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.

4 Replies to “Generating Fantasy Adventures for Competent Players”

  1. I follow a similar method as you do. I learned very early on (the first time I GM’d for a group of experienced gamers) that the players don’t do what you want them to do or what you expect them to do. Over the years, I developed a “bubble” approach to GMing.

    Imagine a glass of your favorite bubbly beverage, or even imagine blowing bubbles into your favorite non-bubbly beverage. Each bubble represents a person, place, idea, goal, etc. that I have in mind for the players and the campaign. As the GM, I see the entire glass, I see all of the thoughts and ideas floating in there, but which one rises to the top? Which one will the players pop to get the goodies out?

    I have no idea which path the bubbles will take or if they will even be used. I try to stay fluid while still keeping the campaign goal interesting enough that the players will continue to move towards it.

    Along the way, I’ll pepper in some incidents that get the PCs personally invested. The BBG killed off a PC’s wife in the course of his ne’er-do-welling. An NPC has a grudge because another PC killed his father who happened to be working for the BBG, so he hires an assassin to seek revenge. A 3rd PC, a low-level mage, has been commissioned by the Tor Scholastica (Mage’s Academy) to find out why there have been increased occurrences of poorly crafted or low level elemental creature summonings in the area. Those low level elemental creatures have been harassing/killing innocent townsfolk and the local authority or the townsfolk want it investigated and stopped.

    There are four bubbles ready to be popped. I have no idea which player’s personality or smooth talking will win out on any given day, so I have no idea which adventure, side-adventure, or goal the party will work towards. But they are all there if they are needed. Each bubble will still lead them towards the BBG and uncovering his evil plans…

    Take your glass full of bubbles and turn it around and look at it from a different angle.

    …or are they even evil? What is he really doing? Was the party sent out after someone who broke away from the local ruler? Is the local ruler trying to silence the opposition. Oh, how I love the “plot-twist bubble!”

    In the last session, the party inadvertently killed a lot of members of a “spider cult” because they were “evil.” Turns out, the spider shrine actually cultivated and worshipped the spiders and were the primary source for the anti-venoms and poison antidotes for the region. My daughter sat back and said “Oh my God… why do I get the feeling we just did something really, really bad?”

    Don’t forget all of the other, wonderful little bubbles the players make as they splash around in your world. The players end up helping me write and develop the plot for the campaign. Now there will be a severe shortage of poison antidote in a region filled with poisonous spiders. There is no longer enough personnel to tend for the captive spiders, and the surviving members of the spider cult will want retribution for the attack on their shrine.

    Three new bubbles all thanks to the payers!

  2. I think I wrote recently along the lines of ‘who owns the rules?’ and I think this is in a similar vein. As GMs we do not own the game. I quite like defining the bad guy/gal and their devious plans and then let the players go anywhere, do anything and as their story unfolds it may at some point cross and impact that of the bad person. How they react is up to them.

    These don’t need to be world ending evil plots, it could just be a local threat or a natural phenomena but whatever it is it will change the characters world in some way.

    1. Peter, I was actually writing my response to the post you are referencing, but I couldn’t organize my thoughts. The players are definitely the key to the game.

      The GM offers the rules.

      The players and GM tweak the rule set so most everyone is happy.

      The GM then acts as a referee for those rules in the sessions.

      The players run the game. The players control the flow and the direction. Try to railroad them into one direction and they will feel as if they have no control. Let them do anything and everything they want, and the campaign will never be completed. If the players aren’t having fun and they don’t feel invested in their PCs or feel as if they have any impact over the gaming world, they lose interest.

      Personally, I’m happy being part of the gaming world. I don’t get to play RM any more as no one can GM it, but I love it nonetheless. I play other game systems and I’m happy to be with friends for those sessions. In all the instances, the players seem to run the game while the GM adjudicates.

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