In the first part of How to Write a Memorable Adventure for a Fantasy Roleplaying Game, I discussed how to start creating an adventure for a fantasy roleplaying game. I discussed how to take a basic story idea and begin the process of fleshing it out by asking and answering questions regarding the idea. I started with a simple idea, the PCs are enjoying a cold pint of the hair of the dog at The Hidden Jest, an Inn located between three large cities ruled by three different political authorities. While resting at The Hidden Jest the PCs are given a task by a local wizard.
I didn’t discuss much on how to motivate the PCs. Do the PCs know each other before this moment? Why would the PCs even want to take on this task? For the intrepid reader, there are many answers to these questions. The truth of the matter is the reason why the PCs have joined together is a shared lie. A fabrication agreed upon by everyone in order to get to the reason why people come together – to play the game.
Every once in awhile a gamemaster might run into a player who is troublesome. That player won’t go easily into that fabrication and gets a certain enjoyment out of creating friction right from the start. Problems such as these are beyond the scope of this adventure writing article.
I assume the players want to play and only need the most basic of motivators to put a veneer of ‘plausibility’ to the game. I break down the core motivators into three categories: greed, glory, and mystery. Players will have their characters do some amazing things based on getting money, getting honors, or solving mysteries.
Players who want to backstab and disrupt the enjoyment for others should probably look into playing Paranoia.
PART TWO: THE RUINS AND THE PLOT
The ruins present an interesting challenge. The ruins can’t have sprung up overnight (unless that is the sort of thing you want to explore in your game, but honestly that might bring up more problems that will need to be addressed). For the sake of my adventure, the ruins were in the foothills of the Goliath Mountains and recently discovered by hunters tracking goblins through the wilderness. Upon hearing the rumors of ruins, Yillindra began researching them. Through her research and scrying attempts, she discovered mention of the artifact Orb of Chaos being taken to this location several decades ago.
The goblins, led by Agaret found the ruins months ago trekking with his band of goblins seeking treasures to bring back to the goblin King and secure his position as the next Goblin Warchief. Goblins, not known to be explorers, only used enough of the ruins to house their encampment and sealed the rest off due to lurking dangers below. From the ruins they launch raids and attacks against merchant caravans. Sheriff Rhynne has been alerted and promised to do something the next time she comes through the region which is still a week away.
I get to determine what makes a good goblin warband. I have the leader, not exactly a full Chief but definitely a goblin of some ability – a fighter type definitely. He has a loyal lieutenant Goblin and a shaman that annoys him by wanting to chant over everything, but the shaman makes the rest of the goblins happy. Besides, the shaman has some great potions that makes them all feel really good.
When it comes to the foes the PCs are going to fight, the most annoying thing is the sameness of the fodder. One goblin spearthrower is pretty much the same as the other. When they are being mowed down on the way to the PCs greater fame and glory it doesn’t matter what the dreams and aspirations of each individual goblin is since the PCs will never have a heart-to-heart conversation with them. I still like to add one who is different enough to pique the interests of the players. In this warband, one goblin is an aspiring artist. Not an acceptable profession for a goblin so he keeps his drawings hidden. I really like this idea and I hope the PCs don’t kill him.. I think it would be fun to litter future adventures with signs of this little goblin’s artistic prowess. Call him Mev. In all honestly, the only reason why I add NPCs like this to an adventure is for my own amusement. Mev is an easter egg and even if his work is undiscovered, I know he was there. I have to resist the immediate desire to make his work meaningful to the adventure at hand. Like hiding some bit of useful information in it for the PCs to find. Nope! The artwork will need to remain just art and let it be valued on that basis alone. Welcome to RPG Aesthetics 101.
It may seem like a massive list of people and beings but when minions and characters of little value to the PCs are removed, what is left is manageable. Here is a quick list of the NPCs I’ve established so far.
