I know you’re not going to understand how what I’m about to say ties into the rest of this article, but I’m going to say it anyway. Because it’s going to come up next week. Even if you don’t like someone, even if someone has a lot of terrible ideas and awful opinions, and even if someone actually demonstrates themselves to be a massive douchecanoe, that doesn’t mean every idea that comes out of their noise hole is utter crap. Sadly – as many people on the internet constantly prove – you don’t have to be a decent human being to be smart. Hell, based on internet interactions, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s an inverse correlation between intelligence and not being an asshat.
Look at me, for example: I’m a jerk. I’m a huge asshole. And I’m very smart. And I have a lot of great ideas. And if you want to run a great game, you’d be kind of stupid to throw away those great ideas just because they come out of the brain of an acknowledged asshole.
That’s why you have to judge every idea on its own merits. I mean, if you want to actually improve yourself or reach the best, most intelligent conclusions. If you dismiss an idea because you hate the person it comes from – or assume an idea is good because it comes from an attractive, friendly person – well, your own dumb brain is going to atrophy. And you deserve it.
Here’s the thing: in the last couple of years, a lot of game designers with free access to social media, have demonstrated themselves to be assholes in one way or another. Now, which game designers are assholes and why they are assholes and whether I’m on that list, that varies based on your own personal views. You may not think the same group of game designers are assholes that I do. But I’m sure you have a list too. But, the thing is, when it comes to game design, they are actually pretty good at what they do. Being not an asshole is not a prerequisite to designing a good game. And if you want to design a good game, you have to listen to good ideas, even the good ideas of assholes. Because good ideas are actually rare, special things. And you need as many of them as you can get.
“But,” you say, “I am not trying to be a game designer. I come here to your website, Angry, because I just want to run a good game. And maybe write my own adventures and make my own game content.” Well, I’m sorry to burst your stupid bubble, but you ARE a game designer. You have to be. Because D&D, Pathfinder, and all the other table-top RPGs in the world, they are all incomplete games. They are missing fundamentally necessary things that make games games. By design. And it’s up to you, as the GM, to provide those things.
And I will actually be talking more about that in an article next week about the incompleteness of RPGs, what GMs are expected to bring to the table, and games according to a really good game designer who is on my personal list of assholes. But for this week, I’m continuing my discussion of how to build your own adventure by discussing the most important thing that every game needs that D&D doesn’t have. A goal.
Last time we talked about adventure building – like a freaking month ago – I provided a list and a quick definition of all the things that every adventure must have to qualify as an adventure. Remember? Goal, Background, Motivation, Structure, Pace, Scenes, Hook, Climax, and Resolution. Without those things, you don’t have an adventure. You might not have them written down, you might not have them planned in any sort of detail, they might be really simple and consist of only a single sentence or thought in your head, but they have to be there for an adventure to be an adventure.
And although I said you can come up with those things in any order or even improvise them at the table, there’s one thing on that list that is so important that, honestly, it’s really hard to do anything else without it. And the reason it’s so important is that it’s actually not an element of an adventure or narrative, it’s part of the basic nature of games themselves. All games. It’s something every game MUST have to be a playable game. And something that TTRPGS actually DON’T have. Which is why TTRPGS aren’t games. They are game systems. Game engines. Adventures are the games themselves.
Every game has to have a goal. The players have to be trying to accomplish something. There has to be a finish line. There has to be a way to win. And that’s not because of dirty words like competition and challenge that send half my readers into apoplectic fits every time I say them because I’m wrecking their delusion that a role-playing game is actually a “shared storytelling experience” or some horseshit like that. No, the reason games need a goal is because you can’t make a decision if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.
You come to a gate. There’s a goblin standing in the doorway. What do you do?
Now, I’m sure a lot of you have already answered because you think this is some kind of bullshit story exercise and you get to invent what’s happening. But whatever answer you came up with is wrong. Even if it’s right, it’s wrong. Because, no, you don’t get to make up the situation. I already made up the situation. I know why you’re there, what you want, why the goblin is there, what it wants, and what’s on the other side of the gate. Any answer you gave was just you acting at random.
