Learning Vocabulary with a Spreadsheet

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the last 15 years or so studying various languages.  Welsh in particular, but others as well.

I’ve experimented with a number of methods for developing vocab.  Usually this involved either physical flash cards, or a flashcard-like system like AnkiWeb (which I highly recommend).

In the last year or so, I’ve developed a method of my own, which uses a spreadsheet.  I use Google Sheets, but it would work just as well with OpenOffice or LibreOffice, or Microsoft Excel.  All but Excel are free.

There are three components to this method: building the spreadsheet, day-to-day use, and daily routine.

Building the Spreadsheet

Create a spreadsheet, with two tabs – one called Words, and one called Quiz.

On Words, you want four headings: the name of your target language, the name of your own language, “#”, and “R”.

Screenshot of the Words tab of a spreadsheet as described, with the middle cropped out so top and bottom fit in a reasonable-sized image.

On Quiz, you want A1 to show you the max value of the Words tab’s column C.  In Google Sheets, this looks like:


In A2 through A11, you want a formula like this:


The references to C2 and C3 should change, row by row, and the reference to A1 should not.  (Hence the dollar sign.)

Now your spreadsheet is ready.

Day-to-Day Use

Keep the spreadsheet handy whenever you’re working with your target language – whether you’re doing actual language lessons, or just reading a newspaper in that language.  Because I’m using Google Sheets, I can just keep a shortcut in my bookmarks bar.

The spreadsheet comes into play any time you encounter a word that you feel the need to look up.

Screencap from the online magazine Golwg360, article “Lleoli drama ddirgelwch newydd yn Sir Gaerfyrddin”, retrieved 2017-04-14

Any time you feel the need to look a word up (whether translating to or from your target language), check the spreadsheet’s Words tab.

If the word is already in your spreadsheet, increment the value in the “#” column (column C).

As an example: I'd forgotten the word "cychwyn", but I see here it's already in my spreadsheet. So I increase the value in the # column, from 3 to 4.
I’d forgotten the word “cychwyn”, but it’s already in my spreadsheet. So I increase the value in the # column, from 3 to 4.

If the word isn’t already in your spreadsheet, add it, and set the “#” column (column C) to 1.  In the “R” column (column D), insert your spreadsheet’s “random number between 0 and 1” function.  In most spreadsheet programs, that’s usually something like “=rand()”.

Example: The word "dirgelwch" (appearing in the article as "ddirgelwch") was not in my spreadsheet. So I add it, set the "#" to 1, and the "R" to "=rand()".
The word “dirgelwch” (appearing in the article as “ddirgelwch”) was not in my spreadsheet. So I look it up in my Welsh dictionary, add it here, set the “#” to 1, and the “R” to “=rand()”.

Repeat this action any time you feel the need to look a word up.

Daily Routine

Okay, so you’ve got your spreadsheet.  You’re recording every time you encounter a word that hasn’t quite stuck in your brain yet.  What are you doing with that information?

Once a day, you do these steps:

First, on the Words tab, select the entire spreadsheet, and sort it – set “#” (descending) as the top-level sorting criterion, and “R” a a secondary criterion.

Image of the sorting screen as it appears in Google Sheets.
This is how the “sort” step looks in Google Sheets.

The words with the highest scores should now appear at the top of the Words tab.

Screen cap of the top of the Words tab of my spreadsheet, with the highest-scoring words at the top.

Where there’s a tie, the order will be randomized (thanks to us including the “R” column as a secondary sorting criterion).

Then, switch over to the Quiz tab.  If all is working correctly, you should see the highest score that any of your words has, and a list of words with that score – up to a maximum of ten of them.

Screenshot of the "Quiz" tab in Google Sheets, showing the top score of 8, and a list of ten Welsh words that have this score. Their English meanings are not shown.

Then, run down this list, and just out loud, say what you think the words mean.  Quiz yourself, using the best of your recollection.  Guess if you have to.

Then, switch back to the Words tab, and check how many you got right.

If you got all of them right: decrement the score for one of them.  Just one of them.

If you got any of them wrong: increment the scores of the ones you got wrong.  Don’t decrement any of them.

As an added aid, after I do the quiz, I take one of these top words, and stick it on a chalkboard in my home.

Photo of a chalkboard on a wall, displaying the words "cynllun - plan, design, pattern".

For the next 24 hours, as I walk around my home, this reminder will be in my field of view.

