What the Actual F$&% is an Adventure Anyway?

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I’ve spewed out a lot of curse words on this website trying to penetrate the skulls of my readers with what what I consider to be the very basic skills of GMing. If I had been more organized and had any sort of plan in the beginning, I actually would have organized all that s$%& a lot better. But frankly, I didn’t think anyway wanted to read that crap and I wasn’t intending to write it. But that’s neither here nor there. For better or for worse, I have become the screaming Dalai Lama of teaching new GMs the ropes. Fine. Just call me Angry-senpai. Kawaii as f$&%. That’s me.

"Kawaii as F$&%" by Shazzbaa

“Kawaii as F$&%” by Shazzbaa

Now, the thing is, there’s sort of a progression of skills. The first thing a GM has to learn is how to handle it when a player says “my character does a thing.” Action adjudication. Along with that comes how to tell the players what’s going on in the game. Narration. Those are sort of the twin skills of running the game.

Once you can handle telling the players what is happening and respond to them doing things, the next thing to understand is how encounters play out. You’ll notice, I’ve covered a lot of that in one, or two articles. Or several. Well, a lot, really. I had to make a whole category for them.

But, unless you’re a complete goober or you haven’t been reading my s$&%, you’ll notice that once you start getting into the nuance of how encounters work, you start to glimpse another layer of GMing. Beyond running the game, there’s the layer of creating your own brilliant s$&% to run. Running encounters and building encounters are two skills that are tough to separate. Especially because, when you’re running a game and your idiot players do something unexpectedly stupid or bizarre, you end up having to create an encounter just to avoid dead air. Encounter building is a crossover skill. It is partly about running the game and partly about building games.

But we’ve graduated from there. I mean, sure, there’s still a few topics I need go back and cover. But I’m taking this whole “How to F$&%ing GM” series in a new direction starting today. It’s time to graduate into intermediate Game Mastery. Sophomore year, b$&%es. It’s time to learn how to create content. So the next big ole batch of articles are going to be about the art of creating your own adventures. We’re going to refer a lot to the encounter building s$$&, so I hope you at least understand the basics of what an encounter is.

Thing is, though? You don’t really need this s$&%. I ain’t gonna lie. Building adventures is not a necessary skill. It takes hard work, it’s time consuming, and you’re going to be throwing these works of art in front of a bunch of psychotic monkeys that just want to fling s$&% all over your creations, kill the inhabitants, and take their stuff. If that sounds like a thing you’d enjoy, you probably have a serious mental disorder. But you’ll fit right in. My therapist tells me I’m a f$&%ing nutjob.

Seriously, though. You got more than enough from me to just go out and run a f$&%ing game. And i’ll keep coming back to that topic too. But this is the next level. If you want to come along, fine. If you never want to come back, well, you’re not different than every other person in my life who claimed to love me. Just f$&%ing abandon me. I don’t care.

What the F$&% is an Adventure?!

This is going to be one of those obnoxious groundwork laying articles about narrative theorycraft and all that horses$&%. Unfortunately, it’s necessary. See, before you can build a thing, you gotta know what the thing is. And how it’s supposed to look. You can’t animate a sewn together pile of corpse parts if you haven’t at least read Frankenstein. So, just like when we sat down to talk about encounter runnery and encounter buildery, we’re going to waste an article on talking about what actually makes up an adventure. But I promise, it’s going to be interesting.

Now, the funny thing about that stupid question (what is a f$&%Ing adventure anyway) is that everyone sort of knows the answer. Or they they think they do. But no one can actually really give a good, useful, structural definition. We all know that adventures are the episodes of a role-playing game. We know they stick together in an ongoing story. We know they are made up encounters. But after that, it sort of gets vague and fuzzy. And people start to stammer and stutter and say “well, you know… it’s like… you watch an episode of a TV show… and… adventures… they have scenes… and… that… they have a hook right? Umm… you can do event based or site-based. That’s a thing… and… well, sometimes they all kind of mush together and you can’t really tell where one ends.”

Surprisingly enough, that’s not helpful. Fortunately, I’m a motherf$&%ing genius and I have a useful definition. I’m going to throw it out here. And then you’re going to look at it and say “wow, that sounds like storygamey narrativist bulls$&$.” And that’s exactly what you said when I defined an encounter as “a segment of the game which poses and answers a dramatic question through the resolution of one or more conflicts.” Right? But, I was f$&%ing right, wasn’t I?! Yeah. I was.

Okay. Here it is. What the f$&% is an adventure. Here’s the answer.

“An adventure is the smallest segment of a role-playing game that can be considered a complete and satisfying story.”

