Adventure Organization Basics
Hello, and welcome to a new series here on Earthmote. We are going to be talking about creating adventures. Adventures make your campaign come to life. We are looking at creating adventures from a perspective of design and organization. My focus will be on adventure design that is useful for your own personal game. Adventure creation for a published product has its own nuances, and quirks. It requires a lot more preparation and effort. There is more consideration and design work to make something workable for a complete stranger to run. Adventure organization basics is going to be a series of articles. Each article walks you through the different phases of adventure design and preparation. In this article, we are going to be talking about the first step in the process: ideation.
All adventure premises start with an idea. If you’ve already made adventures for your Dungeons and Dragons game, you’ve answered the question: “What if?” What if the princess was kidnapped? What if the red dragon blanketed the town in incendiary flames? What if the Sword of the Thunder Lord was found? These ideas that pop into our head our tiny sparks of our imagination. Some ideas are fleeting. We aren’t quite sure how it would fit in our game, or perhaps its a scenario too contrived to work. But the point is, you are thinking about different story aspects that could drive action in your game.
Ideation is the first step in designing an adventure for your party. At this point, any idea isn’t too far fetched. Your ideas can come from a wide range of subjects. Think about people (monsters), places, things. All these can be a great start or focus of an adventure. Your idea might not even be a fully fledge “adventure” idea at this point. Perhaps you have an idea for a cool scene, such as a challenge for your players to pass over a bridge with bubbling lava below. All ideas at this point are great ideas.
Inspiration for ideas can come from anywhere. Perhaps you meet an interesting person in real life, and you imagine what they would be like if they were a wizard? Or an event in the news inspires you to put a magical twist on top of it.
Keep your eyes and ears open as you go throughout your day. At first, engaging your brain to think about things as idea fodder for your games can be difficult. If you aren’t use to it, you won’t think about it. You can start by giving yourself some dedicated time to think about events you’ve seen throughout the day. Then, jot them down in your preferred note taking system. As a start, try scheduling yourself even 5 minutes during the day. That is plenty of time to review what and capture anything interesting.
Creativity is a muscle that anyone can develop and build out. But you have to focus on it and exercise it. You have to go to the gym and train your body if you want to build your physical fitness. Once you’ve practiced your creativity skills, you’ll start to note ideas as they come up. You’ll also find the time in your day to capture them (e.g. waiting in line, between meetings, etc.)
Hint: Borrow and Twist
You have a whole trove of ideas to take inspiration from and implement into your games. Books, movies, TV shows, and video games all have ideas that you can borrow. There is no shame in borrowing ideas and using them for your own purposes. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist starts off by saying nothing is original, all creative work builds on what came before it. Original thoughts are overrated. You can wrack your brain for days or weeks trying to find an unique idea. When, you can reskin other peoples work and have a fun with your game table. Remember, your story ideas aren’t likely to survive contact with your players. Your borrowed media will turn out different because of their actions.
When you borrow from other sources you’ll want to do a couple of things to keep it fresh. If you are borrowing from popular media sources, you’ll want to put a new spin on it. Otherwise, your players will realize where your game events, characters, or locations are coming from. It can be a good idea to borrow ideas from completely unrelated genres. This helps obscure the original work’s origin and make you look like a great story teller. For example, its easier to obscure the story elements of a Jane Austen novel than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for your D&D campaign.
I like having a list of questions that I can reference and think about to help prompt my ideation process. Phil Vecchione’s Never Unprepared has a nice group of questions that I think do a good job of getting us started. I’ve built on top of his list and provide some ideas here for you to think about when you are doing your ideation.
- Do I want to focus on a specific PC, NPC, or Monster I want to focus on?
- Is there an item, object or idea that the PCs need to find?
- Is there a location that I want to use?
- Is there a goal that I need the PCs to accomplish?
- Did the player’s have any immediate goals in mind?
- Are the villains’ fronts progressing? What happens as a result of that?
- What pacing makes sense for the next session?
When you get into the middle of a campaign, you may find yourself needing to used more directed ideation. In essence, you need to find the logical next step in your campaign. This can be a good thing, because you are often more restricted in your choices. Restriction is a great ally when it comes to creativity. It forces your mind to make connections. Look for links between the limited creative space you have available. Then, find rationales for the connections.
What about when you find yourself needing a follow-up session or adventure? There are a few key items to focus on to get your ideas flowing. First, review the actions of the players in the previous adventure/session. What are the consequences of those actions? Did they betray an ally? How will that ally respond? Did they rout the lich’s zombie hoard, but the lich escaped? What will the lich do in retaliation? This is a simple case of action-reaction. Look at what happened, and generally there will be a few logical ideas that make sense as reactions. Finally, make sure that your ideas are driving the conflict forward. Sure, the lich could retreat to his demiplane fortress never to be heard from again. But that doesn’t drive conflict, or throw the PCs into another debacle. If the PCs’ actions have left seeds for future conflict, nurture that conflict!
Brainstorming, Not Filtering
You want to start by capturing all the different possible ideas you have thought up for possible adventures. Regardless of how farfetched or silly they may seem, you should capture them. At this point, we are not doing any sort of filtering of ideas. We are trying to generate as many ideas as possible for our up coming gaming sessions.
For the next step of Adventure Organization Basics, we will put our critic’s hat on. We need to start to pare down the list that we have created. Here, we can do some evaluation of what makes logical sense. What should we store for another time, and what should we leave on the cutting room floor?
Feature Art Credit: Ede László