Narrative design isn’t quite fiction writing and it isn’t quite game design. Being good at one or the other—or both—doesn’t necessarily mean you can spin a fun adventure, and you can be good at adventure writing without exceling at either of those. Adventure design is its own thing that borrows elements from creative writing and mechanical tinkering but stands far enough apart to be internet BFFs rather than a torrid lover of the two. And it’s unfortunately a skill most of us have to earn organically by reverse-engineering published adventures or subjecting our early players to all sorts of abuse. Lots of game books—especially those dedicated to gamemasters—discuss how to make a plot and how to balance encounters, but most of them leave the details for you to learn.I won’t pretend I’m a good adventure designer, but I am an experienced adventure designer, and that counts for something. If you want to learn some of my secrets for building an adventure—either for my home group or for publication—keep reading.Today I want to talk about the two most basic elements of an adventure: your pitch and your theme.Pitch is the bare-bones description of your adventure; no backstory, no twists, no character details. It’s how you describe the whole thing in a single sentence, no matter how complicated the adventure gets as it progresses. Here are some pitches from published adventures I’ve written:
- An in-over-his-head cultist unleashes a city-wide zombie apocalypse (Pathfinder: Empty Graves).
- Mercenaries are hiring local gangs to sew discord (Starfinder: Soldiers of Brass)
- A plot device gives all the animals in the city super-powers (Mutants & Masterminds: The Reign of Cats & Dogs)
- A rich demagogue thinks traders have incriminating evidence of his past crimes (The Expanse: Two Kinds of Prayer)
All these adventures have a lot more going on that what’s contained in the pitch, but the pitch grabs the most important “who,” “what,” and maybe “why.” If your adventure was a toyetic plastic vehicle marketed to kids, your pitch is the picture on the front of the box. It doesn’t list the features, you can’t see inside, it just sums up the soul of what you’re doing.Your theme is more abstract. It’s the message or moral or emotion you want to build your work around—the central flavor of your dish. Your pitch describes the adventure overtly, but your theme describes the heart. It might be a solid idea, like “Never trust anyone over 30,” or “love wins in the end,” or it can be a more general idea like “community,” or “patience,” or it can be a recurring motif like cooking or the color red—whatever it is that elements of your plot keep coming back to or describing.A theme ties all the elements of your plot together even if they’re otherwise all over the place and gonzo. Here are the themes from the adventures I listed above, and how the adventures use that idea:
- Empty Graves: “Nothing stays buried forever.” The dead are literally rising from the ground. The disaster is caused by an artifact that was supposed to be hidden forever but was found. The villain’s main motivator is an abusive relationship with his mother he can’t suppress. Several encounters revolve around deliberately hidden legacies being revealed.
- Soldiers of Brass: “Hidden Depths.” The central villain hides behind local operatives. The rank-and-file villains aren’t overtly evil. Several businesses operate secret criminal operations behind legal fronts. Moving forward requires finding hidden passages.
- Reign of Cats & Dogs: “Good intentions without empathy.” The villain thinks she knows what’s best for everyone without considering others. The villain’s family try to accommodate her rather than understand her. Saving the city is much easier if the heroes just attack confused and scared but otherwise innocent animals. The villain recruits minions “for their safety” without any regard for their safety.
- Two Kinds of Prayer: “Guilt makes everything worse.” The villain’s crimes escalate as he worries he’ll be caught. The heroes are only drawn into events because of a rich man’s paranoia that they know too much. The villain attempts to ingratiate himself to the PCs so they feel they’ll lose too much by turning him in. The villain’s accomplice keeps blackmail information because he won’t be convicted alone for his crimes. The villain’s henchwoman feel obligated to defend his corruption because she feels indebted to him.