Right? Narrative, story-gamey bulls$&%. Well settle down. Because I’m going to explain why that powerful definition will make you the best f$&%ing adventure writer in the world who isn’t me.

RPGs are Like Parfaits

Let’s go back to the very very basics of a role-playing game. Once upon a time, I said RPGs are about decisions. That is to say, the basic thing players do in an RPG is make decisions. Everything else builds on that.

For example, a player might decide his character “goes left at the intersection.” Right? That’s a decision. The character could have done anything that the situation allowed, but he chose to go left. Decision.

But notice that that decision doesn’t mean anything by itself. Even though it is the core of the RPG experience, the decision, by itself, doesn’t actually make any sense. It’s naked.

Decisions fit into actions. Actions give decisions context. When the player says “I choose to go left so that I can catch up with the goblin,” suddenly, we understand the decision. The player wants to catch the goblin and has chosen to go left because he thinks that’s how goblin catching is going to happen. The GM then determines the outcome and consequences and a new decision happens.

But the action ISN’T the same as the choice. The choice was to go left. The action is the intention (catch the goblin) and the approach (by going left). The action is MORE than the choice.

And notice, the action itself really doesn’t make sense. It’s still sort of naked. Actions can’t occur in a vacuum. Actions mostly happen inside encounters. So, the encounter might begin with a question like “can the Ranger catch the goblin” and pose a series of sources of conflict like the goblin not wanting to be caught and covering his tracks and the bad weather that conceals the trail and so on. Perhaps that action (going left to catch the goblin) followed from a previous action (I search the intersection for goblin tracks). Or maybe it was just a guess. But the encounter provides the context for the actions. Or, more appropriately, the encounter is a container that holds the actions.

But the encounter ISN’T the same as the series of actions. Actions are actions. The encounter is the dramatic question and the sources of conflict and the decisions points. Those things serve to facilitate the actions, to ground them in something, but the encounter ISN’T a series of actions.

And you can probably guess where this is going.

The encounter is missing some stuff. The encounter presents us an immediate goal (catch the goblin) and opposition to that goal (evasive goblin and bad weather). But notice the encounter doesn’t give us anything beyond that. Why does the ranger care about catching the goblin? How did the ranger get to this point? And where does catching the goblin lead him?

See, many people are inclined to say that an adventure is a series of encounters and leave it at that. But that’s not true. Encounters are encounters and you can string together whole bunches of encounters easily enough. An adventure is a container for encounters and it provides the encounters context. It gives them meaning. It keeps all of your encounters and actions and choices from running around naked.

But let’s jump ahead for just one second. The next level up is the campaign. At least, most of the time. There are a lot of ways to subdivide a campaign that aren’t important. And you probably suspect that a campaign is going to turn out to be the thing that gives adventures context. And you’d be right and wrong. The thing that is special about adventures in that whole hierarchy is that adventures don’t need anything more. They can HAVE more. You can give them additional context. But they don’t need it. An adventure is the first layer in the gaming hierarchy that is a complete game. That’s what makes it special.

Why Other People are Wrong

I want to take a couple of quick sentences out here just to forestall some arguments from wrong people. I know there are some people who are going to take issue with my definitions and my suggestion that there is an underlying structure to all proper adventures. There are four groups of people specifically: the sandboxers, the improvisors, the endless adventurers, and the f$&%-arounders.

The sandboxers are those people who believe the best way to run a game is to create a big honking world filled with toys to play with and then watch as the players pick some toys and play with them. Here’s a dungeon. There’s a mystery island. Here’s a bunch of unexplored hexes. But it’s important to note that the actual toys they fill their world with do tend to accidentally settle into the same structure I’m talking about. Often, though, it is implicit and hard to see. But it’s there. So, dear sandboxers, shut up and listen. You might learn how to make your toys more fun.

The improvisors are the people who don’t plan adventures in advance. They sit down and start running a game and just see where it goes. And, what you’ll find, is that if the game is good, it usually ends up settling into the same basic underlying structure. And if it doesn’t, it usually becomes a f$&%-arounder game. So, dear improvisors, you’re using the same rules everyone else is, you’re just doing them on the fly. Shut up.

The endless adventurers are the people whose games don’t break down into adventures at all. Each session blurs into the next, apparently without structure, pacing, or conclusions. It’s just a big, ongoing mess. And truth be told, I fall into this category a lot of the time. But here’s the thing. It turns out that most of these people aren’t running a campaign, they are just running one long adventure. And when you consider it from beginning to the very end, you can see it aligns. And if it doesn’t, it’s a f$&% around game. Dear fellow endless adventurers, yes, you are running adventures. You’re just running a very small number of very long adventures. Or just one. And no one ever told you that doesn’t count as a campaign.

