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I'm still struggling with, as a GM, turning a scenario idea or a goal of the PCs' into a proper adventure. A proper adventure has challenging, multiple steps — I'm failing to get the “multiple steps” part.

For example, if the initial idea/goal is “Rescue the people kidnapped from the tavern by Orcs”, all I can think of for how to turn this into activity in the game is “follow the Orcs' trail, then deal with them to get the hostages”, which isn't even two scenes of play!

This is a problem for me regardless of whether the goal/activity is generated by me or the players, and regardless of whether I'm pre-planning the session or improvising a situation during play.

This is a both a problem for me and for my players. We all find this unsatisfying.

What I've Tried

  1. Creating Antagonists w / Goals

    E.g., in the above example, “the Orcs don't want to keep the captives as slaves.” But that still doesn't create any events or other things for the players to do, besides still rescue them.

  2. Creating steps for the Antagonists à la *World games' Fronts/Dangers

    E.g., a step might be “Orcs kidnaps people and takes them back to lair”, but I've got nothing else to add as more steps.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this question could become something suitable for SE, but as it's written now I think you might be in the too broad or too opinionated category. Can you narrow this question? Perhaps to a single thing you're attempting to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jan 12 '17 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Adam Definitely. Dungeon World, for example, has very specific ways of handling this issue, aka GM Moves. OTOH, D&D leaves encounter design entirely up to the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jan 12 '17 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think there are enough tried-and-true methods from going from “one sentence scenario” to “workable adventure chunks” or even “full-blown adventure” that we can tackle this, based on what we have used that worked in practice. There are multiple approaches, yes, but rooting answers in experience (“I have learned to exploit ideas into fun gameplay with this method, and I favour it because experience showed the pros and cons that result are XYZ”) should keep it from being too broad? On that foot, I'll reopen this. Let's see how it goes and then re-evaluate if necessary. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 12 '17 at 20:36
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I often have that problem, though not to quite the degree you describe. I often stall on how to develop a basic idea into a meaningful adventure scenario. I can do it, but I get some really nasty Blank Page syndrome some days and need a kick to actually get down to work.

The most reliable tool I use for painlessly expanding an idea into a larger amount of playable material is…

Dr Rotwang's Adventure Funnel

Not to be confused with a “funnel adventure” which is entirely different, the Adventure Funnel is a GM preparation method for taking a seed idea and expanding it out into many ideas. The key practical effect it achieves is giving you obstacles and details to make your scenario more involved. The method it uses is a structured brainstorming exercise. I find structured brainstorming methods far more usable than just kinda trying to think of ideas without a structured method.

This is helpful because the more involved your scenario becomes, the more time it takes for the players and their PCs to step through its parts, and the more stuff happens during games. It might not seem like that should make much difference, but when you mix more stuff with a bunch of unpredictable people around the table making choices, you get a multiplicative effect, and the result is satisfying gameplay.

Making an adventure using the Adventure Funnel

Before you start, know that what you'll get out of this process is not a full adventure, but a pile of pieces that are designed to fully enable you to improvise a fun adventure out of some or all of them (to be determined during play), or enough pieces that you can shove them together and write out a pre-planned adventure outline without any major creative blocks to overcome, just polishing work and slotting in stats and names and such details.

The basic process is well-described in Dr Rotwang's original blog post, but can be summarised as three steps:

  1. Write down your basic idea at the top of a page. You've already got that, so this is easy.

  2. Write down 5 obstacles to achieving that goal. Not even a sentence for each, just a basic idea, short like your top-level original idea is.

    This shouldn't be that hard. If it is, you're overthinking it. Just throw down whatever you can think of. Get it done, don't try to get it perfect.

    Don't worry if you think an idea is bad — write it down anyway. You're writing down five of these: not every one of them has to be a winner or will necessarily get used.

Ha ha, you already have enough material for an adventure without even doing step 3! Good for you. You could be done now, if you want. But if you want, using that material will be easier at the table if you…

  1. Note down some details. Do this numbered point-form again, just like step 2. Details are anything that fleshes out things you're interested in from previous steps. Don't force it, but instead go for the things you've already started thinking about or wondering about while you were getting down the basic idea and obstacles. Basically, you should already have some things you're itching to note down — this is where you do it, instead of cluttering the steps above.