That’s why you need a goal. Imagine if your goal is to visit the goblins and make peace with their leader and that goblin was just guarding the sacred goblin temple which you had no reason to enter. If you attacked the goblin, you just ruined your whole adventure. If you decided to parlay with the goblin, but if the goblins had conquered the palace and your goal was to slay every last goblin in the palace, well, you done effed up.
From a game standpoint, the goal gives the players the information they need to decide how to act in every situation. From a narrative standpoint, the goal provides the endpoint of the narrative through line. If you think of a story like the flow of water, the goal is the place where the river meets the almighty sea. And from a human psychology standpoint, the goal provides a way to measure success and gives the players an all-important squirt of the sweet, sweet dopamine that keeps them coming back to your game table for more.
The reason you pretty much want to set the goal early on in your adventure designing endeavors is that the goal pretty much ties every other element of the adventure together. The goal – or desire for the goal – provides the motivation. The hook points out the goal and pushes the heroes on their way. The goal sets the context for every scene and encounter. It sets up every conflict. Especially the conflict in the climax of the adventure. And the resolution is about the heroes either celebrating their achievement of the goal or lamenting their failure to meet their goal. It’s kind of hard to design the other parts of the adventure without a goal.
Fortunately, it’s actually really easy to come up with a goal. Really. A goal is just a single sentence that runs in the form of “do the thing.” “To succeed at this adventure, the heroes must do this thing.” “Verb” the “noun.” Save the dragon. Kill the princess. Recover the treasure. Deliver the pizza. Conquer the kingdom. Find the cat. Escape the labyrinth. Reach the city. Goals are the easiest sentences – the easiest game elements – you’ll ever have to come up with.
And that’s it. That’s goals. In two weeks, we’ll discuss some of the other adventure elements that revolve around goals: motivations, hooks, backstory, and resolutions. Thanks for reading.
KISS Me, You Fool!
Are you a little disappointed that I don’t have more to say? Well, I guess I can find a few things. There’s optional goals and sub-goals and personal goals and complex goals and shifting goals and secret goals. I guess I could discuss all of those things. But really, I kind of don’t want to. Because most GMs really screw this goal thing up by thinking that the complex goals lead to deep games. And they don’t. But, look, I’ll talk about all of those fun issues right now if you promise to keep this in mind first: simple goals are almost always the best goals.
For example, compare Super Mario Brothers and Kingdom Hearts and Legend of Zelda. Just the first games in each of those series. All three of them start with a very simple goal: rescue the princess. Ultimately, that’s what you’re trying to do. Super Mario Brothers is a challenging game with a very simple narrative. The only depth is in the gameplay. Legend of Zelda is an open-ended exploration-based game with a giant world to discover loaded with secrets. And no two people play it the same way. And yes, I’m talking about the FIRST Legend of Zelda, not Bloat of the Wild. It’s very deep in terms of its gameplay and progression. And then there’s Kingdom Hearts, whose gameplay consists almost entirely with wrestling with a piss-poor camera and just trying to keep a swarm of boring, cookie-cutter enemies in front of you long enough to spam them to death with a single attack button. And screaming and Donald Duck to stop wasting all your ethers and potions. Simple gameplay. But the narrative is, well, I’m not sure that deep is the right word. Inscrutable. Incomprehensible. Nonsensical. Whatever.
And DO NOT go down into my comment section to explain the plot of KH1 or tell me how simple it is. Because you’re wrong.
Point is, the goal is the most important part of every adventure despite the fact that it provides almost nothing except context. The thing about a goal is that it basically just has to exist. That’s all. Once the goal is a thing, it’s done its job. Until the resolution.
And that is why I am a firm proponent of verbing-the-noun type goals. Maybe with a prepositional phrase added. “Escort the NPC to the city” for example or “defeat the cultist before the eclipse.” Goals don’t really add depth to the game. Depth comes from the structure, scenes, conflicts, and other elements in the adventure. The only thing goals really add is complexity.
So, as with everything else, the key is to KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID! And if you promise to never forget that, I’ll tell you about some of the more complicated types of goals. Just don’t go too crazy with them.
