The Adventure Checklist – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0659

A Brief Word From Johnn

Cool Item For Your Campaign

Check out this foldable bowl they found in Uzbekistan:

This would make some players ecstatic as a special piece of equipment reward.

Every time the party camps you know that player is going to make a big show of unpacking his foldable bowl and using it.

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Hear Me Ramble On About Games

Chris Sniezak invited me to appear on his Misdirected Mark podcast.

I share a bit of the history of Roleplaying Tips, talk about my newest book Mythic Gods & Monsters, and dig into a bunch of RPG topics.

Listen to the podcast here.

Have a great week!


P.S. What do the player characters use to call each other in jail? Cell phones.

The Adventure Checklist – Part I

What follows is the first half of a recipe. It’s an ingredients list. A bit of salt, a bit of sugar, and bits of GM vitamins. Use this list while building adventures, when you get stuck for what to do, or during the Smoothing Things Out stage.

You can see my sandbox and non-railroad leanings in this list. After getting burned with brittle plots and backpeddling like mad or treading water in panic during sessions many times, I mostly create and run open-ended adventures these days. Building such adventures is more involved up front, but more rewarding during the game. It’s a lot less stressful for me, because I get confidence from understanding the game pieces and putting them into play without trying to architect specific outcomes.

Players gonna do what players gonna do. And when that happens, the world reacts, like an ant nest kicked.

Think of it like playing checkers or chess. You could approach the game trying to make your opponent choose specific moves each turn as predicted, so you can direct yourself a win. That’s tough. And stressful. And it’s all over when your opponent goes off-script.

Or, you could approach the game by learning the rules, understanding how each game piece can be played, and learning basic tactics for the game and each piece. As you play the game, it doesn’t matter what your opponent does, you counter with moves of your own. As you play more games, your knowledge and experience grows, and games improve.

The first approach is a straightjacket. At least, it will put you in one as you go crazy fretting over every contingency and detail before you’ve even started playing! The second approach is fun. It’s organic. It’s about learning. It’s about understanding. And most importantly, it’s a collaboration, an infinite game. You want the game to keep going so you can continue to play and learn and have fun.

The other half of the recipe involves the order in which you create and mix the adventure elements in the checklist. Stir in water, eggs, sugar, and flour. Beat for two minutes. Beat the PCs again, er, I mean roast in dragon’s breath at 1000 degrees for twenty minutes.

I’ve got an online Adventure Building Workshop coming up you can buy where I’ll share the second half of the recipe, if you are keen on learning how to make great cookies, er, adventures. But for today, I’ll give you the checklist. It’s broken into three sections:

  • Campaign Checklist
  • Adventure Checklist
  • Encounter Checklist

The Campaign and Encounter checklists should be viewed through the lens of Adventure Building. They aren’t meant to be standalone complete campaign or encounter building lists. They’re just the elements related to adventure crafting. Campaign Seeds will give you more than enough material on how to create awesome campaigns. Encounters is a topic for a future product I’ve got planned.

Another caveat, the Adventure Checklist is not in order. It is roughly top-down, but each of us thinks and GMs different, so there will never be an order that suits everyone. Instead, my intention is you put this checklist into your notes, GM binder, Evernote, or whatever your system is, in the order that works for you. While I might add chocolate chips second, after I’ve stuffed two handfuls into my mouth, you might have more willpower and add them near the end.

As you go through building your adventure, check off the items you’ve got done. If something doesn’t suit your style or the adventure you’re building, cross the item out and don’t worry about it.

Campaign Checklist

  • Theme, GM Style & Tone
  • Bucket List
  • Player & Character Kicks Grid
  • Faction Pyramids
  • Region Map
  • Loopy Planning

Adventure Checklist

  • A “What if…” Premise & Razor
  • Special Conditions
  • Adventure Hooks
  • Primary & Secondary Agents
  • Key Opportunities
  • Adventuring Region
  • Featured Villain
  • PC Motivation & Integration
  • Plot Outline & Critical Path Walkthrough
  • 3 Clue Rule
  • 3 Line NPCs
  • Featured Creatures
  • Featured Locations
  • Mission-Based Encounter Seeds
  • Events-Based Encounter Seeds
  • Back-Pocket Encounters
  • 3 Secrets & Mysteries
  • Spotlights
  • Cool Magic Treasure
  • Interesting Mundane Treasure
  • Maps – Adventure Regions, Floorplans, Diagrams
  • Background
  • Inciting Encounter
  • Left Hooks
  • Props & Handouts

