Thursday, January 27, 2022

"Adventure" Design

Just in case any of my readers haven't heard, Alexis is running an adventure writing TEACHING contest with hundreds of American dollars (more than $1K) in cash prices. No, Alexis is not judging the entries...he is only putting up the money. Interested individuals who know how to use a video camera and want to participate should check out the link.

It's an interesting contest. How does one teach someone to write adventures? For that matter, how should one go about writing an adventure? Is it just a matter of having an idea and a word processor? 

Judging by the multitude of published adventures on DriveThruRPG, it would appear many individuals feel they already know how to write an an adventure (and, yeah, maybe they feel it IS only about having an idea and a computer for uploading data). 'Course, that's no guarantee of an adventure being any good.

Perhaps our understanding of What An Adventure Is is lacking these days. The Tom Moldvay-edited Basic (B/X) rules defines the term simply:
adventure -- Any session where a DM and players meet to play a D&D game.
[from the B/X Glossary, page B63]

...but I think the common use and understanding of the term comes from what was once called (and sometimes still called) adventure modules. These are also described in the B/X glossary, a bit more specifically:
module -- Completely designed and challenging adventures available from TSR Hobbies, Inc. that contain maps, keys, background information, NPCs, and other information for use by the DM to use in his or her campaign.
[also page B63]

While such terms are omitted from the DMG glossary, we find a similar definition in the (final) "catalogue" pages of the first edition PHB where it lists other TSR products:

Every AD&D module is a ready-to-play adventure setting, populated with appropriate monsters, treasures, tricks, and traps, and including maps, background information, and histories. Though each individual module is designed to stand on its own, several series are specially made to form a connected progression of adventures.
[from the PHB, page 127]

Also of note (same page) is:

Each of these modules is especially designed to instruct both the beginning player and Dungeon Master, how to construct and fill one's own dungeons and how to better play D&D for full enjoyment.
The only two "introductory modules" listed are B1: In Search of the Unknown and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, adventures specifically written/designed for the (introductory) Basic D&D game. T1: The Village of Hommlet (generally considered an introductory module) is NOT, being found in the previous (AD&D Module) section.

Leaving aside the self-referential advertising, these explanations of the term "module" all seem describe a singular scenario: a situational set of circumstances for the players to interact with in a given game session. Especially in the AD&D description:
...a ready-to-play adventure setting...
these modules are not billing themselves as the adventure itself. Which I find fascinating when coupled with the description (from the catalogue) of the Dungeon Masters Guide:

This hardbound masterwork contains all the invaluable charts and information necessary to be a Dungeon Master. It contains in addition, guidelines for developing the campaign and for running the AD&D game more smoothly.
Make careful note of that description: in no way, shape or form does it promise to teach DMs how to craft adventures...only how to develop campaigns and how to run the game more smoothly. Neither does the back cover (either of the 1E covers) say anything about writing/creating adventures...nor (so far as I can tell) does the body of the text describe what an "adventure" is supposed to mean in terms of the game.

All of which suggests to me that Moldvay's definition of "adventure" (any session where a DM and players meet to play a D&D game) was MORE than just Tom's was, in fact, based on an understanding of what the term meant to the creators/publishers of the game

"Adventures" are what the players (through their characters) were expected to have every time they came to the table. Whether big or small, meaningful, impactful, or none of the above...D&D was meant to be a game where every time you sat down you were experiencing fantasy "adventure." The information Gygax provides in the PHB for Successful Adventures (pages 107-109) would, contextually, seem to indicate that as well:
...assume that a game is scheduled tomorrow, and you are going to get ready for it well in advance so as to have as much actual playing time as possible -- no sense in spending precious adventuring minutes with the mundane preparations common to the game.

First get in touch with all those who will be included in the adventure, or if all are not available, at least talk to the better players so that you will be able to set an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established...
Take a look at that: Gygax is using the term adventure simply in place of the term "game session." Find out who is going to be participating in the [session]. Discuss objectives for the [session] before play. Do not waste precious minutes of the [session] time. Gygax makes it clear (earlier, on page 101) that "adventures" (again, read game sessions) can take place in dungeons, outdoor environments, or cities and towns, and he provides tips and advice for tackling ANY such setting...but as an overall preparation for a game of D&D.

NOT the preparation for a single, particular scenario.

The latter is what modules provided: scenarios that could be inserted (in modular fashion) into one's home campaign. Which is how we used to use them back in the day. Heck, it's still how I use them...I don't need no stinking World of Greyhawk.

So the idea of "adventure writing" or "adventure creation" is a bit of a misnomer. What is being created are scenarios...situations and opportunities that might (and probably should) appeal to a group of players who enjoy fantasy gaming. Adventuring is the act of playing D&D...not the act of tackling a particular scenario.

At least originally. Things change. Now adventures are more than opportunities...they are the expectation of play. A mystery is presented (that PCs are expected to solve). A dramatic story is presented (that PCs are expected to take part in). A formidable threat to the locals/kingdom/world is presented (that PCs are expected to side against and find a way to heroically defeat). When players show up for a game session, the DM has "an adventure" ready for the PCs to face because that's how we do D&D now.  

In my opinion, the game has been diminished because of this: playing this way is like playing an overly complex board-less board game. It's a deck-building game without decks. Far from establishing their own objectives, PCs are left to the objectives presented by the DM who acts (more-or-less) as a proxy stand-in for the "adventure designer." Kind of lame, if you ask me. Especially with the added attitude (sometimes expressed) that "THIS is what we're doing tonight...if you don't want to go on the prepared 'adventure,' then there won't be any game happening."

