure CAN benefit from a little bit of hidden pacing. So, it’s worth thinking about.
Bottlenecks and Dead-Ends
Let’s talk about two unique structural possibilities in branching adventures because they will lead nicely into the final topic on failure. Because, why end on a high note when you can end with failure.
First of all, a dead end is a scene with no transitions out of it. It basically goes nowhere. In a dungeon, it’s a room with no exits. In an investigation, it’s a lead that doesn’t provide any new leads or clues. Dead ends only exist in branching structures because they can only occur with constrained agency. In an open adventure, there’s no ends, so none of them are dead. In a linear adventure, a dead end stops the adventure cold. But, in a branching adventure, you can have a dead end.
A dead end is a waste of time and resources. It’s a scene that has no payoff. And you might wonder why you would ever include such a thing. Well, there’s a couple of reasons. And all of them have to do with adding challenge to the game.
When the party is searching for something, be it the Orb in the Dungeon or the murderer in the investigation, every possibility they can eliminate is actually useful. It’s one less place the orb or murderer can be. In terms of the adventure structure, I mean. Not necessarily physical location. The suspect who has a solid alibi can’t be the murderer. He’s a dead end. But he’s also one less possibility. So, in adventures wherein the goal is a search of some kind, dead ends do have a payoff.
But in adventures where the party is trying to navigate the structure efficiently, like the race against the enemy army, a dead end is a major setback. It’s a loss. It’s a bad choice. It costs the party. It’s the equivalent of losing an encounter. It hurts. And that’s okay. There SHOULD be a possibility for loss and failure.
The trouble is, in adventures where dead ends hurt, it’s important for the party to have some way to see a dead end coming. Or, at least, to know that the risk is there. If the dead ends are just arbitrarily placed, they are the equivalent of random screw jobs. And, while players accept a certain number of random screw jobs as part of the game, they have a limited tolerance for that.
So, dead ends in adventures where the challenge is navigating the structure efficiently should be used sparingly and should be telegraphed. There should be clues so that attentive players can pick up on the fact that they are choosing a risky path, even if they don’t know what the risk is.
Bottlenecks are scenes that the players HAVE TO pass through to reach the end of the adventure. If you map out the adventure, a bottleneck is a place where all the possible paths converge and then diverge again on the other side. Imagine a dungeon with three floors. Each floor is a branching map. But there’s only one set of stairs from floor one to floor two. And one set of stairs from floor two to floor three. Those stairs are bottlenecks. They represent the only way to pass from one part of the adventure to the next.
Technically, the last scene of your adventure is a bottleneck. Because the adventure has to pass through it, no matter what.
Bottlenecks are INSANELY useful for advanced adventure planning. It’s a scene you absolutely KNOW the adventure has to pass through. That’s GREAT! You can convey important information, introduce characters or concepts, you can put the recurring villain in there and know the party will encounter them, you can use them to ensure the party has the proper resources for a later challenge, and so on. Bottlenecks are guarantees. And, as a GM planning an adventure, they are invaluable.
THAT SAID… bottlenecks have an extremely bad reputation. And many GMs will tell you (wrongly) never to have bottlenecks in your adventure. I’m telling you that bottlenecks are an extremely powerful tool as long as you understand how they can go wrong. And how they can go wrong comes down to failure.
Failure in Branching Adventures
Just like with open and linear adventures, you HAVE TO give some thought to what happens when the players fail in a branching adventure. Failure in any given scene of a branching adventure is easier to deal with than failure in a linear adventure. By definition, there are multiple paths to the resolution. If the players manage to block off one path by failing, they can usually double back and find another path. Assuming they survive the failure, of course.
But there’s a couple of issues that do come up.
First of all, even with multiple paths, it is entirely possible for the players to fail enough to cut off any possibility of success. Now, that isn’t a problem. We’ve already discussed that. The important thing, though, is to make sure you have a way to let the players KNOW they have reached that critical failure point where success is no longer possible. As we’ve discussed. I’m not going to belabor the point by discussing it again. You should have done that already when you came up with your resolution.
Bottlenecks. Remember bottlenecks? Those insanely useful pacing tools? IF you’re going to use a bottleneck – and I recommend them – you have to think through what happens when the players fail in a bottleneck scene. Because, remember, there is no other path to the goal except through the bottleneck.
As an extreme example, imagine that the stairs down to level two of the dungeon are protected with a trap that fills the entire room with acid lava. And spikes. Burning hot spikes. If the trap gets set off, the stairs are completely inaccessible forever. Because of the acid lava and the burning hot spikes. The adventure – at that point – is over. There’s no going any further. Done with.
That ISN’T automatically a problem. Again, there’s nothing wrong with building the possibility of failure into an adventure. But it has to be a choice you made. So, whenever you set up a bottleneck, you also have to decide whether that bottleneck is allowed to bring your adventure to a screeching halt or not. And if you don’t want it to, you have to decide how the party keeps going from that bottleneck after they fail.
For example, imagine that, on day two of the murder investigation, the guild of murderers sends a powerful assassin to attack the party. The guild wants to scare the party off the investigation. But, you – the writer of the adventure – also included the scene so you could introduce the guild of murderers. Classic use of a bottleneck. What happens if the murderer wins?
Obviously, the PCs die. And that’s always a risk with any combat. But what if the heroes flee? And they fail to learn anything because they fled. What then? If the murderers’ guild was the stairway to the next level of the adventure – if that’s where the next set of possibilities would open up – the adventure might be over. Unless you have an alternative plan.
Just because a bottleneck is a bottleneck doesn’t mean it can’t have a way out of it that corresponds with failure. In this case, the party might have to do a bunch of scenes trying to get information about the weird uniform the guild murderer was wearing in order to even learn the guild exists. And THAT might lead them to the same possibilities they would have had if they had killed the murderer.
And THAT is why most GMs say “never have a bottleneck, because failure blargle wargle waaaaahhhh!”
And THAT is also why I’m so much better than all of them.
You’re f$&%ing welcome.