Planning the adventure for your RPG session is easily the most daunting task of being a new Game Master. This helps explain the popularity of pre-made adventures. Indeed many prefer to just run a pre-written and play tested adventure strait out of the box to writing their own. But just as much of the fun of being a player is making your own character, much of the fun of being a Game Master is writing your adventure scenario.
For this tutorial I am going to assume three things:
- You are using one of the d20 Family of Systems (Dungeons and Dragons, Starfinder, Pathfinder, d20 Modern, Blades & Blasters etc. etc.)
- You are working in a “quest-based” scenario. (e.g. your players are adventurers for hire, that earn coin/credits/honor by involving themselves in extreme circumstances.)
- Your game is Fantasy, Science Fiction or other similar genre, but not horror. (horror-proper works on powerless or at the very least heavily cursed characters and as such will not work for this tutorial).
- Your players are at least 15 years of age or older.
The Hook and the secret
First you need to figure out who is hiring the advneturers and why. Players want autonomy but they need a clearly defined goal or else they won’t know what to do. Some possibilities:
- The space station’s leader has been kidnapped. The Senate wants you to rescue them from the mastermind’s hideout.
- A necromancers’s hidden cave has been discovered – he must be brought to justice before he launches another attack on the down.
- A abandoned space ship has been found – discover what happened to the crew and bring back evidence.
- A Witch is luring children to her house made out of candy.
- A creature has overpowered the mad scientists of a secret lab – prevent it from escaping.
What is imporant in your hook is that it needs to imply a cool and map-able location that will be fun for the players to explore. In a d20 style game the quest and story unfolds as the players explore different areas. Notice that each of the hooks above implies a cool location to raid which I have put in bold.
You should also think of a plot detail that the players don’t know yet. Perhaps they know that they don’t know it (perhaps the kidnappers haven’t revealed their motive yet and part of their mission is to figure out why they doing this) or perhaps they don’t know they don’t know it (they will later learn that the necromancer is the same person that hired them for the job – they wanted to test their latest creation against a worthy adversary). Dropping clues to this secret is what will allow the story to unfold.
Scene 1: Combat with Choices
After a “Scene 0” where the adventurer’s employer explains to them the situation, we immediately throw the players into a combat scenario. Perhaps they meet the initial garrison of the adversaries they are attacking or that abandoned space station has undead crew members still has crew members still onboard! Maybe the gingerbread men in the witch’s garden double as security sentries.
Players need to make choices to impact the plot. In this scene, arrange the combat so the players have some hard choices to make. These choices should mean that there are more outcomes than 1. the players live or 2. the players die.
- One of the belligerents looks like he is being forced to fight. Do the players try to convince him to make peace or do they go strait to shooting? Maybe that talking mouse doesn’t want to work for the evil witch . . .
- The belligerents are attacking civilian bystanders. Do the players focus on bringing people to safety, or in eliminating the enemy?
- Once the fight goes bad for the enemy, the villains try and flee in different directions. Do the players pursue? If they can’t pursue all of them, who do they pursue?
- The belligerents are trying to destroy evidence (experiments, computers etc. etc.) If the players resolve the combat quickly, they get more evidence. If the fight is prolonged a lot of the evidence is destroyed.
- The villains are using an animal/monster to attack. Can the players convince the creature to turn on its masters and join them?
Once the fight ends there should be some sort of reward for the players if they resolved the situation especially well. There should also be some sort of narrative consequence if they were not able to do so. Perhaps a potential ally becomes disillusioned because the players could not resolve the situation. More or less evidence is available for the players to find based on how much was destroyed. They players do or do not win over a monster companion.
Scene 2: Exploration
After the initial fight scene allow the players the chance to explore their location a bit. This allows skill-heavy and magic-heavy characters to shine. There should be a set of rooms that the players can explore. Allow there to be different skill rolls to find or discover different things. Furthermore build in some choices. Some ideas:
- The players find a lab. One of the lab techs offers to help the players explore, saying that they only worked for the bad guys because they were forced to. Do the players trust? If the players roll well on their “Life Science” or “Engineering” skill checks they find clues that help to reveal the scenario’s secret.
