Bonus Week Day 4: GM Tip: Making an Adventure (Story-crafting)
Today’s set of GM tips and advice is going to target more experienced gamemasters. (If you missed Part II, check it out here).No doubt many of you out there have ran pre-made adventures before. But how about designing and writing your own adventure from the ground up? There is a lot to think about. But let’s take it a step at a time.
(This segment: Making an Adventure will take place over multiple posts. You have been Warned!)
I could be a smart ‘a’ and say, “At the beginning”, but that isn’t entirely true. Did you know that many authors like to begin not with the first page of their story, but rather the climax? Crazy, huh? Where we begin isn’t the same place your player characters (PCs) will begin. First, we need to think of an adventure as a story, and like all good storytellers (authors), you can’t always just wing it.
Because RPGs are basically active stories, we are going to take an author’s approach to making a story. We do need to remember that the GM is not the only author taking part in this story. You have players that will be making the decisions of the protagonists, and so you need to consider what actions they can, and might take during the story.
Because there are many different campaign settings and worlds out there, we will leave world-building for another day. We want to focus on making an adventure right now (though world-building and adventure design can go hand-in-hand). So let’s get started on that right away. To help illustrate the process, I will take you step-by-step over the next couple of weeks as I design a brand new adventure to be published August 27, 2015. This way, you can see the process I use in action.
For now, we don’t need a title or a climax or our antagonist. We need to have a direction. We need a loose idea of the story we wish to tell with we want to have the adventure planned before we run it. We are making an adventure akin to the pre-made ones purchasable everywhere. We will work on a more “sand-box” style of campaign and adventure later.
If you are making your adventure for a specific level, try to consider that level range before you get too involved in your story. We can make or alter monsters if needed, but don’t image your players going to fight gods or some epic mythical beast before they even hit 5th level (Let’s just ignore Epic 6 games for now). If you are not needing to write for a specific level, then we will have more freedom.
Now, before we start writing, we need a vision.
Your Vision (The Golden Nugget)
We need to first begin with our vision of the story we want to tell. Maybe you have an epic showdown planned. Maybe you know you want a specific theme. Whatever idea you have is where we need to begin.
The story I envision for this next adventure is a ghost murder mystery leaning towards horror/thriller. But we are not going to make it as straight forward as that. Over the last couple of nights, my brain started wrapping around a story involving missing children (worst nightmare ever for a parent!!!). Warning, this will seem like a more mature topic; however, we will not be putting anything graphic to keep it a bit friendlier for most audiences. The story I have is as follows:
Over last week, six very young children in the town of Brennan have been found drowned in the nearby creek. The villagers tell stories of a terrible ghost taking the form of a small girl that leads young children to the waters to drown. When the ghost sees children, she can be heard asking, “Do you like to play?” The ghost has appeared before woman asking, “Are you my mother?” All men that have seen the ghost show visible scars and scratches from being assaulted by the ghost.
So that is the concept I am working with. But there is more to go with it to begin fleshing this story out. This will be major spoilers, so if you would like to run this adventure in the future, make sure that your PCs wait to read these posts until after you run the adventure.
The ghost in our story is actually not evil. I know, a bit cliché, it happens. Our ghost is actually the first victim drowned in the creek. The real antagonist we will be focusing on in our story is the new mayor of the town. No he isn’t a witch or a demon or anything like that. He is just a really bad person and psychopath that needs to be stopped (I blame Criminal Minds for this idea). We won’t be getting anymore in depth as to stating that the mayor killed the children. It is already a dark, and terrible concept, and that is the darkest we need to go if we are going to keep this appropriate for most audiences. Because he is a person, we will be able to write this adventure for virtually any level, though a lower level adventure might be work best.
Now that we have our golden nugget of a vision to work with, let us get to the crafting of the complete story.
Crafting a Story
Before we get into the meat of writing our storyline, we need to understand how a story is laid out. Story needs movement. Story needs purpose. Story needs action. Story never needs boring. But that isn’t all a story needs.
Stories need rises and falls. I know. You were probably taught “rising action” and that “everything builds up to the climax.” That is true. But imagine you are on a rollercoaster that just keeps going up, and up, and UP! Yes, that will be one epic drop of a climax. But do you really want to sit there for most of the ride just waiting for one exciting moment? Maybe if it is a really short ride. Then sure, that’s fine. But what do most rollercoasters do? They go up and down and spiral every which way (and sometimes even turn your world upside down). Now, we’re talking excitement!
So, now that we are on this rollercoaster, what do we do? Start at the ground, right? NO! What does an author do? Okay, so they introduce us to our master character (generally the protagonist) and their daily life. But is it boring? Most of the really good first pages of stories get us acquainted with the protagonist and jump right into some kind of action. Remember, a story never needs boring! Okay so we want some action at the beginning, let’s do this!
Wait. Remember when I said that many of the good authors start at the climax of the story? Why do they do that? So they know where they are going of course! What we need is to know what we are building up to. We will then know what elements need to be laid out before we get to that point and also what will come after.
Need more help? Read this post: How to Make a Good Story (A Hero’s Journey).
Writing the Climax- Outlining
We need to think about one thing and one thing alone, Excitement. This needs to be the absolute, most exciting part of the storyline. This is what the entire adventure is building towards, and if we drop the ball, then the entire story will seem flat and dull.
So what do we need? Well, unlike a novel, we do need to remember that we will need to stat out our BBEG (the antagonist). In our case the mayor. We have two choices, design the encounter or design the villain. If we were focusing on a specific average party level for characters, I would first design our villain. We have tips and tricks to adjust his difficulty if we need to. However, we are not dependent on a level right now, so we are first going to work out our scene.
For our climactic scene, we need an opening, a middle, and an end. Think of it as a small story itself (most scenes will be their own small stories within a larger story). Here is the outline (because I am an outline kind of writer):
The Set-up for the scene: Our heroes (The PCs) had just learned the truth behind the ghost and had decided to go confront the Mayor. They have designed a plan of attack and are ready to carry it out. Because our players are also authors in our tale, we need to let our story be malleable.
Opening: Whether the players tend to burst into his office and confront him, ambush him when he is unguarded and arrest him, or lay a trap and wait to catch him in the act, we will never be sure. Our best option is to know that the PCs will need to confront him and plan for the most likely scenario. When running the adventure, this is where we will need to use our GM skills to adjust accordingly, but let’s get an ideal encounter going.
Middle: The PCs will at one point or another have accused and confronted the mayor in this scene. The mayor is much stronger than he appears and so the fight ensues.
The End: We want the mayor to face judgement for his crimes. In keeping with the ghost theme, when the players have him beat, the ghostly children will come to seek retribution.
So now that we have our outline, what’s next? Find out tomorrow!
(Click here for Part IV)
(Click here for Part IV)