Let’s Start at the Very End

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Once upon a time, there was this wealthy aristocratic dude whose authoritarian nature and devotion to his work created a rift between him and his children. After the children drove off countless caretakers, a young woman played by Julie Andrews showed up. Through the magic of numerous song and dance numbers, she mended the relationship between the father and his children. And thus, you have the beloved classic film Mary Poppins. Now add some Nazis to the end and you get the less delightful, tolerated snore-fest The Sound of Music.

Seriously. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but Mary Poppins did come out a year before Sound of Music. Who said “let’s do THAT, but let’s take out the whimsey and Dick VanDyke and add forty minutes of running time and some Nazis”?! And, say what you will about Dick VanDyke’s accent work, but Christopher Plummer didn’t even ATTEMPT to sound Austrian.

Why do I bring this bulls$&% up? Well, in BOTH Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews initially engages the children by teaching them a little something about beginnings.

“”Our first game is entitled ‘Well-Begun is Half Done’” intones Mary Poppins, shortly before teaching the children witchcraft so they can use supernatural powers to clean up their toys. And here’s another reason why Mary Poppins is better than The Sound of Music. First, the corruption of minors with supernatural powers. Second, that’s actually a useful lesson. Starting a task properly is vitally important.

“Let’s start at the very beginning,” explains Maria Von Trapp (or whatever her name was), “a very good place to start.” And then we get a bland song filled with gibberish and no supernatural powers that implies the only thing you need to learn how to sing is to know the names of the notes. And that’s actually a very bad lesson. And that is why I cheered for the Nazis.

Five paragraphs in, time to wrangle this tortured metaphor back to RPGs and adventure building.

Here’s the deal. Whenever you do manage to pin down some GM or RPG book to sit down and start talking about the nuts and bolts about how to build an adventure, they will always tell you that an adventure begins with a “hook.” And then they will sit there all smug-like as if they told you something brilliant and leave it for you to infer that you begin building adventures around a hook. And that’s complete horses$&%.

A hook is a scene. Specifically, the hook is the first scene in the adventure. It’s the one that tells the players (and the characters) what they are expected to accomplish and why. And it might make sense that you start writing an adventure there. Or, it would if you didn’t have me already telling you that an adventure is NOT a pile of scenes. An adventure consists of a motivation, a resolution, and a structure that ties scenes together. You don’t even start building scenes until you figure out those basics.

So, where do you begin when you’re building an adventure. Well, I’ll tell you: you start at the very end.

Resolution: The End IS the Beginning

Okay, let me warn you: I’m about to say something that a lot of “experienced” GMs are going to take issue with. They are going to tell you it’s wrong for a lot of a reasons. Now, I promise I will address those reasons below, but I just know some dumba$& know-it-all is going to leap down into the comment section right f$&%ing now without reading one more word to explain to you why my advice is s$&% and railroady and evil. They probably LIKED The Sound of Music too. But, there’s a reason you read my site and that’s because you know I’m going to tell it like it is. If you ARE that dumba$&, notice how I told all my loyal readers not to listen to you. So please don’t even bother with the comment. Or, even better, maybe read this whole article. You might actually learn something.

Before you can start writing an adventure, you have to know the ending.

If you break down everything I’ve told you about adventures so far, you’ll find that the resolution, the hook, and the structure really boil down into the WHAT, WHY, and HOW of the adventure. The resolution describes the ways in which the adventure can end; it’s WHAT the heroes are trying to accomplish. The motivation describes the forces that push the heroes to accomplish the goal; it’s WHY the heroes are trying to accomplish their task. And the structure that pins all the scenes together describes the obstacles and events the heroes have to deal with in order to actually accomplish their goals; it’s sets forth HOW the heroes accomplish things.

Now, when you plan a resolution, you’re not planning the specific ending of an adventure. You’re figuring out the various ways an adventure CAN end. That’s why I don’t call it the ENDING, I call it the RESOLUTION. Because it’s not the END, it’s more about how you know the adventure is done.

And that’s important because of something I call The Paradox of GMing.

The Paradox of GMing

Let’s lay it out there, plain and simple, and put to rest all the fights. Because this paradox is something that starts more fights about GMing than anything else. And the reason it starts fights is because people live in a world of false dilemmas where everything must be either THIS or THAT. No one admits that the answer almost lies somewhere in the middle and both THIS and THAT are desirable and every person has to decide how to trade-off THIS for THAT and what amounts of THIS and THAT are the right mix.