The Hidden Jest NPCS
Baris – Innkeeper
Nelva – Baris’ Wife
Norm – a regular at The Hidden Jest
Cliff – a city courier
Derrick – a traveling merchant
Beatrice – a singer and storyteller
Salli – a woman of worldly ways
Local Officials and Powers
Rhynne – Sheriff
Castido – Rhynne’s Lieutenant
Yilindra – Wizard
Bennis – Yilindra’s servant
Colleen -Bennis’ wife
Sam – Bennis’ son
Agaret – Goblin leader
Zik – Agaret’s second-in-command
Fanno – Goblin shaman
Mev – Goblin spearthrower and artist
Finding the plot
I have to tackle that pesky Orb of Chaos – the mcguffin of the adventure. The ruins aren’t part of an ancient civilization. That is a bit trite, in my opinion, so it is a lost temple. Ohh, temples are fascinating places, filled with mystery and wonder. I’ll amplify the mystery, wonder, and sense of danger by making it a temple built by a cult worshipping a goddess of chaos. The Orb of Chaos was stolen by the cultists and sealed away in the temple as part of a shrine to the goddess. Little is known about the powers of the Orb and since at this point it is just a trigger for the adventure, I don’t have to fill in too many details. Probably best I don’t so I have wiggle room if I want to use it in future adventures.
These cultists wouldn’t take a treasure and just dump it in a chest in some room in the temple. They’d put together some safeguards, especially since it was stolen and the original owners might come looking for it. The cult, The Disciples of Erris, were forward thinking. Not only did they use human guards for their shrine, but also magical ones in addition to a few puzzles and traps. The final set of magical guards are going to be the big bad boss for this adventure. The ruins will also have other creepy crawlies as part of random encounters to keep things interesting.
The final guards will have to be magical to explain why they’ve been there for so long without needing food, water, and entertainment. I want this to be a low level adventure, something to take a set of characters from level 1 to level 3 in D&D terms. To that end I’ve chosen a set of homunculi along with some magical wards for the final battle.
The setting is … set and while it seems like a great adventure already, there really isn’t a plot beyond the standard fetch and fight. More is needed. Time to create dynamics between the NPCs to bring everything alive. There are more questions to be answered about the main actors in this story.
What is the relation between the Wizard and Sheriff? If the Sheriff is the authority of the region. she must have had dealings with the Wizard. The relationship could be cordial but there isn’t much drama in cordialness. What does make for good drama is competition. Yillandra has a long time grudge against the Prince of the region. Much like the Orb, leaving the nature of the grudge as vague as possible is ideal. It is enough of a grudge to cause Yillandra to interfere with and vex the sheriff whenever she can. The Sheriff under general orders of the Prince, constantly seeks to blame the Wizard for any and everything that magically goes wrong. Her methods border on pure persecution and is only kept in check by the Wizard’s power.
In terms of this adventure, the Sheriff, if located and questioned, will blame Yillandra for bringing in the goblins to serve some scheme to chase people away from the region. Additionally, Yillandra will go to great lengths to prevent the PCs from involving the Sheriff in the task she has given them. The suspicious types will probably read a lot into this which is just fine. Hidden motives are the types of mysteries that keep players attention focused on the story.
One of the questions the PCs should be looking to have answered is what exactly does Yillandra want with the Orb. The suspicions of the Sheriff should put enough doubt in their mind to wonder if the Wizard can be fully trusted. Are the PCs running an errand which will result in a catastrophe? The curious will seek out her servant, Bennis, to ask him about her. He is a loyal servant but will talk openly about the work he does for her. He doesn’t understand magic and she doesn’t have him assist her at all in that regards beyond carrying boxes and cleaning things up once in awhile.
If the questioning goes well or is properly coercive enough, Bennis will reveal the last servant before him left in mysterious circumstances and once he accidentally dropped a crate and it burst open spilling out bones packed in straw. He couldn’t determine what kind of bones but they all had very detailed markings on them similar to the marks he has seen on scrolls in her study. Very mysterious and bones automatically make it sound nefarious. Something like this should raise all sorts of concern.
