Some people are NEVER happy.
A long time ago, I did this series of articles analyzing how to build adventures for table-top role-playing games. I looked at all of the different narrative and structural elements of adventures and talked, conceptually, about how adventures fit together. I thought it was pretty damned good. And I figured that if I told people how to THINK about adventures, they could work out how to BUILD adventures on their own.
But still, I got a lot of requests asking me to explain how to actually BUILD adventures. Like, in a step-by-step way. Honestly, I didn’t think it worked that way. And I wasn’t even sure how to build an adventure in a step-by-step way. I mean, I always viewed it as “well, you know how an adventure goes together and you know what your adventure is about, so you just… you know… make the one look like the other.” So, I was like, “okay, how about this? How about I build a damned adventure from scratch? A short, easy one. And then you can just figure out the procedure. And then, if that helps, I’ll do another one of a different type.”
And that seemed to make people happy at first. But then I started to get a bunch of new complaints. People were pissing and moaning because I apparently stopped building the adventure halfway through and because months and months went by and I never finished it and then I stopped even talking about it and maybe I even forgot about the whole thing. Well, I’m SORRY. I was writing an entire book for you people and I got distracted.
Okay, fine, maybe some of the criticism was a little valid. Maybe it’s kind of silly to expect people to learn how to paint by showing them a painting and talking about paint and canvas and then saying, “so now, just put the paint on the canvas until it looks like what Mr. Monet did over there.” And maybe it’s a little unfair to ask people to learn how to bake a cake by watching you do it, but only getting as far as mixing the stuff together in a bowl before you run out of the room yelling about having better things to do and then leaving them to wonder if you’re ever coming back. But I feel like I DID meet you all halfway by making half an adventure. The easy half. And by telling you everything I know about how the parts of an adventure.
But, here’s the thing: a lot has changed over the decade that I’ve been doing this whole website thing. And I didn’t realize how much had changed until I sat down to write that book. As I wrote all that crap the first time, I was figuring a lot of it out for myself. Writing the website was, for me, a lot of thinking about how and why I do the things I do. And why I should do the things I don’t do. Because no one takes all of their own advice. When it came time to compile all that stuff into a book, I was able to be clearer and more concise and approach things already knowing what I needed to explain and how to explain it. That’s why the book is a lot shorter and a lot more focused.
Meanwhile, people are STILL asking me about how to build an adventure. And, frankly, my thoughts on the value of explaining WHAT to do and not just WHY to do it, those thoughts have changed. I see the value of giving processes as long as you also tell people where to break the process when they want to. You know, that whole “teach a man to teach himself how to fish,” thing. Which I still believe is the best way to teach. Don’t give the answers, and don’t teach a process for getting the answer, teach how to think about how to get the answer. But you can’t actually do that last part in a vacuum. What you need to do is teach a process for getting the answer that, in itself, also empowers people to change the process to get different answers. If that makes sense.
Point is – because it’s high time this Long, Rambling Introduction™ got somewhere near a point – point is, I want to redo that “how to build an adventure” thing. I want to clean it up and approach the whole topic anew. Some of the information will be repeated. That’s unavoidable. But even the repeated information will have evolved somewhat. And the whole thing will be a lot clearer and hopefully a lot more focused. It’ll also, hopefully, be a lot more practical.
In the meanwhile, I also plan to start a new “Let’s Build an Adventure” series as a companion to this series. So, you’ll have the practical process and the example. If all you want is the example, you can read that series. If you want the broader process explained to death, this series if for you. The Let’s Build series is going to start completely fresh. It won’t continue the previous example, which I have officially killed. And it will start up in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, this series, “Practical Adventure Building,” will give you a bit of a process – more or less – to follow to throw together an adventure. And it will cover a wide variety of adventures, though it will be mostly focused on building adventures for high fantasy d20 style games that evolved out of, well, you know.
The Joy of Homebrew
Once you’ve gotten past the point where you can run a pretty decent game out of the book and keep your zoo of monkey-lemmings relatively focused on traveling from point A to point B while gathering up all of the treasure C from the monstrous Ds in the dark Ds, you might wonder if that’s what your life is now? Is it just about buying the latest $50 crap book from WotC, reading through that whole thing, and then watching a bunch of monkey-lemmings burn it to the ground? Well, yes. Yes, it is. That is your life now. Sorry.
