Creating a fantasy roleplaying game adventure is both easy and daunting, and you need to prepare smart to get the best results. This post is about organizing your ideas for excellent results with minimal effort.
The goal is to create a self-contained little story, with the potential for continuation as the game wraps up. Keeping things simple is always a good idea, not just beginners. Perhaps you want to do a one-shot. Or your group includes busy people with low attendance, and you want everyone to feel welcome when they make time to show up.
Creating an adventure is not the same as writing one unless you plan to publish, and for me, this means lots of moving pieces within a loose story structure. I put down a list of possible scenes, matched with lists of monsters and loot. I add a couple of red herrings, and I have some possible maps the characters can explore.
This post is about the story structure and the list of scenes.
The adventure’s objective is always to get a satisfying end, so that is where you start. How can you put the biggest grin possible on your friends’ faces before they leave your gaming table? What about your own goals for the adventure? How you combine that is a story hook?
These objectives are related and should be figured out together.
Your Real Reason
First figure out what kind of adventure you want to run, and why:
- The characters are local heroes from the countryside, and you have a really cool miniature in your collection you are itching to use.
- You want a cloak-and-dagger game with backstabbing and intrigue in a dangerous city.
- The campaign is approaching the end, and it is time to dig out one of the real icons of gaming fantasy for a grand finale.
How do you want the adventure to end?
- A climactic boss-fight with the orc chief.
- The characters make a name for themselves in the dark city of intrigue.
- The gate is torn open, and the characters face the demon lord.
Let’s translate this into a handful of story hooks:
- The village is attacked, and the characters must step up and defend the villagers and track down the orc chieftain.
- The characters are ambushed in the dark city of intrigue and danger, or witness an assassination attempt on an innocent bystander, and must track down the thieves’ guild captain that ordered the assassination.
- Demons attack the royal court, the fawning prince needs saving, and the only way to settle this is entering the gate to the Abyss and slay Demogorgon.
Notice that all three begin with a short description and everybody rolls for initiative? We will return to these hooks shortly.
Consider basic dramatic structure now that you have the motivation and hook sorted. Freytag’s Pyramid, for example, outlines five parts of a story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.
A scene can be any interaction you imagine, but usually, it is a fight, a puzzle, or investigation (skill checks, talking to NPCs, or both).
Maximizing the climax is all about the timing, so how many scenes you are likely can fit into a single session?
My group usually only have about three hours after everybody is brought up to speed and finishing the week’s chit-chat. I know a big fight easily pushes 90 minutes, the setup should take no more than 30 minutes, so that leaves me with only three more scenes for the remaining hour. That is not much, so Freytag’s Pyramid is a good template for my games.
This gives us convenient boxes to put the adventure’s scenes. Planning a game longer than three hours is perhaps too ambitious, so planning five scenes to match Freytag’s Pyramid seems like an excellent place to start.
This gives me five scenes:
The scenes can also merely be areas of a dungeon if you want to run a simple dungeon crawl, like a classic “five room dungeon.”
The adventure starts when everyone has settled down and is up to date with real-life current events and is ready to play. A good setup helps you kick off the game. There are at least three ways this can go. There is no best way, but all have advantages and problems, depending on what you want for your adventure.
The Initial Fight
Starting with action involving everybody is a good rule of thumb, and always do this if you know where the characters are as the game begins. This keeps exposition and recaps to a minimum. Both can easily drag on forever without improving your game.
This fight is to get everybody’s attention and whet their appetites. The fight should be short and brutal, but not overwhelmingly so. Your timing is off if when you spend half the evening on the setup. This is why starting with rolling initiative often is a good idea.
Possible Fight Setups
- An Orc Band. The village is attacked by a band of orcs straight from the rulebooks, with a few ogres thrown in for massive damage. This should wake everybody up.
- Assassins. A gang of thugs and assassins attacks in the city streets. Remember to give some thought to the neighborhood as such assailants are likely to prefer hit-and-run tactics. You should also consider running a chase across the rooftops, which always is fun.
- Demons. A cadre of demons, including someone with a mouth to do the cackling speech, attacks the royal court while the characters are in attendance. Vulture demons, frog demons or demonic ogres will do fine. Consider doubling their damage and cutting their hit points in half if you suspect this will be slow.
“There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.”
– King Osric (Conan the Barbarian, 1982)
A new or returning patron is another often used start of new adventures, whether it is a mysterious stranger at the tavern, a royal summons, or a femme fatale knocking on your detective office door.
Sure, this perhaps a tired trope, and King Osric, Gandalf and Lauren Bacall are tough acts to follow, but a patron has some advantages.
The patron can engage the group when they all are together, involving them all immediately. The whole group can interact and get information about what they are supposed to do. Nothing kills the pace faster than the players not knowing what their options are.
Possible Patron Setups
- Examine the character backgrounds and see if there is something or someone that could tie to your adventure. An old mentor could use a favor, an old enemy could want the character dead, or a demon cult could have reason to attack the royal court as the characters are attending.
