Whether you’re pulling together a one-shot for a gaming convention or an adventure for your home campaign, sometime between when you wrangle a group and when you start playing, you have to develop the actual adventure! There are many components that go into roleplaying game adventures—encounters and maps, non-player characters and stat blocks, the list goes on—and tackling everything at once can be daunting. If you’re not sure where to start, The following five steps will help you organize your ideas and make sure you cover all your bases to create an engaging scenario that gives the players agency to determine their characters’ fate.
Step 1: Come up with A Hook or Premise
Start by coming up with the basic idea that forms the underpinning of the scenario and guides the rest of your prep. Ask yourself, what cool thing does this adventure revolve around? What element of the adventure gets you the most excited and helps you differentiate it from the myriad adventures you’ve played in or run before? The cool thing could be a location, a magic item, an NPC, or a specific reveal. Alternatively, you could explore what-if scenarios that interest you. What if a sentient magic item had gone crazy? What if we got to explore the temple shown in Jedha, and why would we go there? What if the pretty soldiers from Sailor Moon were more like a yankii street gang in a post-apocalyptic NeoTokyo?
Feel free to brainstorm ideas surrounding that cool thing and write a half page or so of description to give yourself the down-low on the focus of your adventure. You’ll probably use that information later when you devise the characters, obstacles, and world that are connected to it.
As you’re brainstorming these ideas, don’t forget to consider why you’re creating this adventure and the specific requirements or restraints you’re dealing with: Where will you play? How long do you have to play? Who will be playing? What tone or age rating will the adventure have? What are the conventions or tropes that surround the genre, and how can I play with my audience’s expectations?
Step 2: Create the Player Characters
Once I have that cool focal point in mind, I turn to creating the player characters next. Why? Characters are integral to a good adventure: they’re the personas the players are adopting for four-plus hours, after all! If the player isn’t engaged with their character, they’re likely to feel lost when it comes to interfacing with the adventure. By contrast, if the players are really invested in their characters, they’ll enjoy bantering with each other and trying out all their cool tricks so much that they’ll fill up the time with their own self-made fun, or they’ll become the drivers of the story themselves! That means less pressure on you as a GM.
For one-shots, the GM is typically in charge of creating the player characters. Begin by thinking about the character archetypes that are most iconic or archetypal to the type of story you want to run. If you’re developing material for a licensed setting, consider the types of main characters from that media. If your one-shot is more of a homebrew, look to the genre tropes of the setting or system you’re interested in.
In addition to figuring out how to mechanically represent those archetypes and tropes, you’ve got to come up with at least a snapshot of a backstory for the character. Do this by briefly answering the following questions about context: How did the PC get to this point? What role do they have to play in reference to the hook/premise? What are they good and bad at, and why? How do they relate to the other characters? If you want to go for the home run, consider allowing the players to have input into some of these answers. You can do this by providing them with open-ended or multiple choice questions on their character sheet (depending on how much improvisation you’re willing to undertake during play—open-ended can result in some shenanigans, but it can also paralyze less-creative types). Make sure that if you do give them the option, that it has some sort of in-game consequence, however!
When designing an adventure, the players are the ones who get to create characters—within the parameters you’ve set, anyway. You’re going to need to be flexible in creating your module to anticipate different types of characters the players might bring. Consider the sorts of archetypes that might appear, as well as what kinds of goals and backgrounds are likely to crop up among the players. Answer the same questions as we asked for the one-shot. You could even come up with adventure-specific elements of character backstories for players to choose from during character creation to make sure they’re hooked into this specific scenario! The final question you have to anticipate with player-created characters is “why did this player choose to make this character?” To make their experience truly memorable, try to feature that reason in the game and make it pay off, big time.
Step 3: Add the Ingredients of Narrative
With the hook and the characters in place, it’s time to get into the weeds. Story in interactive media can be defined as the narrative that happens when a character has a goal and grapples with obstacles preventing them from achieving that goal. Goal + obstacle = story. Story is the answer to the question of “does the hero succeed?” If so, how? If not, what bad stuff happens? We’re engaged by story because as human beings we’re wired to find out what happens next. And we want to find out what happens because we want to derive patterns from that data (and hopefully use them for survival!).
