This is part 3 of 4 of the series: A Practical Guide to Adventure Building

Good Ingredients Make Good Adventures

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Welcome back to the Joy of Homebrew, starring everyone’s favorite Internet gamer degenerate: The Angry GM.

But seriously, we’re doing this new instructional series on how to write your own adventure, right? One that’s better than the one I did before because it’s actually, you know, practical and instructional. It’s not just a bunch of concepts. And once we’ve made our way into it a bit, we’ll also have a series of articles demonstrating what we’re talking about. In the last article in this series, I spent a lot of time explaining that, when you set out to write an adventure, you shouldn’t imitate the things you see professional game designers and big companies doing. After all, if Chris Perkins jumped off a bridge or Jason Bulmhan swallowed a laundry detergent pod while Rob Schwalb dumped a bucket of ice water over his head, would you do that stuff too?

The point is that there are certain elements that every adventure – even homebrew adventures – need. But it’s hard to tell what those ingredients are just by looking at published adventures. Because published adventures pile so much other crap on top of those ingredients. And the thing is, if you’re trying to learn how to make a cake, you really need to know which of the ingredients are actually required for the cake to be a cake and how much of all that icing and fondant and fruit topping and crap is totally optional.

Beyond that though, when you’re making an adventure – just like when you’re making a cake – when you’re making an adventure, you want to be able to gather your ingredients before you get started. And you want to be able to decide what kind of adventure cake you’re making.

Okay, this isn’t a perfect analogy. But I like cake. In fact, according to my doctor, I like it way too much. And the point is, I want some cake. And since no one is tripping over themselves right now to bring me some cake, well, I guess we’ll just talk about the ingredients that make an adventure. The things that every adventure has to have to be an adventure. At minimum. And how you decide between the options you’ve got for each of those ingredients. Which is what we’ll call preplanning the adventure. But we’ll get to that part later. For now, let’s just focus on the ingredients themselves.

Minimum Necessary Adventure

Once upon a time, I boiled every adventure down to three things: motivation, resolution, and structure. And that was a pretty good conceptual definition of what an adventure was. But it wasn’t really useful for planning an adventure. It assumed you could make a few logical leaps. And lumped some important stuff together. It wasn’t a practical definition.

Practically speaking, an adventure is a basically just a chunk of role-playing game in which the heroes attempt to accomplish a goal. That’s it. The most definitive, single element of an adventure is that there’s a finish line. There’s a specific something to work toward. And there’s stuff in the way of the goal.

Now, at this point, if I wanted to be all high-minded and conceptual, I would talk about the adventure as a container for scenes and encounters that provides context for all the scenes. And I would talk about the fact that even though scenes, adventures, adventure paths, campaign arcs, and campaigns all have goals, adventures are unique because they are the SMALLEST chunk of goal-focused gameplay that still counts as a complete game and I’d burn through a good two thousand words just on that crap. And I’m sure some people will point out in the comments that my definition applies equally well to adventure paths and campaigns and even to individual encounters or strings of encounters.

But, none of that really matters. All that really matters is this: an adventure is basically a chunk of role-playing game that is, in and of itself, a complete game. That means it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, as crazy as it sounds, knowing that an adventure has a goal, a beginning, a middle, and an end pretty much tells us everything we need to know about the list of required ingredients that make up an adventure. As long as you have a goal, a beginning, a middle, and an end, you’ve got a full adventure there, bucko.

More or less.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that. Because the beginning, the middle, and the end must be complete. It’s like Papa John always told me, “good ingredients make good adventures.” Or something like that. Now, once upon a time, I called the beginning, the middle, and the end the “motivation, structure, and resolution.” And that wasn’t really clear or well-thought out. It made sense TO ME and it was TECHNICALLY correct, but it left a lot unsaid. So, forget that bullshit. We’re starting again with the idea of the beginning, the middle, and the end. And the goal.

