How I Write an Adventure, part 1 – Introduction

I’ve had a few people ask me, over the years, how to prepare an adventure for a tabletop role-playing game.

For me, an adventure requires four main ingredients: an Objective, a Motivation, three Obstacles, and Supplementary Information.  This post will provide a quick overview of these elements; I’ll be talking about each of them in detail in subsequent blog posts.

Preparing an adventure consists of selecting these four ingredients, then writing it out in a format I can work with.  This is not the One True Way of developing adventures, but it’s the method I generally use, and it works for me.

Some General Observations

  1. A GM deals in problems, not solutions. (Well, okay, they occasionally deal in solutions, but only as a shady side-business.)  These problems can have baked-in opportunities (“That one PC has always wanted to confront her father’s killer, so I’ll have that killer show up in this adventure…”), but your planning should primarily be about what problems the PCs will deal with, not with activities that the PCs will perform.
  2. Players will always choose a path you didn’t anticipate.  If your plan depends on them doing certain things in a certain order, you’re already hampering yourself.  This is the old “no plan survives contact with the enemy” principle.  My setup is very modular, which keeps things nice and flexible.
  3. Players will be confused by things that are obvious to you, and vice versa.  They will see through your fiendish puzzles immediately, but will spend hours walking in circles around your blazingly obvious clue.  I avoid having adventures depend on fiendish puzzles, and when I want the PCs to figure something out, I keep a large supply of clues in my back pocket that I can drop on them, one by one, until they end up on the right track.
  4. If the objective is to the left, and the PCs go right, and going right turns out to be really awesome… consider quietly moving the objective to the right, in the PCs’ path.
  5. Railroading sucks.  It’s sometimes necessary, but it sucks.

Four Ingredients

The four ingredients that make up an adventure are:

  • An Objective – What exactly are the PCs trying to accomplish?
  • Motivation – Why are the PCs trying to accomplish it?
  • Obstacles – What can make the PCs’ task more difficult/interesting?
  • Supplementary Information – What else is likely to come up?

Honestly, those four bullet points are 90% of my message.  The rest is just tips on ways of selecting them such that you make your life easier down the road.


There’s no set order in which to develop these elements.

If it’s an ongoing campaign with established PCs, I might already have useful constraints on the Motivation: if the PCs are heroes with a lust for adventure, I just need a tempting target, and a quiet out-of-character mention that that’s our adventure for the night; if the PCs are students at a magic school, they’re likely to have friends who might come to them for help, and they’ll certainly have assignments, some of which will be adventure-worthy.

Maybe my whole inspiration came from some bestiary entry, in which case the creature described might be one of my Obstacles.  I might start thinking about where the PCs would encounter such a thing (somewhere expected, or somewhere unexpected); in such a case, the location would become Supplementary Information, and I might start thinking about what the PCs might want to accomplish in such a place (Objective) and why (Motivation).

Maybe the players themselves have come to me with a particular goal for their characters, in which case I’ve already got the basis for my Objective and Motivation.

Tomorrow, we start with Objectives.

Con Report: Can-Con 2015

As I type this, I’m at the bus station, ready to head back to Toronto from Can-Con 2015.  Had an absolute blast!

I haven’t been to a lot of cons, and even fewer writer-focused-y cons (just Norwescon 2015), but I had a lot of fun here.  People were friendly and enthusiastic and approachable, and you tended to see the same people over and over (panelists and attendees) in the halls, in the dealer’s room, and in the hotel lounge/restaurant.  Really fun, friendly atmosphere.

One really cool feature of the con was an event-series they called Blue Pencil Cafés – wherein published authors sat down with attendees and gave them constructive critiques of a three-page sample of their writing.  I owe a huge thanks to Leah Bobet, Nina Munteanu, and Marie Bilodeau for their kind, clear, helpful, and enthusiastic feedback.  They gave up good chunks of their con time to help out new, aspiring writers, and gave me a lot of useful guidance.  (Fortunately of the “shift this bit around, and do more of this” variety, and not “Oh God, tear it down and start over”.)

Between Blue Pencil Cafés and visiting family while I was in Ottawa, I only made it to three panels.  How Would We Make the Future Accessible to Disabled People? and Biological Engineering in Science Fiction and Mystery Writing were both great discussions of topics on which I want to learn a whole lot more, and which I think can enrich my writing.  And Contract, Contracts, Contracts – What’s a Good One? was intensely interesting (I genuinely could have happily sat for another hour of that panel) and useful in a rather different way.

Great con; great, great con.

And now, I surrender to the travel gods.