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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Adventure Writing: The Adventure
Last week, you defined
your adventure focus—the Who,
What, Where, When, Why, How and So What? of your advenure. That gives
you the main plotline and gets you thinking about what NPCs will be involved,
what maps will be needed, and so forth. But a good advenure seldom has
only plot thread running through it. You can begin to work out those threads,
or subplots, by mapping an adventure tree.
Think of a tree. There's
a trunk, and main branches that grow out from the trunk, and then smaller
branches that grow off from those main branches.
Now think of your adventure
in terms of a tree. There's a trunk—that's your adventure focus—and
main branches that grow out from the trunk—those are your subplots—and
then smaller branches that grow off from those main branches—those
are your links, which join subplot to subplot or adventure tree to adventure
Let's take an example
that I set up in the adventure focus essay—the fairly mundane "diplomat's
daughter gets kidnapped" adventure idea. Here's the focus:
The daughter of the (nation) diplomat is kidnapped by rebels who disguise
themselves as swimming-pool cleaners to enter and leave the embassy grounds
in London. The kidnappers' country is at war with (nation), and they've
taken the girl to force the diplomat to push for peace between their two
nations. After English agents fail to retrieve the girl, the diplomat
calls in the PCs, whom she knows because one of them is a (nation) agent,
and asks them to get her daughter back. Unfortunately, the clock has been
ticking, and the PCs have only 12 hours to complete the mission before
the kidnappers say they will begin to torture the girl. (111 words—150
should be the maximum for an adventure focus)
So far, so good. That's
a pretty straightforward spy plot for any game set in modernish times,
from 007 to Vampire to Champions to Shadowrun. It answers the basic Who,
What, Where, When, Why, How, and So What? questions. We even have one
obstacle from the start—the deadline. Now let's begin to work on
the adventure tree.
There are several kinds
of subplots that can branch off of your adventure focus. When I use the
term subplot, I mean one or more of the following:
• a plot twist
that the adventurers must discover and that may or may not send the adventure
moving in a different direction than initially expected,
• a mini-adventure
that must be completed before the larger adventure can be finished,
• a personal dilemma
that will pull one or more of the adventurers into a difficult situation,
the results of which are not necessarily essential to the success of the
mission as a whole.
What I do not mean when
I use the term subplot is an entirely different adventure, unrelated to
the adventure focus, that runs concurrently with the central adventure.
As I define it, a subplot is somehow linked to the adventure focus like
a branch to a tree trunk. Separate adventures can certainly be run at
the same time—that's your typical sitcom plot, with an overarching
plot and then a secondary plot—but the other adventure should contain
its own focus and tree.
Adventure trees can
and often will overlap, and that will also help you develop subplots.
The longer your campaign has been going on, the more subplots you can
work into an adventure. After all, there are probably a lot of links from
previous adventure trees that can be meshed with the current one (imagine
an ongoing campaign as a forest in which a number of tree branches touch
each other to overlap plotlines in the form of, most commonly, recurrent
NPCs). For this example, let's take the harder case and presume the adventure
is the first in a campaign—there is no shared history between the
characters; no old lovers, rivals or villains to pop out of the woodwork;
no favors that can be called in; and no other types of loose ends that
can be neatly tied off in this adventure. We have to start from scratch.
Write down your adventure focus on a piece of paper, vertically, like
the trunk of a tree.
Examine the NPCs for subplot ideas. Who are they? Do any of them know
each other? Do any of them have secret motives? Are any of them not who
they claim to be? Brainstorm and scribble down your ideas on a separate
piece of paper. When you hit on a subplot idea you like, write it down
on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the focus to the
subplot. Keep doing this for each NPC until you have a web of branches.
You might even have more than one for each NPC! These subplots are the
twisting, turning trail that the PCs must follow to figure out who is
really the good guy and who is really the bad guy on the adventure. NPC-related
subplots lend themselves most to plot twists and personal dilemmas (usually
involved with morals or love).
