Worked example, part 1: Developing an Idea
All right, so I’m thinking, I need an adventure.
If you’re stuck for ideas, my absolute favourite method is the Idea Seeds method, detailed here.
But okay, I need an adventure. Let’s say I’m planning on a game set in a fantasy world. Could be Dungeons & Dragons (of any edition), could be Pathfinder, could be Savage Worlds or GURPS. Whatever.
After poking around on the internet and perusing my own bookshelf for a bit, I’m struck by the idea of a game set in the The Frozen North of my world. I imagine a community that survives in impossibly cold climes by means of a powerful magic. This magic, which keeps their land habitably warm, has just gone out! Oh no! I’m envisioning a village that’s barely visible through driving snow.
Now the PCs, as champions of this community, must set out on a quest to renew this magic.
Okay, so we’ve got the basics of an Objective – renew the magic that kept the community habitable. What was this magic? I’m envisioning a torch, set in a statue in the middle of our community. It burns forever, requires no fuel, and keeps the land warm, year round, for leagues around. That torch has gone out, and we need to reignite it or replace it.
A logical way to reignite it would be to go to its original source, so I’ll need notes about what its source was. Are there others like it in other communities? Might the PCs try to steal one from them? Might the PCs go hunting for alternative heat sources? Well, let’s just see what they come up with. For now, let’s at least work out the torch’s original source.
Maybe it was first ignited with the breath of a powerful demon, who slumbers in the heart of a great mountain. Okay, so the PCs could quest up there. They might not. But they could. It seems likely. I’ll have town elders ready with the Legend of the Mountain with the Demon What Lit the Torch the First Time. Cool.
At this stage I’m considering a few questions: Who put the torch out, and why? Why are the PCs the ones going out and dealing with this? And what happens if they don’t go for the mountain?
The first and third question I can sort of combine – if the torch was snuffed by a conscious agency, rather than a random disaster, they’ll likely want the torch to stay snuffed. Okay, so we can use them as a further Obstacle no matter what the PCs get up to. But who is this? I’m going to say some sort of undead antagonist – someone intelligent, angry, and immune to the cold. Probably not a lich – I’m keeping this system-agnostic, but in D&D and Pathfinder and Savage Worlds, at least, liches are waaaay out of a starting party’s league. I’m going to use the term Revenant here, but it could be any appropriately-powerful undead.
And why are the PCs doing this? Let’s say they’re Champions, actual named heroes of the community. I could have made them members of a more specific order, like the Guardians of the Torch or something, but this way I can call on them in future, non-Torch-related adventures.
Worked example, part 2: Laying it Out
Summarize the adventure very briefly, so that someone looking to run the adventure gets a clear idea of what it’s about before they try to process all your more detailed information. This is important to keep you on track as well.
The PCs are Champions of Vlass, a large farming town high in the arctic. Vlass was kept balmy and fertile by the Torch of Tagre. It was first lit with the breath of the demon Iandil, who sleeps in a mountain that bears his name. Budron the Revenant has snuffed the Torch, and now the PCs are called on to reignite or replace it.
Seriously, short. If you can’t do it in under 100 words, your adventure may be too complex.
- The PCs must provide Vlass with a new heat source, which can sustain it as well as the Torch of Tagre did.
- A likely way of doing this is to reignite the Torch of Tagre with the breath of Iandil the Demon, who slumbers at the heart of Mount Iandil.
- The PCs are Champions of Vlass, heroes who have some privileged standing in the community, but also the responsibility to protect it in times of danger. You’ll want to talk about this when you first invite your players to create characters. Talk about Vlass, and tell them that they’ll be its Champions.
- The loss of the Torch of Tagre puts Vlass’s people in mortal danger, and the PCs are called upon to save it.
- If the PCs actually walk into a common area of Vlass, they can encounter a crowd gathering around the doused Torch. If not, they can be sent for.
Obstacle: The Frozen North
- As soon as the PCs go outside, they must deal with severe environmental penalties (appropriate to whatever game system you’re using). Emphasize how severe these penalties are. The players will likely start trying to brainstorm ways to counteract it. Maybe it’ll spawn a small side-quest. This is awesome!
- This Obstacle is not very mobile, but it does cover pretty much all paths. If the PCs plan to step outside at all, they’ll need to deal with this.
- This Obstacle is highly adjustable – you can decide how quickly the Torch’s magic fades, and thus how soon the PCs have to deal with The Cold.
Obstacle: The Hoar-Bats of Iandil
- Mount Iandil is inhabited by nasty winged monsters, covered in white fur and bearing wicked fangs. They’re always hungry, and they’d love to feast on some tasty adventurers. Pick some flying monster from your game system, and use its stats and abilities but re-skin it as these flying horrors. Alternately, pick some monster that you like better, and use them directly.
- The Hoar-Bats will attack the PCs at some dramatically opportune moment. You’ll likely decide at game-time when this is. That’ll depend on whether the players are carrying on interesting roleplay among themselves or not, where you are in your game-session, etc.