A few points:

  • The more vocab you’ve already mastered, the less time-consuming this method is, naturally.
  • I’m not shy about including weird, irregular, conjugated forms, or idiomatic fixed phrases, and making them their own line items.  I have phrases like “Dere i ni” (“Let’s, let us…”), and I have an entry for the verb “gadael” (“leave”) and a separate entry for its slightly strange past-tense form “gadawais i” (“I left”).
  • Contrariwise, if I find myself needing to look up one word, and a different word using the same root is already in the word list… I might just increment the one that’s already there, rather than adding a separate entry.  If I encounter “cyhoeddus” (“public”), and I find it’s not in my word list but “cyhoeddi” (“publish”) is… I’ll just increment “cyhoeddi”.  The issue there, after all, isn’t that I was baffled by that adjectival -us at the end, but that I’d forgotten what the “cyhoedd-” root meant.

And That’s It

As much as possible, I do this every day.  It takes five minutes, it targets the words that combine “it comes up often” with “I have difficulty remembering it”, and I find it works really well.


How Do You Solve A Problem Like No Healer?

5e is an especially lethal RPG, even compared to, say, Pathfinder.  One friend dubbed it “rocket tag”.

The game definitely assumes you have a healer in your party.  Which is a problem when you don’t.  I’ve played in parties with no healer, and we feel the difference.

So what do you do?

What’s wrong with high lethality?

Let’s take a step back.  Why is this potentially a big deal?  Here are a few issues we run into with a high lethality game (and some potential mitigating factors):

1. You miss out on a lot of the game.

Whether you’re lying unconscious waiting for the fight to end, so you can take an in-character rest and recover health naturally, or you need to wait for next session to introduce your new, new, new character, a high lethality game can turn you into a spectator for a lot of your own RPG.

For some games, this isn’t far off from standard operating procedure.  Maybe you have backup PCs up your sleeve, so you don’t need to go away and spend a few hours rolling up a new one.  Maybe you’re a group that routinely splits the party, so there’s already an expectation of some spectating built in.  But for a lot of games and a lot of groups, this is a problem.

2. It hurts the chargen-to-roleplay ratio.

You’re here to roleplay.  The prototypical activity of a roleplaying game is speaking and acting as your character.

Now, in practice, there are all sorts of ancillary activities that go with an RPG, and often these ancillary activities are part of the game’s pleasures.  Chief among these activities is, of course, character creation.

But the default assumption is that you’re mostly here to roleplay, and that any factor that shifts the emphasis away from roleplaying needs to at least be carefully examined.

Guess what high lethality does.

Now, again, that’s not necessarily a problem.  Some people relish the process of character creation enough that they’re perfectly happy rolling up a new character every other session, or every fifth session, or whatever it ends up being in your game; they may well have a stash of characters created “on spec”, and are ready to whip out a new one whenever the old one dies.  And maybe you’re playing with a system that makes character creation trivially fast.  But unless you’ve got these mitigating factors in abundance, time spent on character creation can start to feel like wasted effort.

3. It hurts narrative continuity.

You’re on a quest to save a character who’s one PC’s father, and another PC’s mentor… until both of those PCs die.

You’re trying to find a cure for a particular PC’s illness… until that PC dies.

You’re trying to help a PC comrade fulfill an oath… until (say it with me now) that PC dies.

Not every quest is about destroying the One Ring, or bringing down the Galactic Empire – quests that are of value to tremendous numbers of people, and hence fodder for more heroes than just the few in your party.  Some quests are inexorably tied to one or more specific PCs in your campaign, and if that PC dies, what happens to the quest?

And if this happens over and over again, what happens to the campaign?

4. It hurts player engagement.

I briefly ran a game using a published campaign that was written by the game’s developer, and was meant to be “the” published campaign for that system.  It had a long, involved chargen system that involved developing the families of each of the PCs in parallel, building up histories, and generating homes for all the characters.  We spent weeks creating those characters.

The first die-roll killed a PC.

The moment it happened, the air was sucked out of the room.  Feedback from players was immediate – how am I supposed to develop an attachment to a character who isn’t going to be around for long?

In some games, you get around this by downplaying engagement with individual characters.  Maybe individual characters are supposed to be somewhat disposable, and it’s an organization or a family that matters.  Maybe it’s a game about an imperishable being who possesses individual hosts from adventure to adventure, or who reincarnates.

But in a lot of games, you’re trying to really sink your teeth into a single, individual character, who can die.  And if they die a lot, that becomes hard.

5. Losing your character sucks.

Seriously, losing your character sucks.

Some games are optimized for high lethality

King Arthur Pendragon gives you a whole family, from which to draw player-knights.  Paranoia gives you a creche of six clones – a PC and five backup copies.  They definitely have high lethality and high character turnover baked in.

So what do you do for a party with no healer?

But, assuming you’re playing a highly lethal game, where the lethality is meant to be balanced by a healer and you have no healer, what do you do?

