Roleplaying Game Author’s Style Guide II: Adventure-Writing

Roleplaying game (RPG) adventures have some very specific and interesting hurdles to jump. They must be useful to a wide range of game masters (GMs) or they won’t sell well. Therefore, they must take other people’s styles and preferences into account. They must present information in a manner that will make it easy to assimilate and refer to. And they must be fun for a wide range of players.

As I mentioned in the last article, always go with the directions of the company that hired you in preference to these suggestions. The person who’s paying you gets to decide, ultimately, what gets published.


Adaptation: In most roleplaying games (RPGs), you can’t know what skills and abilities the player characters (PCs) will have. Try to give the GM a few suggestions for how he can adapt the adventure to take his particular party (its skills and resources) into account.

Example: “If one of the PCs is an artist, or a singer, or a carpenter, then make the Count an art enthusiast, music lover, collector of fine furniture, etc. instead of a coin collector.”

Assumptions: Don’t make too many assumptions about what the PCs will or won’t do. Remember that your material should be flexible. It should adapt to a wide range of player choices.

Characters: Any characters provided should be three-dimensional and interesting. Give them motives for what they do. Give them motives for what they don’t do. Avoid stereotypes as much as possible. If you have very little space then make use of stereotypes, but subvert the trite material with a well-placed detail or two.

Contextual Clues: Use contextual clues (cold hard details) to nudge PCs toward specific courses of action. Never tell the GM to achieve a goal without giving him in-game support for it. Rather than simply telling the GM that the PCs should take a certain action, design the set-up itself to convince the PCs to take that action. And then take into account the idea that they might not do it anyway. Remember that these should be nudges and clues, not sledgehammers and neon signs.

Description: Description meant to be read to players should be clear and precise. This is not the time to get poetic. One of the major points of such text, after all, is to allow the players to know what they can and can’t do in a scene. Avoid ambiguous details and phrases that sound cool but are ultimately meaningless.

Different Parties: Where possible, allow for widely varied PC possibilities. What would happen if the party was evil, or larger than you expect, or smaller?

Directions: Never include PC observations, actions, or feelings in description that is meant to be read to the players (unless there is an in-game effect, such as a spell, that affects their thoughts or deeds)! Never tell them from on high what they should be thinking, feeling, or doing, and never assume that you can correctly guess what they’ll think or do. There’s a world of difference between saying that a dark alley is creepy, and saying that the PCs feel scared; the former leaves them room to say “yeah, well, I’m not scared of anything,” while the latter imposes your will upon them.

Effectiveness: The PCs should never be superfluous to the game. They should always be able to affect what’s going on. Don’t simply tour them through a display — give them the chance to do something cool.

Ending: End up with suggestions for where the GM might take the game after he has run out of your provided adventure material. You should also address as many different possible ending-points for your adventure (in brief detail) as possible — don’t assume it’ll end the way you want or expect it to.

Flexibility: Make plots flexible. Provide suggestions for customizing and personalizing them. The GM should be able to twist and shape them with ease to suit his world, his players, and his game.

Goals: Provide suggestions for how the PCs could accomplish their adventure goals so that the GM has something to plan for and work with. Provide multiple suggestions where possible, so the GM doesn’t feel that he must railroad his party into the one plot solution. Try not to turn these suggestions into absolutes — don’t say “the only way to solve this plot is…” As mentioned before, absolutes are plot holes in disguise and fail to take player cleverness into account. Give the GM enough concrete information that he can decide for himself whether a PC’s clever plan would work.

Important Clues: The success of the PCs should not depend on whether or not they happen to catch one important clue at the right time. Provide multiple means to track down important information.

Improvisation: Provide suggestions where possible to aid in GM improvisation.

Involving the PCs: Provide multiple flexible suggestions for how the GM might involve a party of PCs in the plot of the adventure. Preferably also suggest ways to involve the PCs with each other, in case this isn’t a pre-existing party. Think about different ways to motivate characters. Money isn’t the only useful motivation: “Seven Sins of Character Motivation,” may give you some ideas.

Reference Lists: Include easy-to-use reference lists of people, places, etc. with one-sentence reminders of their identities. Include page references. If possible, briefly mention what specific information the GM will find on each of those pages. In other words, you need a sort of “map” that allows the GM to find and process information quickly.

Restrictions: Don’t place artificial and ridiculous restrictions on the setting or plot just to make things easier on yourself. Allow the PCs their freedom to play with the world.

Shorter is Usually Better: “One-act” adventures tend to allow for more free will on the part of the PCs. Longer ones usually require the GM to railroad the characters to a specified ending-point at the end of earlier acts so that he can make use of later ones. You can always provide loose outlines of suggested later acts, with enough background material to support them, so that the GM can adapt them to his players’ actions.

Summary: Try to provide certain bits of information up front, so the GM will know whether your adventure is useful to him and his group. Here are some of the things you might provide:

  • A brief outline and summary of the adventure.
  • Minimum, maximum, and/or optimal number of PCs. (Approximate)
  • How experienced or able the PCs should be. (Approximate)
  • The types of plots present (combat, puzzle-solving, politics, etc.).
  • The style of play the game will appeal to (heavy drama, dungeon-crawling, save-the-world, high-epic, personal plots, etc.).
  • Very approximate length of play (one hour? Months of weekly play?).
  • Description of the sort of material provided (non-player characters (NPCs), toolkit-style write-up, scenes and speeches, etc.).

Type of Material: Background material (premises, set-ups, loose outlines, NPC write-ups, etc.) are often preferable to in-game scenes and speeches; the former are more flexible and help the GM to improvise to fit her players’ choices. When you must detail scenes and speeches, try to provide outlines and flexible details that encompass a wide array of possibilities.

Variety: Where appropriate, provide a variety of plots, materials, and plot solutions. This aids in flexibility, and helps your material to appeal to a wider audience.

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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