In order to be good ingredients, your beginning, your middle, and your end must have certain elements in place. And really, it’s THAT list of elements that defines the minimum list of crap you have to have in place to call your thing an adventure. It’s THAT list of elements that forms a checklist. And it’s THAT list we’re going to go through now. We’re just using beginning, middle, and end as convenient ways of grouping those elements. In terms of the narrative, the beginning, the middle, and end show how the story of the adventure will come together during play. But in terms of planning an adventure, they are just ways of grouping stuff you need. It’s kind of like how a cake has the cake part, the filling part, and the icing part. Assuming it’s a cake with filling an icing. Which is the best kind of cake. Each part has its own set of ingredients and you need to have all the ingredients for all the components if you want to make a good cake.

But I want to add two caveats before I proceed in listing and describing the ingredients of a good adventure. First, as per the previous article in this series, just because something is a required ingredient doesn’t mean you have to plan it out in detail and write it down beforehand. Any of these ingredients COULD be the result of Working Hard or Working Smart and they could be Hard Planned, Soft Planned, or No Planned. That said, some of the ingredients definitely work a lot better if they are, say, Hard Planned or the result of Working Hard or whatever. And the choices you make about some of the ingredients do dictate whether other ingredients can or should be Hard Planned or Soft Planned or whatever. Especially those regarding the structure of the adventure.

The other thing I want to point out is that even though this is a checklist and we’ll be going through things in a specific order – and going over them in detail in future articles in a specific order – you don’t have to come up with them in that order. Which is something else I’ll explain more clearly later. You can start with the goal, start with the ending, start with the beginning, start with the middle, or start with any specific element that’s a part of any of those things. You can bounce around and fill things in as you need them or come up with them. Or you can work meticulously in order, step-by-step. Eventually, I’ll even tell you what I think is the best order to work in. In a future article.

So, with those things in mind, I’m just going to run down the list of elements in an adventure with some brief definitions and descriptions. We’ll be coming back to each one of these in detail later and delving into how you make the decisions and what decisions are best for the kind of adventure you’re trying to make. Got it? Good. Let’s get listing and describing.

GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!! *vuvuzela noise*

The first ingredient every adventure has to have is also the single, most important ingredient. It’s the goal. See, an adventure is the smallest chunk of an RPG that counts as a complete game. And in order for something to work as a game, the players have to have something they are trying to achieve. That thing is called “the goal.” Cross the finish line. Rescue the princess. Kill the necromancer. Recover the treasure. Explore the dungeon. Seal the portal. Escort the merchant. Catch the thief. Solve the murder. Got it? Goal.

Now, you might think the goal should be part of the ending. But it isn’t. The goal transcends the parts of the adventure. The goal actually ties the whole adventure together. It provides direction, guidance, motivation, context, everything. At the beginning, the goal provides the reason for setting out and the direction to set out in. In the middle, the goal continues to push the heroes in the right direction and also gives them something against which they can measure their progress. And the goal helps you define where the adventure ends and when it ends and how it ends. The goal also provides all of the tension for the adventure. The entire adventure is about answering one question: “will the heroes accomplish the goal or will they fail.”

Because the goal is so important and it ties everything else in the adventure together, it’s kind of important to figure the goal out pretty early in the process. It doesn’t have to be the first thing you figure out, but it needs to come pretty soon after you start writing an adventure. It might actually sound crazy to start writing an adventure without knowing the goal, but I WILL explain how that can happen precisely in a future article.

Also, because the goal is so important and ties everything else in the adventure together, it’s very tough to leave to No Planning. Even Soft Planning the goal can be hard. There are GMs who do it and there are certain types of campaigns that require it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do and that doesn’t mean it’s advisable. The thing is that if you leave the goal to No Planning or Soft Planning, you’re kind of forced to leave most of the rest of the adventure to No Planning or Soft Planning except in some particular cases. I’ll talk about those at some point too. There’s neat games you can run with Soft Planned goals and Hard Planned structures. But they are advanced adventure types. Including one type of adventure/campaign that you just never stop freaking hearing about because the people who like it are like cross-fitters, vegans, anti-vaxxers, and current-wave feminists: THEY NEVER FRIGGING SHUT UP ABOUT IT.

Anyhoo…

Goals can be simple or complex. A simple goal is a simple, imperative statement: “rescue the dragon.” Complex goals are more complex sentence with conjunctions and clauses and stuff: “capture the bounty or kill them;” “rescue the dragon, kill the princess, and recover the royal crown of MacGuffin;” “banish the demon through the portal, then seal the portal forever;” or “discover who shot the Deputy and bring them to justice.”

