A Simple But Effective Adventure Template
Sometimes all you need is a skeleton. With a few guiding bullet points, you become unblocked and inspired to create next session’s adventure.
I’ve featured a couple of adventure design templates in the past, including the Hook, Line & Sinkers Mad Lib (March 2017), the Mad Lib 5 Room Dungeon Idea Generator (July 2017), the d12 Random Quest Generator (February 2018), and Patron Exclusive Exclusive #6: Case Study: The Dungeon Master’s Design Kit.
Today I’ve got another one for you. I hope you like it:
- Adventure Theme
- Side Quests
We start with two simple questions that lead to an interesting Adventure Theme.
Question #1: What
We ask our players, “What do you do want to do next?”
You might get answers like:
- Find the hidden tower
- Talk to the Mayor
- Go get drunk in the tavern
- Shop for a new suit of armour
This is how great adventures start. A simple task.
From here we can devise encounters galore for PCs whack, talk, or think their way through to reward.
But first we reach for our second question.
Question #2: Why
Follow-up the first query to discover what our players really want to do.
What’s the motivation behind the action?
In last night’s game, for example, we ended the session and I asked what everyone wanted to do next.
The players want to meet the high priest of The Awakened?
Great! Now I know exactly what encounter to prep for an exciting kickoff next session. And every adventure begins with the first encounter.
Next I asked why they wanted to meet the priest.
They said to stop the faction from enslaving everyone on the island.
Ok, now we are cooking! We’ve got a clear Mission.
There’s more to these questions than figuring out the First Encounter and Mission.
The What and Why tell us something else.
We combine them so they give us ideas for adventure Theme.
We distill Theme into 3-5 words so we get clear guidance on what kind of encounters to design.
What + Why = Evocative Theme
1d6 Theme Examples
- Scavenge the Badlands
- Explore the Dark Jungle
- Make a Devil’s Bargain
- Discover a Ghost Ship
- Infiltrate the Death Star
- Murder Mystery Mansion
In my example with The Awakened, I might declare the Theme to be Make a Devil’s Bargain. The party will be faced with difficult negotiation options to get what they want.
The best themes have a little spirit. An extra dimension that guides our writing hands.
For example, we could just call my Awakened adventure theme Negotiation. The PCs want to make terms with the High Priest to save people from tyranny.
But that theme lacks inspiration.
However, Making a Devil’s Bargain evokes several thoughts, images, and ideas in my imagination I can make use of as I flesh out my adventure.
Another word for this could be trope.
Where do the characters need to go to complete their Mission?
We are creating a Critical Story Path here. The minimum steps to take, gates to pass through, and milestones to complete.
Such adventure beats need places to contain the action, roleplay, and plot developments.
Make a list of d10 potential locations based on your setting, campaign, and Mission logic.
For example, the High Priest of the Awakened needs a place to dwell.
Do I let the PCs walk right up to them, or must they get through defences and checkpoints?
Do the PCs know where the High Priest dwells, or do they need to find this information out?
Do the characters have everything they need to complete their Mission, or do they need to acquire resources such as allies, equipment, and special knowledge?
Here’s a copy and paste of my Locations idea list after a quick brainstorm:
- Mountain Top Lair => High Priest
- Strange Shed => Agent with knowledge of lair
- Windy Mountain Path => Hazardous route to lair
- Altar => Guard post along path
- River => Must cross to reach mountain
- Hermit’s Cave => Has helpful knowledge
- Cult Sacred Glade => A holy place
- Flog’s => A merchant with useful wares
- Beach Landing => Where PCs land after crossing river
- Beautiful Lookout => Vantage point along the path
I need not use all these Locations. But with d10 ideas, I not only have enough for a 5 Room Dungeon or two, but I have extras for when players inevitably take a left at Albuquerque.
Skin Your Locales
A key here is to skin Locations with Theme.
This campaign takes place in the jungle. So I have glades, mountain tops, caves, and natural hazards.
Now that we know locations, we can figure out movement, distances, and pacing.
How far away are Locations from each other?
Using the party’s fastest mode of travel, what’s the minimum timeline needed to visit key locales?
First compare starting point with final destination.
For example, the distance between current party location and mountain top lair is 48 miles through the jungle and then three miles along the switchback mountain path.
The party’s potential modes of transport are boat and walking. They do not yet have other options such as flying or teleporting.
I estimate sailing upriver to the foot of the mountain will take two days. In D&D 5E, for example, Normal movement is 24 miles per day. But I figure a boat would double that. Sailing up river would be Difficult Terrain, though, so movement rate is halved. Bringing us back to two days to paddle 48 miles.
Walking up along a mountain path I’ll call Slow movement. About an hour and a half.
Why is this important?
First, defining the physical space of our adventure gives us an idea of how long each adventuring day will be.
In some games, such as Pathfinder and D&D, characters regain resources after a good night’s sleep or a long rest.
To determine encounter challenge levels, we need to guess how depleted characters will be at encounter start.
