Most game masters and players have been there, knee-deep in a dungeon, hack n' slash, then more hack n' slash, then on to the next hack n' slash. The goals and rewards are apparent - loot and character advancement - but where is the story heading? How does my character fit into all this? Where is the intrigue? Where is the plot? Dungeon porn, plain and simple.
A good adventure or campaign should be more than one monster-filled dungeon room after another. One can only quest for that legendary sword or ring so many times before you find yourself asking, "Is there nothing more? Is this all that I am?"
A great story has many elements that make it great; an adventure should be no different. This article offers a more academic perspective on adventure design rather than merely filling a dungeon with memorable monsters or big, bad bosses. Here we will discuss how to create adventures with real adventure, using all the structural elements that good stories have to make the experience more memorable and epic!
When it comes to the below-mentioned elements, genre makes little difference in creating adventures - fantasy, horror, modern, science-fiction, or superhero - the essential story-like structures are applied the same. There are, however, many features that can significantly add to the adventure's success. Here, we will explore the crucial narrative elements of adventure design, such as plot, conflict, setting, characters, points of view, theme, and more, and how they affect or change an adventure or campaign.
The plot is the sequence of events and progress during the adventure or campaign. The plot is a planned series of events having a beginning, middle, and end. Short or one-shot adventures usually have one plot, so they can be finished in a single game session or a series of short sessions, though sometimes they may contain more than one hook or arc. Longer adventures - called campaigns - can have several running plots, hooks, or hidden arcs that can run the course of the character's careers or can be concluded with different characters altogether.
Traditionally, there are several phases to a plot, all of which adventures need:
- Exposition. The exposition provides the adventure's background needed to understand the situation, such as the characters (including the villain), the setting, conflicts, goals, and rewards. The exposition ends with the inciting moment, which goads the characters into action; there would be no adventure without this incident. This moment is when the characters truly realize how important the quest is. The inciting moment sets the remainder of the adventure in motion beginning with the next phase, rising action.
- Rising Action. During this phase, the primary conflict complicates the introduction of related secondary conflicts, or even side-quests, including various obstacles that frustrate the character's attempts to reach the goal. Secondary conflicts can include adversaries of lesser importance or minions of the main villain; however, some may work directly with the villain as a partner or by themselves for their benefits and rewards.
- Climax. The third phase is the climax, or turning point, which marks a change - for better or worse - in the character's situation. Up to this point, if the adventure has gone badly for the characters, now, the tide will turn, and things will begin to go well for the party, or so it will seem. If the characters experience tragedies or setbacks, the opposite will ensue, with things often going from good to bad for the villain.
- Falling Action. This phase is when the conflict between the characters and the villain unravels, with the characters winning or losing against the villain. The falling action might even contain a moment of final suspense when the outcome of the conflict is in doubt or when the characters may lose sight of the goal. In this case, the game master may need to make a few adjustments to the adventure to keep the characters on track.
- Resolution. The adventure ends with the characters being better off than at the outset or completing the goal altogether. However, suppose the adventure is part of an arcing campaign. In that case, an unforeseen event occurs where the characters are either worse off or realize they have more adventure ahead than they realized. Either way, the villain or goal has evaded the characters, or a more dramatic villain or goal awaits them.
Regarding campaigns, it is helpful to consider the resolution as a three-fold issue:
- At the end of the adventure, the characters receive new information, which pushes the goal further away or creates a more dramatic goal.
- The characters accept this new information - do not necessarily agree with it - but are obligated to pursue it.
- Due to some critical circumstances, the characters must immediately act on this new information, or all is lost.
Either way, the characters must answer the classic Five W's - or to some, the Five W's and one H - as these are questions in need of answers if the characters are to succeed in their quest. The answers to these questions constitute a formula for getting the complete story and rounding off the adventure.
According to the principle of the Five W's, a story - or in this case, adventure - can only be considered complete if it answers these questions:
- Who was involved?
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- How did it happen?
Each question should be factual with no straightforward YES or NO answers. However, answering these questions will invariably lead the characters to an inevitable question, what is the goal, and how do we reach it?
Conflict is essential to the adventure's plot. Without conflict, there is no real adventure. The opposition of forces ties one incident to another and makes the adventure or campaign progress. Conflict is not merely limited to rolling initiative or combat; instead, it is any form of opposition the characters confront which prevents them from reaching their goal. There may only be one central obstacle within an adventure, or as with campaigns, there may be one primary obstacle with many minor ones.
There are two sources of conflict:
- External. A struggle with a force outside of the characters.
- Internal. A struggle within the characters, or personal to a given character.
Emerging from each source are four types of conflict:
- Physical Conflict. The characters struggle physically against other characters, monsters, or forces.
- Fate Conflict. The characters struggle against destiny, the powers that be, or the circumstances of the campaign world.
- Social Conflict. The characters struggle against philosophies, practices, or the customs of other races or societies.
- Psychological Conflict. The characters struggle from within; choices, beliefs, faith, moral dilemmas, personality traits, alignment, etc.
The setting is the time and location in which an adventure takes place. For some adventures, the environment is crucial, while for others, it is not.
Here are the various aspects of an adventure's setting to consider when examining how a setting contributes to an adventure's plot:
- Place. Where is the primary activity within the adventure taking place? What sets this place apart from other locations? What does each site add to the adventure's plot if there are multiple places?
- Time. When is the adventure taking place? What is the relevance of this timeframe? Must the characters complete the adventure within a set time, and what will happen if they don't? How will all these things affect the underlining plot?
- Conditions. What is the environment like in the setting? What must the characters do if the conditions are harsh or hazardous to continue the adventure? How can the conditions add to the adventure's theme or plot?
