The Adventure Checklist- Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0660

A Brief Word From Johnn


There was a meme going around about what’s on your gaming bookshelves.

I took a couple quick pics of my own:

What’s on yours?

Graphic of section divider

Coming Soon: Adventure Building Workshop

Got any plans this summer?

How about joining my online Adventure Building Workshop?

Details about this are coming soon, I’m just lining a few things up. But if you struggle putting together exciting adventures for your players, you’ll want a seat at this table.

Keep an eye out in your inbox for a special announcement just for Roleplaying Tips readers.

That’s it for me. On with the tips. And please have a game-full week!



The Adventure Checklist – Part II

Last week I revealed a complete adventure building checklist. It doesn’t show you how to build an adventure, but it does give you a full ingredients list so you know what to think about, design, and double-check for quality.

In part II today, I’ll continue explaining in brief what each checklist item is about, picking up where we left off from part I.

Here’s the checklist again. We got up to PC Motivation & Integration last week:

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

What Else Will Affect Adventure Design


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


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

Plot Outline & Critical Path Walkthrough

We want a story arc for our adventure but not a straightjacket on player choices.

A great structure offers one story path that ties many adventure elements together. If you make it loosely structured so the party can choose how, where, and when to interact with this path, then you’ve got freedom dipped in your plot, which tastes great.

Put another way, plan things so the Primary Agent and Secondary Agent keep progressing the plot until its conclusion. Then as the player characters do stuff in the adventure, the consequences of their actions will feed into Agent decisions and reactions, even if the party wasn’t intending to get tangled up in the plot. This means your group is a key part of the story even if they aren’t following the story.

For example, the PCs bring back infected skeleton dust after a foray into a nearby dungeon. The village starts turning into zombies. Each infection makes undead in the dungeon more powerful. The Primary Agent is an awakening undead force deep in the dungeon. As more zombies spawn, it becomes more substantial and its power grows.

As Primary Agent, this force is going to take actions to further its goals of re-life and power no matter what the PCs do. That’s why it’s the Primary Agent. It’s going to drive the plot.

Now, the PCs can take it upon themselves to fix the mess they’ve made and put the genie back in the bottle. If so, they become Secondary Agents. They’re going to take actions to beat their undead enemy. As long as they’re willing to go on the offensive and be an obstacle, they get to be Secondary Agents.

However, let’s say the PCs choose to go another direction. They just want treasure. They don’t care about innocent people becoming zombie spawn.

In this case, we need a Secondary Agent. I like rivals. So we’ll have a band of NPC adventurers come along and choose to fight the undead. As the PCs seek riches, the NPC rivals will fight, win, get beaten, earn thanks, suffer losses, and keep the wind blowing in the plot’s sails.

However, the PCs’ actions will still affect the Agents. Magic items brought back to town for sale because “they’re only +1” are bought by the rivals or fall into undead hands. Dungeons discovered by the exploring PCs stir up factions that then ally with the strong undead force. NPCs the PCs parley with become the next zombies. And so on.

All this to say, you want to create a series of potential events that take the Primary and Secondary Agents through from adventure start to plot completion. You are not creating a script here, just walking a path to see where it leads.

Doing this gives you a big picture view of things. You might make changes to the characteristics of the Primary Agent or Secondary Agent, for example, to skew towards an idea you have for a fantastic event or outcome.

Gameplay will steer the plot. Use Loopy Planning to keep the plot moving, whether PCs are Agents or not.

This Critical Path Walkthrough gives you a fast and dirty dry run through possibilities, and it’ll help you a lot once the adventure actually begins.

3 Clue Rule

A dependency means X must happen before Y triggers.

The PCs must return to town with skeleton dust. The PCs don’t go back to the dungeon, fluke out, and kill the undead force while it’s still weak. The party learns they are the cause of zombiegeddon.

Those are all examples of dependencies. If we were writing fiction, these would be great. They make great sequences and twists. However, in RPG they are Game Master Traps.

A GM Trap paints you into a corner, forces you into an uncomfortable situations, or trashes your plans.

You need to run through your adventure plans – encounters, events, sequences, hooks, triggers – and ensure they will withstand contact with the players.