As I said above, I’m a proponent of “one simple goal per adventure.” Very strongly, in fact. And while you can build an adventure that’s as simple or deep as you want around a simple goal, what you can’t really do is build a LONG adventure around a simple goal. Up above, I kind of tossed off this one-liner about dopamine and victories. Well, I wasn’t just showing off my knowledge of neuroscience words. It was an important point. Players need victories to keep them moving forward. And they need all sorts of different kinds of victories. Victories literally tickle their brains in very pleasurable ways.
Imagine you’re running a simple, one session adventure whose goal is “kill the goblin leader.” The goblin leader is inside his goblin cave and he was a brave and stalwart band of combat encounters protecting him. Say, three combat encounters. And then, say, there’s also one or two other obstacles along the way. Five encounters and then the climactic confrontation with the goblin boss. Each encounter – the combats and the obstacles – are middling size victories in the players’ brains. When they win the encounter, they feel good and they get to progress. And then, when they kill the goblin leader, they get a big victory. They won the adventure. Huzzah.
Now, that works okay, but the problem is that brains quickly get desensitized to the same stimuli over and over again. If you stretch the same adventure over ten or fifteen encounters, those player brains are going to get bored. Because all of the victories EXCEPT the climactic victory are the same. They all feel the same. So, each one feels a little less good than the last.
That’s why achievements in video games come in all sorts of different flavors. There’s the simple cheevos every player will get just for hitting each plot point along the story progression. There’s the bigger ones for defeating major enemies like minibosses and level bosses. There’s the biggest one for beating the game. And there’s some weird ones for discovering optional content or pulling off unique tricks or whatever. Each of them is a different flavor of victory and variety keeps player brains happy.
So, if you need to stretch your goblin adventure out, you need to find another flavor of victory to add to the mix so that you can mix it in with the encounters and the climax. One way to do that is to add another level of goal between the encounters and the main goal. We call those subgoals.
A subgoal is a goal that has to be accomplished in order to allow the players to accomplish the goal of the adventure. For example, in the original Legend of Zelda game, Link had to recover the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom before he could access Ganon’s dungeon in Death Mountain. And before he could defeat Ganon in the climax of the game and then rescue the princess, he had to find the silver arrows. Those things represent subgoals.
Sub goals are really just steps that have to be accomplished before the goal can be reached. And “have to” is the key. Because, below, we’ll talk about optional goals. At their most basic, subgoals are basically just there to provide bigger victories than scenes but smaller victories than the goal itself. They serve a psychological purpose more than anything. But, like so many things, they can serve multiple purposes beyond that.
First, sub goals can provide breadcrumbs the players can follow if they need them. And this is especially important if the goal of the adventure is something big, grand, and seemingly impossible. For example, if the goal of the adventure is to “kill a god” or “destroy an artifact” or “bring back the dead” – things that seem pretty impossible and are therefore really fun, exciting goals – the sub goals can help the players see how such a goal might be possible. They might need a specific weapon, first, which has been lost to the mists of time. And then the weapon might have to be empowered at a specific location. And the players will have to breach the god’s defenses. Only then can the players actually confront and defeat the god.
Second, sub goals can let you stretch out an adventure without making it boring and without resorting to huge ass mistake of trying to build an adventure around multiple goals. See, the plain fact is that you just can’t have multiple goals in an adventure. Because one goal will end up being the last goal. The one that gets resolved with the last climax. And that goal, in the minds of the players, will end up being THE goal. And if you try to offer multiple goals and let the players pursue them in any order, well, you lose control over the climax and resolution and the emotional impact of those things.
So, sub goals let you fake having multiple goals by nesting the multiple goals inside a bigger goal. Like gathering the eight pieces of the
Triforce the Rod of Eight Parts so you can save the princess. After all, the goal isn’t really to gather the pieces of the Rod anyway. It’s to assemble the Rod and, you know, have it. Use it. Do something.
Point is, if you want to build a long, complex adventure, you still need one goal at the end. One finish line. But you need some major victories and turning points along the way. And those are subgoals. Simple, right?
