Pitching an adventure. As game master we have a lot of freedom in the adventures we create for the gaming table. Truth is we can make the adventure whatever we want and tailor it to our own interests. Who cares if the players don’t like it, it’s not like they’re fighting over who gets to run the next game.
You can run your gaming table like that, and in my experience a surprising amount of GMs do. They say, “here’s the adventure, draft characters of X level.”
Or, you can work with the other players at the table to make a game that appeals to everyone. Even if it’s not everyone’s first choice it’s the best compromise of different interests. Otherwise you risk having players check-out at the table or never buy-in in the first place.
The Recent Gaming Session
I bring this up because of my most recent gaming session. It had been about a month since my weekly group last played. People moving, vacations, et cetera. Before the break we created characters for a new World of Darkness game. The game would be a mortals campaign with player characters as investigators of weird phenomena (X-Files, Twin Peaks, Secure Contain Protect Foundation, Warehouse 13, The Librarians).
We met on Saturday, a month after character creation, and the GM wasn’t ready to run. Actually, he was more than unprepared, he’d done zero prep work. Nor did he prepare anything for the game day or let anyone know so they might prepare something. Also, after arriving, he told us he had a date and would be bowing out two thirds of the way through gaming. Again, without notifying the group.
Don’t do that. Don’t be that guy/gal. It’s rude and disrespectful to the other people who showed up on time, ready to play your game.
Use basic communication skills. I’m a nice enough person, but please don’t let me show up for your game to discover you have nothing planned. The thing myself and your other friends carved time out of our precious weekends for, wasn’t worth you preparing or sending out a text between episodes of your latest TV binge?
That’s not hyperbole. This GM has a history of not prepping for game sessions because he didn’t “have time,” but finds time to binge entire seasons of television over the week. You’re not busy, you’re lazy and unmotivated. There’s a difference.
You have the greatest piece of communication equipment in the history of the world in your pocket. Send a text, it takes literal seconds.
Back on track.
There were a few minutes of “what are we going to do? Well, we could do this.” The aforementioned DM/friend reminded me I could run the one-shot I pitched a month and half ago. Which… I didn’t develop and didn’t remember anything about because it wasn’t going to happen. But, the subtext in the message was clear. I should run something.
Those who have read the blog for a bit know I’m not about that no-prep dungeon master life. Give me 20-30 minutes at the table I can make you a passable one-shot. But, off-the-cuff isn’t my jam. I need a bit of a skeleton, a lattice, a framework to riff off.
I also don’t like being ambushed with running. Not a great start to the gaming session. But, I moved to the games shelf and started reviewing options. My friend owns a few of the D&D 5e published adventures, which seemed the easiest solution for a no-prep run. Curse of Strahd caught my eye and I picked it up for a few reasons.
Reasons I Chose Curse of Strahd
- It’s Gothic Horror and a different tone from the standard: mid-high, power fantasy of D&D. I know at least myself and one of the players will appreciate that.
- It’s an iconic bit of D&D. Everyone seems to have a story about these iconic adventures. Stands to reason it’s something everyone should experience.
- I know Curse of Strahd features the Death House, a quick precursor to get level one characters to the campaign’s assumed level three.
- I like to run low-level adventures and I can make a nice, neat one-shot ending if necessary.
- It’s not Undermountain. Dungeon of the Mad Mage was there, but I don’t want a one-shot to turn into a megadungeon. They’re not my thing and it would take us forever to get through it.
I grabbed the book and the rest of the group started putting together level one characters. As they did so I thought of a way to pull the adventurers together and get them to Barovia. The adventure hooks in the book aren’t great. I ended up riffing the one about the Vistani (gypsies) harassing travelers on the road, but had the mist envelop PCs before they ever reached the camp.
To & Through the Death House
I ramped it up with the glow of a campfire between the trees, mist closing in, and the sound of a lone violin. Then came the wall of mist, hurtling towards them. The sound and speed of the violin picked up, accompanied by drums and accordion in chase music. One by one the mist in the night swallowed the PCs.
As for the Death House, it’s pretty boring. There’s very little to do in the house. I ended up having to add a lot of flavorful, little haunting descriptions. Creaks, moans, footsteps, and whispers all to distract the players becoming bored by exploring empty room after empty room.