- Really, we just need an interesting adversary on the mountain. Could be wildlife, could be demonic children of Iandil, could be the ghosts of people who were once sacrificed to the great demon. Maybe have all of these options happen, one after another or in conjunction together. It’s up to you!
- This Obstacle is very mobile. As long as the PCs intend to go anywhere, you can stick the hoar-bats in front of them.
Obstacle: Budron the Revenant
- Budron was born in Vlass forty years ago. He was an odd one – a recluse. Though not a true magic-user, he was believed a wizard by the simple townsfolk. He was regarded with suspicion.
- Twenty-five years ago, there was a major crop failure. The townsfolk, looking for a scapegoat, decided that he’d cursed their crops. They exiled him to the frozen wilds, beyond the warming light of the Torch of Tagre.
- Budron survived for a surprisingly long time, but eventually succumbed to the cold and starvation. But his rage at Vlass sustained him, and he rose again as an undead avenger, haunting the fringes of the Torch’s warmth, and becoming a figure of whispered legend.
- Pick an undead, cold-resistant monster of a level sliiightly too tough for the PCs to fight. That’s Budron.
- Budron can be used anywhere. If the PCs scale Mount Iandil, Budron can be the final boss awaiting them there. If they decide to go questing somewhere else for some other heat source, he can follow them.
Everything below is Supplementary Information.
The Demon Iandil
- The demon has slumbered inside the mountain that bears his name for aeons.
- He is immense, bestial. There’s one cavern with a vent that leads directly enough down to his chamber. Gouts of flame emerge from it with his slow breathing – these flames can be used to reignite the Torch of Tagre.
- By default, in the course of this adventure, Iandil does not wake. However, if you decide to have him wake, here are a couple of things you could do with him:
- Make him a world-endingly-powerful threat, who must be slain now, while he’s still waking up. Have him smash his way out of the mountain – letting the PCs make appropriate checks and saving throws to get down from the collapsing mountain alive. Pick some stats for him, using a monster from the system you’re using, and declare these to be his “still waking up, weakened state” stats. Gotta kill him now.
- Make him powerful, but not world-endingly powerful. Let him flee, and become a recurring troublemaker in the world – for whom the PCs might feel responsible.
- Town in the Frozen North, hosting about six thousand souls.
- Ruled by a Squire, elected by the townsfolk for a period of ten years.
- Not part of any larger nation, but has numerous trading partners to the south – exports rare furs and hides.
- The town’s patron god is Srame, God of Winter.
- The town, and farmland surrounding it, has long been kept warm by the Torch of Tagre.
- Key townsfolk:
- Kitheny, Squire of Vlass. Human, cis-man, Kinsey 2, married to a human woman. Tall, fat, middle aged, with dark brown skin, straight brown hair, and blue eyes. Prone to depression.
- Gieshu, High Priest of Srame. Elf, cis-man, Kinsey 1, currently single. Pale skin with freckles, tight-curled brown hair, grey eyes. Average height, overweight. Old. Fond of tabletop games. Prone to migraines.
The Torch of Tagre
- Forged by the legendary ethersmith Chenny Sparkfinger, who’s said to have passed through Vlass four hundred years ago.
- Immune to most mundane methods of snuffing flames; no one knows how Budron did it.
- Can be snuffed by being doused in ravens’ blood.
- Can be re-lit by the flame-breath of Iandil.
- Have the cold creep in as slowly or as quickly as you like.
Gatholë the Ethersmith
- Human, cis-woman, Kinsey 3, married to a human woman. Light skin, loose-curled brown hair, hazel eyes. Tall, muscular. Middle age. Lost her teeth long ago; has teeth she forged herself from mithril.
- One of the greatest modern living creators of magical items.
- Gatholë is here to be used in the event that the PCs decide to go looking elsewhere for some substitute magic.
- Lives in a faraway land. You, the GM, can stick Gatholë wherever you like – anywhere in your world that’s interesting and far enough away to be an adventure to reach.
- Can be commissioned to create an item, or series of items, that will warm Vlass. Feel free to make her as cooperative or as ruthless as you like.
Vlassian names: Kud, Bespil, Lamok, Woks, Flindes, Spegan, Nizor, Kwilon
You’ll also want a rough map of Vlass and its surrounds, a map of any sites where you plan to have encounters on Mount Iandil, and a map of the caves leading down to where Iandil’s flame-breath can be found. You’d want to note where Gatholë can be found – i.e. choose another city somewhere in your game world.
And that’s it. My write-ups for adventures I’m planning to run look more or less like the above – without the italicized commentary, anyway. But the key is your preparations started with the key contact-points between the PCs and the adventure – what they’re trying to do, why, and what’s going to try to stop them. Everything else you develop streams back from that, into lower and lower relevance.
For me, once you’ve picked monster-stats appropriate to your particular game system, I’d consider this adventure ready to run.