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by Paul Mitchener
Jul 28,2004


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 1

By Paul Mitchener


The purpose of this new column is to play around with different techniques in designing both campaigns and adventures for RPGs. I will begin in this particular article with a procedure that I use to design adventures, along with an example from a fairly standard fantasy campaign. In later columns, I plan to look at some more genre-specific examples and techniques.

But first, to introduce myself, as well as my column. I am 29 years old, and have been involved in playing RPGs for about 15 years, with the occasional long break. I work as an assistant mathematics professor. I mention the last point because there's a chance I might drop morsels of mathematics or science into later columns if it becomes relevant.

An Adventure Design Procedure

The procedure we are going to discuss has seven definite steps.

  • Choose a theme.
  • Think of a plot.
  • Why are the PCs involved?
  • Why don't the PCs go immediately to the relevant authorities?
  • What happens if the PCs lose or do not get involved?
  • Design locations.
  • Design NPCs.

Let us outline the steps, illustrated by an example from a D&D-style fantasy campaign. In the next column, I will try to look at a less standard example; I am currently thinking of something from fantasy steampunk, along the lines of Castle Falkenstein.

Incidentally, I would be extremely surprised if this column were the first place a procedure of the type I am describing has appeared.

Choose a theme

A theme for us is a very broad idea, probably consistent with the campaign background. A theme might come from a particularly resonant image. A theme may or may not be a cliche.

Some examples of usable themes might be dragons, an attempt to summon a demon, romance, and a threatened war.

For some reason, the theme that comes to mind for my fantasy adventure at the moment is a volcano. Do not ask me why.

Think of a plot

A plot is some idea of what is going on in the adventure. It is probably quite simple; plot twists if desired can come later on. A plot may or may not be linked to the theme, but a good theme should suggest some sort of plot.

Let us return to the volcano example. What can a volcano do that might make a plot? Well, it can erupt. This could lead to a disaster film style of adventure, but maybe it might be more interesting to have the volcano threaten to erupt.

How? Well, we are in a fantasy game. So let us say that the volcano is the base of various creatures of elemental fire. These creatures plan to make the volcano erupt.

Why? Well, the creatures were summoned by a pyromancer who was experimenting with the volcano. He found a way to use it to summon the fiery creatures. He has since died in a magical accident, and the things he summoned now want to get home. The wizard left some notes about opening gates to the plane of fire that the brightest of these creatures is working through. Opening the gate will enable the creatures to get home, but also lead to an influx of energy that causes the volcano to erupt.

Why are the PCs involved?

This question is important, and can either be very easy or quite difficult to answer. For a vaguely mercenary stereotypical group of "adventurers" the answer is obvious; they are hired to do a job. However, it is far more interesting to tie the adventure into the characters' personal goals. In campaigns with an overreaching plot, this question perhaps only needs to be answered once, in the first gaming session.

In the example we are exploring, the PCs are friends with an NPC mage who is coming up for an examination that will fully qualify her as a mage. The examination involves making a magic item, and gathering strange ingredients and processes. Long before the adventure, they had already agreed to help.

Here, one of the processes involved is immersing the said magic item in volcanic lava.

Why don't the PCs go immediately to the relevant authorities?

Here we have yet another question that can potentially derail adventures. If there is some great evil plot, the logical thing to do is to go straight to the relevant authorities. If, in a fantasy world where such is plausible, an evil cult is trying to summon a demon-god, the PCs should call on the local temple of paladins, high level wizard, and whatever else is called for.

My personal GMing style actually makes this particular problem worse; I try not to "tailor" events too much to a level where the PC group can handle them. Some things are going to be out of their league, and getting others to handle them is the only decent solution. Of course, the problem with the sensible approach is that sometimes it is not too adventurous.

Fortunately, there are some ways around this particular problem.

