Welcome To Adventure Hacking

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0799

If you’re like me, you’ve got a bunch of published adventures on your shelf and your computer. More than you could ever GM. However, I love reading adventures. I get so many ideas for my campaigns this way.

I also got an unexpected side benefit from reading adventures after awhile. I started to “think adventure.” I saw patterns of design. I saw how stories progressed. I saw what the different pieces were that made up adventures and how they fit together for gameplay.

And after that phase, I started to form opinions on what separates good adventure design from bad. That informed a lot of my thinking in my Adventure Design Course.

Today I want to introduce a new thing for your GMing Toolbox.

I call it Adventure Hacking.

Adventure Hacking, by my definition, is the fastest way you can study an adventure to prep it for GMing, to mine it for ideas, and to master adventure design.

I have more adventures in my reading queue than time left on this planet if I took the long route.

Adventure Hacking lets me quickly understand the adventure’s plot and then loot it for parts for my campaigns.

It also lets me know pretty fast if an adventure is going to be great or not. And it lets me identify which modules I should put more time into analyzing and looting.

There’s a few steps you need to know to make Adventure Hacking work well for you.

Map The Core Story

The first step, which I’ll talk about today, I call Map the Core Story.

I’ve got a small course in the works for this that goes into more detail on how to create your Core Story Map plus the other aspects of Adventure Hacking.

But I can give you a useful overview right now so you can start doing it.

Every good story has three parts. A solid beginning. A compelling middle. And a satisfying end.

Likewise, good adventures follow this pattern too.

So you want to analyse the published adventure you’re reading this way:

What’s The Beginning?

What’s the premise or plot? How do the characters get involved? Why will your players care?

The beginning should tell you the setting. It should also set up the villain or main obstacle.

What’s The End?

One of my favourite bits of GM advice is, begin as you would end.

To me, that means if you want to stay organized, you start organized. If you want to tell an amazing story, prep an amazing story.

The beginning sets you, your players, and the characters out in a specific direction or vector. If the ending lies in a different directing, then expect panicked mid-campaign course correction and intervention on your part.

Campaigns go smoother when intro and end are likely to meet. 🙂

What’s The Middle?

 Here’s the crux of the adventure’s design.

The middle must marry the humble beginning to the climactic finale.

How well the middle gets plotted out and designed will have a huge effect on the overall quality of the story you need to tell.

Here’s a quick overview of my approach to Adventure Hacking the Core Story via Beginning, Middle, and End.

Mine The Introduction

The start of the adventure should tell you what you need to know about the Beginning.

It should put the adventure into a setting, establish key NPCs including the major opposition, and establish the goal or win-state.

Sometimes this information is not organised well. You need to go raiding for it. If not in a section clearly marked Introduction, quickly scan the module for these sections:

  • Adventure Synopsis
  • Background
  • History
  • Overview
  • Development
  • Running the Adventure

And remember, a key goal of Adventure Hacking is to analyse a published adventure fast to learn how to run it and design better adventures yourself.

So you just want to skim the intro sections to gather up the information you need to understand the adventure and then move on to the next step, which is….

Mine The End

We want total clarity on what the adventure designer has set out as the win-state.

When is the module considered done? What’s success look like? How are the major rewards earned?

And significant if running a campaign, what are possible consequences for your campaign once the adventure ends?

Again, the terminology varies. You might find critical End information spread out in sections titled:

  • Conclusion
  • Final Encounter
  • Aftermath
  • Further Adventures

In some cases, you might need to scan the last couple of encounters to get a full understanding of The End.

As part of the Adventure Hacking Course, I do a case study of a classic published adventure. And as it turns out, some of the info essential to The Beginning is located in the end sections!

For example, I found out about two key win-states tucked away on the final page.

So mining The End helps you hack adventures faster and better.

Map The Middle

With start and finish now clear in our heads and notes, we can see The Middle in a special way.

The Middle must connect The Beginning and The End.

As we hack The Middle, we look to answer one main question: how does the adventure take the PCs from Beginning to End?

Once you know the answer, you can step back and decide if it was done well and why. This is a huge GM learning opportunity for you.

It’s like seeing the matrix.

You get to look at the adventure with your design hat on and see how the designer constructed the transitions and the flow.

A great way to do this is by drawing a map. Not a GM map, but a design map. Draw out the Critical Path and label clues, directives, story flows, and NPC pushes.

You get to see if the designer was able to Show, Not Tell. You can observe how clues were injected. You can study how people, places, and things moved the plot and engaged PCs and players.

Hack On!

You don’t earn these insights by studying just one adventure.

You want to hack as many as you can.

Not only are published adventures fun to read and loot for parts, they are teaching tools.

And the more you can hack and see the matrix with, the more GM XP you’ll earn. I don’t have a release date set for my Adventure Hacking course. But today’s Musing should get you started in the right direction. I’ll post news here when the course becomes available.