A well-prepared GM will always run a better and more satisfying game than a less-prepared GM. This is just a simple fact and anyone who argues it is kind of a dumba$%. Usually because they are imposing their own emotional baggage on preparation. Because of the paradox I’m trying to describe.

For example, combat scenes (as I’ve demonstrated) are always more interesting and more exciting if they are well put-together. Encounters, in general, are more interesting and more exciting if you’ve built them properly with an eye toward dramatic questions and sources of conflict and decision points and all that crap. But, more importantly, as we’ve also discussed, human beings expect stories to take a certain shape. The ending should follow from the beginning, proper pacing is vital, cause and effect should always make logical sense, consequences should always follow from the choices of protagonists and so on.

However, because players play role-playing games expecting freedom of choice – and Hell, role-playing is basically ABOUT making choices – it’s impossible to plan. You never know precisely what the players are going to do and what choices the characters will make. To some extent, it is impossible to plan an RPG.

Now, there are lots of solutions to this Paradox and the two absolute worse are “plan everything and force the players to follow the plan” and “plan nothing and just make it up as you go.” Because both of those solutions give up something vital to RPGs. Planning everything sacrifices freedom. Planning nothing sacrifices quality of narrative. Some people will insist, by the way, that improvising an entire game with zero plan doesn’t sacrifice quality. But you’ll find that those people fall into two different types. First, there’s the type that is actually so skilled at improvisation and has such an instinctive understanding of the way stories and RPGs fit together that they can slap them together on the fly. Second, there’s the type that doesn’t know they suck.

I won’t deny it’s possible to eventually get so good at improv and putting the pieces together that you can reliably throw together high-quality games. Hell, I do a lot more improvisation at my table than you might believe reading my blog. When people ask me about my notes and adventure plans, they are surprised to learn my plans are sometimes scribbled on a single Post-It Note. But that’s not helpful. That takes practice and a level of natural talent and a Hell of a lot of confidence. And sometimes it bombs. It REALLY bombs. And that’s why this is called “How to Write a F$%&ing Adventure” and not “How to Pull an Adventure Out of Your F$&%ing A$&.”

Most GMs – the smart ones – find a happy medium between planning and improvising. They come prepared with most of the bits of pieces they will likely need, but they are ready to deviate, to make things up on the fly, to let things go off course and develop naturally. Those GMs accept that sometimes their hard work will just have to be thrown away because it’ll never see the light of the tabletop. That’s part of what GMing is.

The resolution of the adventure is one of those bare minimum things. Again, some people disagree and happily start without an end in mind. And usually, the game will eventually settle on an end and then it will start to look identical to any other adventure. Sometimes it won’t and the adventure will become unfocused and crazy. I call these “F$&%ing Around Adventures” because the heroes aren’t working toward anything. They are just given a world and go f$&% around in it. Some people like that style of adventure. Some people like The Sound of Music. Some people buy orange, shag carpeting. Some people are just f$&%ing nuts.

As I keep writing this, keep in mind this paradox and keep in mind that I’m giving you a middle ground. I’m fully expecting that someday you’re going to have to deal with the adventure that never hits the resolution you were ready for. Or that some of your scenes will have to go into the special paper shredder you reserve for character sheets. And I’m also fully expecting some GMs are going to tell you I’m teaching you plan too much or not enough.

All I’m really doing is empowering you to figure out how much you have to plan and prepare. And that’s just one more reason why I’m f$&%ing awesome.

Failing to Plan for Failure is Planning to Fail at Failure… Or Something

A resolution is generally the first solid thing you come up with. Now, that’s not to say it’s always the first thing in your head. The first thing in your head when it comes to planning an adventure could be anything. You might have an idea for how the adventure starts. Or a specific scene. Or a villain. Or a location. Or a theme. Whatever. I’m just saying when you actually sit down in front of your GMing notebook or Google Drive Document or index cards or whatever, the first thing you really need to pin down is the resolution.