A few options for dealing with a lack of a healer in a high-lethality game:

1. Add an NPC healer.

There are so many ways to go with this.  The players could design this character.  They could take turns playing them, or leave it up to the GM.  The character could be a quiet placeholder, or a font of personality.  They could be usefully tied to the plot of the adventure, or simply be an arbitrary hireling.  They could be seamlessly competent, or a boat-anchor who provides healing, but creates their own complications.

2. Add a magic item that simply stands in for the healer.

Give the PCs a magic item that very simply does the job of a healer.  Give it a certain number of healing charges – whatever is appropriate for your system and level – and have it recharge each day at sunrise.  It can fill the gap left by a party healer without completely de-fanging the dangers the GM throws at them.

Like the NPC healer, it can be as simple or as flavourful as you like (as with any magic item).  Is it mysterious in origin?  Is it the result of a delve into an ancient, abandoned city of wonders?  Was it wrenched from the hand of a slain demigod?

3. Add a magic item that stands in for the healer, but with nothing simple about it.

As above, but with complications.  I’ll provide a few examples at the end of this post.

4. Just live with it.

In most games, and certainly in 5e, healing is available even in the absence of a healer.  Healing potions and first-aid kits can do a lot of the work of the healer.  It’s just that these options consume resources (money, ability slots) that could have been used for other things.  It stretches the party’s resource budget further.

A knock-on effect from such a strategy is that the PCs will need to be more cautious.  They’ll have to be smarter about what risks they take.  Maybe this is a good thing – maybe it leads to more cunning, careful operations, that are less focused on open combat.  I’m sure more than one gaming group has drawn influence from Ocean’s Eleven or Rainbow Six or Leverage.

But maybe it’s a bad thing.  I get leery when a game tells me it’s making things more dangerous, or hiding information from me, with the specific intent of making me more cautious.  If I want a scenario where I have to take smart risks and avoid danger, I have real life for that.

5. Have the GM adjust treasure accordingly.

Basically, the “just live with it” option, but where the GM either scales up the party’s treasure finds, or makes sure to include more consumable healing items among said treasure.

6. Give the party a sponsor.

If the PCs work for some sponsor, with a large store of resources, that sponsor can provide them with supplies for their quests – including healing supplies.  The PCs can operate on behalf of a local monarch or noble, a society of adventurers or do-gooders, or a professional army.

A few flavourful options

Here are a few magic items that could stand in for a healer, but which are anything but simple.

The Surgery Spider

This device is a mechanical spider the size of a large dog.  It’s made of brass, and it has tiny, needle-like manipulators at the ends of four of its eight limbs.  When it encounters an injured sapient being, it will go to work right away trying to heal them.

The Surgery Spider is paired with a small brass ring, and it will follow whoever wears the ring.  But the spider has no particular allegiance, and doesn’t know friend from foe – it will treat any injured sapient who is nearby.  It’s an adept climber, and can climb most vertical surfaces with ease.  It can’t be given orders, and hence can’t be commanded to (say) ferry PCs up to the top of a cliff.

The Surgery Spider was built by a team of royal artisans, in an ancient Elven kingdom hidden deep in a forest where few now dare go.

The Rattle of Kazinza

The rattle is made of seashells tied to what appears to be a shinbone.  It’s activated by shaking.  The rattle knows the difference between deliberate shaking and incidental jostling (as in someone’s pack).

When activated, the rattle summons Kazinza, a mysterious cloaked figure.  Kazinza stands in a self-generated cloud of shadow, and is entirely covered except for green eyes that glow within a drooping cowl, and a short snout full of jagged fangs.

Kazinza will heal any living party member up to full health.  In return, the patient must give up a key body part – a tooth, a finger, or an eye.  It’s up to the GM to determine at what point these amputations lead to mechanical penalties.

If ever Kazinza is summoned, but no one offers up a body part, the rattle will dissolve, and Kazinza will depart and not return.

The Concordian Diadems

The Concordian Diadems are a set of silver circlets, each set with relief images of ants crawling along their length.

If a group of characters wear the circlets on their heads, they form a bond, pooling their hit points.  Injuries taken by any member of the group cause the pool to lose hit points, instead of any one individual member.  As long as there are hit points left in the pool, all members of the group stay alive and conscious.

If a member of the group removes their diadem, they leave the bond.  They take hit points from the hit point pool equal to their maximum total, or to whatever is currently left in the pool – whichever is lower.

How about you?

Have you played in a high-lethality game where you had to deal with the lack of a healer?  Did you find it was a problem?  How did you handle it?

GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

All of my GMing rules posted so far are collected here.

GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

PCs and Protagonists

In every story, the hero struggles.  Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself.  This is as true in wars between demigods as it is in an English country veterinarian’s memoirs.