I also had you create characters first for another reason: you could craft an entire adventure based off the characters’ objectives! I’ve run one-shots like that before, with players choosing the goals they want to pursue at the beginning of the session. At the very least, you’ll want to offer objectives that the characters would plausibly care about, or better yet, will appeal to the players themselves. This is the part where you’ll tie the PCs to that hook/premise you came up with earlier. What are the PCs trying to accomplish related to it? How could the party go about getting what they want: where will they have to go, who will they have to talk to, what do they have to find out, and what will they have to do? And what will get in the way of them doing those things or getting what they want?
The answer in RPGs is typically some kind of conflict or skill check. If it’s an NPC blocking the PCs’ path, it could be a social encounter to talk their way around them, or a combat encounter to defeat them with force. If it’s a location that bars the way, an exploration encounter may be needed to overcome the hazards it presents. If the PCs don’t have enough information to proceed, you’re looking at an investigative encounter.
During this section, you should come up with an overarching goal that unites the players, and then subdivide it into three mini-goals that need to be accomplished in order to achieve the overall objective. For adventures longer than one-shots, you’ll want to subdivide those mini-goals further. As you go through and figure out the types of goals, keep in mind that there should be multiple ways of achieving those goals, which will potentially alter the obstacle type. This provides the players with choices, or agency, which will take advantage of the fact that they’re playing an interactive game (as opposed to reading a novel!).
Choices only matter as much as the consequences that attend them, however. What are the stakes of their success or failure, and how do they know what those stakes are? What types of fallout is possible in a given scenario: What happens if the players succeed or fail in a given encounter? How does their performance in certain encounters affect the possibilities in other encounters? I don’t think it’s terrible to think of RPGs as a collaborative choose-your-own-adventure game with additional gameplay. And just like a CYOA game, consider whether the players will be satisfied if they come to an unexpected “You lose. The End.”!
Lastly, you’ll want to devise an introductory scene to issue the characters their goals and get them invested, and think about what a possible final confrontation or climax looks like. These are the bookends to the goals and objectives that form the meat of the adventure—and they’re the main places where you want to show the stakes and consequences of the player characters’ choices.
Step 4: Fill in the Map
Now that you have a sense of the goals and the obstacles that form the potential narrative, you need to flesh out that skeleton with the details of the people, places, and things that will be featured in the encounters. For existing settings, that may mean doing the research to find the planet or kingdom that fits as the best backdrop, and then pulling in the relevant locations and characters and technology. For your own setting, that means inventing the world and the things that populate it from whole cloth. Of course, you can also borrow liberally from your favorite media and “file off the serial numbers” to make it fit into your milieu.
For additional advice and information about this stage, you can peruse the sourcebooks for your selected system, or Google resources on worldbuilding or creating NPCs.
You’ll also want to compile whatever maps you may need for exploration or combat encounters. Create the stat blocks for the relevant NPCs and figure out their mannerisms, manner of speech, and other roleplaying cues. Maybe figure out the tokens or miniatures you want to represent them. For investigations, figure out the clues that are discoverable by the PCs and what they might mean. Are there any props you want to include, such as handouts of journal entries or blood-covered train tickets?
This step can easily take the longest. It depends on how much detail you need to note down in order to feel comfortable running the game, as well as how many unique entities you’re featuring in your adventure, and how much material you need to create from scratch.
Step 5: Wrap It All Up
Now that you have all the puzzle pieces, you can begin to work on the event description that will appear in the event program, or what the back-of-book text would look like for a published module or for advertising your game on Roll20 or on flyers. What is the question at the heart of the scenario? And what are some of the encounters you want to tease to get them interested?
If the adventure is something you’re going to run yourself, then the notes you’ve collected should be sufficient to start testing the module! If others are going to run the adventure, you need to expand your material fully so that other GMs can understand what’s going on and understand that well enough to improvise on the fly. Look at how other adventure modules are written, and try to emulate that style! You may be surprised to discover what the writer included, and what they might have accidentally left out!