How to Design an Adventure (Outline)
John Sasso 10/28/02
Updated 2/8/03

Imagine a couple of scenes from your favorite fantasy TV show, movie, or book. Make sure that there is ample activity for characters in those scenes. Base your adventure around these scenes.

Design the adventure so that these scenes will happen. At several places the players may choose what to do, how to do it, but those decisions do not matter. For example, the characters are travelling. No matter where they go, on the third day they will see a castle that leads to the scene that you want to do. Do not feel that you have to steer the characters to the castle.

Tell the players what their character motivations are, and then negotiate specifics. For example, everyone will be working in the town library. The player for Bob the Barbarian says that he would never take such a job. Come up with a fun reason to explain how Bob came to take this job, which he really does no like doing.

Give players something to ponder. Players like to feel clever and creative. Do not require them to figure out a puzzle to go from A to B. Their creativity should add color to the adventure, not lead to frustration when they can't figure it out.

Give the characters (not players!) something to argue about. This could be how to proceed to reach a goal, who gets the special treasure, or who has to risk his or her life.

Keep the adventure very simple. A couple of well perpared scenes with a little filler in between will be fine for a couple of hours of adventuring. Leisurly is better than jam packed.

Get all required statistics, encounters, tables, names down on paper. Others can be made up on the fly. Invite the players to come up with the name of the town that the characters are entering, or the name of the inn keeper they are talking to.

Do not expect the players to do exactly what you want them to. Keep in mind that they may view their character motivations above the success of any adventure.

Fun for the players is more important than success for the characters.

The characters are more important than anything in the world. Do not make the characters minor pawns in a great world event. It makes then feel small and insignificant. To a character, what to eat for lunch is usually more important than who is sitting on the throne.

Give the characters moral quandries. This will help flesh out the personalities of the characters. Disuade thoughtless violent acts with a moment to think about the repercussions of that act.

When you need to make a rules decision, wing it. Do not fret about specific rules during the game. Do not let the players argue about your decisions. Tell them there are forces at work that are mysterious. Between sessions check out the rules and make a decision as to how to handle it next time.

Keep the players focused on the adventure. When random conversations break out, give the players a couple of minutes, maybe call a break, and then get everyone back into the adventure.

Make the players talk in the voices of their characters.

It is not the gamemaster's job to entertain the players. The gamemaster's job is to create situations for the characters that give the players the ability to have fun with their characters. The players will provide the entertainment for themselves and for the gamemaster.

To get ideas for items, look at your nicknack shelf and turn each item into something fun to buy at the bazaar.

To get ideas for rooms and situations, watch out the window of the train or bus on the way to work. If anything catches your eye, put it into a medieval setting and see what happens. Always carry index cards and a pen.

Keep a couple of interesting wandering encounters handy. These are not tied to any particular place, time, or situation. Spring them on the players when you need to liven things up. They need not be hostile. A friendly encounter at the right time may save the players from the monster that they are fighting if the monster turns out to be too tough, or provide healing and aid if they are in bad condition.

Encountered creatures must be doing something. Not everything is an ambush. For example, after you kill the orcs you find a pair of dice and several copper coins in the corner. Or you hear two orcish guards talking about the weather. They also have certain motivation. For example, those goblins may just be trying to get home after a hard day's work. Or the ogre might be looking for the toilet. If you cannot think of an appropriate activity or motivation, make a random roll.

Plan out what situations the character's will find themselves in. Do not plan out how the players should deal with it. Each successive situation should be designed as to not be dependant on the success or failure in the last situation.

Example Adventure Outline:

The Thieves Guild, enemies of the Retriever's guild, steal the sacred X from our Guild Hall to give an orc warlord in kragmar. We know where they are going. They have X hours headstart. We must go quickly. If delayed, bad. If we get through situations real fast, then we might just catch them. If they get it to the orcs, no chance of recovery. (15 min intro)

They meet orc brigands. Hire them to set up road block to attack us. Maybe a captive we can rescue/set free. Might give us some aid. Expert tracker? Wizard? Brigands may have some useful potions. (15 mins)

They go over gorge via rope bridge, then burn the bridge. We see the smoke. Bridge is still burning. Can we get across? Do we risk it? Is there other way around? (30 mins)

Through mountain tunnel. Set some traps. Go quickly and maybe hit traps? Or go slowly and maybe not catch them? Also normal tunnel denizens. Maybe some secret rooms and treasure. (90 mins)

Mountain tunnel exit. We see them down on the road below. We still have a chance to get them. In the distance, about 10 klicks, we see the walls of the orcish city. Maybe catch them and fight right under the city walls with orcish guards watching and making bets on who's going to win. (30 mins)

Copyright 2013, John Sasso. All rights reserved.