And finally, the f$&% arounders are the people who just sit at a table and f$&% around. It’s just a world filled with the disjointed, wacky antics of the players doing whatever the f$&% they want, usually screaming “chaotic neutral, b$&%es” while setting fire to another puppy orphanage while their fellows a riding a flaming carriage through the streets of town and waving their wangs and/or tits at the ruling NPCs. Dear f$&% arounders, you are beyond my help. Please close my website. You just keep doing your thing. Far, far, FAR away from my table.

The Triforce of Adventures

Okay, now that we’ve got those people out of the way, let’s talk about the Triforce of Adventure. That is, let’s talk about the things that mean that an adventure “is a complete and satisfying story.”

Every adventure has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Hahahaha. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Two thousand words of bulls$&% just to culminate with “beginning, middle, and ending.” I got you f$&%ers good. Man, I LOVE being a blogger. I can do anything. I have all the power. Ha! I wish I could see your faces. Hey, Tweet me an image of the look on your face when I said “beginning, middle, and ending.” I’d love to see it.

Nah, I’m just f$&%ing with you. It just so happens that the Triforce of Adventure aligns nicely with beginning, middle, and ending. But it isn’t actually beginning, middle, and ending. But the three Triforces of Adventure are the Triforce of Motivation, the Triforce of Structure, and the Triforce of Resolution.

The Triforce of Motivation and the Triforce of Resolution

It is helpful to start the discussion about Motivation and Resolution by talking about them both together. That’s why I’m talking about them both together. And then I’m going to separate them.

As I alluded above, an adventure is really just a way of stringing together a series of encounters. Think of it like skulls on a pike. The skulls are the encounters themselves. But they’d fall apart without the pike holding them together. An adventure provides the pike that you drive through the skulls of your encounters.

Motivation and Resolution provide the force and the direction of the thrust of the spear through the skulls. And I realize that’s really pushing this metaphor a bit too far, but I don’t give a f$&%. Without tortured, overwrought metaphors, my writing style would degenerate into “pretentious swearing.”

Motivation and Resolution basically keep the story moving from a beginning to an ending. See, every adventure has a beginning. Something happens that needs fixing, or something needs doing, or something needs solving, or something needs rescuing, whatever. And every adventure ends shortly after the thing is fixed or done or solved or rescued or whatever. Or the thing is broken beyond repair or can’t be solved or the hostage is dead or whatever. Now, you might think of the Beginning and Ending as the important bits. But they aren’t. What’s really important is that together, the beginning and ending provide Motivation and Resolution.

Motivation is what makes the characters move from the beginning to the ending. And Resolution is the ending they are moving toward.

The Triforce of Motivation

Okay, Motivation is complicated because there’s two of them. Because RPGs aren’t movies.

In a movie, the writer gets to assign whatever motivations she wants to the characters. She doesn’t actually have to convince the characters to go on the adventure. She just has to write characters that WOULD go on that adventure. The only thing she has to worry about is making sure the audience cares about the adventure.

Well, GMs have it harder. We have to worry about both the characters and the audience. That is, the PCs and the players behind them. So, an adventure has to provide a reason for the PCs to want to seek the Resolution and it also has to provide the players with a reason to want to seek the Resolution.

So, let’s say a dragon is attacked by an evil village and hires the PCs to slay the village. There are a lot of reasons why the PCs might want to take on the job. Maybe they are motivated by a desire for justice, maybe they hate villages because village killed their parents, maybe they just want the opportunity to loot the village, or maybe they want the friendship of the dragon, whatever. The point is, the adventure has to provide the PCs with a reason to do the thing. Motivation.

Meanwhile, the players also need a reason to want to play this adventure. Maybe they are excited about gaining experience and treasure. Maybe they want to play out the scenario of infiltrating the evil village. Or maybe they don’t even care what the adventure is. They’ll have fun doing almost anything. Different adventures and different styles of game provide different engagements.

We’re going to talk more about Motivation in a future article. But just understand right now that Motivation serves a dual purpose. It explains why the PCs are doing the thing and it gets the players interested in doing the thing. And given the choice between the two, it is almost always better to engage the players than the PCs. The PCs will go along with anything the players WANT to go along with. But that’s my little secret.

The Triforce of Resolution

Every adventure begins with a thing that needs doing, right? And once the players and their characters have their reasons for doing it, the next thing you have to worry about is delivering on the promise the adventure made. What do I mean? Well, every adventure technically begins by promising an ending.