A theme doesn’t dictate every single encounter, but it helps you color events, characters, and dangers in ways that help the entire story come together. If your adventure is a cool, colorful mini for your warband, your theme is the undercoat color that helps tie all those garish elements together… usually without anyone even thinking about it.Why Do You Need a Pitch?What makes a man? Well a human doesn’t exist without a core structure to support their body. Sure, there’s more to a human being than a spine, but without a spine it’s a lot harder for all those dangling parts to stay together.A pitch isn’t for your reader or your players. It’s probably not even for your developer, if you’re writing your adventure for publication. The pitch is for you. It’s important that you know what your adventure is about. And I already know what you’re going to say: “But I’m literally the one writing my adventure! Of course I know what it’s about!”Well you’re right. BUT. It’s easy to get excited about all the possibilities a new adventure holds. You start thinking about NPCs’ histories and location details and chasing that narrative rabbit across Wikipedia links like a certain unnamed author whose blog you follow! And every now and then it’s super helpful to come up for air midway through reading about the San Juan Pig War and remind yourself “Oh yeah, this adventure is about faeries stealing babies to make magic rubies.”I like to add the pitch as its own line just under my adventure title in my outline, but you can scribble it on a post-in note, put a daily reminder in your phone, or set it as your desktop background. Whatever it takes to help you overcome your particular flavor of ADHD. And I know you have ADHD you need to help yourself manage because you’re off reading about the San Juan Pig War right now, aren’t you?!Think about what your adventure is at the core, what motivates it, and what stops it from being easy. Are the heroes raiding a lost tomb? Cool! Where and why? Are they moving from Point A to Point B? Excellent! What’s going to make that hard for them? Is someone trying to kill one of your heroes as disproportionate revenge for perceived wrongs? Marvelous! Who are they and how?Why Do You need a Theme?What makes a man? Purpose. Passion. The drive for self-improvement! Sure, there’s bones and monkey meat and maybe some pizza rolls, but the real substance of a human being is the idea that pushes her forward and the questions she asks herself along the way.All media delivers a message above and beyond its story, even stories that seem straightforward, simple, or mindless. Sometimes the message is clumsy and obvious while other times it’s so subtle you don’t notice it at first glance. Sometimes that message is just “The status quo is good,” or “You should solve problems with violence.” If you really get into the weeds of media analysis, you can read a story through different lenses to make it mean almost anything—which can be a fun exercise that can help you learn a lot about your own intentions as an author.The theme is your message. You might think of it as your adventure’s tone or aesthetic or moral. It’s the emotional core, big question, or statement you’re trying to make with your writing. It can be something you believe in or an idea you think will be fun to play with, but it’s an element that helps inform the big conflict and a lot of supporting elements. However you want to look at it, it’s a concept you should try to come back to whenever possible to inform the rest of your writing. You might have a vague notion of what your adventure’s big mood is—most of naturally look at their world through themes, concepts, and shorthand ideas to make sense of the world—but taking a moment to make it clear in your mind and write it down once again keeps it handy as a reminder. I like to write my theme down just below my pitch, along with a few keywords to help start my brain pumping.A theme gives your entire adventure a harmonious “flavor.” Not everything in your adventure needs to relate to the theme, just like your cocktail doesn’t need to be all whiskey, but they should all play nice with you theme. Sometimes mixing unexpected elements together can even create a thing of beauty, like combining whiskey and absinthe! Using your theme can help you pick out monsters and assign NPC motivations, and it can give you ideas for locations that strike just the right mood. A theme helps you play with your pitch and give a new twist or think about old tropes in a new way. If you like you plot but it feels stale, giving your adventure an unexpected theme can breathe new life into the idea. Combining a traditional trope like “the dragon has kidnapped the princess,” with a theme like “beauty slays the beast” can leave you with an adventure with a very different victim in need of rescuing.Perhaps the best utility for your theme is tackling writer’s block. If you aren’t sure how a monster or character fits into your story, look at your theme for a motive. If you aren’t sure how to link two scenes of your adventure, look at your theme for inspiration. Whenever you don’t know what to do next, look to your theme and pull together some random idea related to it, and if nothing else, those thematic ties will keep it from feeling too out of left field.Even if you end up writing a bomb in an ice cream shop.Coming Up with Your Pitch & ThemePutting your pitch and