They did split up and get into two combats at the same time, which was nice. The barbarian and rogue chased an animated armor downstairs. Meanwhile the wild magic sorcerer stumbled upon the specter all by himself. They prevailed. I gave the party an opportunity to choose one common magic item at the start of the adventure. The rogue took the moon-touched sword, which counts as a magic weapon. That made the incorporeal specter easier to overcome.
The party bypassed most of the content on the dungeon level. They continued following the chanting sound down to the shrine. They pre-emptively attacked the CR 5 shambling mound, which proceeded to chew them up. A lucky roll on the wild magic surge table dropped in a unicorn ally to save the total party kill.
But, before it was all said and done one PC was insta-killed by a critical hit. One voluntarily sacrificed himself [made Charisma saves and everything] to the dark gods. And one survived with a few hit points in the positive.
We wrapped there because someone had a date. I used the opportunity to run a little session postmortem and continue the group’s ongoing discussion about play style.
Session Postmortem & Discussion
One player felt most of the adventure was empty and there wasn’t enough to do. The other agreed and said it felt very railroaded. I discussed the finer points of the adventure and what liberties I took. Usually I advise not to do such, but it pertained more to our gaming overall so I gave it a pass. They were more interested in the parts I added, the weird and unexplained phenomena in the house. I explained they missed the core of content on the dungeon level. Also, that most of the things in the house will leave you alone if you don’t mess with them, including the shambling mound.
With two of the three PCs dead it seemed time to decide if they wanted to continue playing Strahd. I took an audit of what they wanted in the game: more combat, exploration, social situations? The running trend right now with the game group is they want less combat.
But, you also have to take player opinions with a grain of salt. A basic understanding in psychology and a background in marketing has taught me people are exceptionally bad at knowing what they want. It’s not the strong suit of humans.
Case in point, one player endlessly bangs how he wants more social role play and less combat. But, he whinges about his imperfect combat abilities despite often running the most combat-oriented characters. He usually makes his characters mindless machines built for combat or puts them “on the spectrum” as an excuse to forego social RP.
He often refuses to commit meaningful role play or take part in social situations despite direct insertion into scenes. Even when he plays an 18+ Charisma sorcerer. But, I did extract a clue. He referred to solving puzzles and mysteries as an example of a social encounter. But, puzzles are exploration encounters. Mysteries are heavy on investigation and piecing together evidence.
So he’s an exploration first player, right? Well, no. Even in Death House he barely investigated the house. For the most part he broke down doors and smashed the decor until he found something that hit back.
So, he’s Combat, Exploration, Social player even though he ascribes himself as a Social, Combat, Exploration player. Again, people are bad at knowing what they want.
The second friend, he’s a more well-rounded player. But, he does get tired of the endless combat. Which is in no small part the ouroboros of the out-on-a-date GM. He throws big encounters and magic items at us on the regular. So we know to make combat first characters if we want to survive.
Characters who fight harder monsters, get more experience, get more powerful magic items and level up faster. That intensity feeds itself and forces everyone to play that fashion just to keep up. It’s one of the reasons I dumped the experience system and never looked back.
The second player, like myself, wants a more well-rounded game. He wants other viable avenues to solve problems. Adventures that are more than murder hoboing across the countryside. But, he also has a tendency to get bored/unhappy with his character and suicide them.
All said and done the players wouldn’t give me a yes or no on continuing Strahd. No worries, I told them I’d brainstorm a few adventure ideas and let them pick which one they’d like.
Those who follow Matt Colville may remember he did the same before prepping the current Chain of Acheron game. The Chain of Acheron pitch was one game the players could choose.
So to make plots from scratch I have a handy 1d60 basic plots list.
FYI: You can roll 1d60 the same way as 1d100 with two ten-sided dice. Use 1d6 + 1d10.
I’ve published the 20 of these on DriveThruRPG with more explanation. I rolled 1d60 three times to get…
Blackmail, Forbidden Love, and Trade.