Except for one thing: you don’t have to buy crap from WotC or Paizo or anyone else. Well, from WotC. Because Paizo ain’t going to be selling crap much longer unless they get their shit together with this Pathfinder 2 crap that literally NO ONE asked for. You can make your own crap. Except your crap won’t be crap. Well, I mean, it will be. But it won’t be as bad as the crap you buy from WotC. It’ll be better crap.
What I mean is that instead of buying your adventure modules from someone else, you can make your own. From scratch. And that’s what this series is all about. Squeezing out your own crap so you never have to pay for someone else’s again. I’m going to show you how to build your own adventures. Using the tools that systems like D&D provide you. Such as they are.
This, by the way, is called homebrewing. That’s a term that actually comes from alcoholism. Basically, it means making your own booze at home so you don’t have to buy it anymore and you don’t have to give up your addiction. Now, people get into homebrewing for all sorts of reasons. Some alcoholics run the numbers and discover that it is actually cheaper to make your own beer at home than it is to buy beer. But those alcoholics are always wrong. Yes, on paper, that LOOKS right. But it isn’t. It NEVER works out that way. And anyone who tells you they have managed to make it cheaper or worked out how it is cheaper is lying. I guarantee you they are forgetting something. Usually, the cost of their own labor.
Now, you might think that I’m digressing into something totally unrelated. But I’m actually not. Here’s the thing: making your own adventures is not something you do to save a buck. It’s not something you do so you never have to buy a module again. It might seem an easy way to generate lots of content without paying a dime, but it NEVER works out that way. And anyone who tells you they have managed to make it cheaper and easier is lying.
Nope, the reason to make your own adventures is the same reason that most people actually get into brewing their own booze: because you are a pretentious hipster douchenozzle who thinks that your bespoke creations will be better or more creative or purer than the mass-produced crap that greedy companies as capitalist cash grabs. At least that’s what we pretentious hipster douchenozzles have to tell ourselves and, more importantly, everyone who stands still long enough to listen. Because we cannot for one moment let anyone around us discover the truth: that we just enjoy doing something. For fun. Which is also why they can’t enjoy something unless they qualify their enjoyment as “ironic.” Ironic enjoyment just means “I like this, but the gigantic stick is lodged so far up my ass it is pressing on the part of my brain devoted to showing actual happiness.”
My point is this: writing your own adventures is a lot of work. It’s hard. And it takes actual skill. Which means you won’t be good at it at first. And that means it will take even more work, but it will also feel bad. But if you stick with it, it’s also pretty damned satisfying. Most GMs are natural creators and natural entertainers. That’s why we get drawn behind the screen. Unless we just got stuck back there because we were the only ones willing to do it. In which case, the reason we stayed and got good at it is that we are natural creators and natural entertainers. And there is nothing so satisfying as entertaining people with your own unique, individual creation. Honestly, running games is pretty cool for a while, but it isn’t that great. And world-building and setting-building are neat, but it’s lonely fun. It’s mapsturbation, as I’ve discussed before. Most world- and setting-building crap will never find its way to the table. But adventure creation? That is where true GMs shine. Where they flourish. World- and setting-building is where GMs who wish they were novelists languish.
I say all of this because you need to be clear on why you’re building your own adventures before you start. You are not doing it to save a buck. You are not doing it because you’re the only true genius of adventure building and all the modules on the market are crap. They aren’t. They are all fine. This is a game about pretend elves, here. It ain’t high art. Sorry. The only reason to build your own adventures is that you enjoy the act of creating adventures and then flinging them at a bunch of monkey-lemmings to crap all over.
You have to enjoy it. You have to enjoy it because it’s work. And because it takes time to get good at it. And you have to enjoy it because once you run that adventure at the table, it’s going to get dirty. Or broken. And parts of it will go unused. If you were the sort of kid who displayed their LEGO sets and didn’t let anyone touch them, you ain’t an adventure builder. Go write a novel. If you took your LEGOs out in the sandbox and played with them until half of them were buried in the mud and the other half were lost, you can make an adventure.