    Details are things like names, motivations, scene-setting notes, people involved, objects, why or how exactly a step 2 thing is an obstacle, locations, etc. These are your notes for interesting details (literally). They need not be long either: a sentence or sentence fragment.

Now you're really done. You could run a whole session or three with the material you've got now. And introducing your material during play will lead to the players doing things that take up time and are interesting to narrate, resolve, and springboard off of, so it will actually turn into much more material than you actually prepared.

Optionally, add:

  1. Assistance and rewards. Step 2 is all about stuff in the PCs' way. This step is about stuff that they might run into that can help them, and stuff that they might learn about that they can earn for dealing with the adventure or particular obstacles. This is where you make a note about the helpful oracle in the forest, the villagers who can give information, or the treasure that the orcs have been collecting.

A worked example of using the Adventure Funnel

Dr Rotwang's post not only describes the method, but gives a worked example I urge you to read.

But I also have a Dungeon World dungeon/adventure front I should be writing instead right now so, I'm just going to Adventure Funnel that right here and now. If it seems oddly non-fantasty in parts, that's because we're playing a Final Fantasy inspired game, so there's magitech and stuff in our world.

(My players, if you're so unlikely as to be visiting RPG.se, stop reading here if you don't want to be spoilered! Can't spoiler-block this much formatting. Also, you'd trip over anything that changes between here and actual play…)

A few notes on my thought process are in italic parentheses.

Goal: Retrieve a record of the carvings in the Tomb of the Forgotten Hero.

Obstacles:

  1. The tomb is said to be guarded by the spirits of all the Great Beasts slain by the Hero. (I'm cheating a bit here: this is an obstacle the Bard's player gave me during our first session, when I asked.)
  2. Goons from the Empire
  3. The inner tomb is sealed with magics
  4. Mana crystals have grown and are blocking passages (growing crystals are something I already knew were part of the world and this adventure, I just didn't know how yet)
  5. EARTHQUAKE (Stalled on 5th idea, so I just wrote down the silliest/worst idea I could think of.)

(That took all of five minutes! Woo!)

Details:

(This is where you'll see me start making connections between things above, and showing which caught my imagination.)

  1. The spirits are totally a thing, but have been only intangible/scary before. Now they will (merge and?) create a mana crystal body — BOSS FIGHT!
  2. Empire goons are here looking for a mana crystal seed. They know this is a leyline nexus.
  3. Mana crystal seed is what the ghosts use to build a body around! It's a power source! (I knew about the mana crystals before. I did not know about seed crystals used as power sources though! Now I have other ideas for the Empire Front's activities and motives…)
  4. The tomb has old technology apparent in its walls and rooms, all non-functional now. Or maybe just dormant.
  5. Oh, that robot with the pirates outside from the first session? Totally actually working for the Empire. Did it survive the explosion? (Because I'm prepping for Dungeon World, I'll leave the truth of that last point to find out during play. Also, if I have other Empire Goons show up, I don't need the robot as much if I want to make the Empire's presence felt. Now I got options!)
  6. Robot can explosively “ejection seat” its head and fly it back to its masters as a last resort.
  7. The carvings detail the history of the last time the mana crystals went nuts and started growing everywhere. They are in an old language that will need translating though. (Not bothering to detail why they're after the carvings, since we've already established that. It's an Undine ship captain who's paying them to bring the info.)
  8. Earthquake will open rooms up into the tunnels below. Possibly dropping the PCs down there?
  9. Tunnels below are caused by mana worms following the growth of the crystal out of the Glasslands. They eat them? (Eh, don't like this idea. But I writes it 'cause I thoughts it.)
  10. Crystals are visibly, but slowly growing. They've blocked off some passages: little enough to squeeze between (but still growing!); completely blocking but can see through/past, and/or super-dense growth that will be hard to ever get through.
  11. Boss monster is made of living crystal, like the Mage's hand. It erupts out of the ground like the crystals, just growing faster than they usually do.
  12. Boss monster changes forms as different spirits defeated?
  13. Boss monster has multiple heads, for each spirit?
  14. Boss monster shows off crystal magic. Crystal magic SFX are light blue, like our Robogolem PC's power source.
  15. Boss monster can control the crystals around the room!