In an RPG, though, that protagonist is a player character – with a player behind them.

That player is a real person, and that real person is investing real time in the game.  It behooves a good GM not to waste that time.

One particularly conspicuous way of wasting that time is for the GM to allow the players to spend time and energy struggling toward a goal, and then invalidating that struggle.

Denied Results

There are two main forms I see invalidation taking.  In the first case, the GM inflicts failure on the players, no matter what ingenuity or determination the players bring to bear.

This happens when the GM sets up a plot that can only advance if the players fail – a plot that halts if the players ever succeed.  A Lost or a Star Trek: Voyager, or a Gilligan’s Island, where every adventure is an attempt to get home, but where the simple math of the premise demands that all of these attempts fail.

I’ve seen this structure in RPG sourcebooks.  I have a sourcebook ready to hand that outlines a campaign about the approach and confrontation of a mighty and terrible evil.  Every adventure in this campaign is about some antagonist taking steps to advance the evil’s approach, and every one of these adventures requires the players to fail to stop these antagonists – or the campaign is over.

At every step, no matter how cunning or steadfast the players, they are guaranteed to fail.  Their efforts are wasted.

Denied Causes

The second case is where the GM allows the players to succeed, or to come close to succeeding, and then reveals the players’ cause to have been a hateful one.

There’s a video game I could name, wherein the player’s objective is to rescue the player character’s girlfriend from a distant castle.  At the end of the game, it’s revealed that the girlfriend is the PC’s ex, and she’s been actively trying to get away from him.

Again, the players’ efforts are wasted – wasted and soured.  You’ve just taken all of the time and energy the player put into that goal, and made it retroactively un-fun.

Frustration vs. Invalidation

I’m not saying don’t make things difficult for the players.

Knock them into pits, so they can fight their way back out!  Set them up against unbeatable odds, and then see how they beat them anyway.  Put the goalposts on the damn moon, and hand the players half a roll of duct tape and an empty egg-carton to get them started on a rocket.

Make them struggle.

But don’t waste that struggle.

GMing Rule #2. You are not here to tell your story.

All of my GMing rules posted so far are collected here.

Rule #2. You are not here to tell your story.  You are here to enable the players to tell their stories.

“Game Master”, usually abbreviated “GM”, is a generic term.  Some games actually use this term, while others choose something more idiosyncratic – “Dungeon Master” or “Keeper” or “Referee”.

A few games – especially games that came out of White Wolf – use the term “Storyteller”.  And I cringe every time I hear it, because it puts exactly the wrong perspective on the role.

A GM isn’t a story-teller.  They’re a story-enabler.  They’re a story-facilitator.  They’re a story-cultivator.

As a GM, you’re here to create a space, where a whole spectrum of stories are possible.  You’ll set most of the parameters for that spectrum – through the setting you select or create, the NPCs you employ, the obstacles and objectives you put in place.  But the unpredictable back-and-forth between you and the PCs is what determines, in the moment, what story actually happens.

If you have a particular story you want to tell, awesome!  Go write fiction.  If you want to GM, you need to abandon the idea of telling a particular story.

Because the PCs are going to do something else.  Whatever particular story you have planned, the PCs are going to do something else.  And maybe it’ll only diverge a little from your prepared story, or maybe it’ll have nothing to do with your prepared story.

When that happens, they’re not “messing up your story”.  They’re telling a story that isn’t the one you prepared, and they might be playing a game that isn’t the game you wanted to be playing.  In which case you maybe need to have a chat with your players about what kind of game you and they want to be playing, so that you can find the overlap and go to there.

Chat with your players about what they and their characters want.  Find or create some neat toys – setting, characters, treasures, monsters, wonders – that you’re going to enjoy playing with, that fit with those desires.  Then turn the players loose among these toys and see what stories they create.

GMing Rule #1. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.

This is the first of what’s intended to be a semi-regular series of posts, about my rules of running a good RPG.

Rule #1. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.  This is the only valid test for whether you’re doing it right.

This is the most basic, and most important rule.  It trumps all others – both the rules printed in your game’s sourcebooks, and the rest of my own GMing rules.  All other rules are ultimately aides to adhering to this first rule.

This rule has a couple of key corollaries:

Rule #1a. If someone’s not having fun, you need to investigate.

The fundamental purpose of a game is to have fun.  If there are people at the table who aren’t having fun, then the game is failing at its basic function.

It might be that not everyone is on the same page about what sort of game you’re playing.  It might be that someone’s not happy with how something turned out – does something need to be retconned, or compensated for in future?  Maybe someone wants more (or less) combat, more (or less) intrigue, more (or less) romance.  Maybe someone’s character has a cool ability that they’re excited about, but they’re not getting to use.  Maybe the players have different comfort thresholds for violence, or sexual innuendo, or even foul language, and the game is tromping all over someone’s boundaries on that score.

