Generating Fantasy Adventures for Competent Players

No plan survives contact with the players.

—Davena Oaks

After my latest session I opened up Michael Shea’s The Lazy DM to compare his advice to my emergent method of adventure generation—one that suits my current campaign, anyway. It’s from this book that I pulled the quote above, and, for the sentiment contained therein, at first Shea’s advice seemed like it would be of some use to me. Then he suggested sketching three “paths” the adventure might take, then three NPCs the party might encounter. Not bad advice—perhaps perfect advice for particular groups—but I genuinely believe that this would not work at my table. Shea’s chief recommendation is to avoid spending time on adventure preparation that will not find use in an actual game. So, if I accepted this for my game, I wouldn’t even prepare three adventure “paths.”

The reason for this, of course, is that by now my gamers aren’t certain to use any trail I blaze for them. A path forecasts an Adventure. In many cases, my players won’t go on the “adventure.” Don’t get me wrong: they will adventure, but it will be one of their own choosing; perhaps I should say it will be one of their own making.

In case my tone is ambiguous here, I am not complaining. As a GM, I am more interested in seeing the stories that gamers create. This is why—somewhat belatedly—I’m realizing that I’m somewhat in error if ever I refer to our Monday night game as my game. For this same reason I’m realizing that it’s quite unfair of me were I to drop the current campaign, switch systems, start something new (as I have done before), as if our communal experience is an auteur rough draft that no longer satisfies me. Our campaign is not a monograph. It is our narrative, and to abandon it, through the authority of being Head Writer, would be an act of egotism and presumption.

The consideration remains, though, about how I might best execute my role as GM to provide the most interesting game possible for my players and their characters. I’m learning that the answer to this also is dependent on the shared experience the players want to explore. In a recent conversation with a player, I identified three modes of play within a wide spectrum:

Entirely free form. The PCs do what they will, dependent on the character personalities and stories, and the GM responds improvisationally.

Adventures keyed to character. The GM writes adventures, but they usually are relevant to individual PC goals and stories.

Adventures. Whether they are purchased or written by the GM, the story is the thing, and PCs are expected to “play through.” Larger PC goals might affect the adventure, but this is reliant on the GM’s indulgence or interest.

The player whom I was in conversation with wondered if my current method was entirely improvisational. I believe it’s in between the first and second form above. What I mean by this is that I have an idea of what is going on in the world independent of the PCs; how the PCs interact with these forces—if at all—is discovered during play.

This is not to say that (outside of world building) I don’t prepare at all! Against the Darkmaster provides me one narrative mechanic and resource that I can leverage in predicting what might interest the PCs. These are Passions (which I’ve simplified as individual character goals or quests) and Drive (a “benny” that PCs earn for following their Passions). In my world building, I have woven the individual PC Passions into one destination, and I think the overland quest to this destination is going to commence soon.

The other way that I have been preparing is as follows:

Generate the “unfleshed bones” or prompts of an adventure. Lately I’ve been preferring Richard Le Blanc’s D30 Sandbox Companion. During a session I can refer to this to help structure an emerging narrative.

Generate inspirational terms. I randomly select these out of a hefty dictionary. As the session progresses, I look at these for help in fleshing or weirding adventure components or answering player questions.

Generate NPC names. While I roll my terms, I gather morphemes, combining them for suitably fantasy-sounding names.

As I’ve suggested, this method has been developing for my current long form style of campaign play. I’m looking forward to next year, when I will run an episodic version of the Conan 2d20 rpg. That system has adventure generation resources particularly suited to Conan-esque Sword & Sorcery entertainment, and I think that that kind of adventure creation will be much more responsive to my individual vision for a particular group experience.