Three Things I Learned from Writing RPG Adventures

Before I embarked on the perilous journey of speculative fiction author, my primary writing gig was in the tabletop RPG and tabletop miniature game industries. Though writing material for roleplaying games is a different animal than writing fiction, there are certainly parallels, and I absolutely still use lessons I learned there in my fiction. The best and most useful type of RPG writing I did for that purpose was designing adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, so here are three things I learned from that experience.

1) Outline, Outline, Outline. My first adventure attempts were free-form, and I found that a difficult way to write them. When I started outlining, it became so much easier. A D&D adventure is still a story, with three acts, and each of those acts contains a number of scenes that move the story along. In an adventure, those scenes are NPC encounters and combat scenarios, but they serve the same purpose as far as storytelling goes. They drive the players along a story path. Now, of course, in an adventure, the players are telling part of the story, too, so it’s a collaborative effort, but the bare bones of the story, the outline, is still an incredibly useful tool for the author to map out the story path the players will follow.

Now, when I write fiction, I approach my outlines in a very similar fashion. I use a three-act structure, and each of those acts contains various scenes and story beats that keep me on track when I’m writing. My fiction outlines are longer and more detailed than my adventure outlines were, but they serve the same purpose. I need to build the skeleton of the story before I can flesh it out, and without that structure, I tend to lose my way. Fast.

2) Memorable Characters. As I said above, an adventure is a story, and stories need strong, memorable characters. In an adventure, the players are the star characters. They are the protagonists, but if you want to keep them engaged, you need to introduce NPCs or secondary characters that make an impression. This is often a character who starts the adventure for the players and other NPCs they must interact with , but the most important character in the adventure, in my opinion, is the villain or antagonist. That character, whether they be an evil wizard or a rampaging monster needs to be memorable, it needs to motivate the players to take action and to move along that story path.

When you’re writing fiction, you need memorable character, too. Your protagonist has to be interesting, of course, but those secondary characters need to pull their weight, too. My adventure writing days definitely taught me a lot about that, and I think the biggest lesson was that bit about motivation. In the adventure, you motivate the players to take action. In fiction, you need to motivate the reader to keep turning those pages.

3) Brevity. In a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, you have to get a lot across to the players and dungeon master in a short space. This can be something like read-aloud text that describes a location to the actions and reactions of nonplayer characters and monsters. You also need to give background to the dungeon master, such as the history of the location where the adventure takes place or the backstory for the villain or the monsters that will challenge the players. The DM needs to be able to quickly and confidently relate this information to players, and you, as the writer have to work it in along with all of the mechanical information needed to run the actual game. So, brevity is key, but all of these details still need to be compelling and drive the players through the story.

Brevity is also important in fiction, especially the style of fiction I tend to write. I want to get across a character’s description and personality or set the scene in an important location in as few words as possible so I can do what I do best: dialogue and action. However, just like in a D&D adventure, those little details need to be interesting and compelling AND they need to convey important information. If I fail to do that, I’m gonna lose the reader before I get to the meat of the story. This kind of brevity generally more important in the short fiction I write, especially flash fiction, but I tend to be brief with these elements in my long form fiction as well. That said, It might not be as pivotal to other authors.

So, that’s what I’ve learned from my adventure-writing days. Thoughts about my lessons learned? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

If you’re curious about the adventures I’ve written, here are some of my best, in my humble opinion.

  • “Dead by Dawn” published by Wizards of the Coast in Dungeon #176
  • “The Vault of Darom Madar” published by Wizards of the Coast in Dungeon #181
  • “Heart of the Scar” published by Wizard of the Coast in Dungeon #197
  • The Lost Cistern of Aravek published by Wizards of the Coast
  • Tomb of the Blind God published by Goodman Games
  • The Drowning Caverns of the Fish God published by Goodman Games

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