Adventure Writing: The Focus

by Dru Pagliassotti

Writing a good adventure isn’t easy. There are, after all, only a limited number of plots one can work with—plots that have been recycled from the most ancient legend to the most recent TV show. The trick is to take one of these timeworn plots and make it fresh and original. But first … you need a plot.

The first thing a GM must do is write an adventure focus, which serves as a “plot in a nutshell.” How often have you sat down to write an adventure with no better idea than, “I’d really like to use this new monster,” “that movie scene was so cool—how can I work it into a game?” or “I’ve gotta get rid of that powerful item the players keep using to nuke my bad guys”? A good adventure focus should be short—100 to 150 words, tops—and should answer these basic questions: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, How? and So What? I’ve listed the questions in order of importance for RPG adventure-writing.

What? What is the main event around which the adventure will revolve? An ancient artifact drives everyone around it mad? A visiting diplomat’s daughter has been kidnapped? A player character is getting married and an old enemy is about to crash the wedding?

Defining What? is the most important part of adventure planning because it defines the adventure. Without having a clear idea of the What? from the very beginning, no adventure can be well-written. This is not to say that this short version of the What? will cover all of the subplots the GM may eventually work into the adventure. Mapping out an adventure’s subplots will be the subject of next week’s essay.

When writing the What?, remember that every plot revolves around conflict. This isn’t the same as saying that every plot revolves around combat. Conflict can be physical (the shouting match, the shoot-out, the race), mental (making a hard decision, solving the mystery, out-strategizing an opponent), or emotional (deciding between saving a lover or a nation, overcoming cowardice to defend a friend, convincing a family to accept a fiance). Conflict can involve enemies, friends, or inanimate forces such as natural or manmade disasters. Conflict can end in something as serious as multiple fatalities or as light-hearted as deciding which model of spaceship to purchase. But no conflict means no adventure.

Why? Why is the event happening? What is the villain’s motive? The ancient artifact contains the soul of an alien god that is trying to possess someone who can release it? The kidnappers want to force the diplomat to negotiate a peace between her nation and their own? The old enemy has long been secretly in love with the player character and wants to prevent the wedding to declare his love?

All too often, events in poorly written adventures seem to occur without any logic or reason behind them. Although the player characters may not realize the Why? behind the adventure for some time, eventually they will discover it—and once they understand, the adventure may suddenly veer in an entirely new direction. (“Why is the dragon leaving her old hunting grounds to antagonize the locals by demanding weekly sacrifices? I mean, she’s supposed to be intelligent—doesn’t she realize that the knights will eventually be called in? Oh, she’s suffering from arthritis but she suddenly has her daughter’s orphaned hatchling to feed? Wait—that makes sense. She needs a steadier supply of food than she can hunt down by herself. But I’ll bet we can negotiate a better agreement between her and the townspeople….”) If nothing else, knowing the Why? permits the GM to indulge in that classic scene where the villain defiantly declares his or her plan to the captured player characters so that they can escape to foil the plan later.

How? How is the event going to be carried off—what is the modus operandi? The alien god has psionic powers that don’t mesh with the human mind, so its attempt to possess the person drives the victim crazy? The kidnappers infiltrated the embassy as swimming-pool cleaners? The old enemy uses magic to disguise himself as the best man?

The How? is the question that begins to shape the adventure. There are two parts to the How? question—how did the trigger event occur? and how will it be finalized, assuming nothing happens to interfere? The GM never wants to be put in the position of having the players ask, “Well, why didn’t the Dispel Magic at the front door foil that spell?” or “Shouldn’t Security’s radiation detectors have noticed that he was packing a suitcase nuke around?” In addition, if the adventurers don’t interfere, or happen to fail in their mission, the GM must know what will happen to the alien artifact … to the diplomat’s daughter … and to the wedding.

So What? Why do the player characters care? What will make the adventure important to them? The artifact drove a player character’s aunt mad, and the character’s nephew sent a messenger for help? A player character belongs to the same country as the diplomat whose daughter was kidnapped, and she telegraphs the character for assistance? The player character’s fiance is in danger of being killed by the old enemy?—or perhaps the player character has also secretly been in love with her old enemy, and this is their chance to work things out?

Without answering the So What? question, the GM runs the risk of having adventurers shrug and say, “that’s not our problem.” At best, they’ll begrudgingly go on the mission “because that’s the adventure,” not because they feel any personal interest in the outcome. (If the adventure is a one-shot, not part of a campaign, glance over Introducing Characters for ideas about bringing the player characters together for the adventure.)

Who? Who’s going to be involved? Who starts the adventure, who provides clues, who are the allies, who are the enemies? (For ideas on creating interesting enemies, glance at “How to Run a Good Bad Guy”.)

Define the archaeologist nephew of the PC who is going to draw the group in, the corrupt government official who sees defensive uses for the alien artifact, the wise native who knows what the artifact really is, and so forth. Define the anxious diplomat, her imperiled daughter, the kidnappers’ idealistic leader, and any important sources or thugs the group is likely to interact with at length. Define the player character’s boring fiance, her love-stricken enemy, and any other important members of the bridal party (if they aren’t other player characters).

Answering the Who? question provides the cast of characters with which the player characters will be interacting. Give each major NPC a name and some distinctive trait—a dialect, mannerism, preference or dislike, mode of dress, odor, or other distinguishing mark that will make that NPC stand out in the players’ minds. However, only NPCs who may come into conflict with the player characters need to be written up in detail (assigned statistics, powers, equipment, etc.)—these may include the employer, major clue-providers (especially if they’ll need to be roughed up for the information), thugs or agents, and of course the villain of the piece, if it’s to be that kind of adventure.

Where? Where is this event going to take place? In an unexplored desert in another kingdom where the archaeologists have been delving into forbidden ruins? In an embassy in London? In the interfaith chapel of the space station that the player characters live in?

The Where? will be defined by the type of game being run, the place where the characters are currently located, and the place(s) where the GM wants to take the characters. Answering the Where? question will tell the GM what maps will need to be drawn up or locales described during the course of the adventure.

When? When does all of this take place? Did the alien artifact begin driving people mad yesterday or last month? Did the diplomat’s daughter get kidnapped just an hour ago, or nearly a week ago, with the kidnappers’ deadline now down to the last 24 hours before the girl is killed? The enemy’s invasion of the wedding, of course, must happen while the GM is roleplaying the wedding, an event presumably planned in advance during the course of an ongoing campaign.

The When? should describe when the background events occurred and also include a proposed chronology of events should the adventurers not interfere—a chronology that, of course, will be affected by the player characters’ actions during the course of the adventure. Again, there’s always the chance that the adventurers will not go on this adventure (because the GM failed to address the So What? question) or will simply fail. Should either of these happen, the GM needs to know what, and when, major events will occur, especially if another adventure can be built around the aftermath (the release of the alien god, a war between two countries, the death of the bridegroom).

The When? plan must take into account travel times and any deadlines that might be imposed, too.

Now, go ahead. Write down your basic adventure focus in 150 words or less, preferably less. Don’t go into detail; just answer the seven questions as briefly as possible. Next week we’ll tackle growing your adventure focus into an adventure tree.

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