- The kidnapper’s layer is a cult . . . and you found their temple. Inside they find some goblins who are also raiding the place. The goblins offer to sell the players some of the loot they found, for a price. Is it a good deal or are there being swindled. Remember, as long as the goblins don’t initiate combat, the players with Good Alignments cannot start a fight. Goblins aren’t automatically for killing!
- The players find a dungeon. The guards are currently asleep. The players can try to release as many prisoners as they can, but each one released is a risk. Who do the players release first? Do they trust all the prisoners?
One thing that is nice about explorations is that you can draw them out or cut them sort depending on how you are doing on time. Running out of time? Have the villain attack! Need to stretch the session a bit? Have a few extra rooms on hand you can add to the map in that case.
After this . . . the players will be ready for the big showdown, with the mastermind behind the evil plot they are trying to stop . . .
Scene 3: The Boss fight
After the exploration scene(s) the players should have found some clues that hint at the story’s secret and thus prepared should be ready to confront the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). If the players found lots of clues in the exploration scene reward them with power ups (knowledge of the big bad’s weakness, specialized weapons, perhaps a few allies that have been won over).
If the first two scenes did not go so well, have that imply a complication that now reveals itself in this scene (the criminals that were able to escape in fight 1? Now they are here to support big bad!).
Some possibilities for BBEG:
- The mastermind that kidnapped the space station’s leader is a former solider that defected from the player’s nation after being disappointed by the corrupt rulers. Perhaps the players oppose his methods but in further adventures are more wary of the nobles that hire them after coming to sympathize with the masterminds point of view.
- The necromancer has been collecting the skeletons of famous advneturers of the past – and as such the players will be confronting undead Robin Hood, King Arthur and others as they face the BBEG.
- The Space Ships crew died because of the choices of it’s captain. . . and that enraged captain’s spirit is still on the ship and unhappy that the players are going to expose his deeds!
- The Witch has candy-based weapons that can cause the players to compulsively eat and forget they are in a fight.
- The creature has the ability to mutate when it touches other living things . . . and so the players will see some of their own powers directed back at them!
Pulling it all together
If you take away anything from this guide it is this: a good starting adventure can be made with:
- A good hook…
- …That implies a good location.
- Three scenes – two combats and an exploration section.
- Elements that can go better or worse depending on how the players react – and that there are narrative consequences for these choices.
- A secret that allows the players to discover a plot twist.
Remember – there should be more than one out come than 1. the players live or 2. the players die. The players can defeat the big bad . . . with or without civilian casualties, with or without getting all the evidence, with or without freeing all the prisoners, with or without causing a diplomatic problem for their employer with or without resolving some disputes without violence with or without finding all the treasure with or without making a deal with the goblins. These variants mean that the players will feel that the story went differently because of the presence of their unique characters. That is what makes for a good story.
- If the players come up with a very unique solution, go with it and improvise! Allow the story to go in a new direction if the players come up with a creative plan. Don’t get committed to a specific plot.
- Don’t let a single dice roll stop the story! If the players aren’t able to find a clue, they should still be able to progress further along. Let there be a consequences to not finding that clue – maybe they enter the boss fight not knowing a weakness of the big bad, but don’t let the story stop. Otherwise just one bad dice roll and then then the players won’t have anything to do.
- Don’t throw dice for everything. If the player cuts a good deal for example, maybe they don’t need to roll for “Diplomacy.” Reward their creativity by having the NPC accept players creative bargain.
- One easy way to give the players choices is to put them on the map. Two doors, which one do they take? Two groups of adversaries, do they divide and face both or focus on one set and let the others escape? Several buildings are burning, how do they divide their rescue efforts. Especially for visual learners, building the map so that the different options are visible can give the players some sense of what their choices are.
- Sometimes I use a Tarot deck to generate plot twists. When a nat 20 is rolled I will draw a tarot card and based on its imagery allow for a plot twist to occur. Maybe only do this after getting comfortable with your base system.