1d60 Basic Plots
- Conflict with a God
- Daring Enterprise
- Discovery of a Loved One’s Betrayal
- Enemy Loved
- False Incrimination
- Faulty Judgment
- Forbidden Love
- Hidden Base
- Homeward Bound
- Kinsman Hatred
- Kinsman Rivalry
- Kinsman Vengeance
- Missing Memory
- Mistaken Jealousy
- Murderous Adultery
- Obstacles to Love
- Ounce of Prevention
- Outside Looking In
- Pandora’s Box
- Recently Ruined
- Recovery of a Loved One
- Rivalry between Superior and Inferior
- Sacrifice All for Love
- Sacrifice of a Loved One
- Self Sacrifice for an Ideal
- Self Sacrifice for Kindred
- Slain Unrecognized Kinsman
- Victim of Cruelty/Misfortune
Why did I decide to craft three different setups? I’m following the Rule of Three. There is something about our brain that likes the number three. It’s symmetrical, offers not too many choices, but more than a binary choice. It likely has something to do with the human brain’s disposition to try and find patterns. You know, “one is random, two is coincidence, but three is a pattern.” Whatever the reason, it works.
The rolls gave me one adventure about blackmail, one about forbidden love, and one about trade. This list always works for me. Immediately my brain is percolating with noir, private eye stuff for the blackmail. The forbidden love, something off-the-norm. The D&D equal of a man trying to marry his dakimakura (moe body pillow) sounds fun. And trade, something like a drug deal gone wrong. Definitely not another basic delivery quest.
That by itself already is a good starting point. But, with 60 basic plots you start repeating plots fast.
It’s good, but we want to get spicy. That’s when our old friend, Rule of Threes, comes back around. Let’s add two more plots to each. When you do that the list of 60 adventures turns into 216,000 potential adventures.
Adventure #1, Blackmail
That BLACKMAIL plot, well it centers around the DISCOVERY OF A LOVED ONE’S DISHONOR. Let’s go with an addiction. What’s the addiction? Oh, he’s addicted to “Embrace” (powdered ghoul bone marrow that offers euphoria and temporary vampirism). And the blackmailer is legally untouchable by the PCs.
Someone in the religious hierarchy? The party needs to PETITION intervention from a higher authority in the land.
Those two extra plots takes the whole adventure to a whole new level.
Adventure Pitch: Investigate a young man’s out-of-character behavior on behalf of his father.
This is rife with question marks the PCs will need to figure out. They’ll have to ID, tail, and observe the NPC. A tall task considering he’s high/paranoid, erratic, and has the powers of a vampire. They will have to discover the blackmail situation. They’ll need to follow and ID the blackmailers plus determine what they’re getting out the blackmail. It could be tithe, free labor, or luring other influential youths to the addiction. The PCs will also want to get the NPC off Embrace to squash the blackmailer’s leverage.
Once they learn the blackmailer is part of a religious order and not a random street criminal they can kill it becomes a matter of who they can get to resolve the situation. A noble lord, or a high priest are the natural options. They’ll have to figure out who’s in on the scheme and who’s not. Then the party will need to provide a product or service to exchange for the favor.
You know what that plot is?
It’s a simple setup with a lot to unpack. The different factions have motivations and something to lose. The father could lose his son. The son could do a lot of harm to others or die. There’s a possibility the party will drag the kid outside under the sun and accidentally Kansas [Dust in the Wind] him. The blackmailers could lose their position in society. The higher power could lose the trust of his/her people. Which is bad, but could also lead to a riot if things go sideways.
Besides the Rule of Threes I also add a sprinkle of twist. Adding a plot twist to one out of five adventures (20%) works well. It keeps the players wary without making them distrusting every NPC.
- Absolutely No Fighting
- Aid in a Larger Plot
- Can Only Save One
- Hidden Identity
- In Medias Res
- Inverted Identity
- Make a Personal Sacrifice
- One Adventurer is Integral to the Plot
- Protect the Bystander
- Quid Pro Quo
- Recurring Villain
- Remains of Those Who Went Before
- Rival Party
- Strange Bedfellows
- The Villain Next Door
- Without Normal Resources
If you’re keeping up with the math that takes 216,000 possibilities and with the potential plot twists makes 3.5 million+ adventures.
