USR Wednesdays: Adventure Design

One thing I don’t see in rules-light RPGs (or most that aren’t professionally published, really) is much advice about adventure design — how to create balanced battles with monsters, how to construct a story, how to keep the action moving without it being all fights, etc. That’s probably because adventures are tougher to write than rules are, since rules are simply math, while adventure writing is less easy to put into a structure. It’s also because rules-light games are more about collective storytelling than traditional RPG adventures, where a game master can simply read off the description of a room and what’s inside.

Let’s take a cue from the five room dungeon and the three act delve. This is a way to get an entire adventure in one night’s session — when I play (not often enough), this is what works best. An ongoing campaign, with recurring villains that strike time and again, is fantastic, but it’s hard enough to get people together to play once. Let’s not start a story we can’t finish.

This rules-light adventure design has six parts, in a row, which is why I call it the Six-Step Adventure.

Six-Step Adventure
Everyone can use the Six-Step Adventure, even players of “Cubicles & Careers.” (image: FantasyCon)

1. Quest giver

The motivation to start the adventure. Traditionally, this is, “You meet at the tavern and a herald tells you about the captured princess” or “The king sends you to clear out the nearby dungeon.” But in a narrative game, reverse it. Pick a starting point and have these creative players, who have already invented their own Specialisms, describe what’s making them want to participate.

Yes, the beautiful elven princess has been kidnapped by the dragon. Why rescue her? Well, the dashing human rogue knows his answer, but what about the half-dragon berzerker? The real answer, of course, is that if he doesn’t help rescue her, there’s no game for the night. But in the world of the story, the player gets to stretch those creative muscles before he even picks up his dice.

2. Early encounter

A chance to try out the combat rules, or get a feel for the style of the adventure. This is the goblin skirmish outside the ruined temple, or the challenge of breaking into a locked building that is where the data files are stored.

3. Clue to final confrontation

This ties in to part 6, where the characters get an indication of they’re up against or how to defeat it. They find a gem that’s especially deadly against the final “boss monster” of the adventure, or rescue an insane man, babbling about the horrors he’s seen (and that the heroes will see in the not-too-distant future).

4. Secondary encounter or challenge

A more serious threat, like the boss monster’s number two guy or a massive dragon that’s the pet of the real villain. This doesn’t have to be a monster, either; the FBI can show up to take over the investigation just as the characters are making progress, or they have to figure out how to infiltrate the villain’s hideout — during a lavish party.

5. Secondary challenge or encounter (the opposite)

The reverse of the previous part. Not everything in any adventure should be about combat! Even in violence-focused games like Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, characters do things other than fight. The group could have to solve a riddle (what’s the Elvish word for “friend”?) or even face a moral quandary through role playing, without rolling the dice (should Chewie break free and rescue Han from the carbon-freezing chamber?).

6. Final boss

This is what everyone has been waiting for, the big finish. It’s usually a fight, since so many RPG characters (including USR ones) are build around combat skills. But it could just as easily be a challenge: planting a bomb and making a getaway before the timer runs out, or getting to the valuable civilian to the safety of a military escort before the enemy government’s goons recapture him.

This is a framework for adventures, one that can easily be expanded (the heroes need to collect several clues before they can move on) or shrunk (only one secondary encounter/challenge) to fit the time allowed for the game.

What does your Six-Step Adventure look like?

P.S. This is the first post at the new dominowriting.com/games site. My games are here, too; let’s keep all the fun in one place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *