Tabletop Adventure-Building: Campaigning in the Here and Now

-By Mike

Tabletop RPGs have been my hobby for a long time, and I’ve also always had a certain appreciation for level design, and exploring the topic of creating dungeons, encounters, and challenges in games like D&D or Shadowrun is one of the ways I try to connect with that. Thing is, for my homebrew games I mostly just “wing it,” pulling out the dungeon, the traps, and the encounters in it off the top of my head. Years of practice makes me pretty good at it, such that I’d trust my instincts for building an encounter over the Challenge Rating system in D&D or Pathfinder, but it can be a frustrating and stressful way to run a game, and there’s a lot of things that well-prepared materials bring to the table that can make things feel a lot more engaging. Frankly the best games I’ve ever run tend to be the ones where I supplement my DMing instincts with pre-made adventures, where all my brain power goes to just making the encounters fun or interesting while the module supplies environments, maps, characters, and guidelines that keep me from having to fumble too much.

It seems like it should be easy enough to sit down, walk one’s self through an adventure, and record it for that purpose. Yet, for all the time I’ve spent attempting to write a pre-made adventure myself, I’ve yet to get one to the point where I feel happy with it. Through these blog entries I hope to de-mystify that process for myself as well as anybody else who might be struggling with that concept.

We’ll be starting this off with a little exploration of the concept of planning a tabletop adventure — when it is and isn’t constructive, and why.

The Desired Product

The outcome of creating a pre-published adventure can vary widely in scope and ambition, ranging from Dungeon Crawl Classics’ short-form adventure modules, which mostly just drop adventurers in front of a dungeon and say “good luck,” to Paizo Publishing’s adventure paths for the Pathfinder RPG, which are organized into six-book series that encompass full campaigns. My outlook is that there’s no wrong way to write an adventure provided that it feels like it provides a sufficient sense of structure to keep the campaign going and the necessary information to make you feel like you know how to run it.

For my purposes, though, it’s the Pathfinder adventure paths that I find are most helpful to me for running a game and most engaging for my particular group of players. They tend to resemble what my longer “improvised” games feel like, or what I like to think they feel like, and provide a nice mix of roleplay and strategy-centric material. These, therefore, are the goalpost I usually try and aim at.

The Diminishing Utility of Planning for a Gaming Session

The first problem we come up against in trying to write a module, though, is the diminishing returns of how much planning is actually worthwhile for a game session. Most Game Masters are already familiar with how this works: you can’t plan for the players’ characters or the actions they’re going to take, so to some extent it’s desirable, even healthy, to favor “winging it” over doing too much prep work and getting attached to it.

That’s not quite the source of diminishing utility that I want to address here, though. Something I’ve noticed is that when I’ve got a pre-made adventure written out in front of me, with basically the whole next three to five sessions’ worth of material already planned, somehow that never seems to be an issue. Yet, something that I’ve found is that the longer I give myself to plan, the more likely the plans I come up with will be thrown out or won’t feel worthwhile and the less likely I’ll be able to commit to them.

As an example, for the 5th edition Homebrew campaign I just launched I had a solid three weeks of planning time available, and used all of it — badly. I knew that eventually I wanted to steer the players into a game where they’d be hex-crawling in an unknown region, but for the life of me I couldn’t make up my mind on how to set it up. I’d start solidifying a direction to go in, then second-guess it, then throw out the plan and come up with another one. Sometimes it would be because I didn’t feel like it sounded fun, sometimes I’d feel a bit too boxed-in, sometimes it felt right on the money in roleplay terms but didn’t have enough action for the players. Maybe most frustratingly, in the intervening time between my players creating their characters and us running the first session, sometimes they’d get really really excited and start brainstorming more and more new ideas for background information and lore behind their characters, which would prompt me to re-evaluate everything about how they fit into the first session.

Nothing Beats Creativity at the Table

Eventually, I’ll tell you, I just caved and put the introduction in a tavern the day before a caravan sets out.

¯_(ツ)_/¯

It’s the least creative introduction imaginable. The ultimate D&D cliche. They haven’t touched on more than two thirds of the materials I’d prepped and still aren’t sure what the game is really “about.” We haven’t even busted out the dungeon that I prepared for that session, they spent the whole night just in The Broken Wagon.

But you know what? They had a lot of fun just playing and getting to know their own characters, and nobody hates a good bar. All I had to do was drop them in, prompt them with some NPCs when I wanted to keep momentum going, and set up a bar fight, and they practically made the fun themselves. Each of their characters was fun and found unique ways of surprising everybody at the table, and that’s all that mattered. Meanwhile I sort of “found” lots of really good hooks and ideas right there in the bar that I never would have imagined just writing a summary in a word document. I might’ve started without much of a plot, but now I’ve definitely got one starting to brew — one rooted in ideas and NPCs that the players now have a connection with.

The “Hot Iron” Theory

So, if it didn’t turn out to be a big deal in the end, why, then, did I struggle as much as I did with creating the prep materials in the first place?

Again, I think it goes back to the amount of time I had on hand specifically for prep. Three weeks is a lot of time, and if you aren’t actively running the game then that leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander and for commitment to falter. Everything you write in a doc is, at best, an educated guess about what will make for a fun session, and until you actually run some version of it or another with a live group you have zero feedback to work from, either with respect to the efficacy of your prepared materials for running the session, the satisfaction the players feel with how engaging your challenges and encounters are, or the overall direction and tone of the story at hand. When you create your prep materials the natural instinct is to want to try it out, run it, and get that feedback, but instead you’re on hold.

