Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt. 5): Background, Rumours, and Intel

'Woman & T-Rex' by Darksouls1 from Pixabay

Now that we have the meat and bones of an adventure, it's time to give it a skin and the spark of life, in this case the information and background offered to the PCs. It's how we frame the adventure that gets initial buy-in and makes immersion easy.

You can have an almost perfect adventure written, but if you don't frame it effectively then the player characters are not likely to engage with it. Your beautifully-designed dungeon will sit unexplored by players who would rather go off to be pirates.

You frame has three major parts, the hook, rumours, and hard Intel.


In order to make sure your dungeon has enough appeal to get player characters into it, you need a hook. Something that will get them wanting to explore that location. 

Hooks for Plot Heavy Home Games

If you have a game where characters have complex story arcs or intrigue, writing a hook is mostly about tying the adventure into something the characters already care about. Whether that is a loved one, a rival, the power of a certain faction, or the safety of their Homeland. These are going to have to be highly personal to the campaign.

Example: My latest home campaign involves people transplanted from Earth to a bizarre fantasy world. That the dinosaurs are recognizable form of Earth life, and with hints of modern technology, I could easily hook that character into wanting to investigate a possible portal to her own world.

Hooks for Other Rationales 

When you are writing a module, for, for that matter, writing for a "beer-and-pretzels" game where the players don't particularly care to spend time on heavy role play and plot development, you need to have a handful of hooks ready that will all point to your adventure location as worth going to.

The key to developing effective hooks here is to make sure that you can appeal to to the different kinds of player motivations for playing the game through a series of hits about the existence of your adventure.

Some players are interested in exploration, experiencing new things, and feeling a sense of wonder. For them, the characters must hear something really interesting about the site.

Example: For purposes of my adventure, having an amargasaurus parts show up on the market, and hearing stories of mysterious vendors of exotic meats should be a good start. The idea of a doorway appearing in a mountain after an ancient glacier collapsed also might do the trick.

Other players are interested in enjoying a power fantasy and maximizing their character's abilities in the game. For these player characters, you need to put forward information suggesting that there is significant treasure especially if you link XP gain to treasure collecting. Hinting at unique powers and magic items might also help. A crashed pteranodon with a saddle, one of the alchemical mortars being found by someone near the mountain and offered for sale to the PCs might be a good incentive.

Characters interested in tactical games and puzzle solving are always looking for a challenge. They want to see new things, and pit themselves against new kinds of opponents. Hinting at a struggle against difficult odds, introducing something alien and new conquer, or giving them an edge that will make their victory seem more likely - and that is a pity to waste - are all excellent ways of drawing in the tactical player.

Example: Flying dinosaurs, alchemical mortars, and a glimpse of the Salisstachs themselves all might appeal for such a player. many of the hooks have already mentioned tie in equally to a tactical player as they do to a power player or an explorer.

For the role-play heavy player, and the player who wants a detailed story there has to be high stakes and a moral imperative. Rescuing innocent people, bringing down an evil being, discovering a cure for a terrible disease, we're solving a mystery tends to bring these characters in.

Example: The door in the mountain, The mysterious (and suspicious) meat sellers, the new monsters to be found in the marshes below the mountain, missing villagers, an opportunity to save people in the face of disaster, such as a glacial avalanche all will have an appeal to this player character. Especially if the missing villagers or the glacial avalanche comes with a plea for help

Extrinsic hooks.

I find that there are also two external ways to the player characters to help motivate them. The first is a patron. A recurring NPC who pays the character some kind of bounty for exploring and clearing adventure sites. A GM can Motivate the patron by any of the hooks already thought up, but had the bonus of enriching a relationship with a trusted NPC and a little extra treasure or influence.

Many GMs are hesitant to include divine inspiration and holy visitations into their game. However, doing so often makes a cleric or paladin character feel special. It adds depth, and can give that character a chance to shine. A holy messenger, a recurring dream, or a vision can put a fire under a cleric character while their player smiles widely. And, and in spit of their  relative unpopularity as a class, clerics are almost always the linchpin of a party, where the cleric goes the rest of the player characters follow.

The same is true of warlock patrons or otherworldly sources of magic and mentors for magic user characters.

More on Hooks

When developing an adventure it is a good rule of thumb to have 6-8 possible hooks. As well as some sort of vision or Divine Omen to send to player characters.

It does help to have a primary hook that motivates the characters in a way that encourages them to explore the whole dungeon. A specific treasure, a call for aid from a prisoner, or something similar can encourage the player characters to delve deeper than they might if they just wanted to see what was there.

Many of my adventures are released in pamphlet format. In such a compact format, it is often difficult to find the space for more than a bare Bones introduction and hook. One has to trust the GMs who buy your adventure to do the work period but, always give them at least one good one, and a sentence about other options.

More here is better!


When players are teenagers, they tend to rush into situations rapidly without much more thought. Many editions of Dungeon & Dragons were designed with a 13-year-old player in mind. Smart players, however, tend to look for whatever information they can find to give them an edge.

To this end, a table of rumors, some true in some false can help players make up their mind as to whether or not they wish to visit a dungeon more conservative players won't go anywhere if they don't have at least some information.

On the other hand, tactically minded players will be far more enthusiastic about anything if they believe they have information that gives them an advantage.

Once again, more is better. and the larger the adventure, the more intelligence and gossip you want to be able to provide your players.

A rumor table is always a good way to start. somewhere between 6 and 20 piees of information the players can get by asking around to the right NPCs.

