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Building an Adventure

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue.

The core of any role-playing game is the adventure. With Traveller, you can sit and generate characters and worlds and whatever all day, and at the end of it, you’ll have… a pile of characters and worlds and whatever. Some people enjoy that, but… what’s the point, if you don’t play with the results? And if you do play with your pile of characters and worlds and whatever, what else are you doing but having adventures?

Adventures aren’t just about rolling dice and seeing what happens, though. They have a structure, and that structure is a major part of what pulls together a whole bunch of interactions and die rolls into a coherent whole.

Types of Adventure

The phrase “type of adventure” can be used in different ways. It is used here to refer to the relative length and completeness of the developed material describing the adventure. Broadly speaking, under this definition, there are two types of adventure:

Long Form

The Long Form adventure supplies essentially everything the referee will need to run the adventure – patron(s), mission(s), inducements, assistance and opposition for the player-characters, encounters, and so on. The long form allows the referee to concentrate on running the adventure, rather than prepping for it or creating scenarios “on the fly”. A Long Form adventure need not be complex, or even particularly long in terms of “word count” in the definition of the adventure; the classic Traveller introductory adventure “Exit Visa”, intended to familiarize new players and referees with Traveller’s task resolution mechanism, can be fully described in about a single page of text.

Short Form (“Seed”)

The Short Form adventure, often called an Adventure Seed, generally provides little more than a starting scenario, leaving further development to the referee and the party. In its classic form, it may additionally supply a small number (usually six, to be selected from using a 1D6 roll) of alternative one-line summaries of possible denouements. The Short Form adventure gives the referee the flexibility to fit the players’ actions to the adventure without constraining them.

Components of the Adventure

The components of the adventure will be discussed here as though the intent is to put together a Long Form adventure. While not every adventure will have – or need – every component, understanding what the basic component are and how they fit into the adventure is essential to building it.

The Patron

The Patron is, in short, the source of the adventure. While the general usage makes the patron a person (within the meaning of person for the game setting), the broader conceptual definition here allows for non-person patrons – for example, finding an old diary with an entry about a hidden treasure places the diary in the role of patron.

The Mission

The Mission defines the overall goal of the adventure – what the patron (implicitly or explicitly) wants the party to do. It is up to the party to decide whether the inducements (see below) are sufficient to make executing the mission worthwhile.

The Inducement(s)

An inducement is a reason that the party chooses to take on the adventure presented by the patron. If there is no inducement, the party will choose not to undertake the adventure. Inducements may be internal to the adventure, or external to it; an internal inducement is one that is provided by the adventure itself; an external inducement is one that is generated by the players based on factors not directly connected with the adventure. Whether internal or external, inducements come in two types: The Push, and The Pull.

The Push

The Push assumes that the characters are reluctant to undertake the adventure; it is in many senses a goad. The objective of the push is to cause the party to undertake the adventure to avoid some sort of negative consequence of not doing so.

The Pull

The Pull is an inducement that causes the characters to be in favor of undertaking the adventure; it represents a reward – often fiscal, but other forms are quite commonly encountered.

The Opposition

If there is nothing opposing the completion of the mission, there would be no reason for the patron not to undertake it himself. Opposition need not be intelligent or targeted at the mission; natural conditions can make for effective opposition, especially if the party is ill-equipped to deal with it.

The Puzzle

The puzzle is very much optional; it represents unanswered questions that make themselves evident either as part of the mission definition, or during execution. Puzzles can range from mere unanswered questions as to why the patron needs the mission accomplished – or why the opposition needs it to fail – to trying to learn what the nature of the Mysterious Object is. Solving the puzzle may become a “pull” on the characters for future adventures.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is mandatory; it represents the opportunity to play out the events that occur as and immediately after the mission is completed. Often, it provides “closure” for the whole adventure, but it is entirely possible that some aspects might be left “dangling” for use in future adventures – for example, the puzzle might not be solved, or the Big Bad of the opposition may escape, with vengeance on his mind, or the conditions of the push or the pull may remain unfulfilled, leading to the characters actively seeking a continuation.

Structuring the Adventure for Play

Linear Progression

The linear progression is the form that most often appears when “dilettante” or “amateur” authors first turn their hand to writing adventures for role-playing games. As the name implies, the organization is linear, with the characters required to complete a set of tasks in sequence to achieve the goal of the adventure.

The advantage of the linear progression is that it’s a “natural” design, and easy to develop. Fiction (stories, novels, etc.) are linear, and the author of an adventure often has a story-like sequence in mind when developing the adventure, so the linear progression is a good fit. The adventure folio tends to read like a story as well.

