Synthesize Your Ideas
Welcome back to adventure organization basics. AOB is series where I talk about preparing your materials for play at the table. This is part three in the series which follows part 1: ideation and part 2: reconciliation. In this article, we’ll talk about how to synthesize your ideas. Synthesis is the process of turning your idea into an adventure concept. You need to take your idea and design and create an adventure. An adventure that has a the key elements of a narrative:
- Rising conflict
- Climatic point that answers the adventure’s dramatic question
- Clear cut resolution
To do that, you will want to think about your adventure nouns (people, places, things). You need to answer the basic questions about your adventure. You need to decide on your adventure structure and identify some likely scenes. And then answer the questions about the structure of each of those scenes. Let us take a closer look at each of those steps.
Outlining for Now
The idea synthesis process should be an adventure outline. Right now, your goal is not to document and write out your notes. Your focus should be on creating an outline, that establishes the bones of your adventure. Focus on turning the vague idea into an adventure. You may have inspiration or urges to write out details or specifics in your notes. There is nothing wrong with transitioning between full fledged documentation and idea synthesis. But I’d recommend doing a first pass on an outline before diving into writing up your notes in earnest.
Use the Basic Information Gathering Questions
When it comes to synthesizing your adventure, its best to stick with the basics. Ask your self the age old questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. They will help you come up with a solid outline from which you can build out further.
- Who is the adventure focused around? Asking who helps you draw in your cast of players for the adventure.
- What is the central conflict? You need to know the friction point that makes the adventure pop in the first place. Conflict is king. Make sure you know what your conflict is.
- Where is the adventure taking place? You need a strong backdrop for your adventure. Nondescript locales lead to forgettable adventures.
- When is the adventure taking place? This one is the most obvious, it should be “right now” within your game world. You may need to decide if you want to do a time-jump in your campaign between adventures, but otherwise this one is answered for you.
- Why is the conflict happening now? What changed within your world that has set the adventure in motion? The “why” helps you understand the background of the adventure and the motivation of parties involved.
- How are the PCs involved? Make sure you have a reasonable tie in for the players. Some players need stronger hooks than others. But either way you’ll want a logical set up for throwing the players in the middle of the conflict.
Building Out Your Outline
When you have answered those basic questions, you’ll have a solid outline that has helped synthesize your idea. Now you’ll need to drill in a bit deeper to understand the central features of your adventure. Create solid adventure nouns and you stand a good chance of making an exciting adventure. You will also want to think about the likely scenes that will make up the adventure. Scenes are the narrative flow of your adventure. The sequencing of key events that take the PCs from start to finish.
Focus on Your Adventure Nouns
Your adventure idea has adventure nouns tied to it. You’ll want to figure out the key people, places, and things in the adventure. What is going to drive the conflict and action for your adventure? You’ll want to think about their roles within your adventure. Why are they memorable for the players to interact with?
People will encompass every character that you control plus the player characters. First question to address is who are the adventure’s antagonists and/or villains? Then you can fill out more questions surrounding your villains/antagonists:
- What are they doing that creates conflict with the PCs?
- What is the villain’s goal?
- How many are there?
- What are their resources?
- What are their plans?
- If the PCs do nothing to oppose them and their plans go off without a hitch?
You’ll want to give thought to your player characters as well:
- Do you have a motivating hook for the PCs?
- Do any PCs have a direct tie in to the adventure?
- What is the likely course of action the PCs will take?
- Is there any specific PCs or PC features you want to showcase in the adventure?
Then, you’ll want to answer a similar set of questions for any allies to the party.
- What is the ally’s goal?
- Why would they help the party?
- What resources can they offer the PCs?
Then, think about any neutral parties:
- What is their goal?
- Why would they help the party? How would they hinder the party? What would make them remain neutral?
- What makes them valuable to the PCs? To the villains?
Places are the backdrop for your adventure. They set the scenes, environment and ambience for the other elements featured within your adventure. Your adventure could be located in a single place, or it could span many different locations. Here are a few questions that will incorporate great locations into your adventure:
- Where does the adventure start?
- How many locations do you need for your adventure?
- How does the location tie to the theme and ambience of the adventure?
- What was the place used for in the past? How is it used now?
- What makes each location unique and memorable?
Adventures will often feature “things” at the center of the adventure. Recover the lost tome of forbidden knowledge. Reforge the axe of the Cinder King. Stop the roiling plague from sweeping across the countryside. Your objects can be the focus of the adventure, or plot coupons the players need to collect to advance through the adventure (keys, vehicles). Here are a few prompt questions to help you flesh out the featured “things” in your adventure:
- What makes the object important?
- Who currently possesses it?
- Where is it located?
- Is the object the goal of the adventure, or a supporting piece?
- Are the players meant to keep it, use it, trade it, destroy it? What happens if they do one of those actions you don’t intend?
When you synthesize your ideas into adventures you are giving them structure. You are deciding how the adventure begins, the possible ending points, and everything else. When it comes to adventure structure, you can borrow from playwrights. Storytellers who have been doing it for centuries.
