7 Tips For Writing a Better RPG Adventure

Jan 27 2009


A few months ago, I published my first RPG adventure, War in the Deep, a D&D 4th Edition adventure for Heroic Tier players. Here’s what I learned in writing it.

  1. Artwork turns a bland adventure document into an exciting one. I searched Flickr for photos licensed under the Creative Commons for commercial use, and I used Inkscape to create color maps.
  2. Most people have black-and-white printers, so make sure your maps are still legible when printed grayscale.
  3. Play around with fonts. You can go crazy, of course, which is bad; you don’t want readers crossing their eyes as they read. Fonts must be clearly legible. But a slightly more antique font, reminiscent of 1900’s-era type, for example, can give your adventure text the right tone.
  4. Beware text tricks. Adventures use a large variety of types of text; background plot descriptions, dialogue, traditional “boxed text,” stats, headers, and map captions (at least). Make each one distinctive, but not wildly so. You only need two or three different font families; use italicization, bold, indentation, borders, and other such effects to differentiate types of text. (I ended up with one font for headers, one font for text, and one slightly different font for stats because the main text font looked weird at small text sizes.)
  5. An adventure’s plot must be railroaded. Unfortunate, but true. War in the Deep is a 4-5 encounter adventure. There’s simply not enough space to wait for the players to wander around investigating plot threads in detail or uncover background plots. So the action must move naturally from one plot point to the next, with little variation. Many stories simply won’t work in this format.
  6. Direct players from one plot point to the next; don’t force them. In my first draft, characters would simply insist that the players take up a quest or follow them in a particular direction. Several reviewers pointed out the frustration caused by high-handed NPCs (more accurately: heavy-handed GMing), so I toned that down, while still pointing the characters in a specific direction.
  7. Write for the GM, not the players. I wanted to describe the differing personalities of three NPCs very briefly and memorably, so I explained that they act like Han, Leia, and Luke as of the end of Star Wars episode IV. The players won’t ever know this; the NPCs are aquatic elf nobles sitting on a council, so they won’t ever mention Alderaan or the Force. But this shorcut gives the GM a handy hook for each character’s personality, and how they interact.

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