No one should be in the position of enduring the game – if someone’s not eagerly looking forward to each game session, then you should investigate.

(How to facilitate communication on everyone’s satisfaction, how to avoid such problems and how to solve them, is a whole discussion on its own.)

Rule #1b. Don’t worry about any external notion of how the game “should” be.

The game should be how you and your players want it to be.  No one else’s opinion on the subject matters.  Changing rules, adding exceptions to rules, ignoring rules, or adding rules – these are all fair game, if they’re what everyone at the table wants.  Likewise, changing elements of the setting, if you’re working with a published setting.

This point holds a particular relevance for new gaming groups – new players, and new GMs:

Sometimes, people see RPGs (usually Dungeons & Dragons, in my experience) at a distance, are intrigued, but don’t have access to an established gaming group.  So they get their hands on the sourcebooks, gather some friends, and start playing, with no one bringing any prior RPG experience to the table.

And in some cases, though those groups are having fun, they worry – sometimes out loud, sometimes on the Internet – that they’re not doing it right.

Are you having fun?  Then you’re doing it right.  Even if you’re getting the rules wrong.  Even if you’re ignoring the rules.  The rules are there to help you meet the goal of having fun.  If you’re having fun, then that goal is met.

How I Write an Adventure, part 6 – Putting it All Together

So I’ve talked a lot about four main ingredients for adventures: an Objective, a Motivation, three Obstacles, and Supplementary Information.  Let’s see how they all fit together.

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.


How I Write an Adventure, part 5 – Supplementary Information

Confession: this category is pretty broad.

For a lot of GMs, especially new GMs, one issue they run into is they worry they won’t prepare enough.  They don’t know where the line of enough is, and they’re afraid they’ll find out in the middle of a session.

And I can’t give you a definite answer to that.

But we’ve gone over the true essentials – the Objective, the Motivation, and the Obstacles.  If you have those things, you have an adventure.

This category, Supplementary Information, is a catch-all for any information you need to support the above.

1. There are lots of kinds of Supplementary Information.

The kinds of things you might want to prepare are almost endless:

  • Notes and maps of places the PCs are likely to visit
  • Notes about organizations the PCs are likely to interact with – including names of a few key members they’ll run into.
  • Stats for NPCs whose stats will actually matter.  (Which NPCs’ stats actually matter?  Very few.)
  • Notes about any McGuffins the PCs will be questing after, including their appearance, strange properties, and maybe their histories.
  • Useful resources, which can help if the PCs get stuck – individuals and organizations.
  • A list of ready names that are appropriate to the culture where the game takes place.  These are for in case you need to make up NPCs on the fly.
  • Briefings and descriptions – either notes, or full-on box text.
  • Random Encounter Tables, in case you need to spruce a stretch of the adventure up with some danger.
  • Maps!

A key word here is might. These are things you might want to prepare, because…

2. Focus on the things that give you the most bang for your buck.

When deciding what information to prepare, focus on items that are:

  • Likely to come up.  If the Objective is at the bottom of a dungeon, you need a map of that dungeon.
  • Difficult to make up on the spot.  Planning on the PCs finding a prophecy in rhyme?  That’s worth prepping beforehand.
  • Difficult to keep straight in your head.  I once ran an Exalted adventure that hinged on the rotation schedule of the various legions that made up a small city-state’s army.  Yeah, it only got less and less coherent as the adventure went on.  Organizational structures are another prime candidate here.

3. Don’t fall into rabbit-holes.

You’ll want to develop a nose for what takes lots of time versus what’s going to come up.

I mentioned organizational structures.  It’s maybe worth noting that the raiders are the 88th Company, under Captain Aurelius Coldwater, with platoons under lieutenants Zebediah Fink, Shendah Lionel, and Marissa Darcy.  It’s worth mentioning they wore uniforms with long red coats.

Is it worth working out the identities of their upper command structure?  Or what their various ranks and insignia are?  Well, maybe.  A bit.  If they’re going to be a constant presence in the campaign, over the course of several adventures, and if the players are going to be delving into their organization.

4. You don’t have to have it all ready.

If you run out of highway…

…if you hit an area where you’re really not prepared, and you aren’t feeling up to making it up on the fly, and you don’t have anything ready at hand you can steal, and you can’t turn it around on the players to have them make something up…

…then there’s no shame in calling a halt to the game session.

“Arright; let’s cut it here, folks.  Bit of a short session, I know, but I want to prepare this next bit properly.”