- Flip through your campaign journal and see if there is someone who could return to ask for a favor or offer follow-up information. This is where the campaign journal really shines. A good journal creates continuity and adventure hooks, so use it for all it is worth.
The Players Decide Their Course of Action
Finally, you have the option to not give the players anything except the wide world to explore. You could argue that this not an adventure at all, but rather a freeform sandbox exploration.
This is one of the main attractions of a tabletop roleplaying game, you can do whatever you want, and should be part of your campaign, if not the upcoming adventure. The danger is of course that you can quickly end up with an unfocused mess, so I try to tuck this into the wrap-up rather than the setup.
We get to the meat of the adventure after the setup. There are many possible scenes following the setup, and they all involve some sort of investigation and often a combat encounter. This is a phase of rising action, but are often bogged down by players discussing what to next.
On the one hand, you should let them. Player agency is important. This is where the real fun begins as it is time to give players the freedom to choose their course of action. Player agency is critical to a successful game. The players are not there to bask in your brilliance. They want to decide their own path. Embrace this, and they will surprise you.
On the other hand, this should not go on for too long. The pacing of the story is the GM’s responsibility.
Possible investigations include:
- Tracking down a sage for more information.
- Hanging around in taverns picking up gossip.
- Tracking down criminals for questioning.
- Contacting law enforcement to latch on to whatever they are investigating.
- Scouting an area.
- Checking up on contacts or old friends.
Challenges during the investigating could be:
- Quarrelsome city guards or bureaucrats hinder the investigation.
- The characters focus on wrong leads, red herrings, or they fail their attempts.
- Enemies attack again.
The characters should learn something by the end of the scene and see a possible solution. The final pieces can be evidence found of dead enemies, the stories of rescued damsels (or fawning princes), exposed identities, tracks in the woods or anything else suitable according to the situation.
Random Events and Red Herrings
This investigation may lead to some sort of enlightenment, or perhaps the characters run astray following failed skill checks or red herrings.
A red herring is a great way to shake up a predictable story and keep the players guessing.
Also, not everything in your story will revolve around the characters. In fact very little if you want to invoke “realism.”
The red herrings can be great to foreshadow a future plot or adventure, or a blatant lie to throw the players off course and see what they do. Sometimes improvising and letting the players go nuts is the most fun you can have while running a game.
There are pros and cons to using red herrings. The good is that it will add variety and open up the game to surprises. The bad is that they will bog down the action and almost certainly delay the climax. If that is what you want.
Throw in a red herring or random encounter if you want spice, yet be careful as you risk derailing your adventure.
Alternatively, you can present a red herring whenever the characters fail an investigation check as a penalty. Finally, throw in a red herring in every scene, if you want to go all Hercule Poirot on the players. I tend to do the latter, but my games are both slow and frustrating so your mileage may vary. In fact, I’m not sure why people show up at all.
Red Herrings and Random Events Table
A great adventure needs a fair share of red herrings and random events. These events should be completely unrelated, unless, of course, you decide otherwise. This will both increase the stakes and complicate the investigation.
- The Demon Hunter Arrives. A renowned demon hunter has arrived in town, but claim to pass through if confronted.
- A Murder at the Mansion. The servant of a noble house was murdered in the castle courtyard last night.
- Sellswords Arrives. A band of sellswords has set up camp outside town, and skulking shadows have been seen entering and leaving the camp at night.
- The Doomsayer. A doomsayer is acting up following recent events, prophesizing doom, and despair.
- Open Graves. Someone dug up a grave last night.
- A Theft at the Mansion. A noble family offers a reward to anyone who provides information about a stole piece of jewelry. A band of thieves broke into the manor and got away with several valuable pieces. Local hearsay claims the most valuable part has a checkered history.
- Skulking Shadows. Someone is keeping an eye on the characters. This may simply be of curiosity, adventurers draw attention after all, or it could be something more sinister.
- The Yellow Sign Rises. There is evidence of cult activity in the area, and it overlaps the characters’ investigation. Murders, supernatural sightings, and strange people appearing.
- Rival Investigators. The authorities have instigated their own investigation, and the characters may quickly find themselves the prime suspects.
“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
— Raymond Chandler
It is time for the enemies push back, and the tension heightens. This counter-attack is where the villains (usually) of the story take another shot at the heroes and whatever they attempted in the first place.
You should have everybody’s attention by now, so this is your moment if you want to attempt to be clever. A well-timed counter-attack may just be what your adventure needs to reign in characters chasing false information or red herrings.
Possible counter-attacks include:
- This scene can often be another fight, the agents of the enemy simply track down the characters and physically attack them.
- The attack can be more subversive, like a campaign of lies and misinformation.
- The enemy can have staged a third party to attack, for instance leading law enforcement to the character’s doorstep.