(At this point I have tonnes of material, but I still feel the ideas flowing, so I'm not stopping. This is working well!)

  1. Goons are obviously going to mess with the seed crystal that's grown inside the main tomb and thereby trigger the monster and get smacked by it. Heroes, do your thing! (Here I have a kind of set scene idea. Being Dungeon World, it might not work out that way, but now I have raw material in mind to exploit or remix if the DW rules give me the opportunity.)
  2. Empire goons got to the island of the Tomb in some kind of flying hover thing. It's down on the beach on the opposite side of the island from the PCs' and pirates landing site. They broke in through the ceiling. Uh, why? Ah, to avoid the wards, that they knew about.
  3. Wards are glowing red sigils on the main tomb slab door. They're glowing weakly though and some aren't glowing at all. (Bard might Spout Lore on this and I can tell how that's not normal?)
  4. Mana crystals are translucent, iridescent (inside, not surface) blue and red. Obvs connection with other magic and magitech SFX colours, but details TBD in another adventure.
  5. This Tomb is a leyline nexus. Remember that and the leylines that come out of it, if someone manages to do something cool that would let them perceive that magic flow. There are three small leylines that converge here — minimum to be a nexus, so it's a minor one.
  6. Undine captain is working with/for an Empire mage who wants the carving info. Not disclosing s/he's Empire, though. A rival of whoever sent the Goons, so will be angry at the interference with the heroes, obscuring the Empire connection.

(This took quite a bit of time, but that's because I got carried away. Like Dr Rotwang's original, you could really stop at five or nine or whatever few details.)

Assistance and Rewards:

(I always have a hard time with treasure in Dungeon World because I don't improv this stuff well. I'm much more a fan of poring over D&D-style treasure chapters and finding cool stuff. So Funneling this up is actually super-important for me bettering my Dungeon World GMing.)

  1. The mana crystal seed, obviously. It gives magic powers, per its colour, which can be improved over time and study and attunement. Inspiration: Secret of Mana weapons and mana seeds, except for magic powers. Just one person, can't be traded around. Write a Compendium Class for each shard. (Yes, obvs there will be others in the world!) This one is light sea green, like light in a kelp forest. Breathing underwater will def be a thing it gives. Maybe also calling schools of fish, swimming fast, etc. Or is that too small for a CC?

  2. The carving's story. All about how there was a colossal crystal pillar/tree in an ancient civ's capital, that was tapped into for magic/magitech/power, which over the centuries shrank. They noticed too late that it was shrinking, and by then the collapse was inevitable. Magic disappeared for a time, and all the scattered (comparatively) little growths crystals all over the world did too.

    The mage will blurt a bunch of this out, absent-mindedly forgetting “underlings” are around.

  3. Undine captain's payment for services rendered. 30 coins each and passage where they wish to go, as agreed, plus 20 more each (from the mage, ultimately) to keep the mage's translation to themselves.

  4. A Goon might drop a nice sword. (If Goon lives/escapes, recurring rivalry as tries to reclaim it!) It has a tiny red crystal shard in its hilt. When lit on fire, the fire burns without fuel until extinguished somehow.

Pros and cons

The biggest pro of using the Adventure Funnel is that it's quick and can be used either to lay the groundwork for writing up a detailed adventure, or for improvising during a session.

I find it particularly good for generating material I could fall back on during improvised GMing, since I'm not obligated to use a particular idea if it doesn't end up fitting the way the session goes. I can pick and discard bits on the fly.

Another pro of using the Adventure Funnel is that it can be used as an input to other GM preparation methods, instead of using it directly as input to a game session.

  • Have a blank map, and want to create a dungeon or overland adventure from it? Great, Adventure Funnel some ideas while looking at it, then go tackle filling out your map.
  • Want to create a Five Room Dungeon, but need ideas? Funnel some up, then build your Five Room Method using your Funnel material for inspiration.
  • You've played your First Session of Dungeon World and now you need to develop some Fronts? Great, take your First Session notes, and Adventure Funnel some of them. Now you've got some moderately complex ideas to just fill in the blanks of one or more Fronts.

