Home » Advice on Homebrewing RPG Adventure: From a Seed To a Scenario

Advice on Homebrewing RPG Adventure: From a Seed To a Scenario

How to proceed from an initial seed-like theme or scene to a core of a scenario?

| Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This week’s post is different. I’m writing just a few lines and then pass the floor to three RPG writers, authors of my some favourite modules. I’ve asked them for advice on homebrewing an RPG adventure or scenario.

What are the key points in homebrewing a good RPG adventure? How to proceed from an initial seed-like theme or scene to a core of a scenario?

So, let’s go straight to the point and see what they think on the matter!

www.gavininglis.com

Gavin Inglis

www.gavininglis.com

A writer of games and fiction he also teaches, performs, and runs events. I’ve got to know him first by his great single-player adventure Alone Against the Flames for Call of Cthulhu 7e.

It’s a question with many possible answers, depending on the game, the players, and the experience you’re trying to craft.

In general, I start with a simple concept and build in nuance as it develops. In Alone Against The Flames, the player is trapped in a remote village and must escape. The adventure will have fire as an elemental theme.

So I ask myself, why is the player trapped? Once I work out the sinister backstory, it implies a few clues. For instance, people have been trapped here before, so the player can discover their abandoned luggage.

It won’t be obvious at first that this is a trap, so initially, the player has a lot of freedom. They can explore the village and find the clues, or try to leave. They might actually escape, at great personal cost, or discover something they can use to resist their dreadful fate. Either way, having many options available at first means the player doesn’t feel railroaded. However, if they don’t escape, the villagers will inevitably come for them.

We could write the adventure from that, and it would work OK. The player wants to escape; everybody in the village wants to stop them. But we can be more subtle by introducing conflict between the villagers, and divisions along religious and generational lines. Perhaps some villagers might help the player, and perhaps the disagreements can be exploited. I find it useful to make a conflict diagram — this is a technique explained in M. Harold Page’s “Storyteller Tools”.

Two useful points:

1) The players are not characters in your novel. Your job as an adventure designer is to create an interesting space for them to explore, and challenges for them to tackle in their own way.

2) Use contrast. Balance huge cinematic scenes with small moments of personal drama.

Jon Hodgson

The newest release from Jon’s Handiwork Studios: BEOWULF: The Trials of the Twin Seas for 5e

Co-author of BEOWULF: the Age of Heroes, Art Director of The One Ring 1e, among others. His art is how I imagine Middle-earth now.

I’m always very cautious about giving advice. What works for one person might be the worst advice for another. So please take anything I say with a higher pinch of salt. If there’s something useful for you here then great. But if not, that’s cool too. People create in all kinds of different ways. 

I’m not sure about how to make a “good” scenario, and I try to focus on getting something done, and then polishing it up, rather than worrying too about if it’s any good. 

For years I’ve employed a technique that I didn’t know the name of, or that was even a recognized technique: the reverse scriptwriting technique. This sees the writer imagine a significant scene, location, or emotional moment, and work backward to figure out how the characters might get there. 

There’s an interview with Japanese designer Yako Taro that talks about this: https://adamjones46.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/yoko-taro-reverse-story-telling/

Of course when writing tabletop RPG adventures for players to explore you don’t want to create fixed emotional beats that have to be experienced in a certain way, or which you railroad players into. Those moments are more like starting points to build on during the creation of a scenario. Maybe the players won’t ever get to the place you imagined at the start. And that’s ok – I try not to be precious. For me, this is about a starting point to get the juices flowing rather than a conclusion. 

A really interesting thing in BEOWULF is because it’s primarily intended for one player to run through, we’re finding GMs run the same adventure for several players. And so it’s really ideal if scenarios are optimized to run differently each time. Being able to ramp up or play down the stakes for a location or encounter, and to allow a GM to play important characters differently in response to the player’s needs is really important. I think that focuses the mind on making adventures that have both a strong plot and a malleable one. That’s the goal for me. I want a resonant story, but I want the player to be able to have a huge say in how it plays out and resolves itself. 

Jumping right back: sometimes trying to imagine some significant moment can feel too big, especially if you’re new to writing adventures. But imagining something simple, like “it’d be cool if the players had to climb down a sea cliff”? That’s the way you can get started. It prompts a ton of questions like “why?”, “How did they get here?” “where is this cliff?”, “what makes it an interesting cliff?”  “What’s at the bottom?”, “Why do the characters want to climb down it?” “What are the risks?” 

I have a mental file of moments I think are cool. Some of them I write down, and some stay in my head until they’re needed. 

A really key point is that these moments or scenes or locations have to be engaging for the player or players and give them the stuff to enjoy. 

For BEOWULF adventures I have a mental huge file of scenes, characters, and locations that I think might work, which I patchwork together into plots. The connective tissue, that moves players between scenes, is where players get to make their decisions and answer a lot of those questions. How they might come into and then exit a scene can tell you a lot about it.

I also maintain a huge Pinterest board of images that I find inspiring, and I use those images in a similar way. It’s been a while since I added to it (thanks for the reminder, it needs some new pins!)

Www.Pinterest.com/jonnyhodgsonart

Lastly, it’s a bit of a cliche, and one to deploy with care, but “writing what you know” is good advice. Writing about things you’ve done, or know about really helps. The sea cliff mentioned above, which appears in the free BEOWULF adventure “The Hermit’s Sanctuary” was inspired by actual rock climbing in Pembrokeshire many years back. The adventure as a whole was inspired by walking along the beach at Bamburgh in the North East of England, and the view of the Farne Islands. 

Erik Granström

Erik’s blog (in Swedish): https://erik-granstrom.blogspot.com/

Fantasy writer of novels and game settings, if you’re my reader, you probably know him as the author of setting and adventure sites for the Forbidden Lands.

Start with thinking of an interesting place in an unstable situation. For inspiration, look elsewhere, not in RPGs. I often mine history, my veterinary training, current political events and mythology, and poetry for inspiration, and then twist what I find to fit the setting. You can use fishing, knitting, sports, music videos, cooking games shows, or whatever interests you. This may also set the theme.

The unstable situation may consist of conflicting interests facing impending or already occurred catastrophe or betrayal. Conflicting and incompatible interests are the basis of most conflicts and drive action. Let there be no solution to the situation that fits all parties, forcing the players to choose sides, preferably making painful decisions, enemies, and trade-offs in the process. Develop a number of interesting parties and persons to interact with. Let them have an official and a secret agenda and independent agency that makes them act regardless of the players, perhaps on a time scale. Some may be red herrings. You want the impression that these people live their lives and go on with their plans whether the player characters interact with them or not, not that they stand around waiting for the characters to arrive. Do not decide before play who’s to ”win” or who are ”the good guys”. Make sure that also ”evil” or unimportant NPCs have a plausible agenda that they believe in. There are plenty of historical/religious examples to pick from. Add ”punctum” in settings and NPCs – that is unexpected details or sidetracks that make things more alive, weird, and less predictable and thus more interesting.

Spend some time thinking of complications following player actions, for example: burning down a house pissing off the druids for setting fire to the surrounding woods, is expected to marry someone you kissed at a festival or breaking an invaluable piece of art when looking for a key. Also come up with some external complications like snowstorms, a traveling circus, or marching lice reaching the village.

Remember that history never ends – outcomes just breed new complications and challenges. Let your adventure be like this. Consider how different parties in or out of the setting would react to what just happened.

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