Adventure Design By Scenes

More thoughts on adventure design — probably been written about a lot in the last 40 years, but I just caught on. Here goes.

My current GURPS campaign isn’t a standard dungeon crawl. It’s CyberPunk, in an open-ended world. It isn’t 90% combat related. I want it to be about 80% skills and roll-playing. You know, mystery and problem solving stuff? These kinds of games can be challenging because the options for the PCs are endless. What if they don’t go where you want them to go? What if they don’t find the clue? How do you write an adventure that isn’t like the ones I played in and GMed when I was 15?

I feel like my first GURPS game (see previous post) went pretty well because after coming up with an overall goal for the session, I wrote it in “scenes”. This gave me a working organizational framework for the adventure. I sat on a plane, with my Chromebook, and wrote it like the plot and scenes of a short story, or maybe a couple of chapters from a book. I think some role-playing systems use this technique a lot, but I’ve never played any of them.

Working in scenes did a few nice things. For one, it got me in the frame of mind of really thinking about the atmosphere of the scene. I’m not saying I did a fantastic job conveying atmosphere to my players, but it’s a start. I think I can do better in the future. Next, by thinking in scenes, my job became moving the PCs from one scene to the next, or perhaps skipping a scene completely if the PCs somehow bypassed it  or I felt like it wasn’t needed. I packed each scene with clues to get them to the next scene, hoping they’d find at least one of them. They did. It worked. They didn’t find every single clue, but they found enough. I gave them chances to use a variety of skills to discover clues, rather than relying on one critical skill roll.

I’m sure this sounds very basic to experienced GMs, but in the past all my games have been D&D dungeon adventures, or Champions games where you just say “Dr. Destroyer attacks you in your HQ” and it’s on. Open ended games, or mysteries/investigations are just harder to write, but I think they are a lot more satisfying. At least that’s my impression now.

Once I had a scene’s location figured out and described, and I knew what the PCs goal was in that scene, it was time to fill it with clues, a memorable NPC or two, some challenges, traps, or just plain foolishness. Then I waited a day, came back and read the whole thing, and thought of more cool stuff to add. As it turns out, one of the NPCs I added as a “possibility” to Scene 1 turned out to be very fun and great for creating atmosphere. Without coming back for a good second look at the whole adventure, I wouldn’t have thought of that NPC.

I did actually drop one small scene right in the middle of play.  I combined it with the one to come after it. I made this decision on the fly, realizing during the game that the two scenes were very similar, and that doing two similar scenes back to back might be tedious. The game was running a bit long too. I told the players to give me a couple of minutes to think about the game — so I didn’t have to rush. My players gave me the time I need to keep some logic and flow in the story. Much appreciated.

All of this really helped me a lot. I’m fairly creative, but I’m not great at coming up with stuff on the fly. I like to try to make every game I’ve ever run the best it can be though, so some really good writing and prep work helped very much in this game. Hoping that Episode 2 goes as well. I think I have a good base to build from, and the PCs are developing really well.


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