The biggest con of using the Adventure Funnel is that you will often generate material you don't end up using. If you don't force yourself to stop with a few details and get carried away like I did above, that can take a lot of time. You can recycle that material for another adventure though, so I like to consider it a bonus, not wasted effort, and using the Adventure Funnel generates material fast enough that it's at least an efficient use of time. Your mileage may vary regarding how you feel about that though.

Now though, I'm off to think about a sandwich, and let this settle and age a bit, so I can distill it into a proper Adventure Front, or perhaps a Perilous Wilds Dungeon Record, later today or tomorrow.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely brilliant answer and a fantastic tool - this might be a good post to bookmark and link other DMs too, within or outside of SE \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Jan 13 '17 at 10:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic resource. Truly. I have one question for you, have you had any experience using this to make a full campaign rather than a single adventure? Using the initial goal as the main campaign purpose and using the obstacles to seed the adventures, and the details to flesh out the various story elements? You could then use the tool again for each of those seeds in the obstacle section to flesh out each of those singular quests. Seems like it would work, but I am curious if you or anyone has firsthand experience doing that with this particular tool. \$\endgroup\$ – Omnitus Jan 14 '17 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Omnitus I haven't, though I can see how one adventure could snowball into a whole campaign. Dr Rotwang does endorse breaking pieces off and "zooming in" with another Adventure Funnel too, but not explicitly to build up into a campaign, just to drill down. There may be special hangups using this for a full campaign that I haven't seen without trying it. I think it's a worthy experiment though. If you try it, let us know! (I think we have at least one campaign dev question it might help answer…) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 14 '17 at 18:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Well, I guess it's time to whip out the pad of paper and writing utensil of creativity +1 (I wish) and give it a shot. If I can come up with a reasonably cohesive campaign idea in a reasonable amount of time, I will come back and drop a comment to let you know if it seems viable. \$\endgroup\$ – Omnitus Jan 14 '17 at 18:50
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Let's start with a few assumptions. I'm assuming you're not playing a sandbox campaign. And I'm assuming your campaign takes place in a relatively traditional RPG where you have a DM who presents a scenario to the players, who respond to that scenario.

From your description, it sounds like you have an adventure that looks something like this:

  • (The orcs kidnap a bunch of people.)
  • The party arrives on the scene (the game starts here).
  • The party fights a bunch of orcs to free the townsfolk.

We'll add on to this as we go along.

Step 1: Standard Padding

If you need to pad out an adventure, there are two very easy wells to draw from to add an extra encounter or two:

  1. How do the players find out what they need to know? (investigation)
  2. How do the players get where they need to go? (travel)

These are useful to call out on their own, because they can be added to pretty much any adventure. It is very rare in role playing games for the party to have all of the information they need. It is also very rare for the party to spend an entire adventure sitting in one place.

Investigation

Investigation is really your chance to provide exposition. Think of the things the party needs to know, and then figure out how that can be conveyed through things they find or interact with. Some information you give out for free, and some may require skill checks or role playing to get at.

In your case, here are some ideas:

  • How does the party know people are missing? (there aren't enough people here; buildings are damaged, and there's even the occasional bit of blood. Talking to the townsfolk makes it clear that they were attacked)

  • How does the party know it was orcs? (investigation checks reveal broken and discarded weapons of orc manufacture)

  • How does the party know where the orcs went? (the villagers can give a vague sense of direction; tracking can reveal their trail; investigation or knowledge shows signs that these are the Orcs of the Red Right Hand, known to live some distance to the west)

A word of warning: It is very easy to write a challenge that looks like "the players must make a DC12 tracking check to pick up the orcs' trail." This looks fine on paper... Right up until the players botch the check, the orcs get away, and the adventure ends to the sound of sad trombones.

When dealing with investigations, make sure that the players have enough information to proceed for free. What good are the checks then? Give them other benefits... For example, failing the check could mean arriving after a third of the hostages have been executed. Or after the orcs have dug in.

Or fail forward -- Use the failure to move the plot along. The players fail the tracking check, and end up on the trail of a rival party of orcs. There aren't any hostages here, but there is loot and information (or an opportunity for clever roleplaying).

Travel

No matter what else the players do, they need to get to the source of conflict. This gives the DM plenty of opportunity to interact with the party... Whether it be by showing glimpses of their antagonists (orc scouting parties!), giving them an encounter with the local fauna (territorial dire wolves!), hazardous terrain (brave the treacherous mountain pass!), or even more routine rolls for tracking, survival, or maintaining a reasonable pace.