Goals can also change during an adventure. The players might start out an adventure with a goal like “explore the ancient tomb.” Then, after having a confrontation with some evil cultists, the goal can shift to “prevent the cult from animating all the corpses in the ancient tomb,” then to “destroy the undead army under the thrall of the cult leader,” then to “evacuate the town before the undead army arrives.”

The one rule is that there must ALWAYS be a goal, and the players must ALWAYS know what that goal is. Without a clear goal, the players end up acting at random. They don’t know what to do. They just end up dicking around. And dicking around games aren’t actually fun for very long. They seem fun at first. But they get old. Thus, in a game in which the goal is hidden at the beginning, there has to be another goal in place to drive the action and provide direction.

Side Quests and Sub Goals

While every adventure must have at least one goal, some have more than one goal. And those extra goals can take a couple of different forms. If those goals are required in order to “win” the adventure, basically, they are just complex goals of the “rescue the dragon, kill the princess, and recover the royal crown of MacGuffin.” If you don’t do them all, you don’t win the adventure.

But an adventure can also include additional, optional goals. They don’t affect – directly – whether the heroes “win” or “lose” the adventure. Instead, they give the heroes the option to “win even more” or “to barely win” in some cases. Or they do other stuff. The first type of optional, additional goals is sub-goals. A sub-goal is an optional extra thing the heroes could do in the pursuit of the main goal. And usually, sub-goals are connected to the main goal. For example, the main goal of the adventure might just be to rescue the dragon. As long as the dragon is safely home, the heroes can call it a win. But if they can also manage to kill the evil princess so she doesn’t continue scheming against the noble dragon family, well, that’s a better win. And the noble dragon family can get by without the stolen crown of MacGuffin, but if the heroes can also bring that home, well, that’s the best win of all.

Side quests are similar, but they aren’t generally connected to the main goal. They represent additional, optional things the heroes can do while they are also pursuing the adventure’s main goal. They might be favors for NPCs, they might represent the pursuit of personal goals, whatever.

Now, there’s a lot to say about side quests and sub-goals and there’s a lot of ways that a GM can screw them up. But, for now, just know they are a thing. We’ll come back to the topic of goals and side quests and sub-goals and all that crap in a future article. I promise.

In the Beginning…

The ingredients that make up the beginning of the adventure serve to provide context for the goal as well as all for all the other elements of the adventure. Basically, the beginning stuff lays the foundation for the adventure, in both the world and the players’ minds. And it encompasses two basic elements: the background and the motivation. You can think of them as the how and the why of the adventure.

The Background

The background is basically the story of how the adventure came to pass. It’s everything that happened prior to the start of the adventure that has led up to the adventure. In that respect, it’s kind of like a character’s backstory. And it’s usually just as unimportant and useless as a character’s backstory.

Yes. You heard me. GMs love adventure backgrounds as much as players love their character backstories. And so, they usually overdo that shit. And they love the smell of that shit way too much. See, by definition, the background is the parts of the adventure that aren’t interesting enough to be a part of the adventure. And most of the background won’t come up at all during the game. Which is why the background for most adventures can be limited to a couple of sentences. A paragraph at the most.

That isn’t to say the background is completely useless. It does serve some purposes. But those purposes are usually highly specialized and pretty conditional. Mostly, what background does is provide some guidance for the other decisions in the adventure-making process. For example, if the ancient tomb was constructed by hobgoblins to house their honored dead soldiers, the GM is going to design the dungeon very differently than if its a catacomb or burial mound made by primitive humans. But notice how there’s already enough backstory in the phrase “ancient hobgoblin soldier tomb” to pretty much provide all the damned context you need to make a map.

Now, in some adventures, the background can be much more important. Those are the adventures in which discovering the background is, in itself, a goal. “Discover the origin of the mysterious ruin,” for example, is a goal that’s all about uncovering the backstory. Most mystery and investigation adventures are about discovering the adventures’ background, either as the major goal or as one of several goals. In those cases, a more detailed background is important.