If we know we’re looking at more than one day of travel, we’ll be facing ye ol’ Adventuring Day where PCs will have a chance to fully rest up at least once before hitting the climactic final encounter.
In my case, I’ve got at least two nights in the jungle. Two full rests.
That means the first encounter each day will involve characters at full power. To challenge them with a hard or deadly encounter then, we must assume full party strength, or stage encounters carefully so we get more than one encounter a day.
Figuring out Travel also means we learn terrain. That will inform encounter types and opportunities.
Finally, we look at cadence. Do we handwave travel, pack it with several encounters in a day, or something in between?
Using a bit of strategy, I decide to handwave the first day and stack up three encounters the following day. That speeds things along on day one, and softens the characters up just before they hit the mountain path.
All this assumes combat. For non-combat encounters, we use Locations for atmosphere, Hazards, and features to build roleplay and puzzle/skill events with. We worry less about party resources and look harder at cadence.
For wilderness travel encounter ideas, grab my 1,372 Roadside Encounter PDF book.
Here’s where things start to click. We’ve got Theme, Mission, Locations, and Travel ideas sorted.
We can now make intelligent decisions about Hazards.
Jungle travel, sailing upriver, and mountain path help guide me in thinking up 1d6 Hazards for each leg of the journey.
- Storm => Big dump of rain, flash flooding, high winds
- Sink Hole => Deep pit, divides party
- Landslide => Falling debris, divides party, loss of resources
- Disease => Parasites, viruses, poison
- Carnivorous Plants => Creeping vines, mega pitcher plants
- Exhaustion => Heat and humidity
You’ve probably noticed a pattern here.
I tend to use X => Y notation in my idea lists.
I prefer to improv as much as possible during games. So I prepare to improv.
The way my brain works, I need a seed idea and an example to get me going.
You might not need example ideas. Or you might need additional information. Figure out what details to have on hand that’ll make you most successful behind the screen.
Another facet here is lists. I work well with idea lists of game elements, or what I often call Lego Pieces.
Maybe you prefer mindmaps, or full-on written descriptions.
Improvise as much as possible during sessions to avoid railroading, brittle adventures, and taking prep time away from your cornerstone prep tasks of milieu, plot, and deeper Lego development.
Back to Hazards, here’s our hack:
We assign Hazards during play.
We wait to see party strength, session energy level and pacing, and player engagement.
We then layer Hazards onto encounters as needed to add difficulty, change pace, and re-engage checked-out players.
For example, say the party tricks me and gets to the mountain top lair in just half a day instead of two. They end up bypassing several locations by convincing a local druid to change the PCs’ into birds.
When I see that coming, and knowing I want the characters softened up a bit, I decide to summon a storm when the characters hit the mountain path, grounding them, so they at least encounter altar and guard post.
The storm causes a landslide mid-encounter at the altar, requiring characters to burn up spell slots, health, and maybe a single-use magic item or two.
Having a list of Hazards in your back pocket gives you confidence and offers levers for tweaking your adventure on-the-fly.
Next we want to feed our story machine.
As discussed in a recent newsletter, we add a critical ingredient into each encounter so our sessions become even more engaging.
That ingredient is Meaning.
Meaning answers the question, “What’s in it for me?” that each player always asks of gameplay.
Why is this relevant? Why is this worth my time? Why is this important?
We answer these questions by making encounters meaningful to either the main plot or side plots we’ve got running.
Our brains think in story. We’re hardwired that way.
For example, Orc (AC 16, HP 12, Att +4, Dam 1d6+2) is boring. Pure facts are boring.
Story forms the entire basis of RPGs, regardless of system.
Orc stats thrill no players.
But encountering orc slavers will get interest. You garner even more interest from the half-orc player, the player whose character’s family was enslaved, and the Theme of your adventure, which is about preventing tyranny.
Add a bit of story to an encounter and you make it meaningful. Make encounters meaningful and you get sessions and adventures that pull your players in. They’ll want to interact, overcome challenges, rebound from setbacks, and continue along the path.
So we brainstorm another list of potential side quest hooks and developments we could layer onto encounters to add Meaning.
1d6 Side Quest Hooks
- Villain is involved
- Party enemy is involved
- Clue about missing relative
- NPCs that share the same background or trait
- Animal from beast shape wishlist spotted
- Clue about villain weakness
In my campaign I’d be less abstract. The list above gives generalized examples of the kinds of details you can add to encounters as you run your game to hook players in, progress side plots, and create Meaning to individual encounters.
In this way, we go beyond the standard fare of kick down the door, kill the monster, take the treasure.
We must always throw obstacles and challenges against the party to make their Mission difficult.
But raw orc stats are boring.
Add story and Meaning to keep player engagement high.
Next, we think about rewards.
We can drop coins and magic items anytime.
But what makes treasure special are the extra details you add so rewards become relevant and entertaining to players.
For example, my players would love to find a magic cloak that helps you blend into shadows. Sneakers want to sneak.
