Writing Campaigns, Adventures and Encounters

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Creating adventures is the core responsibility of being a GM. Specific System Mechanics are not discussed here. This is guide on how to plan an encounter, adventure, and campaign for any system in any setting and focuses more on story structure and its components. Many of the principles of World Building can also be applied to adventure writing.

General Advice

Adventures work if they are fun and easy to play, and give every kind of hero a chance to shine in different encounter styles. The most important part of design isn't the details of a stat block, but the type and variety of opponents and encounters.

  • Have a Polder.

Have a resting/restocking spot for the PC's. Don't hand them one every time they run low on resources, but PCs die when they can't rest and recharge. Notable exceptions to this rule are duration survival games, which have a goal of lasting the longest before being killed, or making it from dusk to dawn. A polder can be anything, but common types include: The house of a noble patron, an inn, or a safe place to camp for the night.

  • Start the action quickly, no slow starts.

The opening of a game needs to grab the players and get them invested as quickly as possible. Give them a chance to introduce their characters before a combat starts, but don't set them up to sit around discussing a plan for a while before anything happens. If your game begins with someone hiring them, start with them already hired and on the way to the first interesting part of the adventure.

  • Trim excess and mundane encounters and details.

Unless there is something specific/interesting/important happening when a PC mails a letter to his friend, don't RP it. Narrate the mundane details once in a while, but leave most of it "off camera". No one ever goes to the bathroom on Star Trek because nobody wants to watch that. The same principle applies here. Unless something really interesting is going to happen while Bob is looking for a tree to go behind, it's best left unsaid and understood.

Random encounters in PbP are considered an excess because of the pace. If an encounter isn't meaningful, it shouldn't happen. If you feel you need more encounters, then find a way to make them meaningful.

Excess back story will also slow down your game. This doesn't mean not to write back story, but if it doesn't have a good chance of coming up in game, you don't need to waste time preparing it. Alternately, if you prepare it, you should probably use it and in the case something does come up you didn't anticipate (and it will), be prepared to improvise.

Don't trim away too much, though. Sometimes, adding detail to something mundane or irrelevant inspires the PCs to interact with it and takes the group in a direction you didn't anticipate. This can be good! The key is to keep it interesting. If you re-read what you just wrote and find yourself replacing the words with "blahblahblah" in your head, it's probably going to inspire the same reaction from your players.

  • Appropriate Encounter Levels.

Do not put obstacles in the path of your PCs that they are completely incapable of overcoming. If the challenge is possible but particularly hard, consider making it optional but offering a great reward if accomplished. Conversely, if all challenges are too easy, the players will eventually get bored.

    • Mooks. A mook is an NPC type that is designed to be beaten easily by the party. Generally these encounters are good for boosting PC morale after being wailed on for too long. Include mooks, but do so sparingly. Alternately, in a high powered campaign (such as a super hero campaign), the heroes will likely frequently take on groups of mooks.
    • Bigger Fish. At least once per adventure the PCs should face a foe that is vastly superior and can potentially kill the party members. Without any real threat, the PCs will quickly start to feel and act as if they are invincible. If you have too many bigger fish the PCs will start to be afraid of everything they encounter or feel insignificant.
  • Design different kinds of encounters - There is much more to RPG's than simple kill-n-loot runs, and even if that's what your players enjoy, giving something different to handle on occasion is a great way to break things up. Try the following types:
    • Skills: This type of challenge requires the PCs to utilize non-combat skills.
    • Magic/Technology/Divine: These types of traps and puzzles will give your players a chance to utilize their problem solving skills.
    • Role-Playing Encounters: How much of this your players indulge in and how much they replace with use of skills is largely up to what the play group considers fun. There are many different opinions about how to handle such interactions as it relates to social skill mechanics. Because PbP tends to attract writers, the most common method of handling RP situations is to have players write out what their characters do and say and use social skill checks to fill in the blanks.
If Bob needs to convince the Warden that he should be able to take his pack into the prison when he visits a prisoner, Bob's player writes out his argument/plea, then rolls the appropriate skill check to fill in tone, expression, gestures, and similar things that are harder to explain in writing. There is, however, nothing wrong with just using skill checks if that's what your group prefers. Not using the checks at all isn't recommended (unless you're playing freeform, of course), because it negates the mechanics of the character in favor of the player's writing skill.

