Task-based adventures for RPG campaigns

In a discussion from an RPG forum someone dug up one of my old posts in which I had written a lengthy piece about adventure design. I had actually long forgotten about ever having written it and it turns out to have been just two months before I started this website. Reading it again, I am quite pleased with it, and so I want to preserve it here for the future:

The standard types of adventure modules

As I see it, there are basically two main types of adventures, when it comes to published adventure modules. Plot-based adventure (“Paizo-style”) and site-based adventures (“Gygax-style”). Both come with a number of advantages and disadvantages. First, let me say a few words about “plot”. A plot is a sequence of events that are put into a logical order that forms a chain of causes and effects. This is not the same as a story. A story can be made up as you go, with new and unexpected things happening and no real idea how things will turn out in the end. When talking about plots, it means the entire chain of events from the beginning to the end. The term “plotting” is often used to mean making a plan, and in statistics it means making a graphic representation of data points (events). In either case, a specific outcome is desired, or the events have already happened and can now be analyzed. When you start reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game, the entire story is already determined and the outcome set, which is why the terms story and plot are used interchangably.

Plot-based adventures

In what I called the Paizo-style adventure, the entire is already plotted out. “PCs get their quest from that NPC, go to that location, fight that monster, find that clue, follow to the next location, fight the villain, stop his evil plan.” There is one big problem which usually goes by the name of Railroad. There really is only one possible outcome. At the end of the adventure or campaign, the PCs will be in one specific room where they will fight the main villain, and almost always kill him. This will happen, in exactly this way, regardless of any choice the players ever made. Which means all those choices were effectively meaningless.
You have an adventure that says “the big door at the top of the tower is guarded by a big monster. Behind the door is the wizards lab and on the desk is a letter that mentions the location of his masters base”. The PCs have to fight their way to the top of the tower. The PCs have to kill the monster that guards the door. The PCs have to get through the wards that guard the lab. The PCs have to kill the wizard. The PCs have to take the letter. The PCs have to go to the base of the Big Bad.” All these things have to happen and the have to happen in that order.

They have to fight the guards in the tower, and they have to fight the monster, and they have to fight the wizard. That means they all have to be defeatable. The players know that. Also the players know that the GM does not want a total party kill, so they know when things turn back, the GM will intervene to have them succeed regardless. It still can be a fun and enjoyable adventure, but I think it could be so much more.

Site-based modules

On the other hand, there’s the Gygax-style dungeon module. There usually are many entrnaces into the dungeon and there is no set order in which the PCs have to meet all the encounters and discover all the rooms. Some treasures or even rooms might be hidden and the players might never find them. Since many of the monsters don’t have to be killed to enable the PCs to explore the rest of the dungeon, not all monsters have to be easily defeatable. In fact, the PCs might even lose some fights and hope that at least some of them can flee with their lives. Those are descisions the players have to think about, and they have actual consequences.

Unfortunately, as written, most of those classic modules and many recent retro-clone modules seem to be aimed at tactical wargaming. They don’t have a story. “There is a dungeon with monsters and treasures. You are adventurers. Go into the dungeon, fight the monsters, take the treasures.” If you get lucky, there’s an additional “Monsters from the dungeon attacked local villages. The villagers asked you to kill the monster.” And very often that’s it. Again, people have been having huge fun with it for decades. But again, it could be so much more.

The specter of video games

Now to get a bit controversial, but hear me out: I first started with looking into RPGs when playing the video game Baldur’s Gate back in ’99. And I think that actually makes me belong more to the older crowd than the younger crowd here and since then there have been large numbers of incedible video game RPGs. Now while I would not say that it is the fault of video games that “younger players and GMs” play “dumbed down” pen and paper campaigns, I certainly think that they are one of the major factors that make Paizo-style adventures so popular. I think they have dominated the market for at least the last 15 years. When people like me first encountered pen and paper games, video game RPGs were the primary reference we brought and the baseline for what we are expecting from any RPG. When we look at the old-school Gygax-style dungeon-modules, we ask “where is the plot? Combat is fine, but we really want to have a plot!”. And when we look at the more recent plot-based Paizo-style adventures, we get just that plot and feel content with it. And when the adventure says the PCs go into the room of the wizard and take the letter from his corpse that tells them where the next dungeon is, then we don’t think anything about it.
That’s how we’re used to it. That’s how it goes. Right?