Beyond that stuff, though, the background simply serves to anchor the adventure in the world. Basically, the background is what makes the adventure more than just Random Site Filled with Treasure and Monsters #127-B. Well, kind of. The background is what allows the GM to make the adventure more. But the background has to come out during play. That is, the GM has to make deliberate choices to incorporate background elements into the adventure. To reveal the background.

The Motivation

The goal provides the direction for the adventure. It tells the players where the finish line is and gets them started. It also helps them make decisions along the way. But the heroes also need a reason to pursue the goal. They need a reason to want it. And that reason is the motivation.

Motivation comes in two parts: there’s the reason the characters want to pursue the goal and there’s the reason the players want to pursue the goal. Most GMs don’t think enough about either one, but they especially ignore that second one. Fortunately, the players are pretty easy. They want to play the game and pursuing goals is what the game is all about. So, it’s rare to end up with a goal the players don’t want to pursue. Moreover, because the players want to play, the game, their characters will also tend to go along with any adventure you offer. As long as you don’t ask them to do something wildly out of character. You can even argue – correctly, I might add – that a player that resists going along with an adventure because it’s something “their character would never do” is playing wrong and should be beaten unconscious with a copy of Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares and then kicked out of the group.

That said, as a GM and adventure writer, you still have to give both the players and the characters a goal they will likely WANT to pursue. And that’s what the motivation is all about. It’s about asking yourself WHY. WHY would the players want to pursue this goal? WHY would the characters want to pursue this goal? And if there isn’t a good answer that comes from the goal itself, you need to add a good answer to make the adventure work. For example: “see that evil dragon over there? Kill it!” That’s a good goal. Players want to fight dragons. Dragons are badass and that makes the players who kill one pretty badass by the Transitive Property of Badassery. And most heroes, if they are heroes, will want to kill an evil dragon because evil dragons are, ipso facto, evil and destroying evil is what heroes do.

On the other hand, a goal like “go explore that cave,” might not be enough for some players and characters. Some players like to explore, but most players need a little more to get excited. That’s where something like “I’ll pay you to explore that cave” or “I heard there’s a legendary treasure somewhere in that cave, go explore it” helps a lot.

This is the Middle, It’s the Middle of Our Story…

I wonder if anyone will get that heading reference. I’ll give you a clue: “starring Jerry Lewis as Marlon Brando.” Good luck.

Obscure references to 90’s cartoon shows don’t write themselves. Leave a tip to show your appreciation.

Anyway, the middle. Everything that comes before the middle isn’t actually a part of the adventure. Instead, it’s the groundwork. What are the heroes doing, why does it need to be done, and why are they the ones doing it? The middle is the actual adventure part of the adventure. It’s the part you play at the table. And in order to talk about it, I have to do something I’ve never done before on this blog. Not in eleven freaking years of writing articles. I need to add another level of headings. Yeah. It’s a milestone moment. Just don’t freak out. I have no idea what the next level of heading looks like in this site’s theme. I hope it looks cool. I guess we’ll find out together.

Anyway, the middle of the adventure is made up of two basic elements. First, there’s the scenes and encounters. And yeah, those are one basic element that comes in two different flavors. But that’s not why I need the extra layer of headings. The reason I need the extra layer of headings is that there are certain special types of scenes and encounters that need to be addressed separately.

The second basic element is the structure. It defines how the scenes and encounters fit together. And to make things easier, I’m going to talk about that first. For reasons that are unlikely to be clear to anyone but me.

The third basic element – which I forgot about and am only now adding in in post – is the pace of the adventure. And I will talk about that second. Also, for reasons that are probably very confusing unless you live in my brain.

The Structure

The middle of an adventure is just a pile of playable scenes and encounters. But you can’t just have those scenes and encounters pop up like clay ducks at a shooting range. They have to be joined up. There have to be transitions between the scenes and encounters. Those transitions, those paths from scene to scene and encounter to encounter, those are the structure of the adventure. Think of them as the lines on a flowchart.

There’s lots of different ways to structure an adventure. But there’s basically just three different types of structure: linear, branching, and open. I’ll talk a lot more about those later. Right now, I just want to mention them. Remember, we’re just defining terms. And those three structures just explain how the movement from scene to scene is constrained. Basically, what scenes can come before or after what scenes.