Play to the Audience

When writing your adventures, there are two main two choices: either leave lots of blanks, or make decisions about what kinds of characters you want to recruit.

In the first case, the players are expected to provide enough information in their backgrounds to inform the blanks you leave. Maybe one player will choose for their PC to have an intense hate for a particular type of creature. Maybe another will decide to specialize in one kind of attack. You'll want to be able to plug those into your adventures and use them to make the players feel invested and immersed.

In the second case, it's up to you to tell the players what to expect. If the game will be all about smashing orcs, say so and you'll get characters dedicated to orc extermination.

Don't plan too much before the game starts. The meat of the first adventure and an outline of the rest of the campaign is a good goal. Try to have enough information to run the game for at least a month or two, and to foreshadow the future of the campaign, but not so much that unexpected player behavior will ruin everything. Players will always do something unexpected.

Dramatic Structure

Adventures, classically, are a dramatic story in which the PCs are the protagonists. Regardless of whether or not the story is a Comedy or Tragedy, the dramatic structure remains the same.

According to Freytag's Pyramid, a drama is divided into five parts or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. Although Freytag's analysis of dramatic structure is based on five act plays, it can be applied (sometimes in a modified manner) to encounters, adventures, and campaigns as well.


  • Introduction/Exposition

The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, and the setting. It ends with the inciting moment, which is the incident without which there would be no story. The inciting moment sets the remainder of the story in motion beginning with the second act, the rising action.

  • Rising Action

During rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist's attempt to reach his goal. Secondary conflicts can include adversaries of lesser importance than the story’s antagonist, who may work with the antagonist or separately, by and for themselves or actions unknown.

  • Climax

The climax or turning point marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn, and things will begin to go well for him or her. If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.

  • Falling Action

During the falling action, or resolution, which is the moment of reversal after the climax, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

  • Resolution/Dénouement/Catastrophe

The story resolution comprises events between the falling action and the actual end of the drama or narrative and thus serves as the conclusion of the story. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

More modern works may have no dénouement, because of a quick or surprise ending or instantaneous segway to a sequel story.

Common Conflict Types

Conflicts are the heart and soul of any RPG encounter.

Not all conflicts in your RPG need be orcs and dungeon traps. Explore different kinds of conflict with your players to encourage character development. Feel free to mix and match rather than limit yourself to only one conflict type per encounter. Often compelling, non-violent encounters are the most memorable.

  • Man vs. Self

Man vs. Self is when the main character in the story has a problem with him or herself. Examples might include making a tough moral choice or fending off bouts of insanity.

  • Man vs. Man

"Conflict arising between two or more characters of the same kind" Example : Sword fight between two people. This need not be a physical fight, however. Role-playing verbal conflicts can lead to interesting plot directions, divulge certain bits of information to the protagonist and antagonist, and be used to bargain between the groups peaceably.

  • Man vs. Society

Man vs. Society is a theme in fiction in which a main character's (or group of main characters') main source of conflict is social traditions or concepts. In this sense, the two parties are: a) the protagonist(s) and b) the society in which the protagonist(s) is included. Society itself is often looked at as single character, just as an opposing party would be looked at in a Man vs. Character conflict. Man vs. Society conflict gives the storyteller an opportunity to comment on positive/negative aspects of a whole.

  • Man vs. Nature/Environment

Man vs. Nature/Environment is the theme in literature that places a character against forces of nature. Many disaster films focus on this theme, which is predominant within many survival stories. It is also strong in stories about struggling for survival in remote locales.

Terrain is also more than a nuisance encounter; it can add variety, drama and spice to your games. Don't forget to add richness to combat encounters and movement parts of the game by the careful use of terrain and hazards to give each adventure area its own sense of place, danger, and mystery.

Introducing things like storms at sea, tornadoes and even living plants can great way to give even the most hardened characters pause. Variations in exotic settings can include mana storms, living forests, possessed/haunted old churches.