- Customs. What are the daily routines of the characters? How are their practices affected by the setting? Will conflicts arise due to differences in customs or patterns, and how will this affect the plot?
- Theme. How does the setting help generate the adventure's theme? What mood are you hoping to generate? Will a mood change occur, and what will this transition be like for the characters? How does this theme - over other themes -affect the plot?
Remember, though, most stories contain multiple settings, and not all the locales will include every aspect listed above; in fact, several elements may change during the adventure.
There are two roles for characters in a roleplaying game:
- Player-Characters (PCs). The characters are central to the story, with all major events important to them. Typically, PCs are created and played by the players, though sometimes players will play pre-generated characters provided by the game master. Player-characters will most often have more details about them, such as additional background information, family histories, contacts, and assets, plus more detailed abilities, skillsets, equipment, and perhaps magical or technological encumberments. These factors are crucial when customizing an adventure for a particular party or assuming a more generic approach.
- Non-Player-Characters (NPCs). The characters who oppose the player-characters act as information sources or provide other services. Typically, NPCs are created and played by the game master, though sometimes a player may run an NPC in addition to their PC. There are several types of non-player-characters choices for a game master to consider when creating an adventure.
- The Villian. The primary opposing force to the characters - the big, bad boss behind everything. Like player-characters, the villain will usually have more detailed information associated with him.
- The Minions. The partner, right-hand, or most trusted by the villain. Sent by the villain, these figures do his dirty work and even act as double agents. Minions are typically powerful in their own right, and a tough minion is often mistaken for the real threat or main villain. Sometimes, just like the main villain, minions can have more detailed information associated with them, but not often.
- The Mooks. The pawns or least trusted by the villain. These are usually the everyday shock-troops or guards of the villain, and as such, are the least powerful but can pose a real threat in numbers.
- The Samaritans. These are the NPCs who do not pose any threat to the player-characters. Samaritans are often helpful, provide necessary information or services, and further the plot. A character's family, close friends, and romantic interests usually fit this category.
For an adventure narrative to seem real to the reader, its characters must seem real. Characterization is the information the game master gives the players about the non-player-characters in the adventure.
The game master may reveal an NPC in several ways:
- The physical appearance. The game master may even provide artwork or pictures of the main non-player characters they meet during the adventure.
- What do they say, or how do they act? The game master may add authentic voices and gestures as he speaks in first-person to the players.
- What actions do they take? The game master may provide insights into the character's motivations based upon their actions or lack thereof.
- How do others react to them? The game master may offer additional information on how some non-player-characters feel regarding certain other NPCs.
Characters appear in two types:
- Dynamic. Developing, wherein the personalities or motives may change, for better or worse, by the end of the adventure or campaign.
- Static. Stereotypical having one or two characteristics that never change and are emphasized, e.g., brilliant, drunk, scrooge, cruel, slutty, etc.
Point of View
Point of view (POV) refers to the angle from which the game master relates the story. A first, there seems only one way of narrating an adventure, but there are a few features some game masters or players have yet to experience.
The following definitions will vary from their classic story-like counterparts but mostly remain intact:
- First-Person. When narrating a non-player-character, the game master speaks in first-person, from each NPC's point of view in the character's voice (using pronouns I, me, we, etc.). The players experience the encounter through the non-player-characters eyes and voice, nothing more. All conversations with the NPCs are from the first-person point of view. However, all other non-character narrations must still use an omniscient perspective (see below).
- Omniscient. The game master can narrate the story using the omniscient point of view, including character conversations. He can move from scene to scene and character to character. The game master could - if he so desires - narrate the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the non-player-characters introducing information where and when he chooses. There are two types of omniscient points of view:
- Omniscient Limited (Most Popular). The game master narrates the scenes in third-person (using pronouns they, she, he, it, etc.). We only know directly what the player-characters see, hear, or experience, and we can't hear the thoughts and feelings of other characters or see distant scenes. This method is the typical "non-first-person" narration used by many game masters.
- Omniscient Objective (Very Rare). The game master narrates from the perspective of an invisible spectator. It appears as though the game master is following all the characters (PC and NPC), going anywhere, and relating nearly everything seen and heard. The game master may even narrate the NPCs' thoughts and feelings, even offering interpretations as needed. However, the game master may choose to withhold vital plot information forcing the player-characters to interpret the scenes independently. Revealing scenes in this manner is a rarity indeed, but it can offer a great cinematic feel to the adventure or campaign if done carefully.
An adventure or campaign's theme is the overriding feeling or controlling factors left in the players' minds. The theme is the game master's underlying meaning, the main idea, or the feeling he's attempting to convey. The theme may be the game master's thoughts on a topic or view of nature, albeit human, monster, or major powers of the world. A well-chosen adventure or campaign title often points to what the game master is trying to convey, and he may even use various genre-related options to emphasize this theme.
Some common examples of themes from literature, TV, and film are:
- Things are not always as they seem.
- Love is blind.
- War is hell.
- Trust no one.
- Believe in yourself.
- People are afraid of change.
- Don't judge an adventure by its cover.
There are many different ways to develop a theme for an adventure. Often, writers and game masters alike will use familiar tropes - a reoccurring idea found throughout literature and pop culture. Tropes can apply to a whole adventure, a segment, or even to the characters themselves. There are several great resources for tropes on the internet, one of the largest is TV Tropes.
Of course, everything written in this article is mere suggestions, subject to the whims of game masters everywhere, for not every element mentioned in this article needs to be in every adventure or campaign.
Thanks for your time, and as always, never stop gaming!
Old Man Umby