Another good reason
to take the time to do this is simply to develop each NPC's motivations
and get a preliminary idea of the NPC's personality. Too often a GM hasn't
thoroughly thought out an NPC's motives, and when the PCs suddenly begin
to interact with the NPC, the GM is forced to rely on stereotypes, cliches,
or his or her own personality. If this happens too often, each new NPC
will seem like a clone of the last, and the players will begin to get
bored or impatient with the game.
For this example, let's
stick to the central three NPCs. I'm assuming a very mundane spy game—if
you're playing with superheroes or minions of darkness or cyberware, then
you'll have even more variables to consider.
Does she get along well
with her daughter or not? If yes, is she willing to use her power as an
ambassador to try to get her daughter back, or does her job come first?
If no, could her daughter be in collusion with the kidnappers in order
to strike back at her mother, or try to get attention?
Did she know the kidnapper
in the past? Is the kidnapper an old lover? A spouse or brother or other
relative whom she's estranged from because she thinks peace can be won
rationally and the kidnapper thinks it must be won by force? Is the kidnapper
an old enemy, who might be using the political excuse as a facade to hide
her real hatred of the diplomat and desire to hurt her in any way she
can? Is the kidnapper one of her political superiors, who is using her
daughter to force the diplomat to take some previously resisted course
Was the daughter kidnapped
for a completely different reason, and the diplomat lying to protect herself
or her daughter from scandal? If that reason is discovered, how will the
diplomat react? Will she be able to trust the PCs, or will they have made
Did she kidnap the daughter
herself to try to negotiate the peace? If so, is her daughter in on it
or not? Is the daughter really dead, and her mother hiding the death under
a false kidnapping claim because she killed her daughter herself? Or perhaps
her daughter died under shameful circumstances, such as a drug overdose,
while cruising the streets as a prostitute, or in a suicide? If any of
these is the case, how will the corpse come to light, and can the death's
true cause be discovered?
Does the diplomat have
a significant other? Might she fall in love with one of the adventurers?
If an adventurer insults her, might she become a future enemy?
Did she know her kidnapper
before the kidnapping? Is the kidnapper a friend or enemy or member of
the family? Is the kidnapper taking her for the stated reasons or so they
can elope with each other, or because the daughter owes him money for
crack, or because the daughter was trying to blackmail the kidnapper?
Does the daughter begin to sympathize with the kidnapper's cause or does
she detest the kidnapper?
Is she actively trying
to escape or passively waiting to be rescued? Might the PCs attack the
kidnappers only to find that the daughter has already escaped, and then
need to continue to track her down after the kidnappers have been dealt
with? Or might the PCs and the kidnappers find themselves in a neck-to-neck
race to catch the daughter first? (This last would be a mini-adventure
Does she have a boy-
or girlfriend or lover? Might she fall in love with one of the adventurers?
If an adventurer insults her, might she become a future enemy?
Is the kidnapper a man
or a woman (or, depending on the genre, a monster of any kind)? An idealist
or a sadist? Basically good or basically nasty? Working alone or with
help? Does the kidnapper know either diplomat or daughter? Is the kidnapper
actually either mother or daughter? Will the kidnapper actually harm the
daughter, or is that just a bluff to make the diplomat work harder for
peace? Does the kidnapper start to like the daughter as days go by, seeing
in the girl some lost relative of his or her own? Is the kidnapper a representative
of a larger organization that will hunt down the PCs if this plot is foiled?
Or that might back up the kidnapper with sudden bureaucratic help—the
old X-Files manuever of everything suddenly being hushed up and smoothed
over by one government or another?
Is there anything else
the kidnapper would settle for? Might the kidnapper be able to convince
the PCs of the validity of his or her cause? (These can lead to mini-adventures
or personal dilemmas.)
Does he or she have a significant other or lover? Might the kidnapper
fall in love with one of the adventurers? If an adventurer insults the
kidnapper, might he or she become a future enemy?