  • Man vs. Machine/Technology

Man vs. Machine/Technology places a character against man-made entities which may possess intelligence. It also includes basic dungeon traps.

  • Man vs. Destiny

Man vs. Destiny (or Fate) is a theme in which one attempts to break free of a predetermined path before him, chosen without his knowledge. It can also be referred to as a conflict between determinism and freewill. This theme is common in stories in which time travel is used to alter events to escape unpleasant ends.

Popular Narative Devices

Narrative Devices move the story forward or organize a scene or sequence. They are also the chief components of any encounter you happen to prepare. Having a wide range of narrative devices at your disposal will make you a more effective GM.

  • Applied Phlebotinum

Phlebotinum is the magical substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot. Some examples: nanotechnology, magic crystal emanations, pixie dust, a sonic screwdriver, spirits from the beyond, or even just some green rocks. A classic example of this is when the writers of Star Trek created the pseudoscience of "warp core technology" to allow the members of the crew to zip around outer space (as the plot required) at unnatural speeds.

  • Characters as a Device

In service to the plot, characters are given specified roles, sometimes making them just plot devices with lines. These "devices" can also be viewed as "component parts" from which more complex, realistic characters can be built. A classic example of this is Q from the James Bond series, a super scientist that exists (plot wise) solely to provide James Bond with amazing spy technologies for his missions.

  • MacGuffin

MacGuffin is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. "Quickly! We must find X before they do!". Some typical Macguffins are a case full of money, the missing princess or a large diamond.

  • Other Devices

There are thousands of other kinds of narrative devices but starting with those three is generally more than enough to get any plot moving. Wade through the massive index of narrative devices any time you are running low on adventure writing inspiration.

Rules of Writing

Clarke's Three Laws

Clarke's Laws discuss the barriers between magic and science and are thus very important for writing fantasy or sci-fi campaigns.

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Chekhov's Gun

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Chekhov's Gun is a literary technique whereby an element introduced early in the story becomes significant later on. For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to the Doomsday Device, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important. Chekhov's Gun is usually not a literal gun — it can be anything. Further, if something isn't important, don't include it. This is not to take away from the function of red herrings.

Sturgeon's Law

"Nothing is always absolutely so."

Avoid absolutes in your writing. Absolutes even in the best of circumstances provoke fridge logic, Kayfabe, and generally breaks the willful suspension of disbelief.

Chandler's Law

"When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

Chandler's Law is a concise but evocative piece of advice for writers who have somehow painted themselves into a corner, plotwise. The addition of a new opponent or complication, usually amidst a burst of violence, can free a protagonist from where he has become mired in the current plot.

Poe's Law

"It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity."

The core idea of Poe's law is that a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody. This law is important to be aware of otherwise certain extremes in your writing may be confused for humor and vice versa.

Other Laws

There are more writing laws to cover, but THIS is a good starter compendium.

It's also good to be aware of various sliding scale tropes when considering the tone of your game. Certain starters include:

Writing Resources

If you get stuck even with all that there is even more help available! To learn all about smashing writer's block, getting published, and other things writers often find extremely valuable, visit the Resource Links page.

HLS Format

Hook Line and Sinker format is a surefire way to plan out an adventure for PCs by preparing the different elements discussed above into an adventure format that closely follows Freytag's Pyramid. Where Freytag's Pyramid is closely related to campaign structure, HLS is closer to adventure formatting.

The Hook

Have a goal. Once the Hook is set there are now conditions for victory and failure that should be at least in part understood by the PCs.

Create a hook by understanding the basic motivations of PC's: Greed, Revenge, Glory, Heroism, and Knowledge.

For further development of motivations, look at the backgrounds of your PCs. If your players did a good job developing backgrounds, they will have several premade motivations built into their story, ready for you to pluck and exploit as part of the adventure. In short, make the hook personally applicable to the PCs when possible.

A good hook is tough for the party to refuse, while a poor hook is easily ignored. You can stack hooks, the first hook may be nothing but a way to get the action started. If your hook doesn't work, don't force it, just let it go and find another way to get the party involved in the adventure. If you don't, the players will begin to feel railroaded into the plot and and become disaffected, which is the exact opposite of plot immersion, the goal of any advanced GM.