Encounter Checklist

  • Overview
  • Location
  • Features & Hazards
  • NPCs & Monsters
  • Treasure & Reward
  • Objectives
  • Map
  • Senses & Buildup
  • Plot Ties
  • Player & Character Kicks Grid
  • Encounter Hooks
  • Developments

Checklist Items Explained

Here’s a basic overview of each element, in case the name leaves it unclear what the element is about.


Theme, GM Style & Tone

You’ve already picked your genre – fantasy, scifi, or whatever. For this particular adventure though, you should decide what flavour it will be, because it will influence all subsequent ideas and choices you make. For example, fantasy horror versus fantasy comedy.

GM style also decides whether you’re making a deadly adventure, mostly a roleplaying adventure, something with battlemaps, and so on.

Bucket List

Make a wishlist of things you’d like to game someday. Cool situations, special monsters, unusual locations. Keep adding to this list. Cherry pick from it anytime to feed your adventures to whittle your list down and get those awesome experiences you want.

Player & Character Kicks Grid

From Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering comes this important tool to make each game more fun for your players. Create a grid that lists the ways in which your players get their kicks out of the game. Then be sure to include as many of these as you can in your adventures. Keep your grid handy during sessions and check kicks off when met, so you can see if any players are being under-served.

Faction Pyramids

Factions give you key game pieces to run your open-ended adventure with. Use Faction Pyramids to quickly plan and manage plots, events, encounters, and missions.

Region Map

I loves me my maps. But I’m so terrible at making them. I hope to learn how to draw great maps someday. Meantime, any scratching will do, to give you an idea of the frame and borders you’re gaming in. Google RPG maps for inspiration. Put lots of fantastic stuff in your maps so players want to explore every corner, which means they’ll trigger adventures for you, taking that burden off you over the course of the campaign.

Loopy Planning

Get organized. Figure out how you’ll handle tracking adventure details. I use Loopy Planning and the Campaign Logger app I’ve made with Jochen Linnemann. You might try Evernote or MyInfo.

Regardless of approach, you’ll want an easy reference system for your NPCs, locations, and items, and you’ll want an easy way to update adventure developments – who’s done what to whom, when and where? Stay nimble and organized with this, and open-ended adventures become a hundred times easier to manage.

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A “What if…” Premise & Razor

Following Ray Bradbury’s advice I read years ago, I like to have a strong vision for an adventure. We’ll make hundreds of choices that collectively result in the adventure experience. For example, deciding whether to choose goblins, githyanki, or tasloi as a faction foe should be more than just a numbers decision. You should think of yourself as an artist, a designer, one whose ideas and choices of what to mix together create unique experiences each session.

Bradbury advised each story you write should begin with a What if. What if bandits unwittingly hold the fate of a village in their hands? What if aliens invade the kingdom? What if undead escape their graves?

Asking What if not only gives you an adventure seed to build upon, but it gets you thinking and helps you avoid rehashing the same old gaming ground.

“Undead roam the graveyard.” => Boring.

“What if undead escape their graves?” => Turning this into a question gets us thinking. What could happen? Who might get affected? How? We can hang great adventures, encounters, and roleplaying on these answers.

Special Conditions

A fantastic way to make each adventure different is to lay on a specific pressure, an escalating situation, or an alternate reality. This lets you colour each adventure differently, regardless of how many repeat elements you have, so it plays out different than previous adventures you’ve built.

For example, last fall I ran a series on how to make undead interesting again. I was tired of the same old boring skeletons rattling in front of weary players prepping their bludgeoning weapons yet again. One idea that come out of that series was a plague special condition. Not only would the characters be responsible for spreading the plague after coming back to town covered in skeleton dust, but the plague had an infection mechanic that fueled other undead in the area, giving them more power and special properties. Lots of interesting gameplay and player choices emerge from this new dynamic.

Adventure Hooks

What gets players interested in the adventure?