One excellent approach is the 3 Clue Rule: “For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.”

Carry the spirit of this technique into all forms of dependencies in your adventure. Give every dependency two other ways of triggering or transforming so the plot can go on.

What if the PCs all fall into a lake on their way back from the initial dungeon because of a random encounter? No dust! So you’d plan two other ways to launch zombiegeddon, ideally via player actions. (While this particular example might be considered railroading, it launches the whole premise for the plot. So you are allowed to make this happen no matter what.)

Use the 3 Clue Rule to make your adventure accountable to possible player actions (or lack of actions).

3 Line NPCs

You know I’m a huge fan of adding NPCs into every corner of an adventure. Faction members, allies, minions, stage bosses, Persons of Interest. You can turn monsters and magic items into NPCs too.

However, we don’t have time to make a whole, fleshed-out roster, at least at first. And we don’t even know yet whether each NPC will trigger or go unused.

Save yourself time by using the 3 Line NPC template to get enough details on key NPCs in your adventure at the start. Then flesh important ones out as needed as the adventure unfolds.

From your bucket list, pick a few critters you want to GM. Some might become factions, others just awesome one-off encounters. You might also create monsters of your own.

Out of this pool of critters, select ones interesting enough to grant the Featured status.

Because, you want to romance the Featured elements of your adventure. You want to build anticipation for them, dread for them, curiosity for them.

Use rumours, clues, and lore in congruent ways during the adventure to build up to encounters with Feature Creatures.

Scrape PC backgrounds or seed them, if possible, for references and stories, and relationships with these monsters.

Refactor your milieu to account for the presence of these critters. Change ecosystems, the terrain, and the history so your Feature Creatures fit like dangerous puzzle pieces perfectly cut for the holes you slot them into.

Likewise, make various locales so intriguing your players will be dying to visit or discover them. Draw them like moths to the Continual Flame torch.

The typical setup for this is to make the place known along with some of its special properties and a hint of reward for those who dare try to find the location. This is an exploration type Featured Location.

However, you get bonus points if you combine Featured Locations with the plot. When your players find out the place they need to go – or the place they’re about to enter right now – is actually one of the locales they’ve been itchin to discover, they’ll be ecstatic.

Mission-Based Encounter Seeds

Speaking of missions, you’ll want to adopt a Combat and Roleplaying Missions framework. This adds so much depth to your adventure, and you can layer it onto practically any adventure you’re building.

Instead of knock down the door, kill the monsters, take their stuff, it’s find the prisoner; fight, trick, or bypass whoever’s in the way; and bring the prisoner back safe and sound.

The players can still kick down doors and take stuff. But there’s more at stake. The whole landscape changes when viewed through the lens of a special objective. Players get into character better, NPCs are parleyed with differently, and the complexion of the adventure changes. (And characters still get to pick up great rewards along the way or for completing the mission.)

Events-Based Encounter Seeds

Our Critical Path Walkthrough gives us the bare bones stepping stones for taking the PCs through an exciting adventure.

Put another way, imagine a room where every floor stone triggers an encounter. But there’s one special sequence of stones that offers the most direct route possible from entrance to exit. Stepping off this path means non-essential encounters trigger. The critical path of stepping stones just ensures it’s possible to get to the other side, and gives you an idea of whether that journey will be interesting.

So everything outside the Critical Path Walkthrough is up for grabs. And again, we want to avoid telling the players what to do.

Events solve our problems here. Events are just situations. We don’t script events, we just trigger them.

A great event formula is to ask: What would happen if _______.

Be specific and detailed in the question. And ensure the question leads to some kind of interaction point with the PCs. Make it a conflict, an exploration or discovery, or a mystery.

What would happen if a fearful village militia of men, women, and children storm the dungeon entrance, hoping to find and kill the undead force?

What would happen if a tornado strikes down on the dungeon site?

What would happen if a troupe of knights rides into town and it looks like they’d be too difficult to fight if they and their steeds turned into zombies?

The beauty of events is you just stage them. Then you play it out to see what happens. No scripting required.

And best case is to use a system like Loopy Planning to discover Event Seeds that emerge from gameplay. Now it all feels connected, deep, and organic.

