Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week, instead of diving into any system in particular, we take a look at structuring adventures within broader games. Want to leave the dungeon? Shadowrunners getting bored with stealing data caches? Check this out.
Every role-playing game gives you a structure to tell a story. In some cases, like that of Fiasco, that structure is very explicit: Two Acts, the Tilt, and the Aftermath, with rules for each. In other games, especially generic or setting-agnostic games, there’s almost nothing to go off of. Most games, however, are somewhere in the middle.
You don’t need a specific game to build your adventures a specific way, though! While Dungeons and Dragons has a lot of tools in the system for building, ahem, dungeons, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to play, and the same goes for virtually any other setting or system. When you start thinking about these structures, you can also see some quick (and easy) ways to really mix things up. How about a fantasy heist with scrying security cameras and shrieker fungus alarms? Or a closed-door murder mystery on a starship? None of these structures are genre dependent, even if most of them make you think of one particular genre over the other.
This is the classic, the adventure D&D was literally named for. The characters venture to a dangerous location, making their way from the outside in. Along their way to whatever treasure or goal is inside, they must defeat enemies, avoid traps, and solve puzzles, all while trying not to get lost.
This is often an easy thing for the GM to set up, because you get to map out the whole location and know where every point of interest is. That said, the most important thing you must answer when designing a dungeon is “why?” While D&D has had random tables for dungeon elements since time immemorial, dungeons are way more interesting when they have a reason to exist. When the characters start to figure out what’s going on, it may lead to other adventures! The game Torchbearer has a great and simple structure to examine dungeons and what can be found within: The original intent of the building, why it was abandoned, who’s re-occupied it, and what they’ve done to the space. Figuring out these four elements can lead to a lot of wild ideas for both what a dungeon looks like and what’s waiting for the characters inside.
I’m using the term “heist” rather than the generic “mission” because it’s more evocative; there are other end goals to heists than merely stealing something. The characters must make their way into somewhere they aren’t supposed to be, and accomplish a stated objective. Along the way, they must neutralize threats and make sure they aren’t caught or do anything else that compromises the objective.
One could be forgiven for thinking this sounds a lot like a dungeon, but the way they play out is quite different. When players run through a dungeon, they’re going into the unknown, hopefully mapping as they go, and never know what threats are around each corner. With a heist, it plays out more like it would in a movie: the characters do some legwork, getting the information and equipment they need, and planning how to get around the obstacles. Then, when the actual heist is pulled off, how well they do depends on how accurately they gauged the obstacles and how well they accounted for surprises.
The “heist” or “mission” format is the backbone of Cyberpunk role-playing. The PbtA Cyberpunk game The Sprawl, as a specific example, builds a strong mission structure into its rules. This is great reading if you’re interested in structuring these sorts of game sessions.
Someone dies, or the crown jewels are stolen, or Johnson has planted information that sabotages his competitor for the vice president promotion. In any of these cases, the characters must find out whodunnit before it’s too late. In mysteries, the characters are focused on finding out the information they need to solve the mystery, with the added complication that the perpetrator may be trying to stop them. Mysteries are typically the backbone of intrigue and conspiracy games, with characters trying to figure out the truth of what’s going on and get the big picture.
Mysteries require a lot of planning, and just as if the GM were writing a novel, they have to know who the (in-game) players are, what the clues are, and make decisions about pacing as the game is played. If the players are missing important clues the GM can drop additional hints, and if the players are burning through the mystery the GM can throw them off the trail with red herrings. With both of these, the GM must be careful: too many red herrings and players get frustrated, too many nudging hints and the players feel railroaded. The challenge is to both make the story interesting and make the players feel smart for figuring it out. Although written for a specific system, GURPS Mysteries is the best general guide for writing and running RPG mysteries I’ve ever read.
Many, even most, RPGs center around combat, so the notion of a battle being a standalone adventure structure sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. That said, battles are the other ‘D’ in D&D…dragons are supposed to be the penultimate foe in the setting, so fighting one is an adventure all itself. When your players are getting ready to face the major foe of the campaign, or when the army they’ve been leading makes it to their final showdown, you have a battle. Similar to a heist, this structure rewards planning and strategy, but instead of breaking into a building the session culminates in an epic combat where all the mechanical gizmos of the system come out to play.
Because combat is such a significant part of most RPG campaigns, the most important part of planning a big battle is to make it special. The sorts of things that may otherwise get ignored, like terrain and environmental conditions, can help make it memorable. The type of enemy is also a potential differentiator, like the abovementioned dragons, or a big capital ship in a space opera game, or powered armor in a cyberpunk game. And of course, few GMs can resist the opportunity to bust out the mass combat system…but make sure you’ve done your homework, or what was supposed to be memorable could just turn into a slog.
The characters have to get somewhere, and it’s going to be one hell of a trip. The Travelogue is the biggest part of Tolkien’s writing that didn’t really translate into role-playing games, in part because travel didn’t really have much of a place in the wargames upon which D&D was based. Nonetheless, an adventure focused on getting from one place to another gives lots of opportunities for action. While you could have a straightforward “get the ring to Mount Doom” quest, you could also write an adventure about exploring unknown lands, and make the journey more important than the destination. For something perhaps more fast-paced and oppositional, the characters could race a group of rivals or enemies to get to the destination first.
However you structure the Travelogue, the game will likely need more than some random combats and piloting checks along the way. Great travel stories combine the challenges of resource management, random encounters, and plot-related detours, as well as flavor about the places the characters go. If you throw in a detailed map, say a hex-crawl, you can add navigation in there too. You know what’s actually a fairly good example of a travelogue campaign from a structural standpoint? Oregon Trail. Yeah, that one that you played on an Apple II in elementary school. The game may be a little staid by modern standards, but the balance between resource management, challenges, and navigation decisions makes for a decent point of comparison when outlining a Travelogue.
(Ryuutama is sometimes described as “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail”, and is a great example of a game built around the travelogue structure. – Ed.)
There’s a hurricane coming, there’s a dragon coming, the space station is depressurizing, or you’re in a maximum security prison. While the heist is all about getting in, the escape is all about getting out. Generally, your resources are limited and your time is even moreso, so this is a good time for your players to take risks and their characters to be daring and beat the odds. There’s a lot of range here: If the space station is depressurizing, there’s no time at all: you could run the entire session in combat time as the oxygen runs out. If the characters are in prison, things are less hectic, and the adventure could be run more like a reverse heist. Either way, the key of an escape is to tune the difficulty so that the characters are able to make good on their escape, while still letting the players feel like they accomplished something.
There are definitely other adventure structures that aren’t covered here. Sandboxes and survival are popular in the video game world, but are difficult to execute in a fun way at the table. Romance is both hard to do and a touchy subject with some gamers, but there are recent games like the excellent Monsterhearts that make it more approachable. For all of these though, it’s an important distinction that these are adventure structures, not campaign structures. In a Cyberpunk game, each session could be a different heist. If you were to start a campaign in a prison, that initial escape may only make up the first few sessions. If you’re planning a longer campaign, think about what it may look like as a sequence of adventures. While a D&D campaign could be one big travelogue, likely it’s broken up with dungeons and mysteries and battles in between. And while it’s good to have variety, it’s even better to give your players what they want: if you see that your group gets more excited whenever they’re planning a heist than they do going into the dungeon, that may indicate what you should emphasize in your campaign. That being said, mixing up your adventures is one of the easiest ways to keep gameplay fresh in an RPG. Either trying a new structure or just moving away from a structure that you use all the time will lend your next game session a very different feel and help you and your players find other things in games that are fun and keep your campaign engaging.