For that matter, you can put a pin in things.  Sometimes you can say to the players, “He tells you Doctor Worldsplicer’s schedule, and sketches a quick map of the hospital,” and then tell them you’ll supply them with that schedule and that map some time after the game session.

You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to be seamless.

5. You’ll get better at this.

The more games you run, the more adventures you run, the better a sense you’ll develop for what to prepare, and where to draw the line.

Tomorrow, we’ll pull it all together.  I’ll show you what it looks like when I lay it all out, with a complete example.

How I Write an Adventure, part 4 – Three Obstacles

So you know what the PCs are trying to accomplish, and you know why.  Now you need to make that difficult interesting.  And we do that with Obstacles!

1. Obstacles are anything interesting that will prevent the PCs from accomplishing their Objective.

Obstacles can be anything – monsters, enemy agents, traps, hostile terrain, puzzles, walls, unendurable weather, curses, diseases, disguises, bureaucracy, organizational schisms.  Anything that could prevent the PCs from accomplishing their task, and which you believe will be fun and interesting for them to contend with.

2. Each game suggests particular kinds of Obstacles.

The genre of game will suggest certain kinds of Obstacles.  In Dungeons & Dragons, you expect terrifying monsters, evil wizards, and fiendish traps.  In In Nomine, you expect angels and demons operating as covert agents – both agents from the other side, and rivals within your own side.  Mouse Guard, you expect inclement weather and wild animals.

Nothing stops you from going outside these suggestions, but you’ll want to think hard for a few moments before you do so.  Here’s why: the Obstacles are a huge part of what sets one game’s adventures apart from another’s.

You can absolutely pit your D&D party against social taboos and bureaucratic entanglements, and have your In Nomine group delve into ancient crypts and slay monsters.  And some groups will love that!  But some groups will complain that “This doesn’t feel like D&D.”  And they’ll have a point.

I’m not saying don’t do it, but consider that angle, and your particular players’ expectations of the game, before you do so.

3. Obstacles can be tied to the Objective, to the PCs, or to the road between them.

PCs tend to run into Obstacles for one of three reasons.

Sometimes the Obstacle has it in for them, and them in particular.  Maybe they have prices on their heads, or some particular NPC wants revenge on them.  Maybe the villain knows they’re coming, and has sent agents to hunt them down before they can become a problem.  Whatever it is, it sticks to the PCs.  It’s after the PCs.  They are the reason it’s in play.

Sometimes the Obstacle is intimately tied to the Objective.  The treasure is surrounded by traps and puzzles, at the bottom of a dungeon full of monsters.  The villain lives in a sprawling castle, full of bodyguards and magical defenses.  The Holy Grail looks like any other cup.  These are all Obstacles that are innately tied to the Objective itself.  They stick to the Objective; they’re often created by the Objective.  They’re not tied to the PCs, or particularly aimed at them; they’re just there to meet all comers.

Sometimes the Obstacle is just along the way.  The Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride and the Space Slug in The Empire Strikes Back are both good examples of Obstacles that are just along the way.  They’re not tied to the PCs or to their Objective; they just happen to be near the road the PCs take.  I recommend caution when including Obstacles of this kind – it’s very easy for the PCs to just miss them altogether.  You’ll need to make them flexible, so they can be used even if the PCs choose an unexpected mode of transport, or call on an unexpected resource.

4. Obstacles should be mobile, or cover all paths.

All right, I’ve been itching to tell this story, and I think this is the place for it.

In a Pathfinder campaign I ran years ago, the PCs were students at a magic school in Absalom, the huge city at the center of the known world.  I had an NPC who was a school chum of theirs come to them for help.  He’d effectively dropped out several months back, but hadn’t bothered informing the school or his parents of this fact, and had been living on the money his parents sent him for school.  He’d just gotten word that the school was finally going to terminate his enrollment – and send a letter to his parents to this effect.  He wanted the PCs to stop the letter from reaching his parents.

So, I figured the two likeliest options for the PCs were (1) intercept the courier carrying the message, or (2) break into the school’s admin office, and modify or destroy their friend’s records, to prevent the letter from being sent.  For the former, I statted a courier, and gave her some interesting magical defenses, and I picked a few vermin for the PCs to encounter while chasing her through the streets.  For the latter, I found a nice office map to use for the school administration building, and threw in some security measures and potential witnesses.

The PCs chose (3) trick their friend into murdering his own parents, then “resurrected” them for him by hiring a couple of doppelgangers to impersonate them, so the PCs could take advantage of the parents’ wealth.

Yes, this party turned out to be pretty evil, and we can have a conversation about the implications of such a roleplaying decision, but my point is: these Obstacles were each tied to only one path, and couldn’t really be moved to a different path – and so when the PCs picked a path I hadn’t thought of, I was left with nothing to impede them.  And from an adventure-flow perspective, that turned out to be fine.  They set their own new objective from there – don’t get caught – with its own implicit Obstacles.