In a video game, that’s a neccessity. In a pen and paper game with a GM, it is not. In a pen and paper game, the players can decide to set up an ambush outside the door and wait for the wizard to come out. They can set fire to the foor stores or scout the surrounding countryside for outposts and destroy them to lure the wizard out of his tower. In a video game, this is not possible, and I think way too often we unconsciously skip coming up with any such ideas in a pen and paper game as well.

Task-based adventures

It’s certainly not the golden way for everyone, but I think the ideal campaign would be one in which the players shape the story and in which the descisions of the PCs steer the course of events into entirely new and unexpected directions. And I think the best approach to do that, is the task-based adventure. In a task based adventure, both the PCs and one or more groups of NPCs have a goal. For example, an evil wizard wants to blow up a town to get at the artifact hidden beneath it, and the PCs want to prevent the destruction of the town. The GM decides what class and level the evil wizard has, how many goblin and ogre minions, and how many bases they have, and what contacts in the town the wizard has. Based on these information, the GM thinks of the wizard as his player character. He makes a plan to send the goblins to steal explosives, order the ogres to attack outlying farms to lure away the militia, and researches old maps of the town to find the entrance to the underground tunnels. Last, the GM sets up a rough timeline how long it takes the villains to accomplish these things if everything goes as planned.

Then the actual adventure begins. For example the PCs hear that ogres have been attacking farms and manage to kill a bunch of them. Once the session is over, the GM once again assumes the role of the evil wizard. Some of his ogres are dead, now he needs to find a replacement and also find a way to get rid of those adventurers. Maybe send some of the goblins to get their allies from the mountains, but that means the stealing of the explosives has to wait for two more weeks. Next session starts and the PCs hear about goblins being seen in the forest. Maybe the think it’s nothing and keep searching for the lair of the ogres. Or maybe they think it could mean trouble and they leave the ogres alone and try to track down the goblins. Or they hear about a mysterious old man haging around the library at night. Who knows what plans the players could come up with?The important thing is, the GM doesn’t know either. The outcome is entirely open.

Publishing Task-based adventures

When I was reading through adventure modules that people often cited as great classics, I noticed one big thing. Since I want to run the adventure in my homebrew setting, I have to discard the backstory for the locations and NPCs and replace them with something setting appropriate. Some creatures don’t exist in the setting I want to play in, and often the adventures are for a different game or written for a different level than my current group of PCs, so I have to ditch the encounters and replace them with creature appropriate to the setting and the party level. Treasures have to be adjusted as well. And actually, quite often I’m not a big fan of the maps either, so I replace those with a creation of my own, too.
So without backstory, encounters, treasures, and maps, what’s actually left of the original module?

Answer: The villain’s plan.

Making encounters and placing treasures is easy. The really hard part about writing adventures is comming up with interesting personalties for the NPCs, motivations, and plans. WotC recently released their first adventure for the transition to D&D 5th Edition, which I havn’t seen myself, but apparently is kept edition neutral. It simply does not include stat blocks for encounters. And in one article I read, the writer mentioned a forum post in which one user sad when writing adventures, backstory and setting should be completely left out.

So now I am thinking. What do you think about the idea of having “adventure modules” that consist primarily of the major NPCs, their motivations, plans, and priorities, as well as the kinds of minions under their command and descriptions of the important locations, like bases, lairs, and story-relevant dungeons? For example, a major NPC could be described as “naga sorcerer”, but the GM who runs the module can also make him a yuan-ti wu-jen or a serpentman wizard, or maybe even a sahuagin sorcerer or a drow wizard. Whatever the GM considers to be the best fit for a person with these goals and motivations in the campaign world. The grimlock minions could be replaced by morlocks, or by hobgoblins, or derro, just as it feels best.

And by descriptions of plans, I don’t mean just the goals, but a sufficiently detailed list of what steps the NPC has planned and notes for contingencies if one of the steps might fail.
The goal is never to to create a script for the GM to follow, but more to set up a “sandcastle”. A very small sandbox in which something big is going to happen over the next week or couple of months. All the embelishments like the specific choices of monsters and loot, and the location of the area and such would be left to the GM. I think at least for me, those would be the perfect published product to use in my campaigns.

One thought on “Task-based adventures for RPG campaigns

  1. Cafaristeir

    The latest edition of D&D Gamemaster Guide has a whole section where they make distinction between “location-based”adventures (the classical dungeon crawl) and “villain-based adventures” where a or several villains play the major role (with their evil masterplan) while locations are secondary. They present “intrigue” and “mystery” (investigation) as subgenres of that second category. The Guide provides many random tables so that you can swiftly device an adventure.

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