Many years ago, I helped an acquaintance write an adventure outline to submit to Dungeon magazine. (That alone tells you how long ago it was.) The outline had something like a page of backstory, then a paragraph adventure summary, and some technical details.
I suggested he switch the content blocks around. “One page of adventure summary and a paragraph of backstory at most.”
He was dubious. “That’s not what I thought you would say,” I remember him commenting. “Isn’t backstory important? To show the villain’s motivations and the reason for the adventure.”
Well, yes. It is important. But it’s more important to imagine what the players will do with that information.
A common trap in adventure writing is to treat it like a story. I think all GMs are writers at heart–we have vivid imaginations, tons of creativity, and like bringing a new story into existence. We can get caught up in our cool villain, our colorful NPCs, and the intriguing mystery behind the adventure.
All that is rad! But ask yourself: how will the players discover any of this? Are there opportunities for them to learn why the vampire is attacking the llama farms, or will they just slay her and be done with it? Are they the types to search for clues and pore over cryptic journal entries, or will they do a cursory treasure search before heading back to the tavern?
When you’re writing adventures for strangers (such as for publication), this gets trickier. One method I’ve developed over the years is what I call, “The adventure begins when…”
I jot down a few backstory ideas and/or villain ideas–a paragraph at most. For this random example I’m making up as I type, we have a vampire attacking a llama farm. Maybe the farmers ask the PCs for help–that seems like something llama farmers would do. With that settled, I go right into the adventure summary.
The adventure begins when… a group of llama farmers approaches the PCs and asks for help. Something has been attacking their llamas at night.
This raises questions already. Do the farmers know the villain is a vampire? Probably not–vampires are clever. Maybe the vampire disguises her attacks by tearing the llamas to bits after she feeds. Oh! Maybe the farmers think it’s like a chupacabra, only for llamas? A chupallama, if you will?
Now is where the imagination comes in. I picture a group of players and decide what they’re likely to do. Investigate, probably. I don’t want them to find the vampire too fast, for dramatic purposes. Maybe she left a trail to a monster lair to throw people off the scent? A bear or something?
Where does this vampire live, anyway? There probably isn’t a big Gothic castle next to a bunch of llama farms. Llamas live in South America mostly, I think. In the mountains. A quick Wikipedia search tells me that, uh, wow. There is a lot to learn about llamas. They can live on plains or mountains, and were even used by Spanish conquistadors in South America to carry ore from mines.
Hm, so what if there is a mine nearby, and the llamas are raised as beasts of burden? The vampire lives in the mine and doesn’t want people finding her, so she’s killing the llamas and hoping that delays operations long enough for her to hide her lair or something. Boom, motivation!
At this point, my adventure summary would look something like this:
The adventure begins when a group of llama farmers approaches the PCs and asks for help. Something has been attacking their llamas at night and tearing them apart. The farmers believe it’s the mythical el chupallama, a monster that sucks the blood of llamas and devours their bodies.
The PCs investigate the scene of the latest attack and find a trail leading into the jungle. They follow the trail, evading or fighting local threats as they travel, until they come to a bone-strewn lair. They battle a ferocious dinosaur (I know I said bear earlier, but I have a jungle now and dinosaurs are cooler), and for a moment it seems they have removed the threat to the llamas. But an investigation of the lair shows only smaller animal bones, and there were no dinosaur tracks around the llama pens.
The PCs notice a strange clump of sparkling debris near the dinosaur lair. Upon showing it to the llama farmers, they learn there is a silver mine in the area. They turn their attention there…
Obviously this is still rough, and has a lot of holes. But I can already see how I can adapt it for different parties and play styles. If the players don’t find the silver ore, they could still find the vampire’s tracks leading to the mine. Or they could confidently assume they solved the problem, only to have the llamas attacked a few days later and the farmers more agitated than ever. They might set a trap instead of following the trail, and the vampire might drive the dinosaur into it.
The point is, this is an adventure foundation that relies on what the players are doing, not on what I think is a cool backstory. Although I am developing a cool backstory from it, which is the best part!
Next time you build an adventure, try starting where the adventure starts. See where it takes you. You might be in for a pleasantly wild ride.
P.S. Feel free to use the llama-sucking vampire in your own game, and if you do, let me know how it goes!