Now, there’s two important notes regarding structure. First is that the reason for the structure varies from adventure to adventure, but the structures themselves don’t. Both a dungeon and a murder mystery may have a branching structure. In the dungeon, the branching structure comes from the fact that the heroes can only move from room to room wherever there are hallways. In the murder mystery, the heroes can only move from scene to scene when a lead shows them such a path exists. That is, until the heroes know that a certain witness exists, they can’t question that witness.

The second note is that adventures can have much more complex structures, but those complex structures tend to just be combinations of the three basic structures. For example, a murder mystery might start off by offering the heroes five different leads, five scenes they can pursue in basically any order they want. That’s an open structure. But each of those leads might lead to a series of branching scenes as the heroes run down the lead and gather information. And once they’ve solved the mystery, they might confront the villain at his hideout, which might consist of a linear sequence of challenges. Complex structures might also include optional paths, loops, shortcuts, and dead ends. Because of that, when GMs plan their structures, they tend to plot out a critical path. That is, the easiest, most direct route through the structure of the adventure. Everything along the critical path is critical content. The heroes likely WILL experience that content. They might even have to in order to complete the adventure successfully. Everything else is optional, missable content.

The Pace

The pace is so closely related to the structure that I couldn’t decide whether it needed to be a separate thing or not. And that’s why I’m adding it now at the last minute. Because I decide it’s worth talking about separately from the structure. The pace is all about who controls the flow of the adventure. And how the adventure changes. And whether the adventure changes.

See, structures don’t have to be static things. They can change. The heroes’ actions might change the layout of a clockwork dungeon. Certain things might only happen at certain times during the festival. So, if the party is at the village green at the right time, they can spot the evil teenagers spiking the festival punch. Otherwise, they’ll miss that scene. And even simple things like creatures moving around the dungeon and filling in areas that the players have cleaned out; that’s also part of the pace.

Essentially, the pace of an adventure can be static or dynamic. Static adventures have mostly unchanging structures and scenes. Dynamic adventures have structures and scenes that appear, disappear, and change. And the pace can be player driven or GM driven. That is, the players can decide how to move through the adventure and any changes that happen in a dynamic adventure are driven by the players’ actions. In GM driven adventures, the players are pushed along from scene to scene and the adventure changes in ways that are mostly outside of the players’ control. This is where so-called event-driven adventures live.

The Scenes and Encounters

The middle of the adventure – the part the players actually play – is made up of scenes and encounters. Scenes and encounters represent the moment by moment gameplay. That’s where the GM describes the situation and the players make choices and the GM resolves their actions and describes the results and so on. Now, I distinguish between scenes and encounters because the distinction is important. But know that all encounters are scenes. Every part of the game where the players are making choices and taking actions in pursuit of their goals is a scene. But some of those scenes include conflicts. And by gaming tradition, I call those scenes “encounters.”

Most of the actual grunt work involved in creating an adventure is about planning the scenes and encounters. And so, it’s going to be the focus of a lot of future discussions. Which means I’m only going to discuss it minimally now. I’m just going to say that scenes are a thing and that encounters are scenes with a conflict. Actually, I’ve already said that crap. The only other thing I’m going to add is that not all scenes are created equal. And there are certain types of scenes that need special attention. And, moreover, they something that pretty much every adventure needs.

And because I want to briefly describe those scenes, well, this is where that extra level of headings come in. Here we go…

Plot-Point Scenes and Filler Scenes

That wasn’t nearly as exciting as I hoped. Man, I miss the “blink” tag and the days of GeoCities. Anyway…

Basically, every adventure is made up of two basic types of scenes. Plot-point scenes are scenes around which the adventure turns. They are basically the scenes that represent the stepping stones between the beginning and the end of the story. They are the major scenes. The ones, without which, the adventure just doesn’t make any sense. The scene where the party learns of the location of the evil princess’ tower, for example. The scene where they find the key to the dragon’s cell. The scene where they actually rescue the dragon. The scene where they confront the princess. Those scenes have to happen. They either push the adventure toward its conclusion or send it off in a new direction. That’s why they are called plot-point scenes. You can think of them as the various steps required to complete the goal. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to plan them.