The last hour or so of the adventure is the climax. You decided what this was supposed to be right at the beginning. This is where all the hard work pays off, and the adventure is solved.
This can be an exciting fight where the characters face certain death, yet prevail against impossible odds (or possible odds if there is math involved).
While the setup was an easy fight, this should be a hard fight to test the characters mettle and the players’ tactical skills.
All you have to do is to adapt your initial plan for the fight to the characters’ decisions.
Set the climax in the villain’s lair or some other dramatic set-piece for added drama. If possible, keep the location fluid as you prepare the adventure, as this will allow adapting the timing to fit the last hour-or-so of the game session.
Possible climaxes include:
- The characters track down the monster and attack it in its lair.
- The villain is revealed, arrested or possibly fought.
- The characters are attacked again, but this time by the main villain.
The wrap-up is in some ways the most crucial scene of a roleplaying adventure and game session. This is the phase of falling action and dénouement, where the players bask in the satisfaction of winning the day and examine their loot. They may close some loose ends and complete personal goals.
Now the players can examine what they have learned and perhaps figure out what really happened in the story.
This is also the time to look ahead in an ongoing campaign, and the GM should pay close attention and perhaps ask the players a few questions about what they want to do next. Asking the right questions will save you lots of preparation time and possibly lead to another satisfying adventure next time.
There you have it. A plot structure of a simple well-paced short adventure, ready to be fleshed out as your group play out the story together.
Putting It Together
You also know everything else you need once you have the adventure plot structure. Perhaps some monster stats, some lists of names and locations, a couple of maps, and some loot.
You need to prepare encounters with monsters and NPCs suitable for your characters’ levels as you set up your scenes. Make sure you have an encounter with a few thugs with crossbows ready to burst through the door for whenever you are stuck. You should also consider a couple of alternatives for each scene to allow the players real choices.
The level of detail depends on how much you and your players improvise. Your work may only have begun if you write and run tight adventures, or this is sufficient if you like to wing it and just see what happens. There is no right or wrong here, just your preference.
So What is Missing?
This post is about the adventure structure, but of course, there is more to run a great adventure. You should keep a journal, prepare to improvise, and mix and match maps and encounters for starters. But GM tips for game sessions is a topic for another day.
After Running the Adventure
There is a couple of things to do once you have completed the adventure.
- Keep a journal helps you remember past events to make sure future adventures builds on old ones.
- Recycle everything. You can refit unused plots, monsters, maps, and whatnot in new adventures in the future. You can also reskin everything you have used.
…and there is more to come.
The Reading List
This is, of course, a big topic and there is a lot to read out there. The first step is to read up on the adventure design chapter in your system of choice. A personal favorite is Robert J. Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord (2015) where he covers everything you need to know to get started on just a couple of pages. Brilliant.
Have a look at Dyson Logos’ blog if you need a map quickly.
Look for “one-page dungeon” and see if you find anything interesting. Geek and Sundry has an article on the topic. “Five room dungeon” is another relevant phrase.
Rich Baker is, in my opinion, one of the best adventure writers out there. His craftsmanship is top notch. His best-known adventure today is perhaps Lost Mines of Phandelver in the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set and Forge of Fury, now found in the Tales of Yawning Portal. Unfortunately, Baker is busy, so most of his adventures are hard to find, and he wrote only a few. Check out Baker’s old blog for a survey of his published adventures and buy everything you can find.
You should have a look at Rodney Thompson’s prep notes on the WotC web page for preparing a game session. This is pure gold.
So what is a sandbox adventure anyway? Have a look at Dungeon Solver’s post on the topic for D&D 5e.
What is the worst adventure of all time? Here are John Wick’s thoughts on the matter: the Worst Adventure of All Time. The Tales of the Yawning Portal reprints this adventure for the current edition of the game. Wick also has opinions about the best adventure of all times, and both posts are enjoyable reads.
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Prepared! A Dozen Adventures for Fifth Edition and its sequel from Kobold Press provides – you guessed it – twelve short scenarios designed for a single evening on short notice. The publisher also has an excellent patreon where short adventures, as of writing this, are part of the deal.
Paizo has a considerable number of Pathfinder Society scenarios. I have only read a couple of the early ones so your mileage may vary.
The Tome of Adventure Design from Frog God Games is a much-used tool in my toolbox. The idea of designing RPG settings and adventures is randomly probably as old as the games themselves. The standout example is the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and the Tome of Adventure Design (2011) builds on that tradition and provides about 300 pages of random tables. Whenever you are stuck, a vast collection random tables can help you back on track.
On the topic of Demogorgon, who is the Prince of Demons anyway? The Prince of Demons appears in the Savage Tide Adventure Path (starting in Dungeon 139 for D&D 3e) and the Out of the Abyss (for the current edition of D&D). The former is brilliant, and the latter is alright and much easier to track down. The Bastion of Broken Souls (2002) is another excellent adventure featuring Demogorgon.