RPG Game Design. Leveraging familiar elements into your creative process.

The more things change the more they stay the same. When designing an adventure it’s difficult to avoid using established tropes—most stories can be distilled down into just a handful of plotlines. Some GM’s and players embrace common fantasy standards but for the GM that wants to create something a bit different what can you do? After 40 years of RPG history, thousands of modules and game ideas can you really come up with something unique?


Even Shadow World has been accused of being too “kitchen sink and it’s obvious that many of SW’s elements are fairly standard tropes are similar to our own world:

  1. Greek/Roman pantheon of Gods.
  2. Planets and moon names.
  3. Orcs, Goblins, Immortal Elves, High Men
  4. Classical western architecture.

If no idea or plot device is truly original, how can we continual design new adventures that feel fresh to our game group, challenge them, or surprise them? Here I want to discuss three mental models that I use when developing adventure content: the “Loki”, “Bohdi” and “Constanza”.

  1. The “Loki”. This is one of my favorites. Loki was quite the trickster and a good head fake can throw the players off their standard operating procedure. Embrace an established idea but give it a twist: the Dungeon Boss that the players confront for their final challenge? Make him a low level impostor. The Orc lair in the foothills of the mountain that the players want to raid? Turn it into a monastery and school of learning. Messing with established tropes can challenge player’s ready assumptions and tactics and put a new spin on the game.
  2. The “Bohdi”. The Bohdi is adopting an established idea, trope or reference as a framework to build your own material. For instance, I had a culture descended from an ancient high tech race (Xiosians) living in the mountains. The people were genetically modified but appeared to be barbaric due to the loss of the technical heritage. I thought that the depiction of Khan and the crew of the Botany Bay marooned on Ceti Alpah VI (fyi Star Trek) would be a great template to use. By adopting this idea I anchored a strong image in my mind as the basis of my desired culture which sped up the writing process.
  3. The “Costanza”. What does George do when nothing seems to be working? He does the opposite of his normal instincts! This is a more extreme example of the Loki—doing the diametric opposite of a trope or established idea. The supposed bad guys are actually the good guys, food has more value than gold or treasure, the “Good” gods are actual manipulative evil bastards, traps that heal not harm etc. A perfect example is the “Killer Bunny” in Monty Pythons Holy Grail movie (I think that deadly bunny is in C&T?).

Combined these three mental models help me write new adventure material. The “Loki” keeps the players off balance, the “Bohdi” helps create material that seems new or novel but with a foundation of familiarity and the “Costanza” teaches the players not to get to comfortable with long held beliefs and assumptions.

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