Like a subgoal, a side goal is a smaller goal that the heroes can accomplish along the way to the actual goal of the adventure. But, unlike a subgoal, a side goal is completely optional. The heroes can complete the adventure successfully without doing any of the side goals. But, if they do complete a side goal, they usually get something for it. Maybe it makes the adventure easier, maybe it offers some other reward, maybe the heroes receive a hearty congratulations or thank you or something.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter what they receive. What matters is they receive something. And that the side goal is actually optional. I’ll come back to that “receive something” part in the next section. But that “optional” thing really confuses the hell out of some GMs.
For something to be optional, it actually has to be an option. That is, the party has to choose to do it. And they have to be able to choose not to do it. And the choice has to be deliberate. Sort of. Look, if the goblin boss has an ogre sidekick, you can create a side goal that says, “also kill the ogre sidekick.” That’s fine and dandy. But if the ogre sidekick is always in the room right outside the goblin boss’ lair, then it that goal isn’t really OPTIONAL, is it? I mean, yeah, technically that party COULD suddenly decide to come across all high-minded and decide that, for this one encounter, they are going to choose to peaceful route and let the ogre surrender or run away or something, but that isn’t actually effing likely, is it?
So that’s not optional. If it’s something that the party is pretty likely to do anything in the course of the adventure, it ain’t a goal, it’s just another obstacle or challenge. And you can’t just make it a goal by saying it is.
A good side goal is something that (a) the party has to choose to do and (b) would probably not to choose to do unless there was something in it for them. Or, alternatively, (a) the party has to choose to do and (b) costs them something to do. For example, in the above adventure, a good side goal might be “and don’t kill any ogres along the way because the ogres are just stupid, innocent thralls of the goblin king.” The ogres are going to try to kill the PCs. The PCs are going to have work a little harder to win the adventure without killing any ogres. Except in D&D 5E where you can just suddenly decide after you kill something that that last blow wasn’t actually deadly and it just knocked out the target harmlessly. Because, yeah, concussions are harmless and retcons are okay and why should it take any extra risk or effort to keep a foe alive? Stupid game designers.
Point is, a side goal has to be optional and it has to be work. If the heroes are going to earn a victory for it, they actually, you know, have to earn it. I know “earning shit through hard work and merit” is a dirty phrase these days, but that’s really how it should be. And when you pick a side goal, you have to take into account the normal behavior of adventurers before you decide if something is actually optional or not.
For example, if the adventure goal is to “locate the treasure in the ancient ruin” and you’ve got a standard party of heroes, you know those heroes are going to pretty much explore every room of the dungeon to make sure they don’t miss anything they can kill for XP or loot for GP. That’s how heroes are. So, side goals like “explore every room” or “discover this one specific room” don’t count as side goals.
Side goals are really nice additions to the adventure because they can actually add depth, challenge, and choice to the adventure. Especially if the side goals place conditions on the main goal or require the party to expend resources they wouldn’t otherwise spend in the pursuit of the main goal. Thus, a good way to assess a side goal is to ask “okay, why wouldn’t the party choose to do this” or “how does this make the heroes’ lives more difficult.”
And that brings us around to the concept of receiving something. And an important aspect of subgoals and side goals and even of the actual, single, main goal of the adventure. What makes a goal a goal?
What’s in a Goal
Here’s the deal: for the goal of the adventure to have any meaning at all, the players have to know what the goal is. That’s why the goal of the adventure is usually stated clearly at the start of the adventure. In fact, a good adventure includes a special scene at the beginning called a hook that pretty much just spells out exactly what the goal of the adventure is. If the players don’t know where the finish line is, they won’t know which way to run. If they don’t know what they are trying to do, they won’t know how to play. So, adventure goals are USUALLY explicit.
When it comes to side goals and subgoals – and also when it comes to more complex adventures that involve hidden goals and changing goals – things aren’t so straightforward. Well, sometimes it is. Sometimes, side goals and subgoals are spelled out during the hook scene. Or they have their own hook scenes. Like, after the party is hired to kill the goblin king, they are approached by an ogre right’s activist who begs them not to hurt any of the goblin king’s ogres.