I've encountered this a player. Both in home games and in conventions. We have a it or go home. Which isn't how I run my games (generally. Hmm...I'm trying to remember exceptions). I've left a lot of half-finished modules strewn in my wake over the years: players abandon an adventure for one reason or another and move on to other things. And that's OKAY; it's okay that the players don't care terribly about FINISHING some scenario to completion...after all, D&D is NOT a video game (contained, limited, bounded by its medium).

This is why, when I re-purpose something like Dragons of Despair or Ravenloft, the first couple things I do are:
  1. Un-couple it from any restrictions that prevent PCs from leaving (like poison fog banks and infinite dragonman patrols), and
  2. Provide the PCs with real reasons for wanting to be there (like huge piles of delicious treasure). 
Because that's how D&D (I'm speaking specifically of Dungeons & Dragons, not other RPGs) is supposed to run. Playing the game IS the adventure. Adventure scenarios (whether in published modules or self-brewed) are opportunities of interest...and that's it. Players may have things they're MORE interested in than plumbing dungeons: finding a husband/wife, building a castle, creating a magic item, discovering a contact with the thieves' guild, whatever. LOTS of opportunities for "adventures" present themselves when you're not shackled to running the plot of a particular scenario. 


I'll probably circle back to this topic when I talk about "the perpetual game" (a post I've been meaning to write for months now. Sorry). In the meantime, hopefully I've given folks something to mentally chew on. If you're interested in describing your own techniques/procedures for adventure, "scenario creation"...and if you'd like to win some cold, hard, cash, I strongly suggest checking out the contest over at The Tao of D&D

Later, gators.


  1. DMWieg's Master Class in writing adventures:

    1. Get a copy of any module, or book of modules, written for 2nd edition AD&D Ravenloft.

    2. Pour yourself a strong drink.

    3. Read it.

    4. After you've recovered, do literally the opposite of what was done in the Ravenloft modules.


    6. Profit.

  2. He doesn't say cash prizes, and I quote:

    "a collection of prizes amounting to $1,050 USD"

    1. You must not have read the rules:

      All prizes are cash (in US dollars): $800 for first prize, $200 for second, $50 for third.

  3. Roger, I assure you, I am giving three prizes of cash money, which will be transferred to the winners. First prize is $800 USD; second prize is $200 USD; and third prize is $50. And since I'm Canadian, the exchange rate for these is not on my side. The money is real and my intent is sincere.

  4. I'm 100% behind you on this, and what you've written has been revelatory for me in that I now realise why I find most published modules unsatisfying.

    the adventure is the experience of role playing and the jeopardy, tragedy and victory that comes through the game.

    What I also realised is that the modern game's obsession with character building and back story before the game starts properly is very backwards looking. Agree with the DM some simple objectives up front "I want to learn how to cast the fireball spell", "I want to steal the Gem of Dinna Fash" "I want to claim the Sword of Hauge" or "I need to find the relics of St. Otamott", and then the adventure's excitement flows from there, especially if the DM populates their dungeon with clues (either written on scrolls or. books or in interactions with the dungeon's denizens) as to how the objectives might be met. Once these objectives are achieved the players and DM can come up with others.

  5. I approached this from kind of the opposite direction a few weeks before you (I was terrified when I saw this that I'd somehow missed someone discussing it at length).

    People should be writing modules - places you can have adventures. As I put it at the time: "Wanna know why people write railroady piles of garbage that can’t handle PC initiative? Because when you tell people to write an adventure, they DO. Which means they’re writing an experience or activity, not a location where things can happen."

    A Rough Night at the Four Feathers is a really good example of this, IMO. It's definitely got plenty of story opportunities - but the PCs interactions with it are not compelled, are wildly variable, and it can just not happen.

    You look at a modern adventure (or worse, adventure PATH, of all damned things), and just...ugh.

  6. Yeah.

    I've recently come to the conclusion that the game...or, rather, The mainly about world building, not adventure building. You can run a campaign as a series of "adventures" (whether these are "dungeons" or "plots/stories"), but you won't have nearly the depth, development, or player engagement.

    1. You're both wrong.

      What is this compulsion to either/or approaches to things? Is it a craving to make things easier, because then there's only one thing that needs to be done? If so, it's a delusion and you'll suffer for it.

      D&D is BOTH worldbuilding and adventure making. We need a left hand and a right hand. The circumstance of events that bind together to make the adventure won't magically appear just because you build a setting. It needs special focus and effort. The setting may suggest the adventure, but it won't do the labour for you.

    2. *sigh*. I did say “in the main.”

      But, yes, it is about both.

  7. @JB

    Indeed. As I putter away on my own OSR ruleset (because running before you walk is traditional), the more wisdom I see in the various ways people have of drawing PCs into the world and its interactions - giving them organizations to run (as players, not the characters), letting them design stuff, etc. I like Orkworld's view of having the PCs design a household as much as their individual characters (the PCs as members of a local lord's household seems an underexplored area for some reason). "Play worlds, not rules" has a lot of interesting implications.

    I mean, really, you can have an interesting adventure attacking a bandit lair with five guys in it (well, up to certain levels). You can get an interesting adventure out of some local farmers fighting over their land borders. Given how everyone tends to view themselves as the protagonists of their lives, anything the PCs do WILL be interpreted as an adventure. It's just giving them the tools to do it.

    Plus, it's not like if they don't go down that one cave you can't just keep plunking the same dungeon inside caves until they DO. lol