theme down on paper can be the easiest or the hardest step of adventure design, depending on how inspired you feel and how you come to your plot. If your adventure starts out as a “big picture,” it’s easy to distill a pitch from that. If your adventure starts from a mood you want to capture, that leads naturally into your theme.But what if all you have is an idea for a villain you want to use? Or a cool set piece action scene? Or your PCs’ actions have drawn them into this weird circumstance and you need to plan to get them out next session? If you’re coming up with your adventures organically, it can be hard to boil down your ideas into strong core principals.Remember, your pitch doesn’t need to describe every twist and turn your plot will take, and your theme doesn’t need to apply universally to every single character and encounter. They’re both guidelines to help you stay focused and remind you of your goals. They’re “big picture” elements, and to describe them you just need to think about the major movements of your story. Do you only know your players will finally confront their long-time rival, the gnome anti-paladin who destroyed their village, and you want a big fight over a bunch of chemical vats at the end? Your pitch can literally be “Tracking a villain through and industrial hellscape,” or “Hunting an evil warlord,” and your theme can be as straightforward as “the wages of sin” or “comeuppance.” They don’t need to be perfect high-concepts, just useful ones. Never be afraid to tinker with your pitch and theme later, or just put off creating them until you’ve got more of your plot and twists fleshed out. If you start working on your crusade against the gnome tyrant and decide “the wages of sin” doesn’t fit because you want to play up this gnome using illusions and lies to paint the heroes as monsters to the locals, change your theme to “revealing the truth,” and see if you can tweak some of your existing plot points to focus more on revealing deeper truths or context throughout. You are the only person who knew your original plan, so no one will ever be able to testify against you in gnome court!It can still feel like a struggle to come up with unifying ideas for your adventures, so here are some tips that have helped me in the past:
- Go Random: Random generators are a writer’s blessing. You no longer need to wrack your brain to be creative when you can make the computer do it for you! With a random plot generator or a random theme generator, you can shuffle though dozens of ideas until you hit one that starts turning the gears in your brain. Plenty of gamemaster-guide stylebooks include tables of random adventure ideas as well, so don’t overlook your analogue options.
- Grab a Quote: If you’re struggling especially for a theme, get online and grab a random quote for a book or movie. And think about how you can apply that idea to your plot and characters.
- Read a Book: If you aren’t sure where you go with your adventure, pick up a book—especially an old favorite—and start reading at random. A quote or situation might spark your own ideas or provide that theme that’s been eluding you. Poetry collections are especially great for this, and my favorites include Goblin Market by Christine Rossetti, Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Short story anthologies are a great source of inspiration, too, including collections of fairy tales, fantasy stories, or modern material like one of my personal favorites, Strange California, collected by Jaym Gates and J. Daniel Batt.
- Phone a Friend: When I’m really struggling with an idea, I turn to my genius wife or another writer friend to talk out ideas. Most of my best work is the result of collaboration; someone gets excited about an idea I pitched and fills in details, or I do the same with an idea they feed me. A good circle of authors means you get help when you need it and you get to talk out your friends’ awesome ideas, too!
- When All Else Fails, Cheat: Let’s be honest: Star Wars is just The Hidden Fortress with a coat of scifi paint. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; you can enjoy both stories on their own for what they are. Most of human culture is just looking for new ways to re-tell the same handful of stories and your adventures don’t need to be free-range, grass-fed genius from start to finish. Grab and adventure you know and love from a movie, TV, a book, or even an RPG line and adjust it to fit your needs. Even if you start out with a blatant copy, along the way you’re likely to start adapt the idea and making it your own. Use the familiar as a jumping off point, scratch off the serial numbers where you can, then go back later to change the obvious rip-offs.
If you’re having trouble distilling your adventure down to a simple pitch or theme, you might be trying to juggle too much for a single adventure, or you might want to trim some excess from your adventure to give it more focus. It’s okay to build adventures around Byzantine plotlines and complex characters—I would argue it’s a lot more fun to do just that—but a pitch helps you remember what important elements you need to keep in mind and communicate, while a tone helps you decide how to present all of that same information.Hopefully this is enough to get you started. But I’ll be back next time to talk about the all-important title!
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