Now, I’ve gotten into trouble in the past for suggesting that all adventure writing begins with the ending of the adventure. But that’s because people are stupid and don’t recognize my genius and they like shouting. It’s my cross to bear as the best damned DM the world have ever seen, bar none.

But it’s true. Every adventure begins with the promise of an ending. Or rather, the promise of a Resolution. Now, I’m not suggesting you actually write the goddamned ending to the adventure. Endings are uncertain. But you do know a few things about the ending.

For example, if your adventure starts with the premise of an evil village attacking a dragon, it has to end with the evil village being dealt with in some way. Or with the village finally defeating the dragon. It’s a good idea to keep options about HOW the evil village is dealt with and to allow the players to find creative ways to solve the problem. Maybe they make peace with the village. Maybe they slay and loot the village. Maybe they side with the village against the dragon. Who the hell knows? But you made a promise of evil village, you have to deliver on that promise somehow.

Of course, we’ll talk more about Resolutions in the future.

The Triforce of Structure

Going back to that terrible spear metaphor, Motivation and Resolution are the direction and thrust of the spear. The Structure is the spear itself. It is what actually keeps the skulls together. But let’s try a more useful metaphor.

Imagine you crack the skull of an orc and let him fall bleeding and unconscious to the ground. Blood starts flowing from wound, driving by the beating of the orcs heart and by gravity. That’s Motivation. Eventually, the blood finds the drain in the floor and it dribbles away into the mysterious place under the drain where all liquids eventually meet. That drain the Resolution. It’s where the blood goes. But you’ll notice that the blood tends to flow in little rivulets. It follows the seams between the tiles, cracks in the floor, little depressions, and so on. It doesn’t flow all willy nilly. Unless there’s a lot of it. Which can happen in adventures. That is the third thing an adventure provides. It provides a Structure. A way of channeling the Motivation towards the Resolution.

The Triforce of Structure is an incredibly complicated bloody spear (pick whichever metaphor you want), though it looks pretty simple. It’s basically just the way the encounters and scenes of the adventure connect up. If you want to see a visual representation of the Triforce of Structure, look at any dungeon map. A dungeon map is just a map of the connections between the scenes and encounters that lie between the starting point and the ending point.

But the Triforce of Structure is a fickle spear. You COULD just throw a bunch of encounters down and draw lines between them and you’d probably have a functional adventure. But there’s so much more to it. The art of adventure design (whether you write for publication or home use or whether you improvise s$&% at the table) is mainly about managing the Structure. And that involves a lot of s$&%. Narrative concepts like pacing become incredibly important. Game concepts like difficulty curve and decision points also become important. And mechanical concepts like challenge ratings and in-game resource attrition also become important. Adventure design is really the place where EVERYTHING comes together.

And THAT is why we did encounter design first. Because, in some ways, encounter design is the same sort of alchemy. There’s narrative, game, and mechanical issues to consider all at once. And in the next few weeks, as we pick apart adventure design, we’re going to spend most of the time talking about the Triforce of Structure.

Adventure Building in Summary

I realize I covered a lot of ground and you read a lot of words and most of it was just philosophical narrative bullhonkey, but I DID warn you. This stuff takes a lot of effort and we have to be on the same page from the very f$&%ing beginning. For now, just try to remember that adventure building is a lot like cracking an orc’s skull, putting his skull on a pike, and recovering the Triforce.

But if you’d like something more useful to remember, remember that adventure writing begins with these questions.

  • How is this adventure resolved?
  • Why do the characters want the resolution?
  • Why do the players want to play the adventure?

After you’ve laid that foundation, the rest is about building encounters and deciding how they all join up. Got it? Good. Now go away. I’m busy.

4 thoughts on “What the Actual F$&% is an Adventure Anyway?

  1. This article is really fantastic and I’m very glad that it’s finally here! Before reading your articles DMing felt a bit like flailing around in the dark. You bring a clarity and rigor to the subject I’ve never been able to find elsewhere. (One would think someone would write some kind of Guide for Dungeon Masters that would have this sort of advice in it…)

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you! I’m really looking forward to the rest of the adventure-building series.

  2. Man. I’ve been waiting for this series of articles for a long time.

    I know structure isn’t but for a few weeks away; but, I am extremely interested in hearing what you say on how to design time-sensitive adventures.

    I could really use it for my current adventure 🙁

  3. Great ****ing article! I like the part about the evil village attacking the dragon. No, but seriously thank you for providing this useful information on adventure building that the Dungeon Master or Game Master guides usually lack.

    Soon, it will be my turn dming at my table and I will make sure the players have one “Hell” of a time. *Evilly laughs*

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