So, let’s say I want to write an adventure about a dragon terrorizing a village because I’m boring. I might write…

Oh, s$&%, okay. Pay attention here. Because I’m doing that thing where I lay the groundwork for a couple of running examples. From here on out, we’re actually going to build some adventures. So, if I say “hypothetically, imagine these resolutions,” in the next article, I’ll probably say something like “remember those resolutions? Let’s talk about the motivations for those resolutions now.” And if you forgot the resolutions, you’re going to feel dumb.

So, let’s say I want to write an adventure about a dragon terrorizing a village because I’m boring. My resolution should describe what has to happen at the end of the adventure so that I know when the adventure is over. “The dragon is killed,” right?

Well, there’s some problems with that resolution. First of all, the problem is not that the dragon exists. The problem is the dragon is terrorizing the village. So it might be better to write “the dragon is killed or driven off,” that way I have a few more possibilities. The dragon is only terrorizing the village because it’s easy. If the village becomes dangerous or troublesome, it’ll be easier to go find another village. See, you always want to leave the resolution as open as possible because players like to be creative and make choices. Hell, the PCs could theoretically broker a peace between the village and the dragon. Some kind of agreement. That’s not likely, but it COULD happen.

Now, that’s all it really takes for a resolution. Remember, the resolution is just what the ending of the adventure has to look like? What sort of shape it has. When the dragon is no longer a threat to the village (because it has been killed or driven off), the adventure is resolved. It takes a lot more words to explain resolutions than it does to actually write down resolutions.

But that resolution isn’t a good one. Notice that that resolution only includes a happy ending. “And the villagers lived happily ever after.” Kind of like “and the family escaped from the Nazis who no doubt returned after the movie ended to take the nuns prisoner and burn the monastery to the ground because the Nazis had a history of doing terrible things to religious institutions and people who harbored their enemies.” Or “and so, thanks to the collapse of the London banking system, the children and their father had a wonderful new relationship and the mother remained off camera fighting for women’s votes and no one ever spoke of her again.”

Here’s the deal, if you are giving your players the freedom to succeed and empowering them to overcome the challenges of the adventure, you are also tacitly giving them the freedom to fail. I’ve written about failure a lot in a lot of different places. And I don’t feel like rehashing that crap because this article is already dragging on a long time considering the end result is a couple of sentences that help you plan an adventure. We’re just going to assume you do the smart, right, logical, correct thing and plan for failure.

So, what does failure look like in the “village being terrorized by dragon” scenario? Obviously, the default failure state is that the PCs are all dead. That one writes itself. But if that’s the ONLY failure state, you run the risk of a problem I call “the endless adventure.” The “endless adventure” is an adventure where the PCs have failed but they don’t realize it and the GM doesn’t make it clear. So the PCs keep trying to succeed even though they can’t, and they won’t let the adventure end and the GM won’t tell them it’s over. That comes from failure to plan a failure state.

That is why, when I build adventures, I generally build in a pretty unambiguous failure state. Something that tells the players that the adventure is over and that they done f$&%ed up. Or that tells them there is no point in proceeding any further.

So, if we imagine that a dragon is terrorizing a village, we’ve got to imagine the dragon is terrorizing it JUST ENOUGH. Maybe it’s feeding on the villages’ herds so that they can barely support themselves. Or maybe it’s demanding tribute. Whatever. The dragon situation implies a balance. It wants an easy life, so it wants the villagers to survive, but just barely, because it doesn’t want the villagers to get uppity.

Now, that situation can resolve itself in one of two ways: either the dragon loses or the village loses. The good ending is that the dragon is killed or driven off. The bad ending occurs when the dragon realizes the easy life is over. The dragon can’t kill or drive off the heroes, the heroes can’t kill or drive off the dragon, and so the vengeful dragon launches an assault on the village out of spite before flying off to find a new gravy train. If the heroes attack the dragon (or do something else to piss off the dragon) and they don’t win, the dragon flies off, burns the village to the ground, swallows a few people as a snack for the road and flies off over the horizon to find a new village.

Remember that resolution, because we’re going to use that as the basis for an adventure we’re going to build over the next few articles.

But let’s do another one so we have TWO fun running examples. I’m going to use an adventure I ran as part of an urban intrigue campaign. Basically, someone was smuggling illegal elvish drugs into the city and no one knew who it was or how it was being accomplished because security at the port was pretty tight. Now, how can that problem be resolved?

