Adventure Design

by Mark Whitley

This article is intended for anyone who is a GM / DM or wants to try their hand at it. It's a culmination of various things I've read and personal experience from GMing lo, these many years. It is doubtless chronically incomplete, I encourage folks to add their 2 cents and help flesh it out.

Sources of inspiration:

Part 1: Theme

Most successful board games feature some kind of theme that masks the otherwise abstract game mechanics. Examples:

A theme makes a game more interesting and gives the players something to relate it to. It both provides a model and begins to tell the story (as the players play the game, they will complete the story). Even chess, with it's mostly abstract nature, features a theme of battle between two opposing armies. Without a them a game becomes an abstract game like checkers, connect-four, go, mancala or Blokus. While interesting, these games don't tell any kind of story and RPGs are, in large part, about storytelling.

So, a good way to get the creative juices flowing is to just think of some kind of theme that the adventure will have. The theme you pick will determine the setting, mood, ambiance, backdrop and visual elements. Additionally, choosing a theme will often suggest villains, locations and goals. Examples:

Part 2: Adventure Elements

Cooking recipes always list the ingredients first before describing how to assemble them. Similarly, you can pick your adventure elements before you try to solve the problem of how to string them all together. We're solving this design problem one layer at a time.

Objective: Determine the "bone of contention" that the players are fighting for (aka "The MacGuffin"). The following is a list of examples with references to stories where this objective was used.

Antagonist: These are the "dogs in the fight" (along with the PCs). Typically, you pick from one or more mutually exclusive types:

Villainous Motivations: If the antagonist is impersonal (e.g. a spreading plague) it has no grand designs and this section can be skipped. Most often, however, the antagonist is an intelligent creature with some nefarious motive. The core distinctions between a villainous and heroic motives are: villains are selfish (a hero acts for the good of others), and they don't care who gets hurt along the way (a hero seeks to protect innocent bystanders).

For a much more extensive list, see: A Guide to Villainous Motivations

Welfare: For whose benefit is the objective achived?

Where: Pick the location of the action:

When: At what time does the action occur:

Terrain: One of the reasons why people play RPGs is so they can go someplace new and see something different. The theme you picked in Part 1 should inform the kind of terrain you choose. Successfully navigating through terrain under various weather conditions typically requires some use / expenditure of the PCs equipment as well as some skill rolls. It is highly likely that your adventure will include several different land features; the following is not a mutually-exclusive list:

Choice: By whose volition are the PCs brought into the adventure

Rewards for success: What can the PCs expect for emerging victorious?

Consequence of failure: What's at stake if the PCs don't successfully accomplish their objective?

This article on adventure design addresses many / most of these elements.

Part 3: The Hook

This is the "introduction" to an adventure; it's the piece of information that the DM feeds the PCs to establish the story and get the action started. (Cooperative players should obligingly "play along" because hey, we came here to game and this is what the DM prepared, okay?)

Any number of leads might be included in the hook, probably drawn from the list of structure elements in Part 2. A good artist conceals more than he reveals, so too a good hook will divulge some - but not all - of the information the PCs need for their quest. For example:

Keep in mind that when a player gets fed a hook, the question going through their mind is "What will be my reward for biting at this hook?" The information you give them should speak to that question.

As for how the PCs receive the hook, there are numerous approaches:

A common practice is to have a "hook layer" and a "core layer" in an adventure. This means that there's information divulged in the hook that pulls the PCs in, but when they get there, they find that the real story is bigger or different than they expected. One such twist can make for an interesting story. More than one such twist will tax the patience of the players.

Part 4: Types of Encounters

Every adventure is made up of several encounters. A long run of only one type of encounter (e.g. combat, combat, combat) can become a little monotonous for the players. The following are examples of encounters and ways you can jazz them up.

