Writing RPG Adventures
By Fredrick Wheeler (Prom)
Contributions: Yarroq, StevenO, pukunui, Calamity916.
My first experience of writing a RPG adventure was horrible, I made all the mistakes that you can. It's only over time that I've realized that simple and quick is best. So here's somethings I've learned from others and my own trials.
Basic Three Act Structure
The simplest story has a Three Act Structure and I recommend this for RPG adventures. Act one is the beginning, Act two the Middle, and Act three the End. There are plot points separating each of the three acts of a story. Although a fictional story is linear, RPG stories don't need to be linear and players tend to dislike a set path they have to follow. Give the players choice and not just the illusion, but don't over prepare material so your adventure is overly long and time consuming to write. You are not writing a story, you are writing a technical document that the game-master can follow easily to run a fun adventure for a group of people. If you do not allow input from the players with regard to the adventure types and their characters development, then it's not an enjoyable role-playing game. Do not write a novel, keep the length to a paragraph for most sections if you can. What level the adventure is targeted at is also important to include so the game-master can see if it's going to fit his current party of players.
(1) Act One (Beginning-Background)
The beginning sets up the story or adventure for the players characters.
The game-master introduces the players to the setting, culture, genre, environment, history, non-player-characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in. Players can also introduce their characters at this stage with goals they see fitting the situation. There is no reason why players can't influence or suggest background details for an adventure. The simplest way to do this is just ask players what sort of adventure they would like. Don't create too much useless background story as the players will never find out about it; and often players are not even interested. The background in Star Wars is that the evil Empire has taken control of the galaxy and rebels have stolen plans to the Death Star, a super weapon that can destroy planets. Keep the background details simple to avoid players getting lost in complexity, they just will not remember it.
Try to come up with more than one adventure hook (goal) for the players characters, as it's the key to getting people involved. If players can come up with their own adventure hooks, then take this as a welcome gift. Plot point one is what drives the player characters from their "normal" life toward a conflict that the story is about. In Star Wars this occurs when Luke's family is killed and frees him to fight the Empire with Obi-Wan-Kenobi. Remember to find out what motivates your players and not just their characters. The most common motives that players and characters have are: greed, curiosity, fear of character death, revenge, duty and a desire to act heroically. If the hook doesn't work, come up with something else don't force it down peoples throat because it's written into the adventure.
(2) Act Two (Middle-Conflict)
The middle of the story is a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis (encounter). Each of these crises are temporarily or permanently resolved, but the story leads to an ultimate crisis, the Climax. There is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall building tension as the Climax is approached. Flow charts can help map out your scenes if the adventure is not linear or just to cover unexpected tangents that players might select.
Give your players characters all sorts of different challenges to overcome during Act two; make them struggle towards their goal. There can be a number of scenes in Act two depending on the complexity of the story. Scenes take the form of role-play, combat encounters, skill challenges or puzzles. You can also have a mixture of these encounter types. The second Act is about a player character’s emotional journey and it is not something you can write down, you can only provide technical game mechanics or role-play options for the game-master and players. Read-aloud text boxes are not always useful if the environment is in pitch blackness, just describe the environment or room to the game-master. The game-master is the story teller not the author and they will take what they want from the written material. Provided options for the game-master and players, otherwise you might as well read them a story out loud then play a game. All scenes should have information on what happens if players characters succeed or fail. Failure by the players characters in a scene should not mean the adventure cannot be continued, unless all the characters die. Characters can be rescued, escape, captured or resurrected from death as alternatives to ending the story.
Role-playing scenes can take many forms and they don't need to just be of an investigative nature. They are also the hardest to design for your adventure and often get turned into skill checks. As the GM is going to replace players acting out a scene with dice rolling sometimes, provide some target dice values that players will have to meet or exceed. I'd recommend to GM's to only use dice rolls when the players aren't very good at it or don't like acting out their character. Typically role-play is broken down into a few different types: gaining passage to a location, collecting clues and information, avoiding combat and acquiring a resource that allows them to achieve their goal. Try testing your players characters with moral dilemmas, building relationships with NPC's or just whimsical interactions that are fun, rather than the staple role-play. The main key for a successful role-play encounter is it should have a clear goal that the players need to achieve. Role-play that has a investigative nature should use the 'Three Clue Rule'; three different clues that tell the same information are available for players to discover so that they don't get stuck on the adventure.
This is often the place for non-player character details such as their: appearance, attitude, honesty, motives and their relationship to the characters. Pictures from the internet, books, magazines and personal drawings can sometimes give players a better idea of an NPC than the adventures description, so use them . Luke trying to convince Han Solo to help him rescue Princess Leia in the Star Wars movie, is a great example of a role-play opportunity for players. Luke has to use what he knows about Hans motives (greed) to get his help and achieve his goal of rescuing the Princess. Role-play should not just be the domain for the best diplomat or con artist in the group, whether it's the characters or players. Create a range of role-play encounters that allow everyone to participate. Role-play encounters can easily turn into combat encounters so have material available for the game-master.
