Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt. 2): Example of Brainstorming & Outlining

Image by Clicker-Free-Vector-Images

This is part 2 of my series on the thought processes and choices made when designing a role-playing game Adventure. While the example here is for Dungeons & Dragons, or a retroclones thereof, most of what I am sharing is true for any role playing game with a traditional GM and PCs setup.

Throughout this article, I will be planning an adventure, first by covering the steps detailed in the previous article, and then turning that into an outline of encounters to use.

Starting at the End

As I mentioned in the previous article, I wanted to recycle an encounter that I created and tried out on my playtest group, but I wanted to place it in a different dungeon. That encounter involves trying to save 18 prisoners scattered across a complex of five or six rooms while on a tight timer. If they fail, a chambers with flood with steam and boiling water, killing the prisoners.

This means I need a dungeon with a massive boiler or a geyser. Better a boiler to explain why they haven't been killed already. I also need someone who have captured them and drag them off to this steam works dungeon. The dungeon itself should be full of steam-powered machines. It will need a fuel source to keep the boiler going. and I need a reason why this team is being used in the first place.

Because I tend to rate for the OSR crowd, by default, I want to make it something I can generally fit into an anachronism-filled 14th century Europe analog. A sinister Victorian factory could be a lot of fun, but isn't quite a fit for a generic OSR product. I want this adventure to be something that a GM can lift, flavors he wants, and drop into their game without too much hassle.

Thanks to the implied post-apocalyptic setting of the average fantasy game, it's easy enough to make the place ancient rather than something new. After all, the ancients before the unspecified cataclysm of the average dungeons & dragons world for clearly more gifted in magic, why not technology as well?

This should be an adequately weird but Sword and Sorcery compatible setting, and give me some cool ideas for visual design. 

Determining  Structure

I personally make heavy use of the Five Room Dungeon. It is an easy structure to start off with, it makes planning simple, and can be played in one or two super short sessions. All of my players are busy people, and have high stress jobs. I want to make sure that every session offers stress relief and has a beginning middle and end they can be experienced in the art 2 and 1/2 hour sessions. After all, they are all busy people with adult lives and work in the morning.

The other virtue of the Five Room Dungeon is that it can be plugged into something like a point- or hex-crawl and make a much larger adventure or campaign with fair ease.


Develop a Backstory

Here's the thing about adventure histories the players don't really care. they won't likely to read them, and only want enough information to get hints at what they might come up against. You don't need an elaborate story, and if you do have one, make sure it can be doled out in dribs and drabs in response to player characters questions. This reduces the amount of necessary boredom included in your session.

That said, you need to have one in order to be able to answer those questions, and in order to understand the motivations and function of the adventure site.

The first adventure I did this with resetting an ancient dwarven forge. I worry that that is perhaps a little too cliche, and so I'm looking for something a little different... Currently, my home campaign is set in a Victorian-feeling walled city in a world where the weather has been permanently disrupted into howling winds and destructive storms. The city lives by a combination of whaling and alchemy, which is driven by gigantic sea creatures with supernatural powers. (A tip of the hat to Blades in the Dark, from which I have stolen many of the mechanics of my campaign.) So, I have whaling on the mind at the moment; let's use it. How about an ancient food processing plant? Something that was designed to automatically Slaughter and extract resources from gigantic creatures? Let's mix it up, and replace the whales with a dinosaur processing plant operated by sleestaks or snake men.

Sleestaks as they appear in the 1991 remake of
"Land of the Lost", ©1991 Krofft Entertainment

So how was it unearthed? I think I will go with the idea of a collapsing in glacier revealing it and waking its occupants. So now, I have an adventure where ancient technologically advanced reptilians have awakened and taken human slaves to run the food processing plants.

Why? That's a good question. Maybe they need the food. Perhaps are preparing to awaken an entire army of their people. That's pretty epic! Maybe this adventure is a gateway into a larger Lost world hexcrawl.

The stream-of-consciousness thinking I've just done has given me a pretty solid grounding for and adventure. It requires almost nothing in the way of an info-dump for the players. Getting them there could be a matter of checking in on a village that has been buried by the avalanche. Maybe after the quake dinosaurs have started roaming a nearby swamp. Or maybe a couple of Sleestak scouts (I will change the name in the final draft to respect the Kroffts' IP) are posing as merchants as they scout the region. Or perhaps the carcasses of Sleestaks and their food animals have washed down a river like in Lovecraft's "Whisperer in the Darkness."

Writing an Outline

Now that we know the Who, What, When, Why, and How of the dungeon, I can start outlining the adventure. Essentially, I want to have a list of the encounters so that I can plug them into both my encounter design tools and my game engine in later steps.

You're going to see a very similar process to what I wrote about with my speed adventure planning tools. the idea here is to fill number of encounters. We have one already, where are the player characters have to rescue human captives from boiler. it seems to me a waste if we didn't have an encounter in a high place above a bunch of whirling automatic butchering machines. Now we need a description of four more.

To Map or Not to Map

When designing an adventure based at a specific site, many GMs like to work with a map of the site for the adventure. If I were designing a small dungeon or particular templ or arena-based adventure, this would be a high priority. Hitting up Dyson's Dodecahedron or 2-Minute Tabletop or starting to draw might well be the next step.

Planning with a Card Spread

Index Card PRG Core 2e has an example of a randomized method using cards to create a bunch of visual representations of encounters that you are then encouraged to interpret to make them work together as an adventure. I highly recommend trying this method at least once.

Filling in Your Encounters by Archetype

When using a structure like the Five-Room Dungeon, or playing with the encounters described by Wolfgang Baur in his Adventure Builders article, it might instead pay to write down a list of the encounter archetypes you are trying to use, and then write up a brief description. This is the method I will use today.

The Five Room Dungeon structure is fairly straightforward:

  • Entrance of guardian
  • Puzzle or Role-Play
  • Trick or Trap
  • Climax
  • Revelation

Arranging these in a variety of orders and layouts is the key to keep the five room dungeon from being a linear railroad. This article on Gnome Stew about possible configurations is very helpful in mixing up your dungeons.

In order to make the boiler sequencing climactic, I will be doing these slightly out of order, using something like the "Cliffside Temple" approach.

Entrance with Guardian

I want to really play up the weird and Gonzo feel of this adventure. So, I think that this would be a great place for steampunk undead triceratops guard dogs controlled by a couple of my Sleestaks.


I would like to have the player characters meet someone who knows about the Sleestaks, but it's not in much of a position to tell the player characters unless they are kind. Maybe a wounded Australopithecus slave discarded in a garbage pit to die.


I will have the player characters moving over a pit where the machines used to put your dinosaurs are in grizzly operation. Has the players navigate the catwalks, they are beset upon by Sleestak guards who will use weird firearms to both harry the PCs and attempt to cause the catwalk to pitch them into the machines.

The Climax 

Will obviously be the escape from the boiler


Seeking another escape as machines go haywire, the characters may opt take the back exit, which will take them into the Lost World style caldera wall overlooking valley of prehistoric animals and ancient ruins. I may cause this way out to collapse, requiring them to find another escape from the valley.

Get Your Map On

If you don't have at least a conceptual map to work with, now is the time to work one out. I will draw a better map later, but here is my concept map, drawn with images from Game Icons.

Finally, we need to get down to the specifics of making a good set of encounters. I will do that in part 3 of this article. Then in part 4 we will talk mechanics.

UPDATE: If you want to see the end product, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of this adventure is now available on DrivethruRPG.

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