Meantime, during the adventure planning stage, craft a few Event Seeds to have on hand in case the game stalls.

Back Pocket Encounters

To prevent getting overwhelmed, and to run the game with confidence, have a few drag & drop encounters already built, ready to trigger.

I call these Back Pocket Encounters because you have them there, ready to go, if you get stuck.

For example, if the party does something unexpected, chances are a Back Pocket Encounter can fill in. If you get paralyzed for what to do next, pull out a Back Pocket Encounter to stall for time. If you need a transition encounter to move from one plot point to another, reach for your back pocket. Hell, if you want to stall so the villain can plan something big, go for your array of drag & drops.

3 Secrets & Mysteries

Dark corners make us fearful yet curious. We are compelled to see what’s in them, though sometimes only if we’re armed with swords and sorcery.

Ensure your adventure has some mystery to it. The PCs shouldn’t know everything up front. Otherwise, your story loses its air like a pricked balloon.

Also make sure your players know about the mystery (at the appropriate time). If they do not realize there are secrets to uncover, they’ll never get curious and be drawn towards those umbras.

To make your adventure truly great though, add three mysteries. This gives your players a lot to talk and think about without overwhelming them.


With your Player Kicks Grid created already at the campaign level, draw from this to make moments designed for specific players and characters to shine.

Take advantage of the spotlight when opportunities arise during gameplay, but also plan for some in advance as well, to ensure the crazy disco ball of mayhem hits each player.

Don’t forget that brilliant assists garner worthy spotlight attention too. This gives you more opportunities to let characters shine, especially support types.

The tension builds as the party’s situation gets worse. It all comes down to the fighter killing the last zombie knight. But then the knight lands a telling blow and the fighter falls. The heroes wail because the warrior was the only one who could penetrate the knight’s magical defenses.

But then Donatien the cleric rushes up to heal the fighter. He must risk getting hacked by the zombie knight during his divine casting, but does so, saying his fate is in his god’s hands. The knight strikes true, but Donatien survives the wicked blow and he even manages to channel his diety’s will without interruption. The fighter is magically renewed and the fight continues to the players’ cheers for Donatien the hero.

Graphic of section divider

Ok, we’ll pause here and continue on with Part III next week. Today gives you a couple thousand more words to mull over as you build your adventures, and hopefully some tips to make those adventures great.

Using Pollution in Your Game

From Jesse C Cohoon

Pollution? I can hear you asking, “Why should a real life trouble like that be an interesting hazard in an RPG game?” But if a DM plays it with cleverness, it can turn a hum-drum background element into something exciting, dangerous, and worthy of attention. And we can do this by looking at reasons why your game world might be so polluted and ways such pollution might affect the game.

Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. These contaminants can have technological, magical, or divine causes. Also, components of pollution can be either foreign substances, foreign energies, or naturally occurring contaminants.

Reasons Why Your Game World Might Be Polluted

1. War Of The Gods

Far in the past, a war made an entire region uninhabitable. The force of the gods’ fight so warped the landscape it became alien and it hurts, sickens, or steals the life energy of anyone who dares enter the area.

Likewise, if a god died and fell to the earth, such a body could cause damage to the surrounding area in that the earth was not designed to contain such power. What happens when a person or a group of people could somehow access the power of the dead god? How would their nature be changed? They could take on aspects of the dead god’s ideologies or domain/portfolio, its powers or abilities, or some aspect of its physical nature.

2. Magic Or Science Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong

Perhaps a sorcerer was trying to cast a new spell and the magical energies got out of hand and laid waste to an entire section of land. Similarly, in a science fiction setting, you might have an entire area become uninhabitable due to the release of a biological agent (think mutagen) that warped the life essence of everything. Anything alive that enters the area is affected by what caused the damage after awhile, warping it to its purpose.

Alternatively, a well-known spell could have been cast, but other forces at work caused it to unravel and “go wild.” This resulted in this area where it’s dangerous to cast magic because any future magic will have greater chance of “going wild” than normal, compounding the magical pollution. Even if magic can be cast in such a place, it takes more power.