The other reason I say all of this is because, as I write this series, there’s going to be comments from expert GMs who are going to fill the comments with a bunch of advice about how to do less work and how to trick the players into going through all the content you have planned about how to deal with the major problems of stuff not going as planned or players shutting down your brilliant, challenging encounters with one simple spell or how to save your unused stuff for future adventures or how to half-ass something to save some time. If you’re that concerned about your work going unused or getting broken or how valuable your precious time is, well, you’re not an adventure builder. You’re a pretentious hipster douchenozzle who is doing it for “the principle of it.” Or, worse, you’re an idiot who thinks you can do it profitably.
And I am willing to bet that within 24 hours, there will already be a comment below this article explaining why that last paragraph was wrong and extolling the virtues of saving time, being efficient, focusing on the parts of adventure building that are most rewarding, and so on. That comment is wrong. That’s why I have a website that tens of thousands of people read and that person is stuck posting comments no one will read.
Hey. I never said I wasn’t a pretentious douchenozzle. I’m just not a hipster. And I LOVE capitalism.
So What Is an Adventure
Before you can build something, you have to know what, exactly you’re trying to build. Now, I’ve defined adventures before in countless articles. I’ve talked about all sorts of high-minded concepts about motivations and resolutions and structural elements and plot points. Crap like that. And I could just point you back to previous articles on the subject, but that kind of wrecks the idea of writing a definitive series on the subject. I should come up with a nice, simple definition, right?
Well, the problem is that just about any definition will be insufficient. Because role-playing games are kind of messy when it comes to their structure. And, while lots of GMs do like to speak definitively and use nice, authoritative terms in nice, authoritative tones, no two GMs will ever agree on what those authoritative terms actually mean despite every GM assuming every other GM knows precisely what they mean.
So, here’s the thing: I’m going to give a workable if somewhat vague definition of an adventure here to start the ball rolling. It’ll be good enough. But understand that it doesn’t cover every possible way of structuring every game ever. For example, some GMs don’t think in terms of adventures at all. Even though there’s a lot of advantages for both the players and the GMs to it. Those GMs run “the perpetual game,” where one event just kind of rolls into another and the players just bounce around following plot points for years and years and years with no real definitive starts and stops. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, in my campaigns, I tend to have very soft transitions between my adventures, so it can be hard to say where one begins and the next one ends.
Truth is, defining the adventure is like defining the word “chair.” Go ahead, define the word. It’s very hard to offer a solid definition of the word “chair” that isn’t either so vague as to be useless or so specific as to leave out thousands of variations. Unless you cheat by using words like “typically.” At the same time, you pretty much always know when you see a chair, even if it has the wrong number of legs or no back or is just a vinyl sack filled with plastic beads on the floor. And that’s how it is with adventures too. You can’t define the idea of an adventure easily, but you eventually gain an intuitive grasp of what is and is not an adventure.
So, working definition: an adventure is a single, self-contained story in the life of the heroes focused on a central conflict or problem. Typically. They usually start by presenting the heroes with a goal to achieve or a problem to solve and they generally end when the goal has been achieved or the problem has been solved. Or when the goal has been permanently lost. Or the problem has become unsolvable. Or when everything has become a moot point.
Kind of a mouthful, right? But, come on, you know what all that crap means. Instinctively and intuitively. Because your brain is hardwired to know how a story works. And an adventure is just the plot of a single, self-contained story.
Of course, that whole “single” thing may not be totally accurate. Adventures can have multiple plotlines in them. And the “central conflict” thing may not be totally accurate either. There can be several conflicts or problems and one may not be more central than another. See? I warned you about this. Oh, and adventures actually aren’t stories. That was wrong too. That’s because the story is something that emerges from the gameplay. The story is the thing you tell about the game after it happened. Until it’s played, an adventure is just a plot. A sequence of events. Or rather, it’s a sequence of possible events. Planned events. Potential events.