The rest of the scenes aren’t vital to the adventure. They add something: depth, context, challenge, whatever, but they don’t represent movement directly toward the goal. These filler scenes could technically get removed from the adventure and the adventure would still work as an adventure. But the adventure would also be less… less something. Less deep, less engaging, less challenging, less interesting, less immersive, just… less.

The Hook

Two plot-point scenes bear special mention. First, appropriately, is the hook. The hook is usually the first scene in the adventure. And it’s the scene in which the players get to find out what the goal is, what their motivations are, and get sent on their way. I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s important.

The Climax

Second, there’s the climax. The climax is usually the last ENCOUNTER in an adventure, though it may not be the last scene. The climax is both the point of highest tension and the point after which the adventure should be resolved. It’s the boss fight. It’s the big showdown. It’s the final puzzle that protects the MacGuffin. Whatever. It is very important that an adventure has a good climax. But it’s also very common for an adventure to be written without a specific climax. Or where the climax doesn’t come at the end. Where it doesn’t provide the adventure. The truth is this: every adventure is going to have a climax. And that climax is going to determine a lot of how the players feel about that adventure. And if you don’t purposely design the climax to be a climax, you never know which scene is going to end up being the climax. Because something will end up filling the role of the climax in the players’ minds. So, you want to plan for it and make sure it’s a good one.

This is How the Adventure Ends…

If the beginning of the adventure lays the groundwork and the middle of the adventure is the actual adventure part of the adventure, what the hell is left for the end of the adventure? The truth is, not much. In fact, there’s just one thing to the ending. But it’s a big, important thing that most GMs don’t give any thought to. Usually, because they get it confused with the goal. And even when they realize that it’s different from the goal, they still leave it half finished. It’s called “the Resolution.”

The Resolution

So, every adventure has a goal, right? Once that goal is accomplished, isn’t that the end of the adventure? Can’t you just fade to black and roll credits once the princess is dead and the dragon is free?

Well, you can actually. It just isn’t very satisfying. Especially in a role-playing game. Why? Well, there’s two reasons. First, it’s because you don’t just start the adventure by offering a goal. Not in an RPG. That’s how you start a board game. “This is how you win.” And thus it’s okay to end a board game with “okay, you won. Now, let’s put the game away.” But an RPG starts with a goal and a reason to pursue it. It starts with a hook that provides both the goal and the motivation. Accomplishing the goal doesn’t fulfill the promise of the adventure. The motivation has to be fulfilled. The heroes have to escort the dragon home and get paid and get thanked and maybe see a thronging crowd cheering for the return of the dragon. Whatever. Otherwise, it’s just a letdown.

But the second reason is that RPGs offer a chance to be a part of a bigger story. Or, alternatively, to be part of another world. And there has to be some sense that what the players did – and what their characters did – there has to be a sense that what the players did matters somehow. It has to affect something. It has to have some impact on the world.

That’s what the resolution is: it’s you, the GM, deciding what impact the end of the adventure has on the world and on the heroes. What changes? What are the consequences? Why did any of this matter?

Now, the resolution itself is kind of like the background. It’s basically backstory, but if time went the other way. The resolution is something you determine to help you decide how the game plays out. You have to bring the resolution to life. The resolution itself never appears on the screen. The stuff that appears on the screen is determined by the resolution.

For example, after the dragon is rescued, the resolution might be that the kingdom celebrates the return of their sovereign and peace is restored. For a time. But you might bring that to life at the table with a scene at the end of the adventure in which there’s a big feast and celebration and everyone is happy and hopeful and optimistic. Or, if the dragon kingdom is going to provide a setting for future adventures, you might include scenes in future adventures which show how prosperous and happy the people of the dragon kingdom are now.

