Reader Voicemail: Building an Adventure

Posted on March 9, 2010 by


The response to the voicemail has been pretty fantastic so far, and there’s probably no way that I’ll be able to take advantage of all the voicemails that have come in through a podcast alone, so I thought I’d create a new section for the site called “Reader Voicemail”, where I’ll write an answer, rather than produce a full podcast.  You’d still get the chance to listen to a reader’s question, or be a featured reader yourself.  Here now is our debut question, where a reader asks about adventure building. (If you are reading this through an RSS reader like Google Reader you will probably not see the flash audio player)

From what I understand, the reader has no problem coming up with the overall story, (eg. Frodo gets the one true ring, now he has to destroy it up in Mt. Doom) and he can create encounters, (Wraiths, Helm’s Deep)but the issue is piecing it together as a coherent story.

Okay, so let me attempt to answer this as best I can, and hopefully you readers with more experience than me will chime in the comments section below. Just as D&D is collaborative, I would like this to be as well. 🙂

Adventure building can be a challenging thing, and more often than not, I’ve seen DM’s fall into the trap of stringing combat encounter after combat encounter together and calling it an adventure.  This, sadly, includes published adventures coming out of industry folks.  Obviously this is the wrong way to approach an adventure, as it can quickly lead to repetition and bored players.  I am not a fan of using encounters for encounter’s sake. If it adds nothing to the story, let it go, no matter how great you’d like to think and believe it is.

So how to make an adventure?  Well, lets look at an adventure the same way we’d look at other story-telling media. Whether it’s books, TV shows or movies, all stories have something in common:  drama, in the form of beginning, conflict, and resolution.  What you are basically trying to do is create a situation for your heroes where they are challenged and face the most difficult situations they’ve ever faced, on their way to a heroic finale. And really, it’s not that difficult.  Let’s build an adventure where the party has to find a secret artifact belonging to an old Wizard.  He sends them out on a quest recover the Staff of the Magi held by the Demon Gargamel. Yes, that Gargamel.

So, we begin in town, and we set up our story and introduce the main npc’s. These are obviously the wizard who hires them, and other folks in town who may provide hooks for other quests along the way.  We have two combat encounters as the party leaves town, which seem completely unrelated to the story, but upon further investigation, the party learns that the enemies were working for a type of demon. This may be through symbols on their clothing, words they used, whatever. The point is that in the intro, the players are now aware of what their goal is, and who the apparent enemy may be.

This takes them on their journey to find Gargamel.  Investigations and skill challenges using the symbols they saw or words they heard lead them to a cult of Gargamel nearby.  This cult operates in secret, so the skill challenges are hard, and perhaps the person giving the party this type of information demands…favors.  These favors could be resolved using some of those encounters you’ve thought of.  The party has to bypass this challenge to get closer to their goal.  Once they get to the cult, they’ll obviously have to face these guys and learn more about this mysterious Gargamel, eventually learning what it is that can be used to destroy him, or where he can be found.  I know I’m being very broad, but it’s just to give you an idea.

The important thing here is that every single encounter has to push your story along.  It can’t exist just as filler. Just as every scene in a film is important to its story, so are your encounters.  Make the players learn something about where Gargamel lives, make them gain an item that will contribute to the death of Gargamel, make them learn Gargamel’s location. Do not make them earn 500xp and move on to the next room.  That’s crap.

So in your resolution to your story, you enter the final moments of the adventure. Everything they’ve learned and experienced in the bulk of the story culminates here. Gargamel’s weaknesses and his location come to play here.  They’ll have to get to him first, because he’ll be well defended, of course.  A few encounters later, and boom! Gargamel.  The end game. They defeat him, gain back the Staff of the Magi, and all is well in the world.

The point of this is to realize that every encounter you design has got to be justifiable withing the context of your story.  And if it turns out that you can only justify 7 encounters, well so be it.  Your adventure was 7 encounters long, but they were meaningful and worth something to your plot.  They weren’t boring filler that could have been easily skipped.  By the way, I use this handy sheet in my campaign when I run my homebrew stories mixed with published material.

And now I ask readers to please share their thoughts on the topic, and remember if you are interested in participating in these articles or on our podcast, call in with your questions at 305-349-3026…

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Posted in: Advice/Tools, Gaming