So over on twitter (some time ago, because I am slow), Layla (@pandatheist) expressed some sadness over how much adventure design gets lost over time, thanks to the general entropy of internet hobbyist spaces. Since I have a vested interest in spreading good design guides wherever I can, have an adventure soon to be released to the masses, and in another timeline would have spent my life happily getting hand cramps in some monastery scriptorium, I feel it's only fair to do my part.
For each step, just to show that I'm not talking out of my ass, I'll be providing an example of how it was used in Unicorn Meat. (Don't worry, I shan't be giving away all my secrets.)
First, Some Archaeology
This part isn't mine, it's a summary of a now long-gone tumblr post by Kiel Chenier (author of Blood in the Chocolate), that I luckily wrote down when I had the chance (thereby proving the importance of Layla's original thesis). I've adapted it from my notes so it doesn't match exactly, but it covers the same points.
Kiel's Four Core Components
- Time - The outside context surrounding the adventure and informing what is going on within it.
- Adversary - A character / group / force that stands in opposition to the players.
- Place - The specific location where the players come into conflict with the Adversary.
- Fantastic element - What it says on the tin.
I find that this sort of setup emerges naturally, for me at least, just by piecing things together. But it remains a helpful reminder that the adventure is a series of moving parts in a greater machine, and all of them are interconnected. The antagonist is motivated by the times they find themselves in. The place is in its current state both by the adversary's actions and the times. The fantastic elements have their fingers in everything.
So, for example, in Unicorn Meat.
- Time - The old aristocracy was overthrown ~50 years prior to the point of play. The farm was re-opened ~20 years ago. The adults vanished 8 months ago.
- Adversary - White-Eyes, charismatic leader of the Bucha gang and now de facto leader of the farm. She's cunning, charismatic, and has already given the players ample reason to hate her (as the Buchas are, by and large, a bunch of violent bullies and have no doubt visited some kind of violence on the PCs and their friends).
- Place - The Backwoods have always been intended as the place that gives off this vibe of "people never should have come here." They're inherently inimical to human habitation and they've been getting worse
- Fantastic element - The unicorns themselves.
And then when tied together:
- The Backwoods have become spiritually polluted thanks to the mass killings of the unicorns (place + fantastic)
- The disappearence of the adults allowed White-Eyes and her gang to gain complete control of the farm (time + adversary)
- The power vacuum after the revolution and the physical isolation of the Backwoods allowed the current operators to both re-open it and to do so in secret (time + place)
- White-Eyes is ordering the continued hunt of unicorns towards unknown ends (adversary + fantastic)
And so on and so forth. You can very easily get a very potent nugget of conflict out of recombining those four points.
That out of the way, on with the show.
But what the Fuck Do You Do?
Give players a reason to be at the location and get involved in the conflict there. This will vary. Use "you have a personal enemy here" if you have to, and have everyone list off how this antagonist has wronged them. "Escape the danger" is also a very easy motivation. Remember MICE - Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego.
In Unicorn Meat, the main options are "You have a personal enemy here, also escape the danger." (I did say they were useful!) or "oh fuck we need to find some way to get these kids out of here." Both of them involve finding the key that turns off the containment field, currently in White-Eye's possession. The what and the why are nice and set up.
Steal Everything, Recycle Everything, Remix Everything
You have doubtlessly accumulated a very fine slush pile of unused concepts, striking images, memorable NPCs, and favorite mechanics. Use them liberally and with minimal constraint. Form a pool of ready-to-deploy material and deploy the hell out of it at a moment's notice.
When running adventures, this is a necessary skill to keep things flowing in times when you need improvisation. When designing adventures, this is just the handiest way to fill in blank spots and get yourself unstuck. Plucking something out of one setting and changing it so that it fits in another context is a useful creative exercise.
In Unicorn Meat this typically emerges in small, offhand bits that most people won't get. There's a poster for a movie starring the farm's mascot, Noodle (who is based on a hand-puppet of The Lawful Neutral's) titled "Fuck the King of Space" (a campaign run by Nick Whelan). More substantially, the toxicity mechanic from eating the meat itself is pulled from a very old post of mine about health potions.