Although the resolution is like the backstory in that important respect, it’s often given much shorter shrift by GMs than the background. GMs LOVE writing background. They write so much background and most of it never has any impact on the adventure. But they ignore at least half the resolution. That is, the half of the resolution that comes up when things don’t work out right. See, the resolution actually represents the different ways things might play out depending on whether heroes accomplish their goals or fail to achieve them. What happens when the heroes fail to kill the princess or rescue the dragon or solve the murder? And because GMs don’t consider that, they actually write broken adventures. They write adventures in which failure is either impossible, which is basically railroading because the players have no impact on the outcome if they can’t fail, or they write adventures in which they haven’t accounted for failure and so the failure state is undefined. Thus, it’s impossible to fail because no one – the GM or the players – knows what failure actually looks like. If there’s an adventure where the goal is to retrieve a magical treasure from a dungeon, what does failure actually mean? How does the party know when they’ve failed for reals? When they can’t just keep going back and banging their head against the adventure?

That is so important that sometime in the very near future, I’m going to have to write an entire article about failure and the ways GMs fail at dealing with failure. But not today. Today, I just wanted to list the minimum ingredients every adventure cake must have. And I’ve done that. So, now I’m going to find a damned piece of cake.

16 thoughts on “Good Ingredients Make Good Adventures

  1. I just finished my first homebrew campaign and I wanted to say thanks for (all) the sensible advice, this is one of my favourite sites.

    I need to work on pacing but having goals and a rough structure planned out from the start made it much easier to keep things on track AND veer off track when the players decided to.

  2. Looking forward to seeing this series develop. Mainly I just wanted assure you that Anamaniacs references will be caught if you continue to make them.

  3. I can see Angry Book II as all about building an adventure, as I would definitely throw money at that.

    A timely article for me. As a player, I have had plenty of games deflated by poor goal setting (we know something is going on, but its sandbox so why don’t we define our goals, but those goals have no traction because the GM is doing something else in the shadows and – Argghhh!). I have also deflated several games by having poor resolution scenes as a GM.

    One tricky bit of feedback that I have received from my players is that they don’t necessarily like shifting goals: we started playing one game, and then it felt like a bait and switch. (“They” being my players, not all players – which probably means the fault is localized to how I handle it.) I particularly like escalating goals, but I think I have failed to sufficiently address motivations of my players when I have hidden goals that suddenly get brought to light.

    I also tend to bury my ‘hook’ to just after the first day of action. In 5e terms, I can put all of level 1 into the introductory thing that is going on (based on the interests of the players, discussed in session 0), and then flat out tell the players “you are here for this purpose (discussed in session 0), and here is your goal.” Then, after day 1, they get to move up to level 2 and we begin laying down an actual long-term goal, usually relating to the day 1 adventure.

    • I think Angry mentioned before, when talking about Onion style campaigns https://theangrygm.com/peeling-the-onion-campaigns/, that if there’s something deeper going on then it’s important to still make the players feel like they achieved a victory. It’s all too easy to accidentally undermine whatever they just achieved by introducing a background plot that’s behind it all. The problem might be that they feel like the goal changed before they had finished it, or that the introducing of the new goal made the solving of the previous one pointless and a waste of effort.

  4. Really enjoying this installment. Have been slow to get back into designing and these are helping me get motivated to go back in and tackle making a new adventure.

    Wanted to know if you would be opposed to have tie-ins with your “eight kinds of fun” article. Just nods to where approaches would appeal to certain kinds (or better yet, when you have opportunities to engage types that one wouldn’t normally have thought about).

    As usual, thanks!

  5. 2 observations: (1) this column adroitly links mystery scenarios with dungeon crawls in the best way I’ve ever read.

    (2) Gumshoe games have what I guess you might call a special type of “filler” scene called an Antagonist Reaction (many of Pelgrane’s writers take great pains to name the other types of scenes in adventures for the various mystery-oriented games they publish). I only mention it because they have the potential of affecting both the players/PC’s motivations and the pace of an adventure in a way that other scenes can’t. And because they won’t always be found in a flowchart-like map of a adventure, such that a player might wander into one. But man do they make for interesting play.

    • I may be missing something, but what is so special about these Antagonist Reaction scenes?
      If the PCs are present, it feels like they are simply a kind of resolution in which the characters interact with their defeated/victorious opponent or observe the aftermath.
      If the PCs are not present, I feel they may detract from the game rather than add; sure, it may reveal an interesting tidbit of information and it may be a memorable scene, but unless the villain disappears afterwards you now have given the players plot-relevant clues their characters lack.
      If you find out you got the wrong guy because the serial killer strikes again, that’s just resolution. But if you observe with a god-eye view the real killer monologue about how he’s going to skip town and start again in Milan next, someone will suddenly feel like they should go to Milan and stop them.
      This creates a disconnection between character and player and forces them to either make bad choice because they can’t justify the good one with what their character knows, or have the plot feels more clunky because the choices made are no longer natural.