See, people have a lot of misconceptions about adventures. And that’s because, until you’ve started writing your own adventures, the only thing you have to go on is the adventures you’ve bought from Paizo and WotC. And those are really bad examples of what an adventure is. So, let’s talk briefly about what an adventure is. And then we’ll finish by circling around to what an adventure REALLY is and why they aren’t nearly as much work as you think they are.
What an Adventure Isn’t
If you’re used to running published adventures, well, you’ve got some unlearning to do. Because, when you think of an adventure, you think of this complex, detailed thing filled with maps and settings and side quests and flavor NPCs and boxed text and walls and walls and walls of text. And you probably think, “there is no way I can do anything like this.” Hell, it might be why you haven’t tried writing your own adventures already. You think that crap is an adventure.
So, there’s generally two different forms that published adventures will take. There used to be three, but one fell out of favor. First, there’s short adventure modules. Also called scenarios. Those tend to come in the form of softcover booklets of no more than about 50 pages or else a PDF document of a similar description. Such modules usually present a single goal, a setting with a bunch of details, some backstory, a bunch of scenes and encounters, some maps, and a pile of special monsters and treasure. They usually present a simple, straightforward goal and then they are all about accomplishing that goal. Some have some optional content, hooks for side quests, and so on. And some present an open setting to explore with a lot of NPCs to interact with. You know, like a town.
Sometimes, those modules or scenarios are connected together in a multi-part story called an adventure path. Paizo loves themselves some adventure path. And they are pretty good. And they also belie that whole “single, self-contained story” thing I mentioned. Because while each adventure is its own standalone story, they connect together like sequels in a franchise and tell a larger, overarching story. And this is actually one of the biggest problems with nailing down what an adventure is. Because table-top RPGs tend to have adventures in adventures in adventures like a wheel in a spiral in a circle in a circle in the windmills in your mind. In that respect, an adventure is like an apple spinning silently in space. Get it?
Then you have your big, honking hardback adventures. They are sold as nice, thick tomes of adventure and they are filled with everything that you find in the softback modules. Only more. Lots more. And they tend to focus on big, multipart stories that start simple and gradually grow and the goals change and shift. You might start out escaping from an Underdark prison in the middle of nowhere, but, by the end, you’re stopping a plan to unite all of the monsters in the world under the Elder Eye at Dracula’s castle or some crap like that. Wizards of the Coast loves these sorts of things lately. WotC does them. They are a thing WotC does.
The thing is, though, if you set to write an adventure thinking those things are adventures, you’re in trouble. You can’t do that crap. Not even the little ones. Not even the Paizo softbacks. Because you don’t have a team of writers, editors, artists, and cartographers. Fortunately, you don’t need to do that.
See, there’s a lot of bloat in those things. A lot of chaff. A lot of, well, crap. For example, you might get a map of an entire town or city with dozens and dozens of described locations. And each one will have a roster of NPCs whose backgrounds and motives are all described. And you might get all these little, optional quests. Small encounters, miniature dungeons, and side goals and things that the players can do if they choose to, but they don’t have to, and maybe they make the main plot a little easier, but mostly they don’t have any impact at all. And, of course, the history of the entire city is always spelled out in excruciating detail. But that stuff never really comes up at the table. Oh, sure, any random GM can bring it up. A GM who likes the idea of the side quest to recover the ancient relic that will restore the old fountain that has the fairy imprisoned in it who will grant the PCs a magical item that will make boss fight number 57-B marginally easier, that GM can use that crap. But most don’t. And most players don’t use most of the optional content in the biggest modules. In fact, a lot of it just fills page space.
For that matter, all of the walls of text describing NPCs and setting details and stuff? It’s there for the GM to read. And that’s mostly all it’s there for. It doesn’t make the game better. It doesn’t really do anything. But some GMs like reading that crap. And some GMs are inspired to add small details from that crap. But most GMs don’t read it all. And they don’t remember all they read. And they rarely use any of it. It’s just there.
My point isn’t to criticize those adventures. If you like that stuff – hell, if you use that stuff – more power to you. But if you think that’s what an adventure is, you’ll never write one of your own. And if you think that burying important details in walls of text is the best way to present information, well, you probably shouldn’t try to write your own adventures.