For some ideas about hooks (many of which can be adapted to various settings) see steal this hook.

The Line

Tie the encounters together and progress the plot with each meaningful encounter. Encounters need not be only monsters or traps. They can be literally anything that has a meaningful effect on the plot.

What is the motivating hook the players are after that should be the focus point of the end game? Now consider what the players need to be able obtain the goal. The line is a direct reference to fishing, reeling in the PCs in towards the goal/climax like one might reel in a fish.

Some encounters will be very straightforward, such as a rogue attempting to disarm a trap in a dungeon. Others may be more complex, such as role-playing out key events filled with lies, misdirection, and intrigue. Plan several encounters of various types as discussed in the general advice section above.

The Sinker

Capstone with a great encounter or interesting twist that will serve as your exit strategy and also lead into your next adventure hook.

You set the hook by appealing to what drives the characters. You kept them on the line by putting that hook at the end of a series of smaller, more focused challenges. You designed those challenges with a series of smaller hooks and choices. Now, at the end of the game, you need the climactic final confrontation, you need to sink it and bring them back for your next adventure or campaign.

When it comes to design, every adventure and campaign needs its own climactic encounter and beyond that, it needs a handful of things to improve its chances of success.

  • Stakes

The climactic encounter should have the highest stakes of the entire adventure or campaign. One set of stakes perfect for the climax is the life, or at least story importance, of the PCs. Lethality of some sort should always be in the game, but during the climax, life and death become a genuinely interesting set of stakes due to the fact that failure by being removed from the campaign can have far reaching effects on the shared narrative. Another perfect stake in the climax is the hook itself: the ownership of the McGuffin, the secret, the revenge, or the glory. Finally, bring in the fates of NPCs - allies and enemies known and unknown.

  • Tension

Tension is a difficult thing to generate, but by raising the stakes, you’re halfway there. The next step is to make losing a real possibility, or even a probable outcome. Some of this is making it challenging via the statistics built into the game; the enemies in the climax should be the most powerful of the adventure. Other methods include using your full arsenal as a GM. Don’t pull blows, fight dirty. Make the players feel like they have to work for it and make sure they've seen defeat at least once from the enemy. That said, don’t make it impossible. If the heroes can’t win, it kills tension just as much as if they’re sure to win.

  • Setting

If the climax is a combat encounter, it should have the most interesting terrain features. If its a social encounter, public locations are best, especially if they have a lot of people involved. These types of locations make it interesting on a fundamental level. A combat with a dragon is interesting; a combat with a dragon on a stone bridge over a lake of lava with minions flowing from both sides with the McGuffin resting on a pedestal on the far side is climactic.

  • The Unexpected

The last thing a climax need is a shift. The climax is where hidden allies throw their hand in with the heroes, where traitors turn on their ‘friends’, where hidden plots come out, and nothing ever seems to go right. Besides the story implications that are usable in any type of conflict, combat encounters should have some major turning points, more so than a standard encounter. Take a page out of a video game’s book, make the ‘boss’ monster go through changes in tactics, or changes in forms. Have minions appear halfway through. Change the battlefield mid combat. Do something unexpected.

Example of HLS

Hook: While the players are in ______________________ for one reason or another they are offered a job by a member of the government.

Line: The job is to take a small box to ___________ in _______________________. The nature of the cargo is too sensitive to send through normal channels. The box will be heavily warded to prevent the players from snooping. The players could face problems delivering the box from bandits who assume it must be worth a fortune. Also, any of the other agents against its delivery may get word of it through their spies and try to intercept it for their own purposes.

Sinker: The secret contents of the box are papers outlining the first steps in a formal alliance between _______________ and __________________. If the alliance is confirmed, a war will break out with a neighboring third faction. If it is not, the war will still break out but one of the kingdoms seeking the alliance will fall beneath the tyrannical third faction, making the coming war much more difficult for the PCs to help win.

Starting the Game

You have your plot and starting adventure, now what?

Find out more at Starting a New Game At MW.

Back to the GM GUIDE.