But what if I made it sentient? A simple detail. Yet now the item is transformed into an ally (or enemy). No one is going to call it a mere Cloak of Elvenkind now and treat it like a commodity. Instead, it’s Astria. Our chatty friend.
Alternatively, I could make the cloak connect the wearer with nearby shadows. This opens up scouting and spying play, and subtle minor tricks, perhaps.
I struggle coming up with these ideas while GMing. My mind is elsewhere, running numbers, thinking a step ahead, or coming up with words in NPC mouths.
So I make a quick rewards list. As I use ideas, I refresh the list between sessions. This becomes not only an adventure tool, but a campaign tool as well.
1d6 Treasure Hooks
- Philosopher’s Stone => Helps the party talk with certain monsters or cultures
- You’ve Got Style => Appearance hooks into character identity
- More Backgroundy => A feature helps player portray character better
- Upgradable => Future quests can enhance function or power
- Broken => Could be great, if it can be fixed
- Sentient => Who doesn’t like a talking cloak?
We leave my favourite part for last: the encounters that’ll make up our adventure.
Again, I prefer the hooks and ideas approach so I can remain flexible, react to gameplay, and improvise as much as possible.
Therefore, I do not often create set piece encounters.
A set piece encounter is my term for those long encounter entries that require specific triggers and enforce specific outcomes.
Worse, it puts my energy into the wrong place at the wrong time.
By that, I mean you can put a lot of energy into encounter building before a session and then invest even more limited and precious GMing energy at the table tweaking things to account for current player actions and context.
Or…you could put a bit of energy to make some Encounter Seeds in advance, and then improvise based on actual gameplay.
Put another way, via improv you have a creator’s mindset and energy level. Through details emergent from gameplay, you grab Legos, layer on Locations, Hazards, and Treasure, and create something like a chef.
But frantically adapting what is essentially broken because of gameplay surprises makes you take on a triage and repair mindset. “How do I make this encounter work now?“
Could be you prefer the repair mindset.
I’m geared towards creating things. It’s a skill that improves with use and becomes easier all the time.
Soon, most of your role consists of acts of creation. That’s so much more rewarding to me than being on my back foot all the time trying to fix sundered plans.
Maybe it’s that way with you too.
So I want to create a list of encounter seeds. I want ideas that’ll help me create Situations where I don’t have a pre-defined stake in a particular outcome. I’d rather wait to see what the players offer and create a situation from that.
For example, I don’t like this approach:
When the players approach the altar via the mountain path, Awakened Cultists draw their weapons and demand the password. If they don’t get the correct password (“Vida”) they attack. They’ll fight to the death.
Instead, I like:
Awakened Cultists, password, fervent.
All my GM Toolbox tools and levers remain open here. Parley, subterfuge, combat. Any good password idea might let the PCs pass. Any way or form of approach can trigger the situation. Death need not be the cultists’ fate.
Sure, I could change my encounter plan in the first example based on current game conditions. But then I’d be in triage mode. What’s not going to work here? What do I need to change? How do I fix that?
Instead, I’ve given myself a Rory’s Story Cube type roll that I can cook into what I think will offer the best gameplay in the moment.
For this step, brainstorm 1d10 Situations. You won’t need them all, but extra choices give you even more options and flexibility.
1d10 Situation Examples
- Injured animal, Awakened or mundane
- Slavers, escaped slave
- Loggers, diseased, hallucinating
- Wild animal being “Awakened” by cultists
- Pilgrims, pregnant, starving
- Perytons, guarding young, clue in nest
- Merchants, lost, smugglers
- Insect mound, aggressive, victim
- Blocked path, ambush, exiles
- Bodies, tracks, lair
When thinking up Situations I ask three questions:
- What’s the context? We need to anchor this event into the stream of our story.
- What’s interactive? Players need something to engage with, whether it’s NPC, puzzle, or object.
- What’s uncertain? It’s not a game until we set up a conflict that gameplay resolves.
For example, Loggers, diseased, hallucinating.
Context: NPC interaction, probably where there’s trees.
Interaction: NPCs offer inherent interaction. We enhance this default with disease and hallucinations. Will PCs spot the disease? Can I use logger hallucinations to trick the players?
Uncertainty: Will characters catch the disease? Will they be fooled by hallucination-driven roleplay? Will the loggers be provoked into hewing the PCs down?
Whip up a bunch of Situations and let gameplay guide how they manifest as encounter.
Our Adventure Template has seven ingredients:
- Adventure Theme
- Side Quests
We aim to improvise as much as possible. This lets us take on a creator mindset during sessions, which I believe makes for better GMing and greater player engagement.
We also create an adventure skeleton in short order to help guide us during the session so we don’t get caught with blank paper + deer in headlights syndrome.
And we take care to hook in players, characters, milieu, and campaign to create a consistent, unified, and meaningful experience.
While we could throw random encounters at the party based on tables in some book, we add small touches here and there to our adventure skeleton to make gameplay relevant and rewarding. Try this template out and let me know how it goes.