Starting a new roleplaying game campaign is one of my favorite things in the world. Anyone who is even considering starting a game should get moving, it is a great feeling and so much fun.
Story structure and adventure writing have been favorite topics on this blog, and new ideas always crop up while I educate myself. Last week three things happened. First, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Learning how the write is one of my goals for this blog, after all. Second, several fine folks have tweeted about how to set up their first Dungeons and Dragons game. Which always is fun. Third, I’ve put together what could be parts of my first DM’s Guild adventure.
That is the kind of input I cannot ignore. Let’s get started. How do you write the perfect roleplaying game starter adventure?
Our Subjects: Three Fine Starter Adventures
We are undoubtedly in a golden age of tabletop roleplaying games. The publishers have some great tools at their disposal, there is clearly money on the table, and the designers have decades of experience to draw on. This shows in the starter sets some of the best publishers have put out in recent years.
All three have gained good reviews and are widely recognized as great starter products. All three are in short and excellent starting points for roleplaying game campaigns. Nostalgia and old-school preferences aside, this is how it is done.
All three sets come with rules material and should be playable as is. However, make no mistake, you will need the full rules sets to continue beyond the boxes. Actual play-time is hard to estimate, as all groups are different, but all three boxes should last at least a handful of game sessions, which makes the the boxes bargains.
Checking the credits on all three sets gives us lots of names, as producing RPG products clearly are team efforts, and checks just a few names shows an impressive list of credits. These folks clearly know what they are doing.
The following are not reviews, and certainly not playtest reviews, but rather a first glance at the starter sets, before looking at the story structure of the adventures. Nor do I follow the Blake Snyder beat sheet, but the method is inspired by Snyder.
The Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (2014)
The Lost Mine of Phandelver, the adventure in the 2014 starter set is firmly rooted in traditional Dungeons and Dragons, including both dungeons and dragons.
The set is organized in a rules book and an adventure, in addition to character sheets and dice.
The Lost Mine of Phandelver, has since its release become a sort of modern classic, and is widely recognized as a very good one.
The adventure begins with the characters are on their way to the village of Phandelver. However, goblins ambush them on the road. The adventure continues as they discover a friend of their patron is missing, along with other dwarves no one has seen for a while. Something is off in the village fo Phandelver.
The adventure uses all three pillars of adventure as defined by fifth edition D&D: exploration, social interaction, and combat. The adventure provides advice and explanations along the way, making sure the reader can keep up. Richard Baker and Christopher Perkins are credited as writers.
The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set (2018)
Call of Cthulhu is a different beast than Dungeons and Dragons, in the best possible way. Here you play investigators, ordinary folks, who face supernatural horrors beyond comprehension, without any real chance of winning, you will die, and you will love it every step of the way.
The set is organized in a slightly different way than the D&D set as the first booklet is a solo adventure, the second is the ruleset, and the final booklet is more adventures, including Paper Chase discussed below. Alone Against the Flames, the solo adventure sets the tone with several grisly death scenes, and even survival comes with a tint of insanity. Paper Chase is for two players, one Investigator and the Keeper. The adventure is straightforward, the investigators are asked to investigate a book theft, whose owner has been missing for some time.
The remaining adventures in the third booklet are for a full group. The adventures increase in length and pull you deeper into the Cthulhu mythos. The cases are spot-on for the setting and feel true to its H.P. Lovecraft roots.
Mike Mason, Paul Ficker, and Gavin Inglis are credited as writers.
The Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play Starter Set (2018)
Both the Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons and Dragons starter sets are great value for money in terms of production values, but the Warhammer starter set outdoes both, albeit at a slightly higher price point if I remember correctly. It is undoubtedly worth it. The set is organized somewhat different, with the rules and adventures tucked into one book, and the other book is the Ubersreik mini-setting. Additional material is character sheets, maps, handouts, and dice.
Making the Rounds, the main bulk of the adventure book sees the characters put to work by a patron in a strict but fast-paced railroad, ending in a dilemma and a hard-earned release from the initial hook. The final third of the adventure book has additional one-page scenarios.
Andy Law, TS Luikart, Ben Scerri is credited as writers.
The Story Structure of the Starter Adventures
What do our test subjects have in common? What can we learn? How can you use this for your adventure?
|D&D: Lost Mine of Phandelver||Warhammer: Making the Rounds||Call of Cthulhu: Paper Chase|
|Staging||The characters are on the road with a shared and possibly individual adventure hooks. The players introduce their characters.||The characters are in a marketplace and get time to introduce themselves.||The investigators get a case. They are asked to solve a book theft. A new case is sufficient hook.|
|Action||The action starts straight away with a goblin ambush and a small dungeon. A quintessential D&D adventure.||The marketplace dissolves into a brawl.||Start. The investigators hit the crime scene and the obvious courses of investigation.|
|The Hub||The character arrives in Phandelver. They get to know the town, pick up quests, and deal with some local trouble.||The characters are put to work, and their patron headquarter become the hub for the continued story.||Paper Chase is a concise adventure making the crime scene the hub.|
|Branches||The quests from Phandelver branch out in several smaller areas. These areas can be found randomly or by following the quests.||The city becomes the main bulk of the adventure as the characters solve three more events. The events are linear, but changing order or adding new material should be no problem.||The initial investigation opens up new likely courses of inquiry.|
|Climax||The adventure ends in the Wave Echo Cave, a major set-piece that delivers a classic D&D experience, and ties to the initial hook.||The last event, the Prisoner and the Warden, showcases that the Warhammer setting. Violence and a grim choice, and an eventual release from the initial hook.||The next steps. The investigator stakeout a location resulting in a final confrontation.|
|Changes||The conclusion is a summary of the evens, shows how Phaldelver have changed, and ties back to the initial hook.||Congratulations, your characters are released from the initial hook, and the remainder of the book opens up to new adventures.||In conclusion, the Investigators have solved the initial hook, and now face a dilemma regarding their findings. The case is closed.|
This echoes Blake Snyder’s take on Hollywood magic with an opening image, a setup that presents everything in the story, delivering on the premise, a climax, and a strong final image.
Come to think of it, this is the structure in all the BioWare computer games, which I love dearly.
This is clearly a three-act structure, with the second act beginning when the characters find the hub, and the third leads straight into the climax. The beginning and the end are related, even though roleplaying games are supposed to be freeform collaborative stories.
All this may feel obvious, and it is. This is how you tell stories.
Go and create your adventure! Startup your game, if you haven’t already, and improve the lives of you and your friends. For comments and feedback, feel free to comment below.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Areas
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Adventures
- GM Tips For Successful Roleplaying Game Sessions
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Campaigns
Obviously, check out the four books that inspired this post. I am not an affiliate of any of these as of writing this.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need will make Hollywood magic a lot less enchanting, but you will become a better storyteller.