We’ve all heard of adventure hooks before, but what most GMs do not understand is the true benefit of a well-designed hook. I’ll cover this in the Adventure Creation Workshop, but in a nutshell, a successful hook pulls players through the adventure.

Think of your adventure as a constant pressure on players to do something else. I know, it’s tough to think about. But players are people too (most of them, at least) and like any person they need sufficient motivation to show up to game, to get involved in the adventure, and to see the adventure through to the end.

Now, you can push and prod your players. You can railroad them and force them along.

But what if you had a hook that created sufficient motivation to get your players driving through your adventure of their own accord? You just follow along, setting up fun and interesting situations with the game elements you’ve already designed, perhaps even used before (recurring game stuff, yum!), or that you feel like making up on the fly.

Instead of making a hill the players have to climb, your hook creates a steep hill your players gleefully propel themselves down, chasing the cheese roll.

This changes the entire GMing experience, and cures a lot of GMing woes, in my opinion.

Primary & Secondary Agents

Agents cause the core conflicts. An agent could be a villain, the PCs, factions, a natural disaster, or the Special Condition, to name a few possibilities.

But from a pure storytelling point of view, you need a couple forces that clash and cause events, situations, encounters, dilemmas, and the adventure catalyst.

Key Opportunities

From a player and character perspective, what are some ways the adventure will thrill them? Key Opportunities answers “What’s in it for me?” from your group’s perspective.

Goals, rewards, and treasure are examples. Mine your Kicks Grid for ideas.

Opportunities can also be derived from Adventure Hooks, but you want more opportunities than those just tied to hooks to give your adventure a feeling of depth and enticement (keep that cheese rolling).

For example, in the adventure I’m mulling over creating in the workshop, I’m thinking of adding a set of connected magic items. Gauntlets, helm, chest plate, shield, amulet, boots, and sword. All scattered around the adventure region. I’ve got a backstory in mind, The Seven Gambits of Lord Skar, but will save that for another time. All the items have the same visual and functional brand – they’re obviously connected. And in the adventure I’ll place a couple items early on, such as one of the gauntlets and the helm. I’ll place other clues as well that tell of the seven “gambits.” And then I’ll let the collector gene all roleplayers have kick in. Once they get the scent, players will want to explore all corners of the adventure to get the entire set.

And this major opportunity won’t be tied directly to the plot. It’s an optional side quest nested into the adventure.

Do you see how building extra Opportunities like this makes your adventures feel full of life, choices, and adventure? All you did was make some magic items. But your design of turning them into a set, splitting the set up, making the pieces findable and collectible, and turning that into a side adventure Opportunity weaves awesome layers into your game.

Adventuring Region

Somewhere within the campaign region this adventure will take place. Make the region interesting and challenging in places so questing and exploring PCs will always be wondering what’s around the corner.

Pull one NPC out of your Factions and make him the ultimate bad guy for the plot. Chances are the Featured Villain will be the Primary Agent, some dude whose actions stir things up. However, you can choose other options.

For example, the PCs might be the Primary Agent because they’ve done certain things in your campaign and things have gone to hell. The villain notices and steps in to take advantage of this, turning him into the Secondary Agent. Because the two Agents typically butt heads throughout the adventure, they drive the plot along.

However, the Primary and Secondary Agents could be forces other than PCs and Featured Villain who are caught up in events.

When you decouple adventure drivers and forces from the PC and villain roles, all sorts of storytelling options and combinations open up for you.

And when you kick everything off with a cool What if? premise, you end up creating this really interesting milieu full of different dynamics at play. Do you see what I mean? It’s pretty cool stuff.

PC Motivation & Integration

We already talked about a strong hook practically compelling the players through your adventure, saving you from all the effort of pushing and prodding them. The PC Motivation & Integration checklist item is about implementing this hook throughout your adventure so players can see and measure their progress. This helps you even more to keep your group clamoring to game and chew through encounters to experience more of the story.

This checklist item is also about opportunities to create side quests and PC specific hooks for Opportunities and other adventure elements.

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It’s time to end things here. I’ll pick up where we’ve left off next RPT issue with Adventure Checklist: Part II.

After years of creating homebrew adventures and running published adventures, I now consistently want great gaming experiences. You and I could just download a Word doc, fill out half a dozen sections, generate a couple dozen encounters, stat out the monsters and items, and call it a day.

