Thursday, January 7, 2010

Adventure Design: The Middle as the Beginning

When building an adventure I always like to start with a situation such as the ones we've heard many times, the princess was kidnapped, a thief stole my family heirloom, and the raiders burned down the village. Because I come from a fiction background and have written mainly short stories I prefer to start in medias res. A latin term that means "into the midst of affairs" or beginning the story in the middle of an action or event or in my example, in the midst of a situation.

Most adventure modules are written this way as the examples above are well trampled on by many a gamers' feet. How many times have players been summoned to a lord's hall for assistance with a problem? Or villagers staggering on road to tell the players a story of the horrible thing that happened to their home? A bazillion gazillion times and another large number. But it works. It's a good technique to get the adventure rolling. To get the players hooked into the adventure.

As a GM, my fiction background definitely comes through because I like a good story to my adventure. My players will tell you there is a story arc and these stories do have a beginning, middle and end with many opportunities to continue down another story if they choose. For this reason I rarely use static dungeons, ones that are sitting there waiting to be discovered. The best example I can think of is Tomb of Horrors. Nothing is coming in or out of the dungeon to attract any attention. It sits in the darkness waiting to be discovered. Don't get me wrong these dungeons have their place and can be some of the best adventures, but because of the nature of this type of adventure you need to concoct a hook such as rumors, a lost treasure map, just dumb luck as the players are traveling find the door or some scholar comes across ancient manuscripts and discovers the location of a powerful artifact. All great hooks, but this can only be a potential adventure or story or happening. The players can shrug their shoulders and it may never be heard of again.

An active adventure hook happens with or without the players' interaction. If the raiders burned down one village they are likely to move onto the next village. The lord of the land may have been refused by the players so he will send others. This develops a campaign's depth, providing layers of interaction to build upon. When the lord calls upon another group of adventurers to rid the raiders a rival is born. The problem is not going away even if players' ignore it. Now the GM has a rival born organically from the party's actions.


  1. Nice post. I like to have a mix of active and passive locations. I have one group that loves the active module style adventures and also likes how we connect them narratively. I have another group that loves to explore dungeon locations--although if a dungeon is set up correctly (at least IMHO), it should have NPCs and groups and be very dynamic, not merely a group of monsters in stasis, waiting to be triggered by the opening of a door.

  2. Good post. I think commercial modules probably push the static dungeon model because they're easier to write in a campaign independent way with the expectation that the GM will hook their party with an appropriate story. Unfortunately I think the hook is often forgotten, leading to less satisfying play.