Adventures, modules, scenarios, outlines – whatever you want to call them, curated story structures are as old as RPGs themselves. Recently, I’ve had the privilege to keep busy writing adventures1 for a couple different companies, while simultaneously watching some friends of mine working through published adventures as players and GMs.
This got me thinking.
Thinking about the ways that we create adventures, and the ways that we use them. Thinking about how I, as a writer and designer, can give my audience the best tools possible for what their games. Because let’s be clear on one thing: writing RPG adventures is different than writing video game quests, dialog for stage/screen, or writing fiction - as an adventure writer, I’m not telling a story. I’m giving someone else tools, in the hopes that they’ll be able to collaboratively tell a story with the rest of their group.
But it’s their story, and it’s always going to be their story.
Structures vs. Tools
So with that in mind, why are so many adventures structured like a novel? This isn’t a specific criticism; just an observation, and a question. Published adventures do it, and plenty of GM’s private notes do as well.
Just to be clear, I’m not innocent in this regard – my brainstorming sessions tend to look more like storyboards for teaser trailers, as I think about all the cool, dramatic scenes that are going to happen. Invariably, they go very differently than my plans; thus is the nature of improvisational storytelling. This isn’t a problem – my GMing style is highly dynamic, mostly reactive –I also make detailed plans, but usually throw them out the second my cast and crew take the stage.
I also have what, two decades2 as a performer under my belt at this time? That changes the way I approach things. We all have different experiences, and we use them differently – mine happen to make me prefer improvisation, yours might be different. But regardless of our approaches, when we use a published adventure, we’re looking for something from it. In my experience, that’s usually at least one of these three elements:
- Ideas – something to spark the GM’s creativity
- Overall Structure – a narrative scaffold to hang a game’s events on
- Procedural Elements – ready-made mechanical elements like NPCs and combat encounters
People want different things. One GM might just want to use the combat stats and loot tables, whereas another is just looking for plot hooks to mine, and another wants as much of the “heavy lifting” of running a game done for them, so they can focus on guiding the PCs through a curated experience, and focus on bringing it to life, and making it compelling. There’s no wrong way to do it – GMs will take what they need, and this is right and just.
But as a writer, it causes me to think about the way I present my scenarios. Am I giving my audience – that’s GMs – what they need to do their jobs? How can I do it better?
And that got me thinking about tools.
Adventure Zone Maps
An abstracted method for describing locations, “Zones” show up in a couple different RPGs, but really entered the RPG zeitgeist through Fate, working its way into different systems over time, officially or otherwise. Love’m or hate’m, Zones have shown up as a way of talking about spaces. And like many of Fate’s components, they’re useful in a lot of ways.
One of the cool things we3 do in Infinity is Social Network Mapping. For anyone unfamiliar with the field of Social Network Analysis, it’s essentially the science of how people form, use, and adapt connections with others. It’s great stuff, and forms a basis for how that game’s Psywar (social combat, if you prefer) rules function; think six degrees of separation, and you’re practically there. Anyway, when mapping out a Psywar encounter, you wouldn’t really do a traditional D&D-style grid map, but a list doesn’t work as well either – so we use social network maps. I won’t go into it too much here, other than to say I think it’s super rad, and a great way of thinking about social encounters.
But while putting some of these together, it struck me that there’s a lot of potential as a technique for planning – as well as running – adventures.
The basic idea is simple:
- Create a list of important people, places, events, etc., and put’m in boxes
- Figure out how they connect to each other
- Connect those boxes, adding more bits when necessary
- Congratulations, there is no step 4 – you already have a zone map
So, real quick, let’s walk through this. We’ve got a pretty basic adventure with three set-pieces, a primary villain, and some sandboxy exploration bits in-between. That gives us the following elements:
- A Hub location, such as a city
- Two important NPCs, each with information leading to a set-piece fight
- Two set-piece fights, either of which can lead to the villain
- Said villain
- Our third and final set-piece - the final confrontation with our villain
So our zone map might look something like this:
Looks more or less like a flowchart, right? That’s the idea – one piece leads to another. Each of these can be a scene in its own right, or a piece of a larger puzzle - and that’s where the Zone Map comes into its own.
By treating each element as a zone, you can easily work through the adventure in different ways, zooming in and playing the scene as normal, or “moving through the zones” in a more abstracted fashion. Maybe you want to handle NPC 1 with a simple social roll to get to Fight 1, which you handle in detail. Maybe you then have a long, tense, dramatic scene with NPC2, which is awesome, but takes a while – so you decide to handle Fight 2 as a series of abstracted rolls.
Making some notes, your updated map might look something like this:
Basically, each zone can either be a scene that you play in full resolution, or a challenge that can be bypassed with abstract description and a mechanical check, allowing you to tailor the experience to your style as a GM, the player’s preferences, and outside concerns (like schedules).
Get in the Zone
So that’s the basic idea – by drawing out your adventure as a zone map, you not only make sure that the PCs can get from point A to point B (and can figure out how adapt when (not if) PCs throw your plans or a loop, but you can zoom in and out to scenes as suits what you’re doing – and you can change it up on the fly
Anyway, that’s the idea – feel free to use it when mapping out your own adventures, or converting existing adventures. Next time, we’ll go through an example adventure, from ideas to map!
Be excellent to each other.
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1 – I’m just going to use the word “Adventure” to describe these, but feel free to substitute your terminology of choice in this space. J
2 – It has been brought to my attention that at some point, I got what a young Killstring would consider “old.” This is never not fascinating to me, as I’d never considered it a possibility. But here we are!
3 – To be clear, I wasn’t involved in designing these. I’ll crow endlessly about my accomplishments—real or imagined—elsewhere. I do like them, though!