But a little extra effort done now to understand the game pieces we have available to us as storytellers and adventure designers opens up a whole new level of GMing (pun mightily intended!). If we can learn what these pieces are, see the way the pieces can move or be deployed, and discover the dynamics between the pieces and how they interrelate, we’ve got a world championship chess game going on!

Let’s evolve from being script writers to being game designers. Let’s play to learn and learn to play and run some epic adventures together.

What’s in a Name?

Using the Oxford English Dictionary to Add Depth and Coherence to Your Campaign

From Dennis Desroches

Names are important. They can be seminal in modeling the world you build. We tend not to think about names in this way though. After all, there are lots of fantastic name generators out there, most of which I’ve used, and many of which I learned about in the august pages of RPT. These cut down on time, and let us get into the nuts and bolts of the world-building process. Why worry about producing names when a good generator can take care of it for us? Indeed, most do a great job of creating names with auras that certainly add a lot to the game.

Nevertheless, the names that get generated generally don’t mean anything. This is significant. It may be the case that most of us are unaware of the meanings of our own names, but just punch yours into google and watch what happens. John(n) means “god is gracious” (I wonder if his eminence’s players think that).

On the other hand, “Ardarther,” a kind of a cool name I just generated on one of my favourite generators, turns out to be totally meaningless, and therefore offers no real creative inspiration for the world I’m building.

Despite the interesting aura made-up names create, they don’t give us much to think about, and John, a common name, has far more potential for world-building because of its compelling meaning.

What I want to stress here is my opinion that made-up names represent a massive loss in creative capital. A name can have extraordinary power to shape environments, personalities (think of the god jokes we can make about our favourite DM), factions, places, geographical features, buildings – you name it – if we are willing to think seriously about what a word means, and how it can be put to use.

I’m going to show you how I use the English language’s most complete dictionary to bring my world-building to life, but first a few words about the OED itself (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you are already familiar with it).

The Oxford English Dictionary

The OED – Oxford English Dictionary – is the most complete record of the English language in existence. What separates it from all the other dictionaries out there, among other things, is its use of etymologies – the historical contextualization and evolution of a word as it is represented by a generous cross-section of the authors who have used it throughout the centuries.

The etymologies, and their attendant exempla, can often be much longer than the definitions themselves. It is important, for our purposes, not to confuse the complete OED with any other of the Oxford Dictionaries – there is one for just about every occasion. In fact, the OED is hard to confuse with the others, because it’s over 21,000 pages long and consists of 20 volumes (and counting – three volumes of additions have been published since it was completed in 1989, making ‘complete’ a pretty relative term).

The 1 volume Compact OED – not to be confused with the “Concise Oxford,” the “Shorter Oxford,” or the “Compact OED of Current English” – is the aforementioned lexicographical behemoth crammed into a positively laconic 2,371 pages. Each page of the 20-volume set has been photographically reduced to a fraction of its size so that 9 pages fit on one page of the Compact OED. That’s why the latter comes with a very cool magnifying glass that weighs about a thousand pounds and definitely adds mystery to the decor in your magus study.

At the moment, Indigo seems to have a deal going where you can get the compact OED for under $300, and the 20-volume monster for under $1000. For the tiny minority of you who haven’t already stopped reading this article to go order it online right away, don’t worry. Every university library has one, and most public libraries do too, so you should be able to find it with ease. One note of caution – the electronic version is not very helpful for this technique, as you’ll see, so make sure to access the old-fashioned book version.

How to Use the OED

How, then, to put this document to work for you? If I tell you to just open it up and start looking for interesting words, I would be giving you advice that is at once perfectly sound, but at the same time a bit misleading. That’s because we need to understand that we are about to use a dictionary in a counter-intuitive way.

We are used to opening the dictionary to find the meaning for a word we have but do not understand. But in the case of world-building, we reverse the process. Instead of having the dictionary tell us what a word means, we are asking it to tell us what words to use in the first instance (which is why the electronic version doesn’t work – you can’t explore it in the same manner). In a very interesting way, we want to do what Samuel Taylor Coleridge once cautioned us against, and what Humphrey Bogart promised to do for Ingrid Bergman. We want to let the language in the OED do the thinking for us (but only to a point).

