During the past two years I’ve introduced more people to tabletop roleplaying games or RPGs than ever before (and I’ve been playing since 2000). Since last December, three have run their first adventures. Curiously enough, all three asked me more or less the same question: how do you write an RPG adventure? On each occasion I tried to explain my process as best as I could—and to refer to other people’s advice when possible—but I think this information could be useful to others, so I’ll summarize my current ideas on the matter here.
This advice is focused on Game Masters (GMs) who are writing adventures for a group of friends for a single session or a campaign. In the case of writing an adventure for an unknown audience—such as it is in the case of an event/convention/etc. or when you’re doing it professionally (i.e., for other people to use it)— then the process is rather different. If you’re interested in me discussing my approach to writing that kind of adventure, please leave a comment or consider joining my Patreon, where you can vote for what content you’d like to see published here in the future.
Consider the Protagonists
As the GM I think the first thing you have to take into consideration when writing your adventures is that the protagonists—the player characters or PCs—will be defined and created by other people. Having that in mind, my first piece of advice is: create adventures tailored for your player characters.
In this sense, ideally try to have the players create their characters before you write the adventure and have everybody do this together—including you. During this process you are supposed to guide the other players, answering their questions about the game system, its options, and clarifying any doubts they may have. But, more importantly, this is your chance to listen actively. What kind of characters are the players creating? Will they resort to violence as a first or last resource, for example? What are the PCs’ individual goals—and maybe their collective ones? If they don’t mention these things naturally, ask the players about who their characters are and take notes of their answers.
Here are some examples using three of my favorite RPGs.
- Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Ask each player to provide you with 3-5 dramatic hooks related to their characters. These dramatic hooks can include but are not limited to: nonplayer characters (NPCs) they care about; places they’d defend if under threat; objectives they want to achieve, such as acquiring political power, forgotten knowledge, etc. If the players cannot come up with such dramatic hooks on their own, ask them leading questions considering their characters’ statistics, such as: Who did you train with to get an 18 Constitution score? Where did the war in which you served as a Soldier occur? What is your objective as a Sorcerer?
- Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM). Ask each player how their characters justify their horrifying, blood-drinking existences and what, if any, are their goals beyond merely surviving another night. If the PCs will start the adventure knowing each other, ask them why they are working together and what are their short- and long-term objectives as a group. Take note of any PCs that have Backgrounds related to NPCs such as Allies, Contacts, Mentor, etc. Ask them if they want to define those NPCs right away (or even during play) or if they’d prefer for you to do so.
- The Call of Cthulhu (CoC). Ask each player who are their characters close relationships, such as friends, family, classmates, coworkers, etc. Ask the players where their characters work and how are their relationships to their superiors. Ask them why their characters would risk their lives to investigate the supernatural.
What Is Your Adventure About?
Now that you have in mind who the protagonists will be, my advice is that you try to define what the adventure will be about. Or, in other words, what will be the adventure’s theme. The adventure’s theme is what guides my writing process and, ideally, the theme should derive from who the PCs are and what they want.
In this sense, I think that the adventure’s theme should be the basis from which to challenge the PCs. Whatever the PCs want, you should create thematic obstacles to throw in their way. In doing so you will hopefully create drama—and drama is where all good stories I love converge.
Following the previous examples we’d have something like:
- D&D. The PCs are outcasts and misfits who don’t fit in society. Throughout their lives they’ve been rejected by society by one reason or another. An interesting theme in this case would be to put the PCs in a position where the society that once rejected them now seeks their help. Will they prove those people right by refusing to help them or will they rise above their discrimination by behaving like heroes, risking their own lives to save them?
- VtM. The PCs are a Coterie of vampires from different Clans who have banded together because they want to ascend the Camarilla’s political ladder. All of them want the power for different reasons, but they are sure that the only way to achieve it is by working together. A cool theme here could be the contrast between the young vampires working together as a group against the lone Elders who stand in their way. Is the price of power to become isolated and paranoid? Is there any way to obtain that power without losing oneself in the process?
- CoC. The PCs are a group of supernatural investigators with some experience fighting—and defeating—monsters. In this case, a challenging theme could be to confront the PCs with a situation where the “monster” is no monster at all, but an innocent. What would they do in such a situation? Would they destroy the “monster” without a second thought or would they question their methods?
Define the Antagonist
As you can see in the examples above, the adventure’s theme can lead you straight into its narratively logical antagonist. This is deliberate because I like to create adventures in which the antagonist represents the thematic opposite of the PCs.
In this sense, I think that a good antagonist is one who confronts the PCs with their darkest reflection. It is from this sort of “mirror effect” between PCs and the antagonist that great drama can ensue. In this case, the drama comes from whether or not the PCs can defeat someone they not only understand but can even empathize with.
Finally, the other important aspect to consider about the antagonist is what their plans are. In other words: that you know what the result could be if the PCs don’t get involved in the adventure or if they fail.
Rounding up the previous example we could have:
- D&D. The antagonist is a group of outcasts and misfits—just like the PCs—who want to take into their hands what society has denied them. In their unconscious desire to be accepted they have become a menace that, if left unchecked, could destroy the society that rejected them—confirming their prejudices.
- VtM. The antagonist is a solitary and very powerful Elder who is willing to betray the Camarilla to one of its enemies in exchange to be left undisturbed. In doing so they have become a target for other Elders who are employing the PCs to end this threat without risking their own existences. If the PCs don’t act quickly and decisively, one or more of the numerous enemies of the Camarilla will storm the city where they reside.
- CoC. The antagonist is a very young child with the power to summon an Elder God. The child will open the portal in no time, so the investigators have to find a way to destroy the seed of evil inside them without destroying the innocent in the process. Otherwise the seed will find a new host and complete the summoning ritual.
And Now What?
After this three steps I think that you should be ready to write the adventure proper. You now have to design the encounters/scenes following the adventure’s theme and consider the final confrontation with the antagonist as the climax of the adventure. I don’t include those steps here because they are, by necessity, the most adventure and game system dependent.
What I can recommend, though, is that you write those encounters/scenes as openly as possible and, more importantly, that you consider the PCs action during the game session to determine how they should be altered.
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