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Principles of Adventure Design

This article originally appeared in Issue #003 of the downloadable PDF magazine.

I like to make sure the adventures I write for my game will give my players something they'll enjoy and remember. Over the years, I've built a list that I use to check my adventures against, and for inspiration as I write them. Since I wrote it for my own use, it's not as descriptive as it might be, so I'll give the list then go through each item to explain the thinking behind it.


The players need to be able to trust themselves to deal with the situation, and trust the ref to present it fairly. Therefore the situation needs to be something they can recognize and characterize well enough going in that they'll give it a try, even when they know they don't have the whole story.

In situations where characters might have their range of choices limited, players may feel railroaded and lose trust in the referee. So it’s important to build in opportunities for the characters to have choices even where, realistically, they would not have any. Even if they’ve run into a sure death situation, allow them a choice in how they face their death.

When players feel that they are handled fairly, and given reasonable choices, they’ll get more involved with adventures more easily without feeling forced.


At all levels. Player and/or group vs. environment, antagonist, and self. All at the same time if possible, as frequently as possible.

Conflict drives the adventure and makes it an adventurous undertaking. Conflicts come in big and small varieties. The big ones for the adventure are the Big Wienie and the Big Whip. But there should be plenty of other conflict with which the players grapple, in the form of small conflicts. I use the Conflict item on my list as a check to see that my adventure includes each of the different types of conflict, classically listed as Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Environment. Different adventures will place an emphasis on one or two of these over the other, but will include all types. Since "Self" takes two forms in a role playing game, I also check to make sure the adventure has conflicts for both the individual characters and the group as a whole, as well as conflicts between individual characters' interests and the group's interest.

A Big Wienie

The Pull, or Big Goal

This is the thing the characters want to go after in the adventure. It should excite them and further their goals, both as a group and individually. This is why they're going, and when they falter in their resolve, it should be what they recall to each other. "Yeah, the situation stinks, our ship is getting hulled, and our patron is a jerk. But think of the payoff."

The Big Wienie should be something specific enough to refer to simply, and it should be something important enough for these characters to get in deep, possibly too deep. If it's too abstract, the party may lose their resolve once adversity arises.

I picked up the "wienie" term from Walt Disney. He used it to describe landmarks that he placed in his parks to draw visitors. For example, the Matterhorn is a wienie. It draws you toward it. When you find your way around Disneyland, you do it using the wienies as landmarks.

I use the same principle in my adventures. It is part of building the trust element of an adventure, as it gives the players a sense of understanding and control over the game. It helps them to think their way through situations and feel confident about their characters actions. It also helps them get their characters into trouble they might have avoided if they were less confident.

A Big Whip

The "push" or consequences for inaction, hesitation, or failure.

Like the Big Wienie, this is something that should excite the characters as they move through the adventure as a threat, rather than a promise. The whip should be something that will hurt the characters or their ability to adventure as they would like in the future: losing their ship or base, for example, or their characters being crippled in some way.

Part of the design of any whip is that the referee should have a plan just in case the adventure plays out poorly for the characters. Sometimes it can open up a whole range of adventure possibilities for the campaign. What's bad for the characters should not be bad for the game.

Lots of Little Wienies and Whips

Best if tuned for individual players and their characters. Make it personal. And distracting.

These are the smaller things along the way that help drive the adventure along, or attempt to derail it. These tend to be closely tied to the players and their characters, so I have a sort of floating list of things I keep for a particular party in addition to those I build into the adventure initially.


This has to be happening somewhere, or some sequence of places. Make it a setting, not an empty sound stage.

The adventure’s setting should be places that become tangible to the players. If they seem vague while you’re designing an adventure, they’ll be even more vague to the players.

My first really successful star city was modeled after Disneyland. The players never caught on to it, though for years I feared one would come to the game with a map of the Magic Kingdom. The combination of layout, visual landmarks, and multiple means of transport around the city allowed them to move around with confidence, complete tasks easily, and get into all sorts of trouble. The surrounding community was based on the area of Anaheim around Disneyland (in the late 1970s.) It, too, worked very well. Not only was the star city's "Matterhorn" visible well out into the local city, but the distorting effects of Disneyland on Anaheim's economy played well as the effects of a star city on a remote industrial planet.

Since then, I’ve made sure that I have clear layouts and landmarks for my settings, whether planetside or a set of worlds in space. This allows players to move their characters sure-footedly through an adventure.

Magnificent Scenery

I make this a separate item from setting for two reasons. The magnificent scenery may not actually be part of the setting of the adventure. And it’s easy to develop a full setting for an adventure without remembering to put it in.

At least once per adventure I put the characters in some place that deserves a florid description. It may be a part of the setting or a sidelight, such as a place encountered en route. It helps the players experience "being there" in the game, and also provides an opportunity for a bit of mental relaxation in the course of the game. These "scenic vistas" also become landmarks for the adventure in the player's minds, even if they’re not involved in the main action.