Whether or not to make all that information true and useful is a matter of taste and style. If you make some of the gossip false, it gives your players a sense of paranoia. They will feel more like the game setting is a place just like the real world where people are off and ignorant, Ill informed, or lie to sound smart.

Of course, if all the players get is false or unuseful information, the game can come off feeling adversarial. Striking a balance between useful and unusual information, and true and false is a decision that a dungeon master has to consider very carefully.

It also pays to reward player characters who decide to do some research. making sure there is more to be found if player characters engage particular NPCs or go out of their way to visit particular locations for larger adventures will help with the engagement of tactical and story players alike.

Example: In my case, I believe a good way of doing this would be to have a Salisstach body recovered from the river somewhere and being studied by a scholar. Likewise, having dinosaurs recently appear in a nearby swamp and having become a favorite prey of hunters, might allow the players to interview those hunters for more intelligence.

I might also consider having the Sallistach wipe out a monastery or other small settlement, leaving a few samples of their weapons, poison, and maybe a dead biomech triceratops somewhere to be examined if the players go to check on the settlement that has gone dark.

Making Intel Accessible 

An important point to remember is that if there is specific information you want the players to have, don't hide it behind dice rolls. Make sure they can get it! And, if it's something you have to hint at, make sure there are at least three clues pointing to the one piece of information you want. Players can't read your mind, signpost vital information well.

For the same reason, I don't like using a mechanic along the lines of the Hather Information rolls in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition / Pathfinder. If players look for information, they should get it on the simple basis that it moves the campaign along smoothly. I am hoping to hearing arguments about the value of making player characters roll, other than for deciding whether or not they get false information, which I think is a complicated topic.

Keep in mind as well that you can overlap your rumor table and your intelligence. Incorporating rumors that include valuable information can cut down on time before we get to the meat of play.

My own group is very busy. They appreciate the role playing aspect, and work it into game sessions whenever they can... but they also have limited time, putting them through formalities before they reach the adventure in a Dungeons & Dragons-style game his counterproductive to fun.

Information-gathering Subsystems

There are games where gathering is critical and should be a part of how it is played, such a Shadowrun or Blades in the Dark. In those cases, however, there are systems of contacts that already serve to accelerate the legwork section of the game. I have also made heavy use of Blades in the Dark's flashback system in my OSR games. It allows player characters to engage in prep and research retroactively, so that play can begin in earnest, and legwork can be handled in once players realize they need it. this does create a sense of extreme competence in the player characters, so Your Mileage May vary.

Without hooks, rumors, and intelligence, your dungeon sits entirely apart from the world it offers the player characters no incentive to visit it, and no means of becoming engaged in the idea of the adventure. this additional information helps make it a living thing.

Plugging it into my Adventure

So, let's look at what this will look like for the purposes of my meat packing plant adventure:






A glacier on Eira peak collapsed, it was a disaster that decimated the village of Eirata. Many are still missing.


The Monastery of the North Wind has not sent traders for since the time of the glacial collapse, and no light are on at night. We fear the worst.


A terrible wingless dragon with many horns was killed near the Salka marsh. No hunter has ever seen anything like it. They think it came down for, Mt. Eira.


Wanderers claiming to be from a country North beyond the Ice-Shield have been selling exotic fruit and meats in exchange for information on trade routes.


A monstrous body washed down river, like a man covered in feathers and scales. It is a mystery we have given to the sage Gorum.


When tremors shook Mt. Eira, terrible screams echoed from the mountain from days. Some think they come from, a great stone door that was revealed when the glacier fell.

The disaster at Eira is my "main hook." Exploring the forests around the town will reveal signs of refugee camps being raided and emptied.


The Monastery of the North Wind

The Monastery of the North Wind has been wiped out by Salisstach raiders. A destroyed Biomech Triceratops, some venomous spines and shed feathers, and a lost Alchemical Mortar are all that is left. Tracks show that the few survivors were taken prisoner and dragged off toward the mountain.

The "Dragon"...

...is a dead Amargasaurus, one of several that have been spotted in the Salka marsh to the South of Eira. They only started to appear after the glacier broke.


Gorum is a mage that specializes in the study of anatomy and physiology in order to further the discipline of transmutation, and he hopes one day, find an arcane means of healing wounds. He has come into possession of a female Salisstach corpse, one with a Biomech prosthetic leg.

  • Gorum knows the following:
  • The creature was highly intelligent.
  • She is neither mammal, bird, or reptile, but has traits of the last two. She comes from some ancient form of life he cannot place.
  • A divination for finding the age of things claims that she is 7 million years old, but that her limb is 160 million years old.
  • The magic and science that made her limb is a mix of fusing crude machinery to magically warped flesh, and a scientific understanding of nerves he cannot match.
  • She was hatched from an Egg.
  • She could spit toxic spines with a powerful sedative.
  • She died from a fall from a high place, probably near the source of the river under Eira peak.

Gorum is fascinated by her prosthesis and will pay in potions, medicine, and spell tutelage for more samples of the tech.

The Meat Merchants 

These are Salisstach spies selling dinosaur meat. They wear concealing clothes and trade for coin and information. One carries a map They have been making of the area. The oldest, most detailed places filled in radiate from mount Eira. They carry tentacle genades and spine muskets.

These give me lots of ways to push the PCs toward that doorway. I can add in some thematic encounters to my random encounter table that reinforce the theme and tease things like ridable dinosaurs.

UPDATE: If you liked this adventure, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of it is now available on DrivethruRPG.

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