This post is going to seem like a strange approach, as I won't be using the typical nomenclature associated with RPGs. Frankly, I don't think a sufficient nomenclature exists on that account. So instead I will be talking about the problems of designing an adventure from a business perspective. No doubt, this will lose me some interest among some of my readers ... but if you will bear with me, I will try to offer a different interpretation that will get you from a blank page to the structural necessities of adventure building.
Let's start by understanding what the adventure IS. We have a tendency to think of "an adventure" as a static, stand-alone entity, the final result of the design process. It would be much better for us if we thought of the adventure as an application. The purpose of the adventure is to interface with the player, or client, who will then be serviced by the adventured application in a variety of ways. These services exist to provide the client with a number of benefits, as defined by the needs of the client.
Now, this may seem like an unnecessary exchange of terms, but consider the implications. As a DM, you're not creating a finished product: you're creating an ongoing service provider. If we think of the player as a client, we can correctly see how the application works within the game format: the client receives the benefits of the application, which exists to provide those benefits. On the whole, this is an accurate description of "player," as the player interacts with the interface of the adventure ... but we've grown complacent about the terms adventure and player that we've lost much of their meaning.
If we can embrace this perspective then, we can see that the task at hand is not to create a "story," or narrative, which is a hard-to-grasp abstract idea. The task is to create services that the client will appreciate. A service is an intangible process that may, or may not, cause a tangible product to be transmitted to a client. For example, in role-playing terms, the tangible product could be anything that enables a definable upgrade to the character. This might be increased power, wealth, experience, status and so on.
The service, then, is the process by which the client receives those things. Just as a barista provides coffee as a service (the barista pours it for you), the DM provides further benefits to the client through processes like combat, role-playing, exposition or impediments.
As I say, this may sound at first glance that I am further complicating the issue, but I assure you I am not.
The goal is to create an adventure; the adventure is a collection of services that are coordinated to increase anything that the player wants. So as we start the adventure in our minds, we can selectively choose a service which will get the ball rolling.
For example, a combat, which is a service. The combat creates a trial, which the players (in some campaigns) will enjoy. The resolution of the combat provides opportunities for the DM to impart whatever we need to entice the players into further action: reward, the promise of more reward, exposition, the acquisition of enemies, an opportunity to speak with the vanquished foe or any other entity who might be a witness, or learn about it after the fact, or otherwise obtaining anything the either helps or hinders the party's experience.
All of these things are services:
- Rewards enhance the players' feeling of accomplishment and empower the player's potential for further acquisition. This services the party's benefit.
- Promise of reward whets the party's appetite for further acquisitions. This services the party's interest and ambition.
- Exposition expands the party's conception of their involvement in the local affairs, or "story," which has been introduced by the initial service. This services the party's involvement and immersion.
- Acquisition of enemies services the party's sense of drama, problem-solving reflex and desire for tension.
- Speaking with a vanquished foe creates emotional responses of compassion (if the foe did not deserve to die), sense of justice (if the foe is demonstrated to be truly evil), suspicions (if the foe's motivation is left in doubt) or a wide number of other emotional responses. This services the party's need to reconsider/review their actions, inspiring introspection, which again provides for the problem-solving reflex.
- Another entity acting as a witness gives a voice to condone or condemn the party's actions, offering praise, threats, indifference, a desire to use the party to its own ends, quiet revenge or whatever. This, again, services the party's need to feel involved in the adventure.
- Aid that Helps the party builds trust, confidence, security and a reason for bravery, servicing the party's willingness for further involvement.
- Frustrations that hinder the party builds doubt, uncertainty, regret, despair ... servicing the party's need to feel that their actions, even those that stand against them, have consequence. It is important that the party feels they will be held accountable for their errors; as this accountability encourages them not to err.
These are not static end results. These are ongoing processes, within the application of the adventure, which can be added, switched around, shifted in tone, muted, intensified and flipped, depending on the party's actions from hour to hour or session to session. If we think of "role-playing" as a service by which we contribute to the party's knowledge and decision-making process, rather than as a static support beam for an ending we already have planned, we can see how providing the party with information through conversation/conflict with a given entity is only part of the application being applied.
I could just as easily start the adventure with role-playing. Information is offered at the outset that causes the party to feel interested, concerned, greedy, disconcerted, emotionally ill ... whatever we design the specific information being relayed to convey. A fellow near the party begins an account of little children being ripped apart by wolves, without ever directly conversing with the party. However, the manner in which the information is relayed provides the response. The teller is angry; the teller is graphically descriptive; the teller is indifferent, as if it doesn't matter that children have died; the teller is pleased that these particular children have died. Or any mix of the above, plus any other idea that jumps into our imagination.
I can start the adventure with a frustration. The party is denied access; or an opportunity; or outright treated with vehemence. I can also start the adventure with a gratuity. The party is chosen from a crowd for a legitimate opportunity; or as likely beneficiaries of lands the local lord wishes to be settled; or as competitors in a light-hearted game, without direct consequences ... but which may lead to role-playing, or a misunderstanding, or a mishap that the players might appear to have caused.
|Adventures may escalate from the least situations.|
The possibilities are really endless. The key here is to remember that the service, be it combat, role-playing and so on, is to provide something tangible in the short run, while promising/suggesting something bigger and even more tangible in the long run. Each service then suggests the next service of which the client, er, player, might wish to take advantage.
The DM can, therefore, does not need to create a whole adventure. The first effort is to create a single service that enables a decision: do we go or not; do we like this or not; are we scared or not; does this upset us or not; and so on. Then, depending on which choice the players make, we can reintroduce the original service in a bigger, less subtle manner, suggesting it dare not be ignored; or we can introduce an entirely different decision that might produce a more fertile possibility for the DM to build upon thereafter.
Without a whole adventure to create, the blank piece of paper seems much less daunting.