I am not a thespian or drama critic. But I am able to understand the Freytag pyramid (see figure) which describes the five act dramatic structure. You’ll want to start with an inciting incident that kicks off your adventure. Then, you’ll need a few events/scenes that increase the tension and conflict for the PCs. Finally, the PCs will hit the pivotal point of the adventure where the dramatic question comes into question. Afterwards, you will need a couple of scenes or events to wind down the adventure. This will finally resolve the dramatic question.
Figure Credit: Paul Gorman
Depending on the length of an adventure you are going for, you can tweak the number of scenes you need. I suggestion for a short-medium length adventure:
- Introduction: 1 scene
- Rising Action: 2-4 scenes
- Climax: 1 scene
- Resolution: 1-2 scenes
You can use this structure as a starting point to sequence out your ideas for how the adventure might play out. The biggest difference between D&D and a dramatic play is the lack of predetermined fate for the players. You want the players to make choices throughout the adventure. The player’s choices will create consequences for how the following scenes occur. Or if they will occur at all! So you want to keep that in mind as you build out your scenes and events. You want adjustable scenes (or the content of the scenes) that shift around based on the PCs choices.
Information, Choices, and Consequences
When designing adventures, keep in mind three central ideas: information, choices and consequences. I first heard these terms from Chris McDowall. Chris goes into detail about them on his own blog. Essentially, your scenes must provide adequate information to the PCs. The PCs need information to help them make decisions. Some information can be difficult to obtain or more secretive. Secret information is a great way to reward your players for their creative thinking. It incentivizes exploration throughout the adventure. But, make sure you have more obvious information on which the players can act upon too.
You want the PCs to make informed choices about their circumstances. This is where tabletop games deviate from fiction, movies or plays. There is no pre-set path that the adventurers must follow. The information bread crumbs you leave for the players should give them a sense of what they are up against. But leave space for them to think creatively about their problem. Sure, the information you provide them will have one or two obvious paths for the PCs to take. When you let the player’s have free will and choice in their actions you empower them to tell the story. It makes it more exciting for you as a DM, cause you don’t know what will exactly happen next.
All choices lead to consequences. Consequences is often a term associated with a bad outcome. But in this case, consequences can be good or bad. There is a consequence in stopping the cultists from summoning the demon. Or not. As a DM, its your job to think through the PCs choices and what the outcomes of those choices are.
I recommend referring to your villain’s plans, and goals. What happens if the evil mage’s plan to take over the forest with an orc army fails? Does he resort to magic rituals? Does he ally himself with even nastier foes? Thinking through these steps will give you a good sense of what the consequences for the PCs actions are. For session preparation, you are best off focusing on the one or two most obvious choices the PCs can make. Ideas that are more contrived will make you rely on your knowledge of the villain’s goals and plans.
What happens if the PCs come up with an idea that you never thought about? There are a couple of techniques you can use. If you are early into your game night, you might need to call an break. During the break, think through what the consequences of that choice is. Make adjustments, and assumptions the best you can. Combats can take up a large chunk of your game night. So, if you are in doubt you can present a logical confrontation that might lead to combat. Of course, give them the opportunity to circumvent fighting, if they are clever and chose to do so.
If you happen to be farther into your game night, its perfect acceptable to call it a night. You then spend your next preparation cycle adjusting your game preparation. This lets you accommodate that novel choice in the next game session. In fact, I will often plan on ending a game night at the PCs’ commitment to a pivotal decision. Its acceptable for you to be straightforward and tell your players: “I’d like to know what your decision is so I can prepare material based on what you have chosen to do”. Preparation will lead to a better gaming session for you and your players. Its a win-win.
Synthesize your Scenes
Once you’ve built out your adventure structure, start thinking about the different scenes that will fill it. Like fiction, every scene that takes place in your adventure should be there for a reason. You need to know what that reason is. Its best to start with a Phil Vecchione suggests that every scene should have a purpose. What value is it adding to your adventure? From there, you can synthesize the scenes in a rough fashion. At this stage you don’t need to have everything nailed down, only the concepts you want to run. Here are some questions to help you synthesize your scenes:
- What is the goal/purpose of the scene?
- Who is involved in this scene?
- Where does the scene take place?
- Does the scene provide enough information to the PCs? Can the player’s make informed choices?
- Does this scene involve any consequences from previous PC choices?
- Does the scene give lead in options for other scenes? Is there a clear actionable resolution for the PCs?
Tying it all Together
Once you’ve selected an idea, you’ll need to turn the idea into an adventure. Use your basic questions to start synthesizing your idea. Focus on the adventure nouns to make sure you have a strong presence in the adventure. Think about information available to the PCs, their possible choices, and the consequences of those choices. Finally, you can start to dig into the scenes and understand why each one is integral to your adventure. Once you’ve synthesize your idea, its time to document the adventure in your session notes.
Feature Art Credit: Ede László