Of course, there’s other ways to reveal sub goals and side goals. One of the best ways is to reveal them through gameplay. Part of the “kill the god” or “destroy the artifact” adventure might be “discover how in the Nine Hells to kill a god or destroy an artifact.” And the answer might be garnered through research and investigation through gameplay. That’s cool. Even finding out about side goals might be optional. That is, if the players take the time to visit the local naturalist before they head out on their hunting expedition – which may, itself, be the result of them getting to know the naturalist in a previous adventure – the naturalist might ask them to bring back some weird ingredients that can be found during their adventure. Just, not easily. Or accidentally. Because a side quest has to be deliberate and costly.
But the truth is, it’s not the revelation that makes a goal feel like a goal, it’s the victory. And to make the victory feel like a victory, it has to be acknowledged. As crazy as it sounds, to make a goal FEEL like a goal and therefore to make accomplishing it feel good, you have to find a way to clap for the players when they pull it off. In an unambiguous way. If only there were some way, in a role-playing game, to make a big deal over each and every victory. Some sort of reward you could hand out in different amounts. Small amounts for small victories. Larger amounts for big victories. Middling amounts for stuff in between. But what…
This is something that DMGs and GMGs and other rulebooks do not make a big enough deal about: EXPERIENCE POINTS ARE VICTORY. There’s a damned good reason why every successful encounter should offer an experience reward. And there’s also a damned good reason why the game designers who call “quest XP” or “story XP” an “optional rule” are dumb. There’s a reason why MOST gamers get a thrill every time golden confetti sprays across the screen and a victory noise plays and you earn some XP whenever you complete an objective in a video game. Because it establishes, firmly, that the thing you just did was a goal. And you did it. Hail, the conquering hero.
So, I am telling you this right now: apart from clearly establishing goals during the hook of the adventure and making sure sub goals and side goals are USUALLY clearly discoverable in the game, assign each goal an XP total commensurate with the size of the goal and hand that out whenever you hand out other XP and tell the players exactly why. And I don’t want to hear anymore why you think tracking XP sucks – as a player or a GM. That argument is over and done. I’ve had it a thousand times over. You’re just wrong. Go be wrong somewhere else.
The point of side goals and subgoals – more than anything else – is to create incremental victories of varying sizes in your adventures. And if you’re not using XP, you’re losing an important tool that works directly on the brains of MOST players to call out the victories.
Anyway, that’s goals, subgoals, and side goals. And, honestly, you can run great games of any length for years and years with just those. But let’s finish up with one more way to overcomplicate your adventure goals unnecessarily.
The goal of the adventure is important because it establishes the context for everything in the adventure, right? It drives all the conflicts and it keeps the characters pointed in the right direction. It keeps them moving forward. Or at least makes sure they know which way forward is. Without a goal, the players are stuck acting at random. So, you’d never want to keep the players from knowing the goal, right? Or the subgoals? And because side goals have to be deliberate choices, it’d be impossible to have side goals the characters don’t know about, right?
Well, sometimes, it IS possible to hide goals. And sometimes, and ONLY sometimes, it’s even desirable. Sometimes, VERY sometimes, hiding goals can make an adventure better.
First, understand that the heroes do have to be working toward a goal. You can’t ever have the players wandering around without a goal. Never. But the goal they are working toward doesn’t have to be the one they are actually going to achieve. Goals can change. Take the classic example where the heroes discover, partway through the story, that they have actually been working for the bad guy all along. And thanks to their help, the bad guy is going to accomplish something terrible. Unless, of course, the heroes stop them. That’s a shifting goal. A shifting goal occurs when something in the adventure invalidates one goal and sets up another. The heroes set out to recover the magical item from the tomb, but once they lifted the seal on the tomb, some bad guys attacked and reanimated the evil dragon-king buried in the tomb. The magical item was a ruse. The bad guys just wanted the heroes to open the tomb. So, suddenly, the party finds itself with a new goal: destroy the reanimated dragon-king.
Now, you can plan shifting goals from the beginning. You can set up a story where a big event, partway through the adventure, will shift the party in a new direction. That’s fine. In fact, those adventures can be pretty cool. And, a subset of shifting goals, excuse goals, are a great way to start new campaigns. An excuse goal is a goal that simply provides an excuse to get the party moving toward something that will establish a real goal. How many campaigns start with the heroes escorting some merchant somewhere when, suddenly, the real adventure breaks out on the way. The goal that starts the adventure and gets the party through that first encounter and gets them working together, that’s not the real goal.