This is an opportunity to add foreshadowing, or just kill some time.

Let's add a bit of padding to our adventure:

  • (The orcs kidnap a bunch of people.)
  • The party arrives on the scene (the game starts here).
  • The learns of the attack and the hostages. If they talk to the mayor, he'll offer a reward.
  • A bit of investigation can turn up the fact that these are the Orcs of the Red Right Hand, whose stronghold is east of here.
  • While en route, the party discovers that a ravine they need to go through has been blocked by an avalanche. They need to get around it to proceed.
  • The party encounters an orc scouting party. If they did well on their tracking and other earlier rolls, they spot the orcs first... Allowing them to ambush their foes, tail them, or do other clever things.
  • The party fights a bunch of orcs to free the townsfolk.

Step 2: Ask Questions with Purpose

Asking about motivations is well-known advice. But it's important to remember why you're asking the question. You wouldn't answer the question "how was your day?" with "72 degrees and sunny," because that doesn't address the purpose of the question.

The same is true here: your purpose is to find interesting twists, complications, and information for the players. You aren't the orcs' therapist.

"The orcs don't want them as slaves" is an answer to "what are the orcs' goals?" (well, part of one perhaps...) but it doesn't move your design session forward. Give it some more thought, until it does. Maybe the orcs are looking for ransom (in which case they'll need to communicate with whoever has money and keep the hostages safe, but will probably be well prepared for pursuit). Maybe the orcs are looking for sacrifices to their dark god (in which case the party is on the clock!).

What are some questions that might make this interesting? Well, I rather like that "sacrifice to their dark gods" bit. What about "why is the mayor offering a reward?" Hm... Perhaps his children have been captured by the orcs?

  • (The orcs kidnap a bunch of people.)
  • The party arrives on the scene (the game starts here).
  • The learns of the attack and the hostages. If they talk to the mayor, he'll offer a reward for rescuing his children.
  • A bit of investigation can turn up the fact that these are the Orcs of the Red Right Hand, whose stronghold is east of here.
  • While en route, the party discovers that a ravine they need to go through has been blocked by an avalanche. They need to get around it to proceed.
  • The party encounters an orc scouting party. If they do well on their tracking and other earlier rolls, they spot the orcs first... Allowing them to ambush their foes, tail them, or do other clever things.
  • The party fights a bunch of orcs to free the townsfolk. Unless they've done particularly well, this will be at the fortified stronghold at the orcs' sacred place.

Step 3: Split Things Up

You don't need to fight a whole horde of orcs all at once. We've already added a few orc scouting parties, but how can we get a bit more mileage out of these orcs?

We'd also like to give the players some choices, and allow them to have a partial success even if they aren't completely successful.

So let's say that when the players catch up with the bulk of the orc raiding party, they discover that the orcs' leader has gone on ahead with the choicest sacrifices (naturally including the mayor's children).

What was one encounter (fight a bunch of orcs) is now two: Fight a bunch of orcs, then chase and fight their leader. The players now have the opportunity to decide whether they should press on after the main horde, or rest and heal their wounds. And if they fail to stop the chieftain in time, they'll still have at least saved some of the hostages.

  • (The orcs kidnap a bunch of people.)
  • The party arrives on the scene (the game starts here).
  • The learns of the attack and the hostages. If they talk to the mayor, he'll offer a reward for rescuing his children.
  • A bit of investigation can turn up the fact that these are the Orcs of the Red Right Hand, whose stronghold is east of here.
  • While en route, the party discovers that a ravine they need to go through has been blocked by an avalanche. They need to get around it to proceed.
  • The party encounters an orc scouting party. If they do well on their tracking and other earlier rolls, they spot the orcs first... Allowing them to ambush their foes, tail them, or do other clever things.
  • The party catches up to the main horde. If they've done well, they catch them before the orcs reach the stronghold. If they do poorly, after (more orcs! defensive structures!).
  • The party chases down the chieftan, and rescues the remaining hostages.

That should be serviceable for a simple adventure. The players will need to stay fairly close to the rails, but it should keep them occupied for a few hours.