"Plot" Encounters

This is a catch-all that refers to all of the movements and interactions necessary to move the story along. It could include any / all of the following:

Free-Form RP: Interacting with NPCs is an important part of "plot" encounters. Typically, free-form RP with a quest-giver is where an adventure begins. Occasionally, you'll have a setting where some important NPCs reside that will serve as a "home base" throughout the adventure: it's the place where the hook gets dropped; if the adventurers have questions along the way, they can come back here; it can act as a "safe place" if they need to heal up; and it will probably be the site of the denouement when the adventure wraps up. A good setting for free-form RP is one where there are lots of interesting NPCs to interact with. The sites mentioned in "The Hook" (tavern, royal court, town square, guild hall) are all examples.

PCs will naturally "attract" certain types of NPCs based on their common characteristics. Said NPCs will usually provide a specific type of information based on the circles in which they run. Examples:


This is the classic encounter, and the bread-and-butter of many a roleplaying system. The party could encounter the villains, some of her mooks, creatures in the wild, or irate business owners from whom they just stole. The possibilities are limitless.

Good combat encounters typically have some / all of the following traits:

Skill Challenges

The formal idea of a skill challenge was introduced in D&D 4e. Its main goal is to provide a rules-oriented encounter without having to resort to combat. The players demonstrate their ability to think creatively about a situation and how they might be able to solve it using the skills in which their characters are trained rather than using the techniques they learn for combat. "Uncle Mark's Skill Drill" is a variation on this same idea.

Skill challenges are best used for complicated situations which require intense or long-term attention, such as research, investigation, negotiation or performance. Many traps require a skill challenge in order to deactivate them.

This thread contains some good discussion of skill challenges, as well as examples:
An important point brought up is that a typical 4-success skill challenge lends itself best to a 4-part narrative comprising: introduction, buildup, climax, and conclusion. Structuring a skill challenge this way turns it into a little mini-story.


These are obstacles typically found in a natural / outdoor environment. Nobody purposefully designed these to obstruct the adventurers' path, but it's in their way and now they have to deal with it. Overcoming a hazard typically requires some use of equipment, spells / powers, and some skill rolls. Hazards make great "impersonal" villains in the story. The terrain you choose will usually determine the kind of hazards it contains. Examples include:

Natural: Mother nature made these hazards all by her own self.

"Man-made": Men made some useful structures, but nature has turned them into hazards.


Where hazards are naturally occurring, traps are typically man-made, and deliberately designed to harm intruders. These are good encounters on their own, but they can be part of another, larger encounter.

Aspects of a trap:

Places where traps could occur:

For some inspiration, here's a link to "101 Traps, Puzzles, and Challenges":

Not to be outdone, here's 1001 traps:

Grimtooth's traps are considered the definitive source for spiteful, over-engineered traps:


Both traps and hazards threaten the adventurers with some sort of dangerous consequences if they don't successfully bypass them. Puzzles, on the other hand, tend to be less dangerous, while still being an obstacle. Before the magic door will open, or the bridge will extend, or the hidden room can be found, a puzzle often needs to be solved. Sometimes the distinction between a puzzle and a trap can become blurred, and there is no need to un-blur it. Puzzles can offer a small diversion by temporarily suspending the normal rules of the game in favor of the puzzle's rules. Playing a bar game at a tavern with the locals or participating in the town's festival games could be considered types of puzzles.

Examples of puzzles:

Examples from literature / media:


Not-Quite Encounters

There are a few situations that are not exactly "encounter locations", but the PCs will run into them along the way.

Looting: An inevitable conclusion to a combat encounter is picking through the bodies for loot. Some things to consider with looting:

Bookwork: Sometimes done at the table, sometimes done between adventures, bookwork is an inevitable part of the roleplaying experience. Examples of bookwork include:

Part 5: Adventure Structure

From 'The Big List of RPG Plots': "In particular, don't fuss too much over plot, as many GMs do. All of the plots here can provide a tried-and-true, simple structure, and structure is all you need a plot for in a roleplaying game. Remember to play to the strengths of the medium - most all of which are about character, not plot. Only in an RPG can you experience a fictional character on a personal, first-hand level.
Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that contains more than a basic structure is more likely to pull attention away from character, and that's burning the bridge for firewood. All you need to do is be ready to roll with the curves and have fun hamming it up."

