Adventure Skeleton, Build Adventures From the Bones Up

There’s Only One Original Story That’s Ever Been Told:

Someone wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.

First, burn that idea into your brain. Second, realize whatever adventure you create will suck. The quicker you realize and become OK with writing a sucky adventure the faster you get the adventure out of your head and on the paper.

I’ve developed a pretty simple way to create adventures and guess what, they all suck.

You suck.

I suck.

Let’s make an adventure.

Step One: Adventure Type

What kind of adventure do you want to run your group through? If you don’t already have some inspiration I turn to these two lists. See which one catches your fancy or meshes well with other aspects of your campaign. I tend to write my adventure outlines by hand first so I have a copy of these lists so I don’t get distracted by the wonders of the internet.

Gnome Stew’s Giant List of RPG Adventure Types

The Big List of RPG Plots by S. John Ross

Step Two: The Adventure Outline

This is my basic adventure outline of seven steps. This is adventure creation, not dungeon design. An adventure may feature one or more dungeons and a dungeon may feature one or more adventures, but they aren’t the same.

– Inciting Incident or ‘Framing Event’
– Quest Giver
– The Big Event*
– Climax
– Falling Action
– Conclusion & Seed
– Obstacles & Asides

*Not always necessary

The Inciting Incident

This is how your players stumble upon the adventure. Sometimes it’s referred to as a Framing Event. Use the incident to introduce the PCs to the adventure. In cinematic terms it’s the establishing shot that pans across the scene.

The Witcher 3 DLC quest Fool’s Gold does this well. You stumble across a village. At the center is a group of bandits roasting a pig while a villager laments the loss of his pig, even calling it by name. The bandits are nice, they offer you some roast pig. The villager intervenes, cut to short bandit fight.
You can make this scene active with a small combat, intervening to de-escalate a lynch mob, or helping to dig people out of a collapsed building. Or the players can be a passive audience, describe the devastation: wailing womenfolk and such. Maybe they overhear a tense discussion in the tavern and one participant leaves in a huff after making a vague threat. Use this to drive the players to the next step: Quest Giver.

Quest Giver

You need someone to convey the specifics of the adventure to the PCs. There are a 3 key points you need to address

– Formally establish the adventure’s goal
– Motivate the PCs
– Why hasn’t someone else resolved this?

Players are dumb. How great would your games go if those obnoxious players just stopped getting in the way. The goal should be crystalline so even your player with the thickest skull (you know, THAT one) understands the goal. Explain the who, what, when, where, why, and how to the best of the quest giver’s capability.

Motivate the PCs. What do they get out of this? Material rewards can destroy your game. You don’t want them having too many powerful items or enough coin to corner the grain market. Try to go for moral, or personal reasons. Sometimes the offer can be a simple as an interview for a paying job. That’s two adventures for one sack of coins. Trade in social relations or information. A proper letter of introduction can go a long way. Your quest giver may be able to provide a clue to larger plot which the PCs are embroiled. You can always use cold hard cash to sweeten the deal or provide a nice bonus at the conclusion.

Why put such an important task in the hands of random murderhobos? Just about any reason will do. The guards are already pulling double duty with some other crisis (later plot?). There aren’t any guards because this village has 30 people in it. Just provide something and the players will nod their heads.

Big Event

This determines how complex you want the adventure to be. It happens in the middle of the adventure. Generally this goes a few different ways. During the Big Event you introduce the villain. Or it can be the reveal of how this adventure fits into a larger plot. It can be a plot twist or a reversal of goals. Your questgiver is the bad guy, the villain isn’t evil or full of malice, or completing the quest’s goal may cause a repercussion greater than the original problem. For a simple adventure you can omit this step. The importance is determining just how far this adventure is going to spiral out from the original goal.


You meet the villain on a high cliff as the storm rages. The driving rain slashes your face with cold pricks. Slay the villain, stop the ritual, solve the puzzle, grab the powerful artifact. You know what to do here. Just be prepared for the PCs to fail spectacularly. There a repercussions for failure, even for success in some cases. Make notes on how it will come up later.

Falling Action

Bruised and battered your players are riding the high of the climax. Hit them with the reserves. The ruins begin collapsing. The villain’s hand reaches over the cliff edge and pulls off the nearest PC. Hurry the life saving medicine back to the dying wiseman. If the PCs failed to achieve their goal in the climax you can bet the bad guy will be harrying them all the way home. Burn everything you’ve still got in the tank.

Taking another note from The Witcher 3 Fool’s Gold you can wait until the end of the adventure to do the falling action. In The Witcher the villagers blame the quest giver for their problems, they believe he led them into a trap. Cue lynch mob and a timely intimidation from Geralt to get them to back down.

Conclusion & Seed

Rewards and feel goods. Little Timmy’s going to pull through thanks to the medicine. Congratulations, drinks, slaughter a pig for the spit. Or if things went poorly people will be upset, they’ll call the PCs names, throw refuse at them. They may not be welcome back in the town or the quest giver may talk about them poorly to their very important friends. Let the reputation of successes and failures follow the characters.

Seed your next adventure, make a smooth transition between adventures. This works really well if the quest giver offered another job or introduction as a reward.

Obstacles & Asides

This is the cartilage for you adventure skeleton, holds it all together. The trick is seeing where the PCs are, what they’re trying to do and just say ‘what gets in their way?’ These are obstacles. Things that must be dealt with by the PCs for them to continue. Mix them up to fall under all the RPG pillars (Combat, Exploration, Social). A collapsed suspension bridge over a chasm is one. A group of the villain’s henchmen is another. Negotiating a ferry toll is also one.

A word of warning, don’t determine the correct solution to bypassing an obstacle. Present a problem and let the players figure it out. They can definitely travel a week out of the way to circumvent the chasm. PCs can sneak around the henchmen. They can cut the ferryman’s throat and take his barge because murderhobos. All valid solutions to the obstacle, just determine the cost. One costs time and resources. One leaves unaccounted baddies behind the party to show up at the most inopportune time later. One marks them a murders and thieves… unless they killed all the witnesses too.

Asides are like obstacles but irrelevant to the adventure. The players can completely ignore them. I think of them as world expanders. It’s worldbuilding in action. Bandits shaking down a traveling merchant, camping companions, a friendly game of dice, a peryton snatching a deer and carrying it off. These can spin out into their own side adventures. Players can get into the weeds of your world or shrug and continue on their way. That’s OK, just injecting it into your sessions makes the world feel alive and that it continues moving when the PCs aren’t around.


– Look for opportunities to add time restraints. It helps keep the players on task and raises the stakes of their actions. Traveling a week around the chasm is a completely different obstacle when the PCs have to get somewhere by a certain date.
– “Yeah, but it’s in space!” Is there one extra thing you can add to make things more awesome, strange, or memorable? Dial it up to 11.

That’s it for your Adventure Skeleton. I read over the completed skeleton a few times, flesh out the bits in between, and type a final copy for use at the table. What are your thoughts? Have questions or an idea for a post? Drop them in the comments or hit my lonely Twitter @RedRaggedFiend

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