Step 4: Branching Out

Once you have a framework for your adventure, it's time to start branching out. What happens when the players react differently to a problem? What happens when they fail at a step? How can you flesh out the background information?

For this I tend to use mind maps. They're quick, and you can quickly see which areas you've put a lot of work into, and which ones may be lacking.

In this adventure, I might make a node for town. Connect it to a node for "the mayor is offering a reward," connect that to a node labeled "why," which ultimately connects to a node labeled "his children were kidnapped."

For any given encounter, I ask myself questions... Why are things the way they are? How do the players know? What is another way the players could come at this? What happens if the players fail at this point?

If a question comes up that I don't have an answer to, I can just leave that node hanging and move on with other parts of the map.

My goal with these isn't to write down a complete adventure, just the bullet points. I have a good memory and run my own adventures, so extensive notes generally aren't necessary. If you intend to publish your adventure, you can transcribe it later.

Here are a couple of examples from my notes. As you can see, they don't have to be pretty :)

Mind map example

Mind map example

Appendix A: Reading

A big source of ideas for adventures comes from stealing those ideas from other works. Do enough reading, and you'll find yourself thinking "this reminds me of that time when..." Books don't map directly to RPGs, but a good idea is still a good idea.

Your dungeon master's guide (or similar work) will likely have a list of recommended reading. Go out and read them.

I also happen to have just watched a YouTube video on the topic. It has some good suggestions, if you're playing in the realm of heroic fantasy.

Appendix B: Adventure Fronts

Since you mentioned them in your question, a word on adventure fronts.

Adventure fronts are awesome. But they aren't adventures... They are an idea for an adventure. An adventure front for everything above would basically say "There are some orcs kidnapping people over there. If you don't stop them, they'll summon a demon."

In Dungeon World, the idea is that you do a bit of prep, and then build the adventure on the fly with the input of the other players.

They are tools for simulating a living world, and less so for writing a pre-planned adventure.

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There are many different ways that one can do this, but I'll explain one that's worked for me:

Ask Why/Worldbuilding

Why did (something) happen? Why did the orcs want to kidnap people? What will they do with the people once they kidnap them?

Asking questions like that will often help you come up with more things that the players need to do. Maybe the orcs want to ransom the people they're kidnapping. Who would pay that ransom? Would they be willing to pay that ransom? Asking that question adds another step to the adventure, as the PCs need to answer those questions.

For example, a while ago, I got the idea that it would be fun to have a fallen paladin as a main antagonist. In order to get the PCs to encounter her, I had to give them a job from a guild asking them to find her. Then, I had to figure out why she fell (alignment change from a Lich's magic item). Once I realized it was a Lich who caused her to fall, the paladin became an minor antagonist and the Lich became a major antagonist. After dealing with the paladin, the PCs had to find out why the paladin was going after the Lich and uncover the plan that she was trying to foil.

By exploring the reasons around why that plot hook or adventure idea happened, you not only create a richer world for the players, but you also open up more avenues for players to act. Maybe the PCs decide that they can pay the ransom instead, or that they can trade the abductees for some item that the orcs want instead of having to fight them. Maybe the orcs are beholden to a beholder, and they'd let the prisoners go if the players went to go kill it.

More steps naturally arise from this approach, because the players not only need to accomplish the ultimate goal, but also to gather information (or face complications because they don't have that information). If the players just rush in and kill the orcs, the orcs might kill the prisoners at the first sign of trouble, and then they have to deal with the implications of that death, even if they eventually kill all the orcs.

This approach does suffer a bit from sequel-itis ("You beat this guy, but it turns out there was another stronger guy!") and it runs into the everpresent problem that most of what you think up won't actually be used. But, it can lead to extensive adventures, as asking "why?" at every step constantly opens up new hurdles and solutions.

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Borrow ideas from videogames

Watch (almost) any videogame with plot that you or your players (would) enjoy -- I always did that if I can since I started GMing freeform (around 10 years ago, while still being a child), since computer games were pretty much my only source of RPG plots.