With that in mind, I present a list of things that will help you come up with a structure.

Word to the wise: Keep your story structure simple. Do not complicate it with lots of extra crap; your players will be more than happy to complicate it for you.

Elements of Design

Effectively, structuring an adventure boils down to these decisions:

  1. Design the "set pieces", i.e. the encounter locations. The two most important "sets" are:
    • The "starting" encounter where the hook is dropped (there can only be one of these)
    • The "ending" encounter where the final, climactic scene will take place (there should really only be one of these)
  2. Decide if it will be linear or branching. If branching, decide how much choice the players will have.
    • As a general rule, at any encounter there should only be 1-3 available "exit points" leading to another encounter
    • Bear in mind that as P.C.s discover new clues, that might create new choices
  3. Plan transitions between encounters
    • From a literal point of view, this means "how / where will they travel from one set piece to the next"
    • From an outcome-based point of view, this means: if they succeed in the current encounter, where will that lead them vs. where will a failed outcome lead them

Part of the reason why dungeoncrawl adventures succeed is because they present an easy-to-understand structure where the rooms are the encounter locations, the unopened doors are the choices a player can make, and the hallways connecting rooms are the transitions. Note that the players do have choices, but the number of choices is manageably small.

A Tried-And-True Structure

I've been playing role-playing games for 30 years now. There's a standard adventure structure I typically use when I GM:

  1. Hook: something's gone awry, we need you guys to fix it
  2. Legwork: gather info / rumors, figure out where to go
  3. Travel: usu. involving wilderness survival checks
  4. Dungeon Entrance: complete with guards / guardians / puzzles / traps
  5. Dungeoncrawl: spelunk, fight, loot, until they get to...
  6. Throneroom Battle: showdown with the big baddie
  7. Return / Denouement: come back to the hook-giver, get your reward

I try to mix it up and try a different structure sometimes, but this one works so well and is so flexible that I just keep coming back to it.


For vastly more detail, see:

Part 6: Player Considerations

You can draft the best adventure in the world but if your players don't like it, it's a flop. The story should be written not for the delight of the DM, but for the delight of the players.

Player Styles

The following is a list of player styles articulated in "Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering". Ideally, you will learn the styles of the players around the table, and plan some part of your adventure that will appeal to them.


One of the reasons why video games succeed is because video game designers understand the psychological value of rewarding players for accomplishments. Such rewards can come in many different flavors: a new item, a new level, a bonus to a stat, an upgrade, or simply a shiny "You Win!" screen complete with some multimedia extravaganza. A good adventure, and one that the players want to play, will similarly reward them, not just once at the end, but numerous times along the way. "Loot" rewards for the PCs have already been addressed. The following are rewards for the players.

Vicarious Thrills: The player will enjoy it when they see their character:

Dirty little thrills: Only in RPGs do you get a chance to:

A Chance to Strut Your Stuff: This speaks in large part to player styles. You need to learn what your players like to do and give them an opportunity to do it.

Parting Words

J. Michael Straczynski once said: "The purpose of an author is to put his characters up a tree and throw rocks at them." Funny thing, a DM's job is about the same.

But therein lies the great contradiction in RPGs: players want to take their characters adventuring, but adventures are dangerous! How do you show them a fun time while you're throwing the hideous hordes at them?

Well, as it turns out, people actually enjoy fiction that portrays more danger than they encounter in their own lives. Put another way, people who want large doses of reality do not watch shows, read books, or play games. People like simulated risk because it's exciting, but they can withdraw from it whenever they want to.

It also turns out that simulated rewards are, at times, more enjoyable than real-life ones. Magic wands are way cool, but they don't sell 'em at Home Depot. In the same vein, narrowly slaying that dragon that took your hit points down to single digits is far more pleasing than narrowly avoiding getting in a car wreck. As long as you make your players sweat, but not suffer, they'll know you're really on their side.

So by all means, stick them up a tree and throw rocks at them, but be sure to leave some gold pieces, healing potions, and magic swords on some of the branches. Do that, and they'll keep coming back for more.