Combat encounters are by far the easiest to create and there is usually a lot of information about building them. The key to battles is not to set up a fight the players characters can't win, but test their skill. It's alright to leave a players character beaten and blooded, but don't kill them with overwhelming forces. Not all combat needs to be a test of skill, it's always nice to allow the players to feel heroic by wiping the floor with their enemy. Their should always be an option to run away if the players find the battle difficult. Don't waste too much time searching or making maps for combat encounters or you will never get it finished. Statistical non-player-character mechanics don't require the bulk of your attention, use what has already been created in source books. The Star Wars movies are often short battles linked by short pauses for character development, so don't make combat encounters to long or players will become wary and tired. Hazards can be included into combat encounters but they need to relate to your story and what is going on around the characters.
Skill Challenges can be complex or simple, but they need to have a reasonable and exciting purpose. It is very difficult to make skill checks fun, so focus on what the characters are trying to overcome and would it create excitement. Luke and Leia chasing scout-troopers through the Endor forest at deadly speeds, from the Return of the Jedi movies is a fantastic opportunity for a skill challenge. Luke is trying to stop the scout-troopers alerting additional Imperial troops and avoid crashing into trees, the purpose and risks are clear. Skill challenges can include avoiding deadly hazards, great feats of athletics, searching for important information, knowledge of a particular topic or any manner of endeavour you can think up. If players have to make too many dice rolls to complete a skill challenge, they will get bored or eventually fail; so keep the number of dice rolls manageable. Always plan for players to fail a skill challenge and not just succeed; the adventure should not stop just because of character failures. Heroes do not have to be successful all the time, just when it counts to achieve their goal. Try to design skill checks around the stories scene and include everyone with a wide range of different skills that can be used. Skill challenges can turn into battles so plan for this if the players choose not to use stealth in a situation that requires it or avoids the skill challenge entirely.
I find that puzzles are usually the least favourite challenge in an adventure for players, because no matter what you do someone will get stuck eventually and they slow the game down. My advice when it comes to puzzles is to have alternative options for players who have trouble with solving a puzzle or don't like puzzles; brute strength, clever solutions and trickery by players can make puzzles optional. Under no circumstance should you have a puzzle that is fatal for characters if they get it wrong. Failure by the players to complete a puzzle should not stop an adventure and leave no room for an alternative path to their goal. In the movie 'Return of the Jedi', Han Solo attempts to hot wire the shield generator bunker door to get it open, this is an example of a puzzle. Han Solo twists the wrong wires together and the bulk-head door locks him completely out, and Han fails the puzzle. Fortunately Chewbacca shows up with a captured AT-ST walker and Han is able to trick the storm-troopers inside the bunker into opening the door. This is an excellent example of how best to set up puzzles in your adventure game. Some people like to turn puzzles into skill challenges and this can also work, if the players struggle with problem solving. There are many types of puzzles: mathematical codes, mazes, riddles, sequential object shifting, the key is in the PC's inventory, discovering pressure plates or the more open ended practical problem solving puzzles. It is always wise to provided hints to players and make the puzzle fit the adventure, so it makes sense to have it included in the game.
(3) Act Three (End)
The end of the story has a few parts, the Climax and the conclusion where loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement.
The Climax is Plot Point two, when the last conflict is resolved. The players heroes should appear to be beaten and the goal unachievable (a black moment) but something happens to turn the situation around and make the goal reachable. This creates tension in the players and will allow the climax to be the highest tension point. Luke’s got to blow up the Death Star before the rebel forces are destroyed on Hoth, this is a classic climax point in Star Wars. The ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke the strength to trust his own skill with the force and make the impossible shot down the super weapons exhaust port. When you design a climax for your adventure game it doesn't need to be a battle, but that's usually the convention. The climax should take the characters to their limits without killing all the characters. But as you will not know what they can handle till you reach the finale, this is were the most alteration on the fly by a game-master is required. Allow for adjustment by the game-master for the climactic battle so that it can fit the players skill and expectations. You don't want the finale to be too hard or easy.
The conclusion resolves and ties together the loose ends of the adventure. You don't need to spend to much effort on this as it's not what the players will focus their attention on. Include details on experience point rewards, treasure, new powers (levelling a character up) or relationships the characters have made with new NPC's. A short paragraph is enough including player rewards.
The adventure synopsis is written last but is usually found after the adventure hooks and before the first scene of the adventure. Write a basic summary of the adventure for the game-master, this allows people to make choices. The adventure my not be what a game-master is looking for or they might need to make some adjustments. Game-masters often like to add personal ideas to an existing adventure, so make it easy to figure out how this can be done.
A Warning on Plot
Don't let your focus be the plot, as it's not as important as character development by the players. The plot is the outcome of the seeds of your story as the players and game-master create the story.