If you read the plot of pretty much any game, it might seem to be very short, while a walkthrough might take dozends and dozens of pages. The reason is that they use a lot of tropes to make the plot last longer. Here are some examples of such tropes that I have personally and successfully used:

  • Side quests. Your characters, while on their Big Journey, find something else that needs to be done, apart from the main quest, or gives them something valuable. There might be fake side quests, that actually help the major goal. For example, villagers ask you to negotiate with local lord about reducing taxes, while the lord is actually a 1000-years vampire who attacks PCs on sight. And he is found out to be connected with Big Villain They Are Supposed To Fight. Compare the speedrun time of, say, any Elder Scrolls game and the time to complete all the side quests.
  • Characters need some help, which doesn't come for free. They need to give something back, and all they can offer/everything the helper will accept is helping him back. I don't think I have to provide you with examples, this trope is so common that there would be too much to list.
  • There might be relatively insignigicant challenges to overcome while on the journey. Like being attacked by bandits on the road with your horses getting killed and cart destroyed. How are you going to move on? Seek for help! Or some little thief might steal a McGuffin from your pockets/backpack... Makes a perfect adventure of uniting with the local sheriff/whatever autority is present, with whom the PCs probably had some feud not so long ago, in order to find the thiefs and the McGuffin.
  • A bigger enemy found. The local bandits actually belong to a huge crime net, which in turn is actually a sect of infernalists, which in turn summons a demon to be later defeated by PCs. Ah, I forgot that they cannot do it alone, and have to ask for help... Did I?
  • Etc, etc! You may find way more tropes here, or, if you speak russian language, here.

I didn't try exactly what I have written, but have successfully used the same tropes in my freeform GMing experience.

There are several things to keep in mind, though

  1. Don't take full plot elements from games that your players actually played/know too well. It is very boring, it's like replaying a game. However, if you put them in the same situations and give them ability to turn the plot in a completely different way, that is almost always very interesting! So know what your friends have played and what they like in games. I normally just ask them something like "Have you played X, Y, Z? Oh, you played Y? What did you do and do not enjoy?"
  2. Don't force the plot to go exactly as it was in the game. Sometimes plots in games are very, very stupid, and they feel even more stupid when you can't change anything. Always be ready to improvise.
  3. In tabletop RPG timing is very different from a computer game. One attack needs you to declare it, your GM to announce target numbers, you to roll, one or both of you to count and narrate the results, etc. In a computer game you just press one button and it happens, then again and again. It makes some fights that take very small amount of time in the computer game take entire sessions in tabletop RPGs, so time them well. Fights that take too long might be an enjoyment for your players, but it might also make things very boring if nothing changes in the plot for the entire session.
  4. On the other hand, roleplaying social interactions may take less time than they take in a game.
  5. Repetitive actions might be OK in a computer game for some time, but in RPGs players realise that they are repetitive too soon. Don't allow that. Make things change at least a bit with each encounter.
  6. Keep in mind, especially for old games, that a lot was determined by hardware power at the time of making the game. You may make about being trapped in an old game with corresponding artifacts and it's fun (all who played this with me did enjoy it), but most of the time, for example, you should understand that guardsmen outside of wooden a house are likely to notice sounds of a fight taking place inside, even in the basement. Decorations might be described as far more fancy than they were in the game, since you are not limited by the amount of poligons.
  7. If you host your tabletop RPG for several players, they are going to have to share spotlight. In a computer game there is often only one protagonist, so the plot might need to be altered in correspondence.

Etc, etc.! You should know your players better than me, but generally borrowing from games brings boatloads of good. After you see a lot of plots actually working, you will be able to make up your own -- at least to some extent. You might also like watching someone experienced to actually GM, maybe asking to GM a couple of sessions for you, so you figure out some examples of a good adventure.

Borrow ideas from sourcebooks

Well, to I need to describe that in detail? You read a sourcebook, you lead your characters through events, maybe you notice them about possible railroading. May be a good start for a very new GM. You might prefer to still follow the steps above. Even if you don't actually use events from the book as they are (I personally don't enjoy railroading or being railroaded), they might form a good inspiration.

Be careful with railroading

Keep in mind though -- while railroading someone might seem fun, being railroaded may become boring very quickly. You have to give your PCs some sort of freedom, be ready to improvise, and be able to mask your railroading when possible. Railroading needs to be logical -- or at least to seem logical.

Be especially careful while borrowing plot from computer games, since a lot of them allow very small amount of freedom and effectively railroad the player.