In summary: guesswork, lack of feedback, and anticipation lead to anxiety, which then results in unconstructive work, second-guessing, wastefully discarded ideas, and finally the whole adventure falling apart before it even starts.

The key to focused adventure prep is therefore to strike while the iron is hot; in other words, to ensure there’s as little turnaround time between prep and playtesting as possible. When a unit of playable material has been produced you should have people playing with it almost immediately to ensure that you can get feedback on it and refine it before interest begins to fade. Note that playing the material is the important part of verifying its viability — other feedback can be useful, but is not a substitute. It exists to be played, and the response from that is what you’re really getting yourself excited to see. One way or another this will ensure that enthusiasm for the intended adventure stays up and that immediate opportunities to expand upon it can be recognized.

This necessarily does not reflect the habits or preferences of a typical once-a-week gaming group. If you played in accordance with the above feedback loop you would be building and subsequently playing if not for a few hours every day then somewhere close to every other day. Instead of playing the adventure with the intent of challenging and surprising a group of players, you’d be doing it with playtest feedback. It’s a mode of thinking where basically everybody at the table is a game master, nobody cares about “spoilers,” everybody can make suggestions or even change the map live, and everybody is open to “re-playing” sections of the module with given adjustments. This is not a method to have a fun time, it’s a method for quality assurance and fast design iteration time.

The Home Alternative: “Immediate Mode” Campaign Design

The closest that a conventional gaming group could get to adapting this “Hot Iron theory” would be to simply, as so many Game Masters phrase it, not overplan. If this is a hobby then it’s supposed to be gratifying and relaxing, not frustrating, so don’t set aside time each day to work on it and don’t put the pressure on yourself to have the entire world built and the whole campaign planned ahead of you. Set aside time during a couple of specific days to work on it, and make one of those the day before hosting the session so that you walk into the session with maximum confidence and enthusiasm. All the other time you could spend on this during the week is just going to be wasted owing to the fact that you aren’t going to have back-to-back playtesting. The anticipation will get the better of you, the anxiety will creep in, and rather than being prepared in excess of the players’ needs you’ll likely end up throwing out a lot of work.

With regards to what’s most constructive to do with the time you do allocate to adventure planning, basically, don’t spend too much time on anything that the players won’t immediately be experiencing in some way. If it isn’t related to the players at all, then whatever it is, it’s probably garbage. Otherwise, the emphasis is on the word: immediate. Map the next dungeon or the next town, make the stats or bios for NPCs that are going to be present and accessible given the players’ current objectives, create sub-systems that the players could possibly be using for the next session. Maybe think about looking ahead one more session just to be prepared in case they go a little faster than you’d think. But if the players are level 1 you probably can’t predict what they’ll be doing at level 10, and probably shouldn’t try to think about it until they are level 10. Otherwise, center your head firmly on something they can do at level 1-3.

Caveats of Campaigning in the Here and Now

There are two significant caveats to bear in mind when adopting this “immediate mode” campaign design method.

First and most obviously there’s no way you’ll reach the level of preparation that a pre-made adventure module entails, being that a pre-made adventure goes about ten steps ahead of where your players are at, not one or two. Thing is, a pre-made campaign is very likely either compiled from a campaign that’s already been finished by someone, with the benefit of a quick tidying up, or else it’s made with the “Hot Iron” method described above, with the benefit of multiple sets of professional-level eyes looking at it and extremely fast iteration time on all its ideas. Either way, the fact that the adventure has been both played and refined well in advance of your experiencing it is the reason why it can have that kind of preparation. That’s what the above methods are both designed to acknowledge.

The second caveat is that thinking in terms of what the players will experience next may be very constructive, but it also doesn’t carry very many affordances to long-term plot hooks or twists so much as a step-by-step story that you experience alongside the players, which means that when you spring them you’re liable to under-prepare or not take as much advantage of them as you might like. “This would have been better if I had maybe introduced this one NPC earlier, or if one of the players had a hook related to it, or if they’d found notes in the bad guys’ hideouts hinting at these things.”

Preparing a good twist in a campaign is a topic that can be explored in a different article in and of itself, but the best advice I think I can give on this is to trust yourself. You’ll probably see the opportunities as they become relevant, either within the “high-level” notes you take for your campaign setting, in NPCs or locations the players have been introduced to, or, better yet, in the information provided by the players themselves. Take note of those opportunities, keep them ready for when the time is right, and when you see it, seize it. You’ll know when that’s going to be better than I can ever tell you!

Closing Thoughts

I’d like to end on saying something schmaltzy and poetic about “letting your creativity flow like water,” but to be honest all of the above mainly reflects observations I’ve made about my thought process and what does and doesn’t work specifically for me as a Game Master trying to transition into adventure writing. In a way this is all just a reminder to myself that I shouldn’t feel stressed building adventures, I should have fun, and as I reflect on what habits have and haven’t been constructive, when the prep is a blast versus when it’s grueling and frustrating, it seems to me that the “Hot Iron” or “Immediate Mode” method just seems to make sense. That goes both for making sure the effort doesn’t get wasted and with respect to having faith in the players. We Game Masters, after all, put so much pressure on ourselves to make the fun, when in reality the players will do a fantastic job making fun for themselves even if what you give them is just a tavern!

So relax! Have fun. And happy dungeoneering!

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