The next adventure ended up with a twist.
Adventure #2, Forbidden Love
Adventure Pitch: A noble has learned of rough sorts asking the locals about her. She wants to hire some protection.
This adventure centers on FORBIDDEN LOVE, a young nobleman is in love with a statuette of a beautiful woman (our D&D dakimakura). The statuette is popular with young men and copies are all over town. Our main NPC, the noblewoman, is a clan relation to the forbidden lover. She sees the situation as shameful to the family name. She has been working to resolve the situation. She’s tried arranging a romantic partnership, hiring prostitutes (female and male), tried to destroy statuette, and is ready to have the forbidden lover expelled from the family. Grade A soap opera drama.
The forbidden lover, irate with the familial relation, has sworn revenge (KINSMAN HATRED) on her. That’s where the TWIST comes appears. There’s another group of NPCs ‘competing’ on the same adventure. The forbidden lover hired the adventurers to solve his meddling kin problem, one way or another.
After defending the noblewoman and her explanation of what’s going on she will dispatch the PCs to put an end to the nonsense. Find the statuette and smash it to a thousand pieces. Tell forbidden lover to straighten up or he’s next. This leads us to the last bit of adventure.
Turns out forbidden lover’s statuette is the original and the prison for a succubus. The succubus could only be released by the tears of a lover crying over the shattered pieces.
Forbidden lover will flee the scene as possible. He will meet up with the other statuette owners and servants of the succubus in their HIDDEN BASE. It’s up to the PCs to find the hidden base and neutralize the succubus within. We hope the PCs minimize the number of charmed innocent casualties. For the hidden base I’ll use a straightforward 5-Room Dungeon design.
The climactic battle will feature the succubus, forbidden lover, and the remaining members of the opposing adventuring party.
Adventure #3, Trade
Adventure Pitch: Make a clandestine exchange in the dead of night for a two-bit scoundrel.
A small-time criminal hires the party to facilitate a shady TRADE. The party will have to find the meeting place. Then they will want to get the lay of the land before the meeting and arrive expecting an ambush. Because players always expect an ambush. They’ll need to keep cool and not make the other party jumpy.
As the exchange is going down a chorus of whistles break the still. It’s a sting by the constabulary. All hell breaks out as the PCs and their exchange partners start pointing fingers and fighting for the trade items. All while trying to escape the guards. The constabulary may grab none, some, or all the party. Who they will jail and interrogate. The PCs may try bribery, a raid on the gaol, or a grand escape to free all the party members.
Either from the cops or by investigating the article they were trading blind the PCs will find they were committing ESPIONAGE. They are in possession of traitorous documents. And as of right now, they’re enemies of the state, KINSMAN VENGEANCE. Every turn harbors potential discovery by the constabulary, tasked to bring the PCs to justice, dead or alive.
First, they need to find and work over the two-bit scoundrel that gave them the job to discover who’s the real traitor. At this point they may be approached by a bribed/sympathetic constable. A friendly person in the guard can help them bring the real traitor to justice.
They’ll need to observe the target, a city official. But, the official is spending a lot of time in a private club. The party will need to find a way inside and observe or interact with the target. If the target’s contact can ‘make’ one or more of the PCs the contact will send bruisers after the party to reclaim the article lost in the trade.
Once the PCs unravel the traitor and the traitor’s contact they need to find some proof for the constabulary. Depending on their success it could all end with ease. Otherwise the traitor could escape, or the evidence get thrown out. The PCs could end up charged with capital punishment. At that point, they’ll have to flee across the border or hang.
Finishing Your Pitch
And that’s that. Three killer, home-cooked adventures for your next 3-9 sessions. One of things I like most about making adventures this way is the 60 basic plots and plot twists are genre neutral. The same method works for making fantasy, sci-fi, pulp, and modern adventures. And with 3.5 million combinations you don’t have to worry about your players getting bored.
Throw the options to your players with a quick description of the basic adventure hook. Let them discuss, and rank which one they would like to play.
Then you can finish outlining the adventure and start prepping the session. This includes giving your players house rules and guidelines for character creation if you’re not running a formal session zero.
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