Recipe for Adventure

Hey, game masters, ever wonder what the heck you’re going to run next game? Sometimes a little research can make it all come together. For what it’s worth, he’re how I made my last adventure.

Start with an Idea and an Internet Search

Throw your idea into a search engine and see what comes up. Or just jump right to Wikipedia and start your search there.

My idea: Nicolas Flamel, alchemist. NicholasflamelI knew he was a big name in alchemy and used in a number of fictional works (Harry Potter for one). Wikipeida tells me more.

I find that according to legend he A: Discovered the Philospher’s Stone and B: Found the secret to eternal life. What’s not to like about that?

There’s a bit about his gravestone and where he was buried in Paris. More research finds that the graveyards of Paris were all dug up and the bones of SIX MILLION PEOPLE put into catacombs, really old limestone mines that undermine the city of Paris.

Now, if you live in Paris, this is old news to you, but to me it’s the best thing ever. After inhaling the very great Wikipedia article on the Catacombs of Paris, I search for “Catacombs of Paris Movies” because why not? And I find As Above, So Below. I love movies, so I rent it (Amazon Prime) watch it, and take notes for the adventure.

  • Giant walls made of bones and skulls
  • Unlit, but still hot candles that show someone is down in the catacombs
  • Women in white robes and face paint singing
  • Crawling over bones
  • “To Get Out Go Down” said by an out of touch person that the characters knew years ago
  • Growing fear
  • Dead end except for brackish water that can be swum through to reach hidden chambers
  • The undecayed corpse of a crusader knight
  • Collapsing passages
  • Having to move, and the only way forward is also down
  • Entrances that vanish
  • Panic in the dark

And so on. I filled up every square centimeter of a page while watching. I would pause the movie to jot down a note. I used maybe 1/5 of my notes, but it was great to make all of them. The movie helped me improv the adventure in the catacombs.

as above so belowMy game isn’t set in the modern day like As Above, So Below was, but so much translated to my 1895 setting (play testing the Yellow King RPG). If I was running D&D or 13th Age or a Cthulhu game, almost all would still work. I’m not saying the movie is the best horror movie ever (there are serious flaws), but it is so damned stealable for great catacomb crawling adventures. Plus Perdita Weeks and the rest of the cast do a great job, and I found it watchable.

Watching movies as game prep!

Putting it Together

I used a player’s backstory (I think my sister is a werewolf) as the hook, and had the sister connected with an NPC, Pascal Saccard, who vanished into the catacombs after reading “The King in Yellow” and researching Nicolas Flamel.

Not a movie prop, this is real.

I had a number of scenes straight from the movie, including having the players find Pascal in an unreachable space. I played him as remote and haunted. He would answer yes or no questions with a nod or head shake, then stare at the limestone wall. He told them to “go out you must go down.”

I needed Flamel in the catacombs, and hey, he “found eternal life,” so of course he’s a vampire.

I ran through the game system’s mental hazards and listed those I thought we’d hit: looking at / reading the King in Yellow, seeing things that can’t be like the passageway they just crawled out of vanishing without a trace, and so on. I looked up what I could do with a cave in, and made notes so I could find it in play.

Actual Play

In play, the cave-in was more fun because despite me making the roll harder for the people in the back, the one in the middle failed, so the freaked out person in the back crawled screaming over the middle PC, shoving his face down into the bones while the roof caved in.

Cave-ins,  underwater swimming in the dark, odd visions, and worse took a toll. By the time they confronted the crusader corpse, they were pretty depleted in fine horror movie fashion. The meeting with the vampiric Nicolas Flamel gave them the clue they needed for the next game. He doesn’t like the Yellow King any more than they do, so he advised they track down all the copies of the play and destroy them.

A good time was had by all.


My sister Kelli just gave me Dragons of Summer Flame by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman. She got it for $1, and it’s a beat up paperback, and has been sold more than a few times from the looks of it. Anyway, a Dragonlance book, and I haven’t touched Dragonlance for years. Decades. The floodgates of memory open wide…


Back when it was new, I ran the Dragonlance campaign. It was my first story based, rather than encounter based, campaign. I know we made it to DL 8 (Dragons of War), but can’t remember where the campaign fizzled.

I have both fond, and not so fond, memories of the adventures. This has me thinking about story based adventures. And giant campaigns made of linked adventures, or adventure paths. I’ve got some adventure design coming up after The Gods Have Spoken, so what lessons can I learn from my Dragonlance experience?

As a player, I love to feel I’m part of some big epic story. I also want to feel I’m in control, not  a passenger on a railroad.

If you never played the original Dragonlance, it was very much a story. TSR released three novels, and each novel covered four adventure modules worth of epic feats and terrible dangers.

