Designing adventures is more than any one element or combination of elements, it is a fluid production that differs from troupe to troupe and even session to session. Putting together successful adventures relies on presence of mind and goal, inspiration and "know how" - - a choice of grays where blacks and whites exist only in the minds of the group. Forethought and choices made begins adventure design as a hobby. Think about what you are trying to achieve. RPG's are a unique and almost limitless medium. The beginning of the process is to understand Design Criteria. Design Criteria is simply an outline of rules or choices that will effect the composition of the adventure as it is being composed; it is a choice of tools chosen by the craftsman to craft the work. Use the following categories to begin understanding how to establish Design Criteria.
Big Dog or Power Trip?
Designing an adventure begins with understanding your own abilities and limitations. The first consideration of design is knowing what you are capable of successfully managing. Know how much or how little you can handle and design accordingly. Don't forget to stretch your boundaries; it is the only way to improve your skill at game mastering: can you run with the big dogs or are you a geek on a power trip?
Published by Others or Authored by You?
How much of the adventure are you actually going to design? Are you going to make it from scratch orpatch it together from various source materials? Gather your resources and review them with a scrutinizing mind. Make sure the fictional elements will be interesting to the troupe and will survive the assault of player's scrutinizing minds. Mechanical elements supporting the fictional presentation need to be reasoned against each player's character and the party as a whole for challenge difficulty. Bits and pieces patched together from different game systems and sources need to be acclimated to the one you are using. Anything that becomes part of the adventure will either contribute or detract from the quality of the adventure. Know each piece of the puzzle and make sure it fits.
Simple or Complex?
Will your adventure be told as a campfire story from beginning to end with all its details and curiosities contained or is it part of something on a grander scale? Adventure design needs a basic criterion of its scope.
Simple adventures run on a simple progression of events. A single session when characters are either pre designed or quickly and simply made for a simple purpose (get the point?). All the story details directly connect and neatly wrap up at the end of a story which is almost always the end of the session as well. Experience points are not used because there is no continuation. Game flow is tight; story and/or encounter events directly relate to each other without much slop. Single session mysteries, single session tabletop miniature battles and short dungeon crawls are examples of simple adventures. Simple adventures can be a few hours at a gaming convention, a change of pace during a long campaign or just the thing for troupes that have trouble keeping regular schedules.
Complex adventures are usually part of a larger campaign or are themselves epic adventures. Characters are usually designed by the players and more personal. Stories and subplots will stretch and twist in subject and context as game play becomes increasingly unpredictable. Game information carries over from session to session and sometimes just gets left behind as more interesting things take its place. Experience plays a vital role, defining the mechanical development of characters and encounter difficulties throughout the game. A perception of "game time" will occur and be more relevant as characters "exist" from story to story. This happens as characters and players mature over years of play, both in game time and real time.
The nature of complex adventures vary with imagination. Dynamic relationships will deepen as a troupe matures, capable of handling more complex gaming situations due to greater skill and reflexive familiarity. Complexity, as it is used here, does not necessarily mean "better". It is a thoughtful expression of time considerations, player exposure to game materials and a type of play. A good GM knows when a troupe is ready for a challenge and when to keep things simple.
Strategy or Drama
Once the choice of simple or complex is made, the next decision is one of Functional Orientation. Functional Orientation is to decide how much of the game will is mathematical calculation and how much of the game will be dramatic engagement. Between the mathematical strategies of tabletop gaming and the dice less role playing of directed drama is a choice of content. Will the adventure flow be based on a series of mathematical victories, expressed by the rules of engagement and the probabilities of the dice roll or a contextual flow based on the outcome of dramatic engagements? Understand the nature of a planned adventures challenges and the type of information needed to resolve the story conflict. Functional Orientation will also play into a game's simplicity as well. Complex dramas will be
based on interaction and intent rather than the cold reality of numbers. On the strategic side of the spectrum, complex adventures need not be devoid of fictional content: a series of skirmishes that compose a campaign of war can include role playing negotiations, heroic team missions and other such stories. Know what a troupe's preferences are; either of these design choices is a decision to include or exclude fictional and/or mechanical elements that will positively affect achievable potentials. The whole troupe needs to agree if adventure design is going to change in its mechanical bias as it will drastically affect game play in terms of game negotiations and the "feel" of the game.
State of Mind
Each of these categories is a spectrum of choices; differential variables of mental design. Accumulating opinions and ideas written in the language of game rules and expressed as style. Designing adventures is a progressively daunting task as game adventures evolve from Friday night dungeon crawls into dramatic stories. Consider the medium and know your troupe or all this hoo-ha will be a waste of time.
"Cogito, ergo sum"; "I think, therefore I am"
Rene' Descartes (1596-1650)