Almost everything in those tomes – even the short ones – is entirely optional and bloated. If you like it, neat. But don’t try to emulate it. That’s NOT an adventure. That’s a company filling pages with options so every GM will feel like they are getting tons of options and information and will thus feel like the book is a good value. And that’s fine, by the way. Again, I love capitalism. But I don’t want you writing an adventure like that.
So, What IS an Adventure
When you break it down, an adventure is just a goal for the heroes to pursue and a plan for how they might pursue it and what might happen along the way. At least, from a game perspective, that’s what an adventure is. That’s the thing you run and the players play. It’s just a goal and the things that might happen along the way.
In terms of a physical thing, an adventure is everything you need so that you can run that thing at the table as a fun game that makes some kind of sense. Stats, notes, flavor text, maps, setting details? All of those things can be a part of an adventure. But the things that are a part of your adventure? Well, that depends on what you need.
For example, I’m pretty awesome at this GMing thing. So, I don’t need much to pull off an adventure. Let’s say, for example, I want to run a nice, simple dungeon crawl. There’s an ancient ruin with a treasure inside and the heroes are tasked with recovering the treasure. The adventure – the game – is that goal plus whatever the hell happens between the heroes getting hired and getting back to town with the treasure. The adventure – the physical thing – is a single piece of graph paper with a map and a few scrawled bullet points and notes. Because that’s all I need.
Now, that’s not to say that that’s all there is to my adventure. Of course, there’s a backstory. There’s a reason why the patron wants or needs the treasure. There’s a reason for the heroes to take the job. There’s an explanation for what the dungeon is where and where it came from. Well, maybe. I mean, the explanation might just be “the Lost Shrine of Zarek-Shem.” Who is Zarek-Shem? Who knows? All I know is they are someone to whom a shrine was built. And if I want it filled with demons, they are probably someone evil. Of course, I might know exactly who Zarek-Shem is and why the shrine was built and how it got lost and why the treasure in there and the secret history of the cult that the PC’s patron is trying to revive. But that’s because either I think that context is important or because I took an extra-long shower and I like making up backstory.
That’s also why it’s so hard to tell people how to make an adventure. Because every GM’s needs are a little different. Some GMs can slap together a combat encounter on the fly. Or even map an entire dungeon. They don’t bother to plan encounters. They might have a flowchart with a few notes about power levels and that’s it. Or they might have nothing. Other GMs might need every little thing spelled out ahead of time. They’ll have pages. And their adventures will fill binders. Some GMs write a bunch of stuff down ahead of time and never refer to it. The mere act of writing down the notes helps them remember it. Some GMs don’t feel comfortable dealing with the unexpected, and so they try to plan for every contingency. Some GMs just plan a barebones skeleton and figure that they can keep up when the monkey-lemmings inevitably go off script.
And this isn’t just about prep work. This isn’t just me saying “prepare the things that you need to prepare.” The game stuff – the actual adventure stuff – is just as optional. If your game is just a straightforward dungeon-of-the-week affair and the players don’t give a crap, well, you don’t need any backstory. You don’t need any context other then “there’s a cave with some goblins.” You don’t even need a town or a bunch of NPCs. None of that stuff will come up in your adventure.
Now, that said, there are elements that most adventures should have. Every adventure – except the one exception you’re going to point out in the comments – every adventure needs a goal. It needs an endpoint. And every adventure needs at least one conflict. Except for the ones that don’t. Every adventure has some scenes and encounters. And those scenes and encounters have to be connected up. And the shape of those connections generally comes in a few varieties. And every adventure has a pace. And every adventure has a duration.
The point is – except for the one weird adventure that you invent that looks nothing like an adventure and works totally fine – there are general elements of the adventure that can be planned out. They can also be improvised, sure, but improvisation is just planning and executing in one step. So, there’s still planning. And, while you can do things in any order you want, there are some ways of working through making the decisions that make it easier in general. And that is what I’m hopefully going to show you as I work through this series.
So, grab a flannel and grow a beard, you pretentious hipster douchenozzle. It’s time for us to learn how to homebrew a bespoke, artisanal adventure. Storing it in a mason jar is purely optional.