Initially, it seems like that’s a pretty simple resolution, right? Destroy the smuggling ring. But actually, it was easier than that. All the PCs really had to do was discover HOW the smugglers were getting goods into the city. Even if they didn’t manage to destroy the smuggling ring, the city police force could handle it from there. Of course, the better solution was to do both.

Now, how might the party fail? Well, that’s kind of complicated. See, in theory, the PCs could keep investigating forever. And then you have the danger of an “endless adventure” where the PCs just keep banging their heads against the cold case with no new leads or clues.

First of all, like any good police drama, the party can get pulled off the case. The police force can decide the investigation is taking too long and they are unwilling to pay given the lack of results. That won’t necessarily stop the party by itself, though. They might decide to continue the investigation out of personal spite.

So, second, we can add another layer to the failure. Something that can actually make trouble for the PCs if they keep investigating past the failure state. For example, a city official (maybe a corrupt official) that resents the PCs efforts to take the law into their own hands once the case is closed.

Now, that’s enough to be going on with because that second adventure (the smuggling ring) actually leads us nicely to the next point of discussion: motivations. Especially because once we start looking at motivations, we might find ourselves tweaking the resolutions a bit.

And that leads into the final point about resolutions: they aren’t set in stone. And I don’t mean that the players can change the ending (but they can). I mean that adventure building is an organic process. Even though you start with the ending, then write the beginning, and then fill in the middle, those three things feed each other. As you figure out your motivations, you might realize your resolutions won’t work. Or as you work through the structure, you realize your motivations need tweaking. And so on.

But you always start with the very end, the very best place to start.

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11 thoughts on “Let’s Start at the Very End

  1. Good read Angry, though not that I’m defending it, but I think I remember hearing that “The Sound of Music” is actually based on a real family that escaped the Nazis (thanks NPR!). I’ve been thinking about end states too, maybe less so with adventures and more so with end states of campaigns. One thing that I think my fellow Nerdarchy collaborator/brother does really well as a GM is to have multiple plot loose ends- it has that feeling of an intense narrative like a “Dresden Files” where all of the problems sort of stack on one another and add to the tension of the game. These plot threads could lead to “endless adventure” syndrome, but imposing those failure states fix that problem and show that, yes players, your choices good or bad, do have consequences. Thanks again for the thoughtful article.

  2. This is one of the most fundamental changes I made to my latest campaign. It also makes it easier to create characters that can answer fundamental questions like ‘why are we still in the same party’ and ‘why would we do this exactly’

  3. Interesting point and something I’m going to try. Also, I certainly hope that you do write a “How to Pull an Adventure Out of Your F$&%ing A$&” article someday. Of course I’m still waiting on you to write that article on how to create adventures using what you learned from megaman.

  4. Seriously, this is the article I needed rigjt now. I’ve been working on a new story and decided to follow your advice on encounter creation and adventure building because I want my story to be awesome and your advice makes a tonne of sense, but my adventure was starting to feel like alot of work. I tried to plan the main plot along with subplot. Working bacwords will allow me to quickly work it the necessary scenes and play with anything else after. Should greatly reduce the work and stress.


  5. I love you Angry <3
    There, I fed your starved ego, that should be better than any Patreon money.

    (Great advice, of course, I've always been shit at GMing and these articles coupled with the dungeon world campaign building technique truly has revolutionized my something something I don't know, my glasses are dirty and my back hurts; I´ll just look up some anime porn and go to sleep)

  6. FYI my wife loves Sound of Music and watched some interviews with the real Von Trapp family. They said the experience was truly horrifying, and yes the Nazis did basically go back and kill all the nuns who didn’t also flee. So yeah not a super happy ending.

  7. This reminds me of Ron Gilbert’s (of Monkey Island fame) techniques for designing puzzles for his adventure games. He said to make good puzzles you had to start with the solution and work your way backwards, otherwise you’ll end up with all sorts of loose threads and dead ends that won’t do anything but frustrate your players. He and his co-creators even developed their own kind of flow chart called a Puzzle Dependency Chart that is designed to flow backwards instead of forwards in order to design good puzzles.

    What’s REALLY funny is the whole reason I read about Ron Gilbert and ended up finding his PDC’s is because of an Angry GM map design article using Maniac Mansion as an example.

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