Adventure Writing: The Adventure Tree

By Dru Pagliassotti

Last week, you defined your adventure focus—the Who, What, Where, When, Why, How and So What? of your advenure. That gives you the main plotline and gets you thinking about what NPCs will be involved, what maps will be needed, and so forth. But a good advenure seldom has only plot thread running through it. You can begin to work out those threads, or subplots, by mapping an adventure tree.

Think of a tree. There’s a trunk, and main branches that grow out from the trunk, and then smaller branches that grow off from those main branches.

Now think of your adventure in terms of a tree. There’s a trunk—that’s your adventure focus—and main branches that grow out from the trunk—those are your subplots—and then smaller branches that grow off from those main branches—those are your links, which join subplot to subplot or adventure tree to adventure tree.

Let’s take an example that I set up in the adventure focus essay—the fairly mundane “diplomat’s daughter gets kidnapped” adventure idea. Here’s the focus:

The daughter of the (nation) diplomat is kidnapped by rebels who disguise themselves as swimming-pool cleaners to enter and leave the embassy grounds in London. The kidnappers’ country is at war with (nation), and they’ve taken the girl to force the diplomat to push for peace between their two nations. After English agents fail to retrieve the girl, the diplomat calls in the PCs, whom she knows because one of them is a (nation) agent, and asks them to get her daughter back. Unfortunately, the clock has been ticking, and the PCs have only 12 hours to complete the mission before the kidnappers say they will begin to torture the girl. (111 words—150 should be the maximum for an adventure focus)

So far, so good. That’s a pretty straightforward spy plot for any game set in modernish times, from 007 to Vampire to Champions to Shadowrun. It answers the basic Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, and So What? questions. We even have one obstacle from the start—the deadline. Now let’s begin to work on the adventure tree.

There are several kinds of subplots that can branch off of your adventure focus. When I use the term subplot, I mean one or more of the following:

  • a plot twist that the adventurers must discover and that may or may not send the adventure moving in a different direction than initially expected,
  • a mini-adventure that must be completed before the larger adventure can be finished,
  • a personal dilemma that will pull one or more of the adventurers into a difficult situation, the results of which are not necessarily essential to the success of the mission as a whole.

What I do not mean when I use the term subplot is an entirely different adventure, unrelated to the adventure focus, that runs concurrently with the central adventure. As I define it, a subplot is somehow linked to the adventure focus like a branch to a tree trunk. Separate adventures can certainly be run at the same time—that’s your typical sitcom plot, with an overarching plot and then a secondary plot—but the other adventure should contain its own focus and tree.

Adventure trees can and often will overlap, and that will also help you develop subplots. The longer your campaign has been going on, the more subplots you can work into an adventure. After all, there are probably a lot of links from previous adventure trees that can be meshed with the current one (imagine an ongoing campaign as a forest in which a number of tree branches touch each other to overlap plotlines in the form of, most commonly, recurrent NPCs). For this example, let’s take the harder case and presume the adventure is the first in a campaign—there is no shared history between the characters; no old lovers, rivals or villains to pop out of the woodwork; no favors that can be called in; and no other types of loose ends that can be neatly tied off in this adventure. We have to start from scratch.

Step One: Write down your adventure focus on a piece of paper, vertically, like the trunk of a tree.

Step Two: Examine the NPCs for subplot ideas. Who are they? Do any of them know each other? Do any of them have secret motives? Are any of them not who they claim to be? Brainstorm and scribble down your ideas on a separate piece of paper. When you hit on a subplot idea you like, write it down on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the focus to the subplot. Keep doing this for each NPC until you have a web of branches. You might even have more than one for each NPC! These subplots are the twisting, turning trail that the PCs must follow to figure out who is really the good guy and who is really the bad guy on the adventure. NPC-related subplots lend themselves most to plot twists and personal dilemmas (usually involved with morals or love).

Another good reason to take the time to do this is simply to develop each NPC’s motivations and get a preliminary idea of the NPC’s personality. Too often a GM hasn’t thoroughly thought out an NPC’s motives, and when the PCs suddenly begin to interact with the NPC, the GM is forced to rely on stereotypes, cliches, or his or her own personality. If this happens too often, each new NPC will seem like a clone of the last, and the players will begin to get bored or impatient with the game.

For this example, let’s stick to the central three NPCs. I’m assuming a very mundane spy game—if you’re playing with superheroes or minions of darkness or cyberware, then you’ll have even more variables to consider.

The Diplomat

Does she get along well with her daughter or not? If yes, is she willing to use her power as an ambassador to try to get her daughter back, or does her job come first? If no, could her daughter be in collusion with the kidnappers in order to strike back at her mother, or try to get attention?

Did she know the kidnapper in the past? Is the kidnapper an old lover? A spouse or brother or other relative whom she’s estranged from because she thinks peace can be won rationally and the kidnapper thinks it must be won by force? Is the kidnapper an old enemy, who might be using the political excuse as a facade to hide her real hatred of the diplomat and desire to hurt her in any way she can? Is the kidnapper one of her political superiors, who is using her daughter to force the diplomat to take some previously resisted course of action?

Was the daughter kidnapped for a completely different reason, and the diplomat lying to protect herself or her daughter from scandal? If that reason is discovered, how will the diplomat react? Will she be able to trust the PCs, or will they have made an enemy?

Did she kidnap the daughter herself to try to negotiate the peace? If so, is her daughter in on it or not? Is the daughter really dead, and her mother hiding the death under a false kidnapping claim because she killed her daughter herself? Or perhaps her daughter died under shameful circumstances, such as a drug overdose, while cruising the streets as a prostitute, or in a suicide? If any of these is the case, how will the corpse come to light, and can the death’s true cause be discovered?

