Please note: The Usual Disclaimer applies as always.
A little while ago, I wrote a guide on crafting RPG campaign stories. This, in many ways, is the second part to that - looking at how you craft the individual adventures that make up a campaign.
Over the years, I've created a basic structure for adventures (which is also the format that the Xasine DMG uses) which I find works well for my more improv-based GMing style. It consists of two major blocks, which break down as follows:
Structure and Detail
- Openings & Resolutions
- Potential Events & NPCs
- Likely Locations
Notes and References
- Pertinent Information
- All Other Business
However, before we get into the meat of what these all cover and the detail of them, firstly I thought I'd explain why this is the format I use.
Arriving at my Ideal Format
Over the years, I've found that the single biggest challenge I face when I'm GMing is to improv effectively. As a result, I've got certain things that I want to have to hand to make sure I'm able to do the best job possible. Those things are:
- An overview of the adventure narrative so I can know where the group are, and what's likely to come up soon
- A rough idea of events able to happen at any given time, so the story progresses
- A list of NPCs and things for them to do, for introducing characters on the fly
- A handy reference for locations where the characters are, so I know what they should be able to find, explore and do whilst they're there
Between those things, I should be able to roleplay anything required at any given time. Bigger NPCs are obviously fleshed out more than Random Shopkeeper #37, who's not going to be so interesting, but I still want an idea of a name I can give to Random Shopkeeper #37, what race he'd likely be, and what his shop might sell. So with that in mind, here's what I prep, and why.
The first part of any adventure I put together a quick paragraph or two as an overview of what will happen in the adventure. There's almost no detail whatsoever to this - it's designed as a rough reference so that I can ensure as and when things go off-track, that I know what I need to adjust to make sure that any key plot points still occur. It also gives a boundary so I know if the group have done something that means I need to bin the adventure from that point forward and start improvising fast. An example might be:
The party comes together to track down the brother (Urlin Norsu) of Gerath Norsu, a local merchant of reasonable wealth. They find various clues, which lead them to discover the brother joined a cult. If they catch up with the cult, it'll be revealed that they're a family who were cursed by Urlin in his youth; he's now given himself up to them and they have started to enact a purification ritual to cleanse themselves of the curse, resulting in his death. If they find him within five days, he's still alive and the ritual is yet to be completed, otherwise he'll be dead.
Openings & Resolutions
This second section deals outlines a brief introduction to how the adventure can start. It gives three entry points, which might be something like "one of the group knows Gerath Norsu, and word has reached them that he's in trouble" or "the group go to trade with a local merchant - it emerges that he's Gerath Norsu, a prominent local trader with a problem weighing on his mind" and so on.
This is designed to give the GM a series of options for how to get the party into the start of the adventure in a way that feels natural and that flows as part of the overall campaign.
The resolutions is the flip side of this - different potential outcomes and how they might resolve. For example, if the group in this example catch up with Urlin Norsu and the family quickly, they could choose to let the ritual go ahead to allow Urlin to atone for his mistake, or interfere and try and lift the curse themselves, or stop the ritual and force the family to continue to live under it. There's various ways it could play out, depending on what the group decide to do. Each of these would then give different outcomes for the group. For example, if they lift the curse themselves, they might then move on to a particular new adventure, and the person who lifts it could get bonus XP. If they allow the ritual to play out, that could have interesting repercussions, with them being exiled from the town where Gerath lives. It's not just about describing the outcomes themselves, but also what therefore might follow.
Of course, these are guidelines - in the moment, you might decide based on what the group did, that you want to go with something else not written down.
Potential Events & NPCs
In the example we're using here, these would be the clues and different ways they could be found, as well as notable NPCs the group would interact with in those circumstances. Each of these has a few notes of information about the situation and what might happen, but it's very much left up to the GM to then improvise around what happens in those scenarios.
For example, one event might be that the group end up in the Wilful Stoat, a pub on the edge of Masterraford, a small village near the town. There, they overhear a conversation between two people who mention Urlin's name. They discover one of the pair is Ygrin Ofslad, an old friend of Urlin. Yesterday evening, Urlin confessed to about his crime and desire to make amends to Ygrin, who is now discussing with a friend about whether the advice she offered (to do what he could to make things right) was the right choice.
There would also be a small stat block for Ygrin, a one or two sentence description of his appearance and what items she's carrying, and any other useful information (race, age, voice etc).
This is an adjunct in a way to the previous section. Where that gives notes for what could happen and who would be involved, this outlines places where things can happen. I like to have an element of fluidity to my stories and encounters, so I keep these separate to allow for the freedom to introduce situations and NPCs at a time and place where it feels natural.
As a result, there's a need for a bank of locations to use, so if the group decide to head out in search of something, or to resupply or go somewhere for the night, I'll have a few options for where they can go. It adds an ability to be more dynamic with the storytelling, whilst also making it seem like you're more prepared than you actually are.
The last major part is a section for dealing with any parts from the rest of the adventure that may require further fleshing out. I try and keep the first four sections as concise as possible, partly so they work well as reference material, and partly so whilst I'm GMing I have to fill in the gaps. It's not all prescribed as to what the party needs to do and where they need to go next, avoiding the feeling of the group being railroaded through a story.
However, there are times when you need details on something. With the Urlin example, I'd want details on the ritual, where it'd be likely to happen, how long it'd take, what it requires, who will be there, the different stages of it and so on. That way, I can tailor the encounter when the group arrive, if they'll be interrupting it, as well as being able to describe in some detail what's going on at the moment the group enter the space.
This is where all that sort of detail goes, for anything where more precise detail, which needs to be correct and referenceable in the future.
All Other Business
The final section is for anything else that's worth noting, as well as for making notes as you go along on anything that's not prescribed, that you might want to refer back to later. I use this for making notes on voices I've used, any minor NPCs I've created, and anything else I think I might need later.
I also keep a list of random NPC names here, so I can create people who will be correct for the current location. These are generally as simple as:
Name > Race > Profession
...with possibly an extra detail thrown in as I expand them in the narrative. For example, if I decide that I want to make Purlus Iritha, the owner of the Wilful Stoat the cousin of an earlier NPC, I'll make a quick note of that, because that's the kind of thing I'd be likely to forget (and your players won't; they never forget!).
Anyway, I hope that gives you some ideas as to how you can structure an adventure for an improv-heavy style of GMing. As always, if you've any thoughts/ideas/comments, please let me know on Twitter.
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