Three Elements for Constructing a Good Adventure

On the train this morning, listening to some New Orleans blues, it occurred to me; I can think about fantasy RPGs even when listening to New Orleans blues!  Also, I realized that any good adventure, be it SciFi, Fantasy or Horror, can be constructed by including three simple elements.

Goals, Encounters, and challenges.

Let me expand a bit on this by defining these terms and explaining why each is critical, but also how you can easily take one of each of these three elements, smash them together and come out with a fun, challenging and rewarding night of gaming.  These three elements are system and genre agnostic – you should be able to apply them anywhere to create a framework for a memorable adventure.


Your PCs need a goal. Otherwise they’d just hang out at the bar all night, or spend time in the garden weeding.  These are adventurers!  Whether they are motivated by lust, greed, or need they’re out to make a grand story.  So what’s motivating them? They need a goal.

Pick one to start with, whether you are creating a single adventure or a campaign.  This is your Primary goal.  Rescue the princess. Find the cure.  Return the ship to it’s rightful owners.  Find out just why singing Durathium crystals only power green vehicles.

If you’re planning a campaign the Primary goal can change over time, and many additional goals will be added throughout the campaign.  Those can be taken care of when planning for your individual sessions.

For individual sessions, pick an Immediate goal that will move the party forward.  It could be to defeat an enemy who’s been harassing them.  To find a mercenary contract to get some cash to move forward with the primary goal.  How about a side quest that they stumble in to and spend a session or two resolving but which also unexpectedly gets them a bit closer to their primary goal?


Encounters are the bread and butter for most RPGs. As your group wanders through whatever world they happen to inhabit during this gaming session, they’re going to meet other beings.  Some will be friendly, some will be openly hostile, and some will start of as ambiguous encounters.  Whatever you may have in store for you PCs, it’s going to be a boring game unless they encounter someone.  Here is where you should start.

For both a night’s worth of adventuring or an entire campaign.  Figure out who your characters are going to meet and determine some basic motivations for these NPCs (Non Player Characters).

To set up a single day’s worth of gaming, look at who your party is going to meet.  Will they run in to a group of hostile orcs who will fight without provocation?  Will they bump in to a friendly seeming merchant who will try to swindle them out of all of their cash? A noble with an assignment?  Sit down for 10 minutes and jot down all of the encounters you can think of pertaining to your adventure.

Line up three encounters that will most assuredly result in combat.  Think of two encounters that most assuredly will not end in combat and think of one encounter that could go either way.  Now you have six different points at which the party will interact with other individuals on a level higher than “I buy some stuff from the dude at the armor shop”.  You’ve just varied your game a great deal by adding three fights, two positive or neutral encounters and one where the PCs must be the factor that decides how it goes.

But – and this is important – allow your PCs to be the ultimate decision makers in the encounters.  If they some how manage to talk, finagle or bluff their way out of that standoff with the Robot Clones from Andromeda, well more power to them!  Award them as much experience as you would for defeating those robot clone bastards in combat and pat them on the back for being creative.

Put these encounters in a rough order and feel free to switch them around from session to session.  It could be combat, friendly, combat, ambiguous, friendly, combat.  Or it could be combat, combat, friendly, combat, friendly, ambiguous.    Then, once you’ve used this formula a few times, change it up a bit.  Use four combat encounters, and two friendly.  Or two combat encounters, one friendly encounter and three ambiguous encounters.  Now you’re getting the hang of it!  Now go for four encounters in your session.  Or seven.

For an entire campaign, use the same set up, but don’t hinge it all on NPCs that could be taken out in one go.  Your combat encounters can be with a group or faction that has enough members to be a harassing force for the party.  It’s fine to have one individual who repeatedly appears to take a stab at party members but limit your repeat encounters to one individual and add in some groups for variety.  Your non-combat encounters can be thought out the same way.  Figure in the motivating factors behind each group and as time goes on and you run individual sessions, add or remove groups as your party eliminates, befriends or alienates them.


Challenges are the morals bits.  They define what motivates the characters and help determine just how far these characters will go to achieve their goals.  This allows players to develop their characters, give them a fleshed out feeling and actually make them care what happens to them.  There’s another element as well, one which I find fascinating.

Challenges are where RPGs can shine as learning tools allowing people to get outside themselves and explore different moralistic stances and motivations.  These can be different from what may drive them in real life or they may allow them to examine themselves in situations that the common person does not often find themselves in.

Each session can involve one challenge and this challenge should be something that makes the party stop for a few minutes and discuss it amongst themselves.  It should be morally challenging and allow the characters to actually apply their alignment to the story. Here are some examples:

The party has just wiped out a marauding band of non-human bad guys who have been killing innocents and stealing quite a bit.  After they’ve eliminated them, they make their way into the maurader’s base camp, only to find a scared elderly female watching over several infants and toddlers.  Are these children evil because of what they are?

A mother and a father come running towards the party holding a small child and being pursued by a ravenous group of zombies.  After the party destroys the undead, they realize that the child has been bitten and will turn in to a zombie within a matter of days.  What does the party do?

A scientist has come up with a virus which will kill anyone who is evil within a matter of hours.  This includes evil dictators, evil super powered beings, evil children, evil teens, evil babies – anyone with the evil gene.  Does the party release it?

Combine these three elements into one story and you’ll have yourself a fun, memorable and exciting game, for a night or for years to come!

[tags]elements, rpg, goal, role playing games, challenge, encounter[/tags]

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