Does the diplomat have a significant other? Might she fall in love with one of the adventurers? If an adventurer insults her, might she become a future enemy?

The Daughter

Did she know her kidnapper before the kidnapping? Is the kidnapper a friend or enemy or member of the family? Is the kidnapper taking her for the stated reasons or so they can elope with each other, or because the daughter owes him money for crack, or because the daughter was trying to blackmail the kidnapper? Does the daughter begin to sympathize with the kidnapper’s cause or does she detest the kidnapper?

Is she actively trying to escape or passively waiting to be rescued? Might the PCs attack the kidnappers only to find that the daughter has already escaped, and then need to continue to track her down after the kidnappers have been dealt with? Or might the PCs and the kidnappers find themselves in a neck-to-neck race to catch the daughter first? (This last would be a mini-adventure subplot).

Does she have a boy- or girlfriend or lover? Might she fall in love with one of the adventurers? If an adventurer insults her, might she become a future enemy?

The Kidnapper

Is the kidnapper a man or a woman (or, depending on the genre, a monster of any kind)? An idealist or a sadist? Basically good or basically nasty? Working alone or with help? Does the kidnapper know either diplomat or daughter? Is the kidnapper actually either mother or daughter? Will the kidnapper actually harm the daughter, or is that just a bluff to make the diplomat work harder for peace? Does the kidnapper start to like the daughter as days go by, seeing in the girl some lost relative of his or her own? Is the kidnapper a representative of a larger organization that will hunt down the PCs if this plot is foiled? Or that might back up the kidnapper with sudden bureaucratic help—the old X-Files manuever of everything suddenly being hushed up and smoothed over by one government or another?

Is there anything else the kidnapper would settle for? Might the kidnapper be able to convince the PCs of the validity of his or her cause? (These can lead to mini-adventures or personal dilemmas.)
Does he or she have a significant other or lover? Might the kidnapper fall in love with one of the adventurers? If an adventurer insults the kidnapper, might he or she become a future enemy?

Step Three: Now examine the locales for subplot ideas. Are there any unusual settings for the adventure? Places that are hard to get to? Defenses that must be breached? Catastrophes that must be avoided? The setting lends itself to mini-adventure subplots. When you hit on a subplot idea you like, write it down on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the focus to the subplot.

For the kidnapping adventure, let’s say that the kidnapper is holding the diplomat’s daughter in the sewers below London. This lends itself to maze-like settings; pitfalls and ambushes; attacks by plague-carrying rats, individual lunatics, local gangs, and even monsters, if you’re playing that kind of game. If you wanted to put even more pressure on, you could decide that there is an impending disaster that will endanger everybody if a time limit isn’t met—for example, a great storm over the Thames has raised the water level and is flooding the sewers during the adventure.

Step Four: Now examine the PCs themselves. We’re assuming this is not an established campaign, but even so, the PCs probably have some sort of history written up already. Some game systems demand it; in other systems, it’s optional. However, if they did write up a history, take a look. Are there any loose ends you can exploit in the course of the adventure—a lost brother who might belong to the kidnappers, perhaps? An obsession with an ancient cult whose sigil might be on the ring the kidnapper wears? These are the kinds of subplots (primarily personal dilemmas) that can extend beyond this adventure and into others. When you hit on a subplot idea you like, write it down on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the focus to the subplot.

Step Five: Take a look at the subplots you’ve chosen—the plot twists, the mini-adventures, the personal dilemmas. How many of them can be tied together? Could the kidnapper be the diplomat’s old comrade-in-arms AND one PC’s lost brother AND a low-ranking member of the secret cult another PC is searching for? This is your chance to have fun weaving adventure twists and turns together into a tapestry of coincidence and conflict that will leave the players gasping. However, if a link is too obvious, try taking it out … just to keep the PCs guessing.

Be cautious with this step, though—some players enjoy the tapestry, some detest it. My husband, for example, feels that it’s detrimental to the campaign to have too much tied together; that adventures are already hard enough for the players to figure out without further muddying the waters with these intertwining plots. I, on the other hand, enjoy confronting such conundrums. Know your players’ preferences and try to cater to them. If you have a mixed group, present straightforward plots half the time and more complicated plots the other half.

Step Six: Now you have a pretty involved adventure. Take a look at it one more time. Does anything not make sense? Anything too outrageous? Take a moment to prune back, if you think the tree has grown a little too big and tangled. You can always save some ideas for another adventure.

Step Seven: The last step is to decide what links you have. These are the little branches that jut off from the main branches and don’t go anywhere—unless they touch another adventure tree in the campaign forest. What loose ends are there likely to be that you can use to tie into another, future adventure? Perhaps the story behind how the brother got into the cult—that’s certainly going to need to be told at some point and could lead to another adventure. Perhaps the diplomat’s daughter falls in love with a PC—she’ll become a link to future adventures, whether her love is returned or spurned (the difference is only what role she’ll take in those future adventures!). If the kidnapper escaped, he or she will undoutedly pop up again (take a look at my article on villains), and the diplomat might be a future contact for the PCs, too.

Now look at the mess you have on your sheet of paper! That’s your adventure tree. At this point, it’s time to flesh out the NPCs, draw up the maps, and generally fill in the blanks. The tree can be written up formally into an adventure, if you like to run with detailed notes, or you can just keep it in front of you for reference, if you’re better at running with nothing but scribbles and scratches. For mysteries, I often rewrite the tree as a series of concentric circles, indicating the various layers of plot that the PCs must peel through to discover “whodunnit.”

In the course of the adventure, you might find out that not all of your subplots will work, or that one threatens to derail the game. Be flexible; let the subplot branches bend or break as the circumstances demand! Remember, the first goal of an adventure is always to entertain the players.

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