However, goals can also shift as a result of in-game events. For example, imagine the players fail in their goal to stop the cultist’s ritual. The ritual is complete, the demon prince has been reborn, and now it’s eating the hapless town of Hapston. New goal: kill that demon prince.
Shifting goals are easy enough to handle. All you have to do is make sure that you never take away the goal of the adventure without explicitly establishing a new one. The players can NEVER have no goal. Otherwise, they will start acting at random and they will probably burn down your game world as a result.
When it comes to sub goals and side quests, it’s actually possible to keep them completely hidden from the players for a while. I mentioned discoverable goals above. Those are goals that aren’t established at the beginning of the adventure during the hook. Instead, during gameplay, they can be revealed to the heroes. Explicitly or less-plicitly. What do I mean? Well, imagine if, during their exploration of the goblin lair, the heroes stumble upon some goblin’s journal that reveals that the ogre was enslaved and brutally trained to serve the goblins and that it’s basically an innocent monster pressed into service against its will. The heroes can then choose to spare the ogre at which point you say, “and because you spared the ogre instead of killing him, you get 500 XP for achieving an optional objective you clever donkeys.” Won’t they feel proud of themselves?
Discoverable goals are goals that the party has to discover in the game or piece together from clues you hide in the game world. And if the party never discovers the goal – or the clues – don’t reward them for accidentally achieving the goal. Because they didn’t accomplish the goal. And the party should never get rewarded for a goal they weren’t working toward.
Except, you know, sometimes when it’s okay.
Remember when I said that the side goals are goals the party deliberately chooses to pursue? Well, I wasn’t completely, entirely truthful and accurate when I said that. Side goals – and ONLY side goals – can actually be complete surprises. That is, you can have side goals – and ONLY side goals – that the party can accomplish without ever knowing they were working toward. But you have to be REALLY careful about those. Otherwise, you can train your players to act at random.
Let’s say, for example, that the party is exploring a dwarven ruin for a group of dwarven archaeologists who are chronicling the history of some ancient clan. And the party has been tasked to clear the ruin of monsters so the dwarves can explore it. But you set aside this really difficult to find hidden room behind a complicated puzzle lock and a bunch of traps. And inside, there’s an ancient tablet detailing the history of the lost clan. If the party actually locates the room – which is clearly abandoned and not full of monsters – and figures out the puzzle lock and disarms all the traps and recovers the tablet and returns it to the dwarven archaeologists, you can celebrate their accomplishment of a side goal they didn’t even know existed: Return the Lost Tablet to the Archaeologists.
The trick is that the party has to do something that will cost them time and resources that isn’t in pursuit of the main goal of the adventure. Working out puzzle locks isn’t killing all the monsters in the ruin. And that’s assuming they even find the location in the first place.
Now, you can argue that they are just doing what heroes would normally do. Exploring every room. And you can’t put a puzzle lock in a dungeon without the heroes trying to open that shit. Fine. I agree. But if the lock is hidden in an empty room so it takes a deliberate action to scour the room for hidden panels, well, that’s a different story. And of course, when they find the tablet, recognize it as historically significant, and decide to take it to the archaeologists, well, they have no idea they will be rewarded for that.
Here’s the deal with these surprise goals, goals that the party doesn’t know about until they actually accomplish them. The key thing that makes them worth a victory is they involve the players interacting with the world in a way that’s beyond the scope of simply winning the adventure. They show the players are thinking about the world as a world and not just as quest objectives.
To use one last video game analogy, you know how you can usually skip all of the expository text that sets up the quest? Especially in an MMORPG? And then you can just open your quest log and see “kill all the monsters in the Ruins of Underbeard” and you know exactly what you have to do? Well, a surprise goal is worth a reward when it shows the players actually paid attention to and remembered the expository text. That is, in order to recognize the tablet as valuable and return it, they have to have at least seen the word “archaeologist” somewhere in the quest text. In short, they have to see the world as a world and make logical connections about them.
But, again, all of this is just layering on complexity. And you could frankly skip two-thirds of this article and have plenty of fun if you just stick to sending your party off on endless adventures to “verb the noun.”
(Optional) Add a prepositional phrase.