One of the perennial problems when writing up adventures (episodes, stories, plots, whatever) for a roleplaying game session — whether for your own use or someone else’s — is organizing things in a manner that facilitates understanding, use, quick reference and improvisation. This is particularly difficult when writing for other game masters, and it shows in many of the adventures available.
Here we present our outline for writing up adventure scenes. We believe it organizes things in a manner that makes the game master’s (GM’s) life easier. It also should make it easier for the writer to remember what needs to be detailed, which sorts of information will be useful to the GM using it, and how to get across the important parts of the scene.
The version below includes plenty of notes on using the outline and making the most of it. However, we also have the bare outline in downloadable form:
Special copyright addendum: While we reserve all the usual rights for the article, feel free to pass around the bare-bones outline as much as you want. Just please give credit where credit is due! You should also feel free to use as much or as little of the outline as you want for the purpose of writing up easy-to-use adventures, for personal or professional use.
Summary: This is a brief, one- to two-paragraph summary of the scene’s purpose, premise, and possible sequence of events. Its purpose is to give the GM an overview that will put the rest of the write-up in context, make sure the GM can easily keep the scene straight in his head, and give him something to quickly refer to when he needs a reminder of what’s going on. This makes it much easier for the GM to adapt and use the rest of this write-up.
Purpose: Why has this scene been included? What’s its purpose? This could be anything from "add some excitement to the game" to "give the PCs this vital piece of information." The point of having this is to make sure that even when the GM has to improvise, he can try to ensure that the scene still accomplishes its intended purpose.
What’s the location of this scene? What’s the basic layout and how will that impact the scene? What’s the purpose of having this scene here?
Setting details:Include a bullet-list of representative details that can be used to convey the sense and feeling of the location. You can include a few pre-written phrases or sentences as well, but try to keep them short; listed details are easier for the GM to adapt. You might provide both concrete detail and the feeling or information it’s meant to convey, further helping the GM to adapt the material. For example:
- Deep shadows: creepiness and paranoia (hard to be sure no one’s there)
- Guttering candles: a sense of movement; the feeling that the one source of light and warmth is fragile and could go out at any moment
- Damp, humid air: the air was arid and dry the last time the PCs were here, so this should strike them as unusual and hopefully lead them to discover the…
You get the idea.
This section should cover the details of what led up to and lies behind the current scene and situation in enough detail that the GM can improvise parts of the scene while still keeping it consistent with earlier and later material.
Premise: How does this scene relate to the adventure’s plot? What’s the premise behind the scene and events? What’s ostensibly going on? What’s the background of the situation? What’s the chain of cause-and-effect that led to the current circumstances?
Opening: How will the scene open? The opening of a scene is (in general) less likely to get thrown off than later points, so you can detail this a little more than you might later parts. Remember, however, to include anything you can think of that will help the GM respond to weird things his players might try.
Special details to remember: If there are any details in the background and set-up of the scene that the GM really needs to keep in mind, or is likely to need when attempting to improvise and carry things out, put them here.
Probable sequence of events
Remember that this is a possible description of the scene. You could summarize the expected events, write up a timeline, or detail it in whatever way you choose. It’s very important here to provide information to help the GM adapt the events to his characters’ actions.
If you expect conversation to happen, include a list of important conversation-points. You can write up material that’s meant to be read directly if you want to, but always summarize it in a quick-reference form as well — conversations rarely proceed exactly as planned.
If there are any particular moments that you feel need to happen, note them here. Note what they are, why they’re important, how to bring them about, and how to adapt them to unexpected events.
If there’s anything else the GM needs to keep in mind or know about when GMing this scene, include it here.
Provide a bullet-list of NPCs present in the scene. For example:
- Ronald Gish, evil accountant
- Emily Morris, scheming office assistant
- Jerry Katish, innocent mail room worker
- Two cafeteria employees
- Three secretaries from another department
Include a brief individual section for any NPC of import present in the scene — any NPC whose wants, needs, actions, etc. could impact the outcome of the scene. Depending on the size of the person’s role and importance to the game you can include very little or a lot under the following sections.
Description: A brief physical description; preferably a couple of representative details you can use to quickly convey the sense of a character’s appearance.
Mood/attitude: What mood is the character in at the beginning of the scene, and/or what is his attitude toward whatever is going on?
Goals/agenda: What are the character’s goals in this situation, and/or what is his agenda?
Strategy/tactics: What sort of strategies or tactics does this character prefer to use in situations like this? (Does he prefer to quietly manipulate? Does he bully and push people around? Will he back off if confronted or cornered, only to return with a vengeance later?) This can be as simple or complex as you want, based on the character and the situation.
Probable actions/reactions: If you have a good idea of what might happen in the scene, then also detail how you believe this character will act and react in the scene. If you foresee some alternate possibilities for how events might unfold, account for those as well.
Stats: If there’s even the slightest possibility that combat might break out, detail relevant character stats here. Heck, detail ’em anyway–they could be relevant to various ability checks. In some cases you can get away with copy-pasting someone else’s stats if you don’t mind duplication, or saying something like, "use Jerry Katish’s stats for both cafeteria workers."
Note that if you provide a very easy-to-reference listing of NPCs with your adventure, you can probably get away with referring the GM to that rather than including relevant details here. However, you might still want to include any stats that you know for sure will be used in that scene, including any expected modifiers, so the GM can stop to look things up as little as possible.