The Art of Adventure

Handwritten campaign notes

Up until relatively recently, I’d only ever run one published tabletop RPG scenario: “Dead Man Stomp,” as included in the Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition rulebook. And that was several years ago. Since the beginning of the year, though, I’ve run no fewer than four pre-published adventures: two from Horror on the Orient Express and two for Dungeons & Dragons Expeditions. In point of fact, I haven’t written any original adventure material since last December.

Aside from these adventures, I’ve also been re-listening to Know Evil, the grand-scale Eclipse Phase scenario run by Caleb Stokes for Role-Playing Public Radio. In doing this, I’ve been able to really examine what makes that campaign tick, what makes it feel coherent and whole, and not like a bunch of disconnected adventures.

Clearly, the surfeit of detail to be found in Know Evil and in the published adventure format has spoiled me, because, with my own Eclipse Phase campaign on the horizon (tentatively titled Second Star to the Right), I find myself putting far more thought into the long-term than I ever have before. I’m not only setting up the material for the beginning of an adventure, I’m figuring out how the puzzle pieces at the start fit into the story later on. I’m also taking a world (one already rich with adventure possibilities) and creating a locus of action for it, a kind of ersatz City of Adventure. A place that has been assembled with every intention of having batshit crazy nonsense happen there for the player characters to take part in.

Up until now, my approach to adventure design has been entirely modular. Scratch out one or two pages of notes for a given session, improvise anything that comes up during the session that I didn’t write down, then lather, rinse, and repeat. It wasn’t until I’d been running games for several years, even with the same group in the same setting with the same characters, that the concept of linking adventures together with continuous narrative threads occurred to me. With that particular game, the continuity wasn’t planned, I just realized that I could do it, so I did. And most of the time I threw things in without reasoning out in advance what they would be good for.

“Hm. I like time travelers. A time traveler should show up! Yes. I can figure out why later.”

To my credit, I did manage to figure out why, it just took a couple of years.

So this idea of front-loading a campaign at the outset is very novel to me. It’s going to be more experimentation on my part with GMing—after all, I’ve never run a proper sandbox game before, nor have I really properly cemented a story arc with this much stuff going on.

I’m hoping this turns out to be a real treat for my players. I know that I’m having a blast putting it all together. And I’ll be continuing to work on it even throughout this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo. In total, there will be three things jockeying for my writerly attention as July hurtles past: my comedy class, my Camp novel, and Second Star.


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