Traps guarding the treasure chamber, and fortifications around the villain’s home, are Obstacles that do a pretty good job of covering all paths.  I mean, the PCs will find ways to circumvent them – that’s what PCs do – but that’s fine.  I call that “solving” them, and consider it a successful outcome for the adventure.  The PCs won’t accidentally pick a path that just renders them irrelevant.

Roving monsters, hired assassins, guardian constructs, the villain’s bodyguards, and of course the villain themself, are all very mobile Obstacles.  With mobile Obstacles, you can move them around in response to PCs’ decisions.  Again, the PCs will find ways to overcome them – that’s good; that’s the point – but they won’t casually render these Obstacles irrelevant with their choice of plans.

5. Three Obstacles seems to work well.

I find prepping three Obstacles – rather than two or four – works best for me.  It tends to give me adventures that are of the right size.

I make them all different – some mobile and some covering all paths; some tied to the PCs and some tied to the Objective; etc.  In an ideal world, all of your Obstacles would be mobile enough or universal enough that they would apply no matter what the PCs do.  In practice, not every Obstacle you concoct will fit every situation, so you want some variety so that that unexpected left turn is unlikely to invalidate all of your Obstacles.

6. It’s common to quietly add or remove Obstacles on the fly.

Of all the elements in an adventure, the Obstacles are the ones I’m most likely to modify on the fly.  Sometimes a section of your adventure will turn out to be unexpectedly flat, so you’ll want to throw in a guardian monster or magical barrier or natural disaster.  Sometimes you’ll decide no, no, we’ve had like five combat sessions in a row; maybe I’ll hold off on dropping that other monster on them.

Tomorrow, the most nebulous element: Supplementary Information!

How I Write an Adventure, part 3 – Motivation

So, we’ve taken an overall look at my process for adventure construction, and we’ve drilled down a bit on Objectives.  Now let’s talk about the next element: Motivation.

1. You need to know why these characters are doing this thing.

In its most basic sense, the Motivation is an answer to this question: Why are the PCs attempting this task?  Before you can run your adventure, you need to be able to answer this question.

It breaks down into several ancillary questions: Why are they working together on it?  Why isn’t someone else taking care of this?  Why is the task still around now, rather than being completed by someone else before now?  How do the PCs know about this task?

You don’t need concrete answers to all of these questions, but the more you answer, the more complete your Motivation is.

2. Your players want to go on an adventure.

Your players came together to game with you because they want to come together to game with you.  For the most part, they won’t be looking for ways to get out of going on an adventure – they’ll be looking for reasons why their character would go on the adventure.

They’ll work with you.  Talk to them – about what they want out of this adventure, and about some of the things you’re hoping to do with the adventure.  A little shared understanding will make developing a compelling Motivation a lot easier.

I’ve seen a gaming group roll up characters independently, and seen the GM’s eyes look slightly wild as he started to flail for some reason for us to be adventuring together – only to have the players cheerfully bail him out with “Let’s just assume we’re an established party, and we like adventuring together.”

It’s cool, man – we want to do this.

3. In a new campaign, there are two main variables: the Motivation, and the PCs.

You can tailor the Motivation to the PCs, you can tailor the PCs to the Motivation, or you can land somewhere on the spectrum in between.

Let me show you a few examples:

  • You open the adventure with the PCs being sucked from their mundane lives and dropped into some horrible extradimensional prison cell.  Their Objective is to get free, and get home.  The Motivation is pretty close to universal: you want to stay alive and you want to get home.  You can usually count on PCs having at least those desires – and cases where they don’t will be rare enough that you can handle them on a case-by-case basis.  You hated your home?  This is your chance to go find a new one – once you get out of this cell.
  • You plan to run a game set at a magic school, in a huge city in a fantasy setting.  You ask the players to roll up characters who’re students in good standing at this school.  Now you can make adventures into class assignments, have schoolmates come to them for help, or threaten their enrollment at the school.  Motivations become real easy – Your friend asked you for help or This is an assignment.  This works for almost any hierarchical organization.
  • Your game is going to be about a a menace, or series of menaces, to a particular settlement – a town, a village, a castle, a sprawling metropolis, a space station, whatever.  You can ask your players to create characters who are willing to struggle and risk danger to protect the place.  Their Motivation for adventuring becomes Because the village is in danger.

Part of what’s going on there is you can basically offer the players a premise, and they’ll make up their own Motivation.

The key is to communicate and discuss your requirements before the adventure starts.  Get in there with the premise about an order of patriotic heroes before one of your players conceives of and falls in love with the idea of playing an anti-government guerrilla.