Now examine the locales for subplot ideas. Are there any unusual settings
for the adventure? Places that are hard to get to? Defenses that must
be breached? Catastrophes that must be avoided? The setting lends itself
to mini-adventure subplots. When you hit on a subplot idea you like, write
it down on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the focus
to the subplot.
For the kidnapping adventure,
let's say that the kidnapper is holding the diplomat's daughter in the
sewers below London. This lends itself to maze-like settings; pitfalls
and ambushes; attacks by plague-carrying rats, individual lunatics, local
gangs, and even monsters, if you're playing that kind of game. If you
wanted to put even more pressure on, you could decide that there is an
impending disaster that will endanger everybody if a time limit isn't
met—for example, a great storm over the Thames has raised the water
level and is flooding the sewers during the adventure.
Now examine the PCs themselves. We're assuming this is not an established
campaign, but even so, the PCs probably have some sort of history written
up already. Some game systems demand it; in other systems, it's optional.
However, if they did write up a history, take a look. Are there any loose
ends you can exploit in the course of the adventure—a lost brother
who might belong to the kidnappers, perhaps? An obsession with an ancient
cult whose sigil might be on the ring the kidnapper wears? These are the
kinds of subplots (primarily personal dilemmas) that can extend beyond
this adventure and into others. When you hit on a subplot idea you like,
write it down on the same paper as the focus, and draw a line from the
focus to the subplot.
Take a look at the subplots you've chosen—the plot twists, the mini-adventures,
the personal dilemmas. How many of them can be tied together? Could the
kidnapper be the diplomat's old comrade-in-arms AND one PC's lost brother
AND a low-ranking member of the secret cult another PC is searching for?
This is your chance to have fun weaving adventure twists and turns together
into a tapestry of coincidence and conflict that will leave the players
gasping. However, if a link is too obvious, try taking it out ... just
to keep the PCs guessing.
Be cautious with this
step, though—some players enjoy the tapestry, some detest it. My
husband, for example, feels that it's detrimental to the campaign to have
too much tied together; that adventures are already hard enough for the
players to figure out without further muddying the waters with these intertwining
plots. I, on the other hand, enjoy confronting such conundrums. Know your
players' preferences and try to cater to them. If you have a mixed group,
present straighforward plots half the time and more complicated plots
the other half.
Now you have a pretty involved adventure. Take a look at it one more time.
Does anything not make sense? Anything too outrageous? Take a moment to
prune back, if you think the tree has grown a little too big and tangled.
You can always save some ideas for another adventure.
The last step is to decide what links you have. These are the little branches
that jut off from the main branches and don't go anywhere—unless
they touch another adventure tree in the campaign forest. What loose ends
are there likely to be that you can use to tie into another, future adventure?
Perhaps the story behind how the brother got into the cult—that's
certainly going to need to be told at some point and could lead to another
adventure. Perhaps the diplomat's daughter falls in love with a PC—she'll
become a link to future adventures, whether her love is returned or spurned
(the difference is only what role she'll take in those future adventures!).
If the kidnapper escaped, he or she will undoutedly pop up again (take
a look at my article on villains), and the diplomat might be a future
contact for the PCs, too.
Now look at the mess
you have on your sheet of paper! That's your adventure tree. At this point,
it's time to flesh out the NPCs, draw up the maps, and generally fill
in the blanks. The tree can be written up formally into an adventure,
if you like to run with detailed notes, or you can just keep it in front
of you for reference, if you're better at running with nothing but scribbles
and scratches. For mysteries, I often rewrite the tree as a series of
concentric circles, indicating the various layers of plot that the PCs
must peel through to discover "whodunnit."
In the course of the
adventure, you might find out that not all of your subplots will work,
or that one threatens to derail the game. Be flexible; let the subplot
branches bend or break as the circumstances demand! Remember, the first
goal of an adventure is always to entertain the players.
originally written October 31, 1998
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