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Difficult for me, but I share my try, too:

First of all, a lot of what feedback I read posted here is good quality theory.

I can't say I ever game-guided or game-mastered or storytellered any adventure or campaign like that, as the real thing is 100% against those structures.

But lets assume the group does not get ANY ideas, and lets thank you for admitting your own lack of game master experience:

Reason for the adventure was: Orcs abducted a bunch of people from the tavern.

Now our players all need a reason to be interested in at least reaching the tavern or the information about the adventure.

Keeping it simple the group, while traveling, meets a female half-elf herbalist who pays them for protecting her on the way home.

At home her hubby or her lesbian wife inform the players that the local ranger showed-up while ago, warning about some weird tracks, and mentioning his or her intent to alert the tavern-folk, as it is close to our villages little tradepost (many roleplayers love equipment upgrades).

The players venture towards the tavern, eager to spend their payment on armors, weapons, spell-components, or whores and drinks.

In the tavern they quickly spot the ranger (clothing), and all the survivors can tell them of the evil orcs having stormed the place, and how they dared kidnapping people.

Now that the ranger has heroic reinforcement he or she can track the orcs, and the heroic rescue of the victims can be attempted...

That far it is linear, with no side-steps, no secondary quest, and no player bouncing off.

If you need to write it down (I am not exactly a spectacular GM, but such goes freestyle for all worth the job): Do so, keep it minimalist and keep your judgment above the notes (adapt them to entertain the group).

Ranger drags our heroic morons through the wilds, and we find the orc camp.

Want cannibalism, sacrifices, or better simple? OK, we leave out rape (as low level clerics are bad in handling PTSD), and murder, focusing on a happy end:

The abducted were a group of artisans who waited in the tavern to hire caravan guards, as they are rich enough to shop at the tradepost and fill their carts.

The orcs wanted the gold coins to fund their warlords militant ambition.

The players infiltrate the orc lair to learn about this.

Orc chief slain and hostages rescued they and the ranger bring them back to the tavern and celebrate their survival.

Freestyle or chaptered that fills one evening of roleplaying low-level characters.

If it takes time to prepare the next adventure, then use the adventure again, but this time the group plays half-orc rogues & rangers (bandits sound so... Civilized).

Called by the warlord their task is to scout the area and abduct those rich weaklings, so the war efforts are paid due ransoming them back.

Secondary goals:

Personal: Plunder the tradepost without the warlord finding out (orcs love deadlier weapons and spikes on armor & shields).

Orc: Kill the local rangers, butcher the guards, and eat the babies.

If your skill is anything above reciting memorized texts, and given that some reacting to your players needs & wishes belongs: Such alone could fill 2 evenings.

So your main task, by Jason's focus:

Create an interlinked chain (chapter by chapter style) of the CRUCIAL steps any group needs to go through your adventure.

This starts with writing down details specifying your idea: What kinda orcs did abduct what kinda people from what kinda tavern, and WHY.

Once that is done considering which character classes fit the adventure well comes along. Helpful notes would be in example what kinda skill-checks the players can make to access information.

Tracking - A skilled ranger will be able to get a vague estimation of the number of orcs, or IF they wear heavy armor.

Talking - If the tavern has any survivors, instead of being burned down, then calming them down and asking for observed facts about the incident may yield information.

That information should lead directly to your lined-up steps of the adventure, as keeping it simple helps you through. After successful resolution you might extend the adventure steps by adding alternate ways, side-quests, and more characters to fill the local area.

To prepare for the improvisation roleplay often demands:

Prepare NPC folks and local monsters of a power-level challenging but not outmatching your group.

Add notes of how the rulebook resolves skill-checks or magic straight where in the adventure your players (or a generic group) will most probably have need for it.

Once a clear form of introduction, preparation, venture to climax & victory celebration (or raise dead defeat) has been written, and the helpful rules were added: Check your prose, write simple notes into prosaic formulations you can simply read aloud, to spare you some work in the heat of roleplaying.

The goal herein is not perfection, nor is it pleasing critics. The goal is making the adventure playable in your own way, as you are the GM or ST, and this was not asked about a sales version.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, Jason. I use the above entry via EDIT. \$\endgroup\$ – Andre M. Pietroschek Jul 1 '18 at 17:53

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