The disadvantages of the linear progression can be summed up with one word: “railroad”. The essence of the word is its implication of being out of control of a situation, and carried along by events. This can work against both the characters and the referee:

If the adventure is not managed well – generally by a highly-skilled and experienced referee – the players will tend to feel that they are being “railroaded” – that is, they are merely being carried along by preplanned events, and have no real influence over the outcome.

On the other hand, if the players manage to take control, the referee may find that the adventure has gone in unanticipated directions, and may not have a way of getting it “back on track”, or may not have plans or materials to accommodate the new direction.

Cinematic Nugget Format

Digest Group Publications devised – or, at the very least, presented in an organized fashion – an alternative to the linear progression format for an adventure. The Cinematic Nugget Format laid out the adventure as a series of “scenarios”, each of which was divided into several “nuggets”. Each nugget was similar to a “short form” adventure (as described above), setting up a situation to be resolved by playing it through. Additionally, the scenario itself often had some additional background information. Not all the information accompanying a scenario or nugget would be for dissemination to the players or player-characters.

Not all nuggets were essential to the ultimate resolution of the adventure as a whole, and those that were not could be skipped (not played out) if necessary. Certain nuggets, however, were “key nuggets”, and had to be played to move the adventure along. Key nuggets could rely on information gathered from previously-played key nuggets, or from non-key nuggets; they also tended to establish necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) conditions for playing the next key nugget.

While not actually required by the format, adventures in Cinematic Nugget Format often had a diagram showing the relationships between nuggets.

The major advantage to the Cinematic Nugget Format is its flexibility. Non-key nuggets may be played in any order, allowing the players to exercise some control over the course of the adventure, and with some additional planning on the part of the referee, multiple adventures in Cinematic Nugget Format can be interwoven, and possibly interwoven even with Linear Progression adventures, to provide a multi-threaded campaign.

The major disadvantage is potential complexity. While key nuggets are the only ones that must be played – and most likely in a specific order – relying on having some information from non-key nuggets requires the referee to track what information the characters have, and (if necessary) diverting them into the non-key nuggets to obtain needed information. This does not make any particular non-key nugget into a key nugget; consider the situation where the key nugget involves opening a door, either with a physical key or a passcode: One non-key nugget may allow the characters to obtain the physical key, while a different one will give them the pass code. Neither is “key”, as either can be avoided by playing the other – but at least one of them must be played to provide the information needed for the key nugget.

EPIC format

The difference between the Cinematic Nugget Format and the EPIC format seems to be fundamentally one of nomenclature, rather than of organization. The EPIC format adds some minor refinements such as a consolidated list of characters (PC and NPC) for the entire adventure, requiring the schematic diagram of scene/plot key (nugget/key nugget) relationships, and adding a checklist for completed scenes and plot keys.

As with the Cinematic Nugget format, the flexibility of the EPIC format allows for moderate player control within the adventure, and also the possibility of interweaving multiple adventures.

Similarly, its major disadvantage lies in the potential complexity of the interaction among scenes and plot keys. This is slightly mitigated by the use of the checklist, an innovation that can be “back ported” to the Cinematic Nugget Format as well.

Other Uses for the Adventure

While the focus of this article has been creating an adventure for traditional “tabletop” or “pencil, paper, and dice” role-playing, a fully worked-out adventure has other uses as well.


A fully-worked-out Long Form adventure can easily be viewed as an outline or summary of a story. By imagining how each scene or nugget might play out, writing it down, and repeatedly expanding on and refining your work, you can flesh out the summary into a full story. If your original adventure material is in the Cinematic Nugget Format or EPIC format, you also have the flexibility of rearranging the chapters of your story to best suit the need for dramatic tension.

“Interactive Fiction”

“Interactive Fiction” is the currently-used general term for the kind of game that used to be called “text adventures”; the most widely recognized examples are the classic “Adventure” (ADVENT) or “Colossal Cave”, and “Zork”. These games generally have the player issuing typed commands to a more-or-less robotic “avatar”, which then reports the results, along with what the avatar sees, hears, and so on. Tools exist to make it easier to create such games, even if one isn’t a programmer, but the tools can’t write the actual adventure (sometimes called a story) for you – you need to do that yourself, and a Long Form adventure in Cinematic Nugget Format or EPIC format that needs only one active character is nearly ideal as a starting point. Each scene or nugget represents a “room” of the adventure, and you can more or less script the needed interactions within the room.