The players started off with pre-gens,  the heroes of the novels: Tanis, Raistlin, and the rest. This took the character creation away from players, but they got to see your character in the classic 1980s rpg art. Caramon the fighter (2nd from the left) was all about the mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.

Dragonlance characters

Look at all that variety. Unless you want to play a humanoid of color, or a woman whose armor covers her actual flesh.

I gave Raistlin the evil mage to a good friend. A good friend who dropped out of the campaign without a word. The story often turned on Raistlin, so that didn’t work so well.

The characters came with serious backstories, including who hooks up with who. Some great family ties, history to live up to, and the cleric who had to rediscover clerical magic which had vanished from the world many years ago.

In many ways this was a serious railroad. Of course my group went off the rails all the time, but as we moved to the next module I would yank them back. Eventually we lost interest. But not before having some great times.

All this nostalgia got me thinking about how to make a compelling story based adventure while preserving player agency.

Rather than focusing on mullets and railroads (plot, gender, and ethnicity), what worked?

  • Roots. These characters had deep backstory. One of the characters, Sturm Brightblade, a knight of Solamnia, got to go to the Tomb of Huma, the founder of his order. A large part of an entire module revolved around the backstory of one character. Sturm’s player loved it, and it was fun for the whole party.
  • Epic plot arc. Dragonlance created the format for all the adventure paths that came afterwards. No longer was a campaign a collection of dungeon crawls with no overarching plot arc. Each session was about winning the War of the Lance. Dragonlance showed us PCs that were anything but murder-hobos.
  • Variety. Dragonlance had dungeon crawls, politics, war, diplomacy, magic that felt magical, mystery, and intrigue. Every module had a different focus, and kept the game fresh.
  • A world. Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, was massive in scope and history.

In some cases, I think we’ve learned some better ways to get achieve some of these effects, but they are great effects.

Anyway, if your sibling gives you a dogeared Dragonlance paperback, go ahead and take the time to dig in. You may find ideas for your own games.


Planning to Improv: Make Your Own Instant Adventure, Part I

Monte Cook Games has been talking a lot recently about their Instant Adventures. You can even purchase Weird Discoveries: Ten Instant Adventures for Numenera.

Weird-Discoveries-Cover-2015-02-23-464x600The idea of an instant adventure is you have just enough prepared to let you improv your way to a good game session. Instead of an item, clue, or other plot point attached to place (under the rug is a hidden map), plot points are fluid and can be placed in whatever scene fits your session’s pacing. GUMSHOE GMs will note the similarities with floating core clues.

So, what can we steal to make our own instant adventure? In this post I’ll look at the building blocks of an instant adventure. In the next, I’ll make my own.

Instant adventures can work not just in Numenera, but in any system.

First you have a list of bullet points about what is really going on. The characters won’t have a clue about this information at the start of the session. For example, an ancient machine has awoken and is capturing people and “improving” them in tragic ways.

Then a hook (starting point):  The guide the PCs are counting on has vanished, as have a number of people.

And and ending (wrap-up): The PCs stop the machine and maybe have rescued a few of the people, including the guide.

Next you come up with two to four floating plot points, or keys. A key can be a clue, knowledge, evidence (say in a murder mystery), an item, or something that “summons” a creature. A person who knows where the vanished people went. A device that will fix a sparking sphere. An item that makes the machine think the PCs don’t need improvement.

Next, seven to twelve nodes. These are people or places. You can sketch a graph or map that shows all the nodes and which keys might be at any node. Any key could show up at a number of nodes. In play, the GM picks one based on the session, pacing, and what has hooked the player’s interest. The players really really like this stupid rock in front of the glowing house? Then it’s not a stupid rock, it’s a key!

People can have information or items. They can sometimes be opponents. Places can have items, clues, weird numenera, and/or creatures.

Note which key(s) might be with this node. Nodes can point to other nodes. Some nodes can be bottlenecks, the PCs must get past this node to continue the session.

Example node: A deep well with a sparking sphere at the bottom. Next to the sphere is a door that leads to the rest of the session, but won’t open until the PCs repair the sphere. If the item that makes the machine think they don’t need improvement is here, the PCs must remove it from the sphere and take it with them. Past the door is the dancing reptile woman.

You can tie your instant adventure into your campaign as extra credit if you with.

Then run and enjoy. Let the keys show up when it feels right for the pacing and whatever lunacy your players are up to.

Next time I’ll build a tiny instant adventure.

Icon Options: Learning from Organized Play

13th Age BannerAt my FLGS, I’m GMing 13th Age Organized Play, second season, set in the Dragon Empire of the core book. My home campaign is 13th Age with my own setting. For my day job, I’m working on Gods and Icons. 13th Age immersion therapy!

If you’re a 13th Age GM, I encourage you to sign up for this program. I’m finding a lot of cool things in the Organized Play, including Icon Options. (Have you heard the rumors of Organized Play for Numenera? I have, and I want to believe!)