I’ve seen GMs struggle because they don’t know they can tailor the PCs to the adventure.  They jump through all kinds of hoops to find that one hypothetical Motivation that’s guaranteed to hook every conceivable PC – not realizing they can just say “You’re all going to be members of this cult / resistance / magic school / circus / family / space navy / divine bureaucracy.  Please roll up your characters accordingly.”

4. Talk to your players before you do too much work.

As much as players are willing to develop their own Motivations (and they usually are), some premises will just not work for some players.  Sometimes players will come back with “I’m not interested in that premise,” or “I’m not comfortable playing a character like that.”  And that’s fine!  RPGs are a huge time and energy investment; it would be unreasonable to ask players to play in a game that’s uncomfortable or uninteresting to them.

If  you’ve got a huge pool of potential players, you can announce your premise and requirements and say “Who’s interested?”

But if you’ve got a set gaming group, it’s not a great plan to develop a whole adventure (or a whole campaign) that hinges on players playing a certain kind of character, only to have one of your players announce they’re not on board.  Talk to them first, and then do the work.

5. In an established campaign, the PCs are usually set, but tailoring the Motivation becomes much easier.

If this adventure isn’t the first in your campaign, then a few things are already in place – you’ve already got at least part of a setting, you’ve got some history, and you’ve got your PCs.

On the one hand, there’s less room to tailor the PCs to the Motivation.  The PCs are already set (give or take a player or two wanting to trade theirs in, or turnover in the actual group of players).

Fortunately, you likely have some idea about who these PCs are and what they want out of life.  It becomes a lot easier to predict what sort of adventure they’ll go for.  Suddenly you can go “This group is all about money, so I’ll dangle some treasure in front of them,” or “This group really hates demons, so let’s introduce a few.”  Did a hated enemy get away during the last adventure?  Dangle that enemy in front of them.  Did they develop a bond with some particular NPC?  Have that NPC call on them for help.

What’s more, they’ll likely have developed a bond amongst themselves – you won’t need a carefully-crated Motivation for all of them.  Just for one of them.  The rest will come along, because they want to help their friend and ally.

Tomorrow, we move on to Obstacles!


How I Write an Adventure, part 2 – Objective

Last time, we introduced my four elements of adventure design: Objective, Motivation, Obstacles, and Supplementary Information.  Today, we’re going to delve into the first of these: Objective.

In your adventure, what are the PCs trying to accomplish?

Put another way: how do we know when the adventure is over?

1. The Objective is a simple, well-defined end-condition.

Retrieve the royal seal from the evil wizard’s tower.

Stop the spy from reaching his home planet with the key to the superweapon.

Break the curse that afflicts the land.

When the Objective is accomplished, unless the PCs have obvious unfinished business, the adventure is over and it’s time to move to denouement and planning the next adventure.

2. You can move the goal posts.

It’s common for the Objective to change to “get out alive” partway through the adventure. This is totally cool.

Likewise, sometimes the players will pick their own Objectives.  They’ll say, “Actually, I think the villain has a point.  I’m going to go champion her cause at court,” or “Y’know, we were going to bring the McGuffin back to the Temple, but I think those people in that village there need it more.”  This is awesome.  It means the players are engaging with the story, and with the setting.  Run with it!  (You might need to end the session early to prepare new material, but it’s worth it.)

3. The Objective should have lots of potential solutions, rather than one obvious, best solution.

I refer to this as the “snake in the pond” principle, after the Aesop fable wherein a bunch of frogs in a pond ask Zeus for a king, and he responds by throwing a water-snake into the pond, which begins eating them.  Maybe some of the frogs hide, maybe some flee onto land, maybe some try to fight the snake.  There are lots of possible ways of dealing with the problem, and it’s up to the PCs to come up with one they like.

Your job, as the GM, is to throw a snake in the pond.  Get them scrambling.  Give them something to Deal With.  Your job is not, in general, to give them a way to deal with it.

That said…

4. You should think of some ways to accomplish the Objective.

Yes, the players will do things you don’t expect.  If you think of Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, the players will come up with Plan Þ.  It’s the nature of things.

But you should still at least have a vague idea about a Plan A, B, and C, so that:

  • You know the Objective is probably achievable.
  • You know that there are multiple reasonable solutions, so you’re not going to be railroading.
  • You’ll have multiple angles to keep in mind when you concoct your objective, so that you don’t accidentally fall into railroading.

Again, don’t assume the players are going to use any of these ways, but brainstorming a few of them will give you a fighting chance of being prepared for the one they do take, and it’ll help you keep your preparations broad.

Tomorrow, we look at Motivations.