The PCs are intruding on a pre-existing conflict
This one is pretty straightforward. A good adventure presents the players with something to do, and there's a lot of things to do when other parties are already doing things. Makes factions and NPCs easy to fill out, because they already have begun acting on their wants and towards their goals.
Or, more directly: Things are going on in the background whether or not the players know about it.
In Unicorn Meat, the farm is right at the cusp of violence between the Buchas and the Church. With White-Eyes in isolation from the rest of the farm, the Buchas are splitting between those who are sticking with White-Eyes, and those who are more in favor of second-in-command Greythorn. The leader of the Nightwatch is missing entirely. Everything is just about to break apart.
Detail! Detail! Detail!
You are working within limited space, so make those words count. Paint me a picture, use those sense words, use creative references as shortcuts. One of my personal favorites is describing something in a way that the thing in question is not typically described as, ex Douglas Adams' "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."
Stick to What Can Be Observed
This principle was my workhorse during the SCP days and it has dutifully served me ever since.
Focus your writing on what the characters (or in this case, the players) can directly observe. Save omniscient narration for DM summaries, so that they have a working context of what is going on behind the scenes and why. Keep those bits brief and relevant to the action at hand (Kiel's four points return!). You're working in limited space anyway.
This method will leave the readers/players with questions and evidence, which they can assemble at their leisure. This is the bonus material, the a-ha moment. Some folks will ignore it all and just go for the superficial read, but people who dig into it more will be rewarded AND referees have the information to actually flesh out these mysteries. It's mystery box avoidance.
An example in Unicorn Meat: there's a certain NPC who has a prominent shelf full of sci-fi paperbacks. Can't miss 'em if you talk to her. Since she is the only person on the farm who is associated with them, if the players happen to find a sci-fi paperback lying around elsewhere, they can connect the dots and know that the NPC was there. It's very simple environmental storytelling, but it can cover a lot of ground other adventures would need clunky box text to exposit.
Resource Management Can Be Fun
But! It is only fun if there is a meaningful choice to be made on how you spend the resource. If it only has one effect, it's less fun and more liable to be handwaved (note: I generally hate resource bean counting)
In Unicorn Meat this comes primarily in the form of the MEAT ECONOMY. If you want to buy things - food, tools, ammo, special items, bribes - you need to hunt unicorns. But all of the parts harvested from a unicorn have secondary uses besides as a barter good: meat is your primary means of health and magic restoration. Milk does the same, but is flammable. Bones and hides can be crafted into better armor and weapons. Their shit can be smoked as a hallucinogen.
The same principle can apply to mundane items, too, ammo being my favorite. You can either eat or end a fight quickly, choose wisely.
You Provide Tools, Players Will Provide Solutions
Just dump a bunch of stuff in there. Be generous with gifts. You don't need to have an intended use. Folks will figure something out.
It's Okay if Players Don't See Something
This is more or less part 2 of the above point, distributing the cool tools in such a way that their discovery feels organic. Use that environmental storytelling from earlier to your advantage here - drop an important tool somewhere, sprinkle some clues where players can see, and eventually they will tug on those strings. Add a couple that have no clues at all, but if folks are lucky they can stumble on a game-changer.
In Unicorn Meat this most often takes the form of certain encounters or items that can really turn the tide in your favor. Some of them are by chance, some can be puzzled out, some will be difficult to get your hands on
Consider the Aftermath
Deep Carbon Observatory had a section in the back describing events that would happen if the players did nothing. I adore that little section and keep it in the forefront of my mind when designing. I keep major variables that players are likely to interact with in mind - the deaths of important monsters or characters, shifts of factional power, special items recovered or world-states achieved, and so on. You don't have to cover every single possible outcome, but a page or two really does help, even if its a one shot.
It only takes a few major elements and some connective tissue before it starts writing itself.