Icon Options are bits of background that only come into play if some of the players have a relationship with that icon. They don’t have to roll a 5 or a 6, they just need a relationship.

For example, in the first adventure, Night of Deadly Stars, the players are hired by Hosford Merrywife. She changes based on what relationships the players have with the icons. Relationship with the Archmage? Hosford’s a failed wizard who can give +1 to skill checks that use magical solutions. Elfqueen? Hosford’s part elf. Not half, just a bit, but she can give the party +1 to spot things.

When the party runs into bandits, if they have a relationship with the Empeor, the bandits are imperial deserters. Knowing imperial tactics gives the PCs +1 to attacks. If the Diabolist is important (defined by having PCs have a relationship with her), then the bandits are planning a sacrifice to appease a demon. The PCs would do fine…

The adventure never lists options for all 13 icons, but moves around, so most will be hit. After listing a few with interesting ideas, it’s often followed by “Icon Option: Other Icons.” Back to the bandit example, the bandits have looted a caravan that belonged to servants of the other icon. They might have fine elven threads, dwarven ale, and so on.

I love this concept. The players are adventuring in a world where the icons they picked are the important ones. And not just on a 5 or a 6.

I am so stealing this.

GM Excuses VI: Win or Lose, Still Fun

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GM Excuses, Part VI

lightsaberFollowing along Writing Excuses‘ master class in writing, we get to a very interesting discussion on the magical 1%. As in Star Wars, the Jedi are the 1%, all that matters to the plot. And then comes Han Solo. Great stuff, have a listen.

The homework is going to have to be reskinned:

Writing Prompt: Think about the last time you lost at a game. What was the process of thought that led to your loss? Now, replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of the story, except the story isn’t about games.

What a wonderful fiction prompt, but for a RPG adventure, how can we use it? The last game I lost was Carcassonne, a Euro Game. Hmm, how to create an adventure out of my blunders in cathedral and farm placement…

What are some of the reasons I like Euro games? They are fun even if you lose. The entire time you are playing, you’re usually make progress, building things, and racking up points. Even if someone edged you out, you were building your own empire.

Now, let’s apply that to an adventure. While RPG players can always lose, they don’t usually lose while making progress, getting stuff accomplished. They walk in a door, find something awful, roll badly, make bad choices, and either flee or reacquaint themselves with the character creation rules.

Adventure Writing Prompt: Create a scenario where the players can make progress, accomplish great things, have a good time doing it, and still lose. 

keyThe goal is create a key out of parts found inside an underground temple, rescuing prisoners and destroying evil shrines along the way. Then take the key to the final encounter and unlock the imprisoned avatar of good. So, besides ending up on the sacrificial altar, how can they lose? They can lose to a second adventuring group that finds it’s own key and rescues the avatar, putting the PCs in second place. “Nice try…” But the big rewards are for first place.

Let’s make three keys that will work, bronze, iron, and steel, each made of three parts. The temple is an inverted pyramid. The fourth, lowest level, holds the door to the imprisoned avatar. The third level has three chambers, each of which has key pieces of different colors. The second has six chambers, three with different colored key pieces. The top level has nine chambers, three with key pieces. Frightful guardians, prisoners, and evil shrines are scattered throughout.

Bishop Beesir is the patron, and sets the two teams in motion. The NPC team, the “Silver Shadows” includes NPCs the PCs have run into before, either as rivals or allies. There are two known entrances, the front door and side entrance. The PCs pick their entrance. The clock is ticking, as the avatar can’t survive much longer in it’s extra-dimensional prison.

While it may be possible to get to the goal in four encounters, the evil complex is warded against abilities that show either party what is where without looking. It’s not wise to skip freeing prisoners and destroying shrines, because these actions give the avatar respite. Sprinkle clues to the keys among shrines and prisoners.

To keep things abstract, we’ll measure time in encounters the PCs face. All things being equal, the Silver Shadows will free the avatar in 10 encounters.

Headwinds: If the PCs are racing to an easy win when they hit the third level, they find the Silver Shadows have already looted a key piece they are looking for. The PCs will have to find the other group and arrange a trade, or switch to another color key.

If the PCs are lagging behind, one of the surplus key pieces they have picked up is needed by the Silver Shadows. The NPCs backtrack and find the PCs, offering a trade. This adds 1d3 to the number of encounters the NPCs need to win.

Treachery: If the PCs attack the Silver Shadows to rob them of their keys, they hear a thunderclap as their deeds feed the evil complex, adding to the difficulity of all future encounters. Plus they find themselves applauded by an evil priestess who offers them a deal if they bring her Bishop Beesir in chains.

A nice change of pace adventure. What about you, can you think of an adventure where the players would feel like they are doing good, even if they “lose” in the end?

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