3. The Result Of A Sacrifice

In C.S Magister’s Trilogy, it’s discovered the Spears of the gods in the Wrath are witches sacrificed (willingly or not) to create a “no man’s land” to protect the rest of the world from the Souleaters. In his series, it takes a special bloodline to even approach these Spears. And those who can are not immune to the nightmares and the extreme sense of unease they cause. Even animals are unwilling to approach them.

In your game, a cult could have sacrificed many people to bring back an evil deity long ago and the horrible results of it are still present to this day. Due to the befouling nature of the summoning magic, priests might find it difficult or impossible to have access to their divine powers.

4. The Results Of Normal Daily Life

Regardless of era, it’s almost impossible not to cause some sort of waste. From cooking fires to biological to driving a car. Even in Star Trek they discussed what the overuse of warp drive technology could do to the fabric of space.

In each case, the warning exists for society to take measures to lessen the damage. For our games, part of the storyline could be trying to make people more aware of how their choices affect the environment and how small changes by everyone can make a big difference over time.

5. The Results Of A Disaster

The modern society we live in has many conveniences: electricity, running water and sewage, natural gas delivery. What happens when the community’s nuclear power plant gets destroyed due to an earthquake and radiation fills the area? What happens when the sewage treatment plant can’t keep up with the volume and releases untreated waste due to flooding? People can get sick and die. If the PCs are in this situation, they may be among refugees, in a group of relief workers, or government officials seeking to assess the damage.

6. The Results Of Nature

Sometimes natural processes create pollution, as in the case of termites, the pollution from which exceeds smokestack pollution. Don’t believe it? Read about it here.

Another way nature could pollute is from ash spewed by a volcano. If allowed to continue, or if the entire top of the mountain gets blown off, it could change the weather patterns in the area for months and years down the line. It’s up to the PCs to investigate what’s going on and what, if anything, they can do to stop it. If natural pollution affects populations of people, it might be up to the characters to move or kill the things making the pollution or find ways of mitigating its effects.

7. Ancient Evil Trapped

J.M. Perkins had an idea of a trapped Tarrasque, whose bodily fluids leech into the ground polluting everything.

This idea harkens back to the ancient Greeks with Prometheus being chained to a rock by the gods for stealing fire and giving it to mankind. An eagle would come and eat his liver, and it would grow back the next day to be eaten again. The chained Prometheus would certainly leach something out into the ground while thus chained.

8. Polluted On Purpose

Sometimes an army will come through an area and salt the ground so enemies can’t use the land to grow food. Taken a step further, depending on the magic or technology level, the ground itself could be rendered unusable for living or even building on.

Perhaps a guild or corporation purposely pollutes the air, water, or ground. Illegal landfills, the detritus of production, and the untreated wastes of the negligent. Communities downstream will be affected. Birth defects, breathing problems, food and water poisoned. For such cases, the characters might need to uncover what’s going on and why.

On the other hand, it could be polluted to make it habitable for some race, but in doing so it becomes uninhabitable for all others. There have been lots of cheesy monster movies where some alien or monster wishes to make a city or the entire planet its new home. If this is the case, it’ll be up to the players and their allies to drive the aliens off.

9. War

Warfare can pollute. During the Vietnam war, the US military used a chemical called Agent Orange to deforest areas. To this day, the aftereffects of this chemical are still being felt by the Vietnamese people in the form of physical and mental birth defects.

In WWII, the atom bomb devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the results of which can still be seen today. Likewise, in a fantasy setting there could be remnants of a spell that have affected the populace of a location for generations.

10. Past Ages

An abandoned civilization or a long lost race could have left things laying around that over time have broken down, thus damaging the air, water, and soil. This can be something as simple as toxic building materials rotting away and damaging the soil.

What caused the civilization to be abandoned? Maybe there was an advancing army and it was easier to flee than to fight. Perhaps the civilization was inefficient or self-destructive and it died off. Maybe another civilization came in and subsumed them, and in the process they moved from the area.

In this situation, the players’ job might be to find out what happened to the civilization and why.

Graphic of section divider

Next time you notice your game’s storyline describes an area that’s been polluted, instead of leaving it as a piece of background information, consider how you might use it to add interest, plot, or purpose to your game.