      • Antagonist Reaction scenes are just ways for the NPC villains to mess with the PCs (so by definition they will involve them). One can be as mundane as sending a thug to menace them. But they can be designed as an escalating threat, or dropped in as needed if a session is going slow. They won’t necessarily be pinned exactly to how the players proceed, so there’s no guarantee that a scene will always happen. But they make the antagonist more dynamic.

  6. Nice article, can’t wait till you get to discussing climaxing in detail. New to designing adventures and I have an idea for a survival style adventure. Characters are on a boat, boat does what all good story boats do and crashes. Characters are now stranded and must survive the wilds, assist the remaining crew, rebuild the boat, and sail home. A simple structure but I honestly didn’t even have that before this article so, thanks. That said, while I am confident that I can eventually build all the necesary scenes for the adventure, I have no idea how I will build to a proper climax. Problems for future articles I guess.

    • I second your excitement for climax planning!

      I have been trying to design my adventures to be node-based so I can let the players plot their own course as much as possible–in Angry’s terminology, I’m doing Hard Prep for the Goals, settings and actors, but soft prep for the structure, motivation.

      This method of prep is supposed to seem hyper-dynamic to the players, while wasting as little prep as possible. However, it feels very unnatural for me, and I’m having a ton of trouble figuring out the planning I need for the end of my adventures! Specifically, how the hell do I plan an amazing climax if I haven’t the faintest clue how my players are going to move through the adventure nodes?? I’m looking forward to Angry’s insight.

    • At the risk of stepping on toes – while you are working on the scenes, try to imagine a climax fight that is 1) thematically related to what has been going on, 2) logically progresses from your scenes (rather than just jumps out of no where, like Vikings attack after zero mention of Vikings for the past several months), 3) is challenging, and 4) provides a cinematic / engaging finale.

      So, for example:
      – A fleet of vikings out of nowhere that fights the refugees on the beach where they are resting before take-off of the vessel they just built. This example is terrible.
      – The Mother Kraken, whose progeny has been hassling the refugees from day 1 finally awakens, and descends on the heroes as they retrieve the Magister’s Sextant from the under-cavern….just as tide begins to come in. The heroes have been given enough info to find out that the Kraken was the one that crashed the ship in the first place!

      These are not actual suggestions, just concepts put in practice. A climatic battle is not just one with a high CR and loads of hit points, but one where there is a lot of dynamic and vivid images capturing the imagination, and heightened tension due to everything being on the line.

  7. Nice article, can’t wait till you get to discussing climaxing in detail. New to designing adventures and I have an idea for a survival style adventure. Characters are on a boat, boat does what all good story boats do and crashes. Characters are now stranded and must survive the wilds, assist the remaining crew, rebuild the boat, and sail home. A simple structure but I honestly didn’t even have that before this article so, thanks. That said, while I am confident that I can eventually build all the necessary scenes for the adventure, I have no idea how I will build to a proper climax. Problems for future articles I guess.

  8. Just wanted to comment that I got the reference immediately, and loved it, and anyone who didn’t needs to watch more animaniacs.

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  10. Great site, great advice. Every article I have read so far (just found you 2 or 3 days ago, I WILL read them all) either codifies some of my hard-earned lessons in GM’ing from a 35 year career (not that I get paid for it, of course) or clarifies and simplifies things that I have done…less than optimally, shall we say? I mean, I turned out to be an awesome GM, but that was by beating my head against the dungeon wall in in the dark until I eventually busted through…in most places. Some places I got tired of the squishy sound. You’re providing a lantern, map *and* set of keys to all the doors for those with the sense to make use of it. Even the things I’ve figured out on my own, your presentation makes easier to use. I wish this resource had been available to me, lo those many years ago, I could have been this awesome that much sooner, and progressed to be even better, as I now will.

    TLDR version: Angry’s right about everything

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