  • The authorities are not to be trusted.
    In this case, the PCs need to handle things themselves. In other examples, what the PCs are doing in the adventure is itself criminal. Personally, I find this solution gets very boring if used too much.
  • The PCs will not be believed.
    In this case, what the PCs have discovered is too incredible, and they have no evidence. This approach works well in weird-modern type games or supernatural horror games along the lines of Call of Cthulhu.
  • The PCs are the relevant authorities.
    This approach works quite well, but has to be built into the premise of the game. In this case, the PCs' job is to deal with the adventure. It can occasionally come across as a little forced if overused, however.
  • The authorities cannot be reached.
    In this case, the adventure takes place in such a location where there are no powerful local authorities, and for whatever reason there is no communications network to reach them quickly. In some cases, the adventure might involve actually managing to contact the authorities.

In our particular adventure, there is no problem; the volcano can easily be somewhere quite isolated.

What happens if the PCs lose or do not get involved?

As a GM I do not like to force the story or to automatically assume that the PCs are going to win. For that reason, truly world-shattering threats should occur at the end of a campaign. Thus, there is always the possibility that the PCs will not succeed in the relevant adventure.

Thus, if the PCs fail, the usual event is that the world possibly gets a little worse. If the adventure is personally motivated, personal goals are not achieved- at least for the moment. For some mercenary endeavour, the PCs are not paid. In any case, whatever plot that has been designed works itself out to the logical conclusion that would result without outside intervention.

Sometimes it might be a good idea to give the PCs a second chance. They need to deal with a threat that has escalated because of the previous failure. The previous failure may or may not have led to unpleasant events before the second chance arises. For instance, a group of cultists might succeed in summoning their demon, which now has to be dealt with as well- or perhaps instead since the demon may not be happy at being summoned.

If the adventure does involve something world-shattering, it is probably a good idea to give a second chance- if the PCs survived- to avoid the campaign coming to a sticky end. Of course, the GM might want the campaign to come to a sticky end, but that is a whole different issue.

In our example, the volcano will erupt and cause devastation to the surrounding countryside. Aside from the obvious disaster, there may or not be secondary effects. For example, does the gate to the plane of fire remain open?

Design locations.

We now come down, at last, to specifics. Locations relevant to the adventure need to be detailed. This topic is enough for a whole new article.

In our example, we need to look at the volcano itself, and locations the PCs will pass when travelling to the volcano. In my case, this involves descriptions of two towns, and a number of interesting side encounters.

The volcano itself is also quite easy to design; there are some large tunnels leading from the surface to a magma reservoir. By one of the large tunnels there is a small "dungeon" - the home of the dead wizard, now occupied by fiery creatures looking over his notes.

Design NPCs.

This last step is one of the most important; the characters of NPCs involved can make or break the whole adventure. Abilities of the NPCs also need to be decided, in such a way that they can challenge but not destroy the PC party; unless, as may be the case, the PCs need to be out of their league, and the adventure involves running away, or looking for one particular weakness.

Friendly and neutral NPCs relevant to the adventure also need to be made.

In our volcano example, we need a few fiery creatures; some who can potentially learn the wizard's magic, and some others who act as servants. We will add a few unintelligent fiery creatures that will attack as soon as the PCs approach the volcano, and complicate later diplomacy. The fiery creatures need to be powerful enough that direct attack is not a good solution, and have some sort of personality, albeit an alien one.

Lastly, for the journey to the volcano there is scope for some interesting characters. For example, in one of the towns the PCs might meet a former apprentice to the pyromancer who started the whole volcano problem. This apprentice may have some useful information.

Wrapping Up

In the next column, I plan to look at another example in some detail. This one will be less standard; I will be looking at an adventure set in a version of the late 19th century with magic and Faerie involvement. Being less generic than the adventure examined in this column, it is arguably less useful, but it does illustrate how to play with another tool, namely history.

After that, I hope do a column or two about designing campaigns, rather than single adventures. Then we can start playing with individual elements that feature in games, such as the effects of magic and technology, designing NPCs, and so on.

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