The PCs might want to discover if the Wizard is chaotic or not and a scholar of the group might be able to engage her in a conversation about law and chaos as related to magic. This will be a fascinating roleplaying opportunity but won’t bear any fruit as she will declare chaos and order equally valuable in terms of magic. I’ll make sure to toss in statements like “In every orderly system, there is chaos at the basic level and in every chaotic event there is an overlying order to contain it.” It will frustrate the PCs Some PCs will want to break in to her tower and see the bones or the scrolls. Perhaps she is a necromancer or is helping a Liche. I’ll dissuade this line of inquiry through very powerful magic and warding spells. The gamemaster’s way of saying “You aren’t powerful enough to attempt this feat just yet.” They will need to find a ‘key’ and maybe gain two or three levels which will give me enough time to figure out what the Wizard is going to do with the Orb and whether or not she is malicious in any way. I will wait and see just how interested the players are in this particular mystery to see if it is worth investing more time developing.
All this business is to create doubt. I want to make delivering the Orb of Chaos to Yilindra a choice the players actively have to make. The worse kind of choice, one that they have no idea if it will turn out good or bad. They have to rationalize it for themselves. I’ll make there isn’t any immediate consequence to their decision. Keeping the outcome in suspense is a great way to create… well suspense. Okay, I’ll call it tension.
An additional side quest can focus on the goblins. Recently they raided a solitary merchant, stealing his horse and goods. Among the goods was a rare spice he was planning on selling to the Prince for an upcoming feast. While he isn’t a rich man, he offers the PCs a small amount of money in exchange for the spice. It’s a delightful morality test. They are told it is valuable. The reward is paltry. Do they take it for themselves to sell or do they return it for the reward? Stuff like this makes me rub my hands together in eagerness.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the inside of the ruins, specifically the traps. The ruins were once a temple which means cultists were living there, moving about inside on a daily basis so the traps wouldn’t be too obnoxious. They couldn’t have people accidentally setting off tripwires or stumbling through doors warded with powerful killer magic. No rolling boulders chasing intruders through corridors as that would be really annoying when newbie acolytes accidentally set it off.
The traps would be simple and set around things everyone knows not to approach. Certain doors and chests would be trapped. Here is the rub – design the traps with the PCs in mind. Do they enjoy puzzles? Add in a few puzzle traps. Does the party have a rogue who loves disarming things because she isn’t that great in battle? I’ll make the traps mechanical. Maybe there isn’t anyone in the party who can take care of traps. Then make sure the traps aren’t immediately deadly or can be defeated through brute strength or magic. In an absolutely worse case scenario, maybe there is an artistic goblin with a gift for lockpicking and trap disarmament.
After the goblins are cleared away, I’m going to make the other threats more environmental. Unstable ceilings teetering on the brink of collapse, insects and vermin, and maybe something causes old wooden timbers to go up in flame creating a fire hazzard.
Imagine a storage room with several shelves of pots, vases, and other items relevant to the cult. Some of these vessels contain special oils that over the years have grown unstable and flammable. One set of wooden shelves collapsed. A few containers cracked, and the oils seeped out into the wood. Not a concern for a room that hasn’t seen a torch in a decade or two. Now if any amount of heat from a flame gets near it, it will burst into flame. That shelf will heat up the five or six other containers which will explode randomly causing damage to characters nearby. The oil will be sticky and thick like napalm which means the damage could be severe if the PCs don’t act efficiently.
If I know players and their characters, if they are able to stop the fire before it encompasses the entire room, they will want one of those containers of oil for themselves or replicate it in the future. That is great! That is another bit of continuity to add into future adventures to remind them of this moment. Holy oils, concentrated and aged, can be as deadly as a small fireball! Let them take one of those fragile pots with them and remind them every time they take an action they are carrying a volatile substance.
That’s the adventure. The PCs aren’t saving the world or even a village. The adventure is a simple fight and fetch enhanced with good story telling. I’ve added in some moral dilemmas, hinted at other mysteries, and given the players an interesting setting to explore. Once finished the players should be eager to learn more about the Wizard, the Orb, the Prince, and the Sheriff. Their questions and statements after the adventure might very well set up the next one. “I want to find out what those bones are the Wizard has” turns into a new logline.
“A Wizard has a set of mysterious bones with cryptic writing on them and the heroes want to know their purpose.”
And the process begins again, only this time there is less to create since so much has already been done from the first adventure.
Are you struggling with an adventure idea? Drop it in the comment section and I will help flesh it out.