A Big Bad Guy

When there's a bad side to a situation, there should be a character that exemplifies that side. This character takes the blame and is a target of hatred. They may never actually appear, but their influence is felt in the adventure.

Little Bad Guys.

Little bad guys may be minions of the big bad guy, or they may just be characters that act as obstacles in the adventure: shoddy workers, crooked salesmen, apathetic and unhelpful encounters, for example. Even if they're not on-scene, the results of their work, or lack thereof, will be.

These characters should be personalized to fit the party's characters. This is also a good place to develop either recurring characters or recurring situations for your campaign. Perhaps there's a smart-aleck bureaucrat the party has to deal with repeatedly. Or maybe one of the party always ends up getting equipment "inspected by number 7" which is guaranteed to be defective.

A Clock.

I find it helps a lot if there is some regular reminder that there is a big goal, and a time limit to reaching that goal. It may be something as simple as an NPC that regularly whines about how they’re not going to finish in time. Or blasting in the local mine shakes everything every so often. Maybe it's calls from a concerned patron. It shouldn't be too annoying or obvious, unless the game is going off track or bogging down in detail. But it also doesn’t have to be too subtle.

A party member with a health condition makes a perfect clock. Stabbing pains once an hour to start, increasing frequency as the adventure progresses. Add detail to the descriptions as the game progresses, and you'll have someone telling the engineer to leave the fool machine alone and get moving. Having some regular event stop can also create a sense of urgency.

A Puzzle

Or mystery, preferably one big and several small ones.

The adventure is never going to be what it appears when first presented. Everyone knows that. There's something deeper going on, or it will go awry for unanticipated reasons.

Beyond this there need to be other mysteries. One of my reasons for adding mysteries to my adventures is to give the players something to think and talk about when I'm not dealing with them directly.

Like the little wienies, I try to make the little puzzles personal. I try to make them affect more than one character. It won't be the ship engineer's stateroom door that keeps acting up, but he'll get called in on it. When he gets a look at the door they're going to have to talk to the biologist.

Campaign Tie-ins

Adventures should tie into the overall campaign. They may do it as a continuation of an over-arching story within the campaign, or as a diversion from it. But there should be elements within the adventure that remind the characters of where they are and who they are with respect to a larger universe. This adds richness to the experience, as well as helping the players maintain their perspective on how to manage their characters.

It's important to not overplay tie-ins. When overdone, they may take away the player's feelings of latitude of action, resulting in them agonizing over every little choice in the game.

A Payoff

Let the id monsters safely run wild at least once a night, and make it feel good. (Take notes and save consequences for later.)

The payoff is what I call a scene where the characters feel free to vent their feelings through action in the game. This is when they get to trash the bureaucrat's office and files and know they'll get away with it, or shoot it out with the crooked authorities who have revealed their true nature so obviously that nobody will question that taking them out is doing a public service, space the jerk with the whiny voice, or whatever.

Normally any negative consequences should be saved for some later adventure. You want the players to feel safe about having their characters throw off the safety and start blazing away, both figuratively and literally.

A Big Confrontation

The big confrontation should be the planned one that is foreshadowed throughout the adventure. It should appear to be the denouement of the major points of the adventure. In fact, it unlocks the way to the Real Big Confrontation.

The Real Big Confrontation

Grendel's mama, the secret plot behind the plot, etc.

As hackneyed as it seems to have the bad guy come back stronger a second time, or the real big bad guy appear when the false one has been cut down, the fact is that as a story device this works. Even when the players know it is coming.

It's not necessary, or desirable, to come up with something that is a big surprise all of the time. Instead, it's OK to have the Real Big Confrontation not be so much a surprise, as something which casts a new light on the adventure's events. The Real Big Confrontation is the resolution of the big puzzle for the adventure.

An End

There has to be an end.

The adventure has to have something that marks the point where it has ended. It may be some sort of denouement, or an abrupt shift of elements in the campaign. What has to be avoided is the feeling of one game session flowing into another with no substantial change. The characters should have made a difference, either good or bad.

Open Questions

The adventure may have ended, but there will be new questions. The resolution of the conflict will have opened up new questions. Little events in the course of the adventure will have opened up mysteries which were not investigated.

A Payout

Ship repairs, loot bags full, money for drink, a comfortable bed for the night or a safe refuge for the moment. Don't jerk them around when they're tired and they've got their hands stuck out for payment.

Provide a wrap-up for the characters at the end. This may or may not be role-played. It puts a cap on the gaming session. If events have been kind, then this the time when the patron hands over the reward, or the medal ceremony and subsequent partying occur. If events have been less kind, this is when the characters find a disused cargo container to curl up in, or some other bolthole until the next adventure. Even in failed adventures, the character should have come away with something good.

The payout both gives the characters their rewards, and leaves them in a state from which to start the next adventure. That state should be settled so that the player's minds transition from the past adventure to preparing for the next one.