It is essential to understand that when we put the OED to work for us, we are not looking for just any old word, and this is where the creativity starts. We want to find words that are strange, alien, sometimes unpronounceable, but always with a clear, even mundane, meaning that can start the world-building process.

You’re definitely not looking at the OED to find the name Dave, so in this sense, ‘just cracking it open’ isn’t quite enough. You’re looking for something weird enough, but meaningful enough, to give shape to some aspect of your world: a villain, a town, an encounter, even a nation.

But it’s the word that’s going to determine the shape of those game elements – the OED becomes a giant name generator with the added bonus of giving you the contours of how that word will affect your campaign. What you will often (but not always) be looking for are terms with “obs.” beside them, obsolete usages or spellings for words whose meaning might be familiar, but whose appearance is not. There is a word like this on almost every page of the OED. But there are also enough words just plain bizarre enough that obsolete terms are by no means the only resource.


So what would this technique look like in action? I’ll give you a few examples from my proto-campaign that have helped me bring great depth and coherence to the game.

When we first started the “Grim Lands” home-brew, it was meant to last one or two sessions at most. “Noble adventurers, you must save the kind and fatherly Duke from the demon possessing him.” But as we got into it, the one-off took on a life of its own, and insubordinate players started to ask questions. It got to the point where gods were starting to interact with PCs who, after an eventful trip through a few layers of the abyss, couldn’t easily get back to their homes.

Suddenly, what was supposed to be a neat and tidy trip to Tartarus – quick in, quick out, everybody gets hurt – had turned, by the end of the first two sessions, into quite possibly our most epic campaign to date. So I needed a world: gods, religions, nation states, factions, rivers to sail on, and forests to tramp through. I didn’t even have a tavern yet. So I cracked open the OED. And here’s where things got started:

While paging through the “M”s, I found the word “maynysenge.” Weird looking thing. It is an obsolete form of the more recognizable term “menacing.” So, I had a great name for the river the characters were about to set sail upon next session, and that name helped me to characterize the kind of experience the adventurers would have upon it. Half a dozen big water elementals, a dragon turtle, a mottled worm, a boat load of infernal slavers, a capsized boat, and a few raise dead spells later, the Maynysenge River had lived up to its name and burned its terror into the hearts of the PCs! (You’d think they’d have run screaming from it, but like I said, they live to kill things.)

Then the characters, instead of just heading back to the keep to take down the bad guys, decide they want to form a multi-national coalition to take on the hordes of hell, and set sail for a neighbouring country. OK… So I need some countries, but they each require some kind of identity if the game is going to have any depth at all. Three large nations, and six smaller kingdoms, I decided, needed rendering. So I started flipping pages:

“W” gave me wamble – qualmish, nausea, rolling stomach; thus, Wamble, the Stinking Nation, known for its noxious fens and reeking tanneries.

“H” gave me highlone – alone, without support (kind of obvious, but still a very rare usage); thus, Highlone, the Nation Apart, insular and xenophobic, Hvoc’s (name of the world – not in the OED, but an obvious bastardization of a word that is) northernmost nation.

“F” gave me fleeching – coaxing, wheedling; thus, Fleeching, the Submissive Nation, defined by its sycophant filled court, tedious and whining nobles, and its foppish king (kind of like contemporary Western democracies).

“F” also gave me flebile – doleful, mourning, plaintive; thus, Flebile, the Crying Land, where it has not stopped raining since the end of a pyrrhic civil war that depopulated the nation’s youth, leaving the grief-stricken and aging populace to pick up the pieces.

“D” gave me deneger – denier; thus, Deneger, the Godless Kingdom, those who have turned their backs on the gods, and come to be home to the dreaded god killers.

“S” gave me stete – push, shove, fling violently; thus, Stete, the Angry Nation, a barbarian culture given to violence.

“T” gave me tauric – of the bull; thus, Tauric, the Stubborn Nation, warmongers, allies with Stete.

“M” gave me morendo – dying; thus, Morendo, the Dying Nation, whose fortunes are tied directly to the age of its ancient king.

The final nation, the one where this whole thing was supposed to begin and end, is Verdance, a slight alteration of verdancy (green – the Fruitful Nation). Didn’t need a dictionary for that one!

My point is probably clear. Each one of these strange-looking words functions as a world-building node by combining the strange aesthetic or aura of an alien name with perfectly coherent meanings we can use to help shape and define our worlds. This technique allows one to add depth and texture to a world fast, while offering the kind of existential coherence a name generator cannot.

I used the same process to create a pantheon of 28 Gods – Elutria, Parruria, Jussiva, etc., are all words, or slight misspellings of them (and you should definitely take liberties to make the words your own), whose meanings helped me to imagine broader functions for the gods so named. Elutria, one of the Four Kind Gods, the goddess of purity; Parruria, one of the 7 Death Gods, god of diseases associated with the nether regions (to put it politely); Jussiva, one of the 16 Peace Gods, goddess of explosions (the Peace Gods aren’t always peaceful). Naming taverns, cities, mountain ranges, NPCs, and so on, all follow from what I’ve just described, with fascinating results.

Change the Spelling

The Oxford English Dictionary is the only place you’ll find this kind of linguistic treasure trove in English. It is worth saying your characterization of a place, person, or thing need not follow the definition or spelling of a word too closely. The purpose of the technique, rather, is twofold:

  • To provide a cool/weird/interesting name that also possesses denotative content in a language your players (if you play in English) understand
  • To kickstart your creative juices and help imagine a context within your world for such a name without sacrificing linguistic coherence

One of the essential things about this technique for me is the world you create using it will fit together coherently when the names you use have a denotative logic – the very grammar of the English language – that is able to define the existential contours of the world in which the PCs are wreaking havoc.

I realize spending your prep time at a library paging through a dictionary may seem, at first, like a rather unpleasant task, perhaps more trouble than it’s worth. I assure you, it’s not. Try it for just one hour. I guarantee your brain will be firing on all cylinders by the end of that hour, and you’ll likely want to keep going, making lists of bizarre words that can be used as interchangeably as any made up name, but that carry with them their own nugget of meaning ready to be put to use at a moment’s notice.

My experience tells me any DM looking for creative inspiration will find the most boring book we know of to be, in truth, the most exciting resource we have for quickening our creativity, and building our worlds.

(I’d be fascinated hear about your experience with this technique, and what kind of worlds you’ve built using it – let me know at [email protected]).

d20 Adventure Starters

From Johnn Four

Choose or roll a premise below. Use 5W2H (who, what, where, why, when, how, how much) to drill the premise down into one or more adventure ideas.

  1. What if the evil king falls in love with a succubus sent to kill him and they join forces to create an empire?
  2. What if the god of the snake people in the nearby swamp has actually arrived?
  3. What if a random creature in the monster manual has warped and can turn those it infects into creatures like itself?
  4. What if the duke hires a band of talented mercenaries to spy on the PCs and complete all the adventures and get to all the loot before the PCs can?
  5. What if the most famous pirate captain squares off against the toughest martial arts+thieves’ guild over control of the coast?
  6. What if an earthquake opens up the monster prison and all the creatures escape? What if the earthquake was not so natural?
  7. What if two gods appear and fight to the death and this not only leaves behind a god corpse but it magically changes the land, putting the region in jeopardy?
  8. What if a villain’s lieutenant betrays him and creates his own evil force?
  9. What if the king dies, leaving his three power-hungry sons to fight for the throne?
  10. What if the evil wizard does figure out how to time travel?
  11. What if magic becomes unstable and failed spells become randomly rolled spells that fire instead?
  12. What if several orders of knights learn of a prophecy that predicts all their destruction and three strong factions emerge and begin fighting each other?
  13. What if music becomes powerful magic but it taints those who play and hear it?
  14. What if the PCs’ village drops into a massive and deep sinkhole?
  15. What if a cult seeking to bring back ancient Lich Lords actually succeed?
  16. What if a coup succeeds and the leader brings fascist prosperity?
  17. What if animals suddenly become intelligent and can speak?
  18. What if hobos near a comet crash gain incredible powers?
  19. What if the King & Church declare all demi-humans evil and put a bounty on them?
  20. What if rival thieves’ guilds cause a massive crime wave too strong for the guard to handle?