The Risks of Generic Adventures

The thing about a D&D module is that it’s written with no understanding of who the characters coming to deal with the dungeon are. That’s a really serious challenge for a writer, and even with the narrowing of scope provided by a level range, it still seems like the range of possible characters should be impossible to plan for.

Thankfully, the structure of D&D provides a lot of help for this. Some of it is obvious – characters of a certain level will not have access to spells of a certain level – but much of it is a bit fuzzier. The range of things a D&D character can do (with any mechanical support) is actually pretty constrained. There are oddball spells and items that can expand that range, but even that tends to be fairly tightly limited. And, in fact, those exceptions are viewed as an expression of creativity, so even if they introduce problems, they are largely welcome.

The thing is, these limitation are things that we often speak of as weaknesses of D&D, especially older editions. The lack of any kind of diversity of skills or abilities is held up as a problem. And it totally can be. But it also makes it MUCH easier to design an adventure that can work for a wider range of groups. Yes, you can still have the occasional mismatch, but it’s rarer.

This is an important lesson for any would-be adventure designer. The more free-form and diverse your game is, the harder it is to write an adventure for strangers.

We’ve seen the fruits of this in lots of places. White Wolf got a reputation for railroady adventures, which seems harsh, but consider the context. The range of capabilities of the average Vampire group was much broader than a D&D group, so they needed some way to address that. Railroads and sock puppets may not be great techniques for play, but they’re very solid techniques for publishing.

At the other end, I’ll point to things like the Fate adventure Patreon. There’s a reason that a lot of these are more like minigames than classic adventures. Fate is just too open ended otherwise.

There is, I think, a somewhat romantic notion of an adventure not needing to be tied to a particular system. If the fictional setup is interesting and the required action is clear,  it really shouldn’t matter what system you drop it into, right? That feels like it should be the case – after all, the bulk of fiction has no “system”, right?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold up well in practice. See, system does not only tell us how a problem will be solved, it provides us a lot of answers about why these characters are the ones to solve it. Even if that answer is somewhat generic (it’s an adventure, and they’re adventurers!) it’s still a hook, something that a generic adventure won’t have.

The trick is that adventures for a specific system give me a ballpark for where I expect the hooks to be. In D&D, it will probably be a dungeon that I can drop into my world, even if I need to tweak some details. In Vampire, it will probably involve clans and power structures I’m familiar with. In a generic adventure, I have no such starting point.

Not to say it’s impossible to write generic adventures[1], but if you’re looking to write for strangers, then it’s a lot harder than targeting them.


  1. Or, more often, pseudo-generic. A lot of “generic” adventures are D&D or other popular games with the serial numbers filed off.  ↩

16 thoughts on “The Risks of Generic Adventures

  1. callin

    I can see your points on system-less adventures. Often a system requires certain assumptions on adventure design. This is felt even more when a game system is highly integrated in the game setting, such as with Vampire or Shadowrun.

    However, what do you think about statless adventures that invoke a system without directly applying its rules systems (sort of like a system-less adventure)? For instance, creating a D&D adventure without using 1E or a retroclone system. Room #5 has 3 Minotaurs, but the adventure does not provide stats for them, leaving stats to the DM to plug in depending on what system they are using.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I think that works within a family of games (retroclones being a good example) but you still need some way to communicate intent (which is why it’s not just nostalgia that makes a lot of OSR games look like Old School products – it’s tacit communication of expectations)

      Reply
  2. Shawn

    I’m running into this right now, writing the Clockworks Savage Worlds book. The setting is meant to be a big wide open sandboxy place, and my absolute prefered GM style is “Here’s some sort of problem or a setting with a bunch of opposing factions and the PCs have some sort of goal, what do they do?”. So that’s been tricky to translate to a Savage Worlds plot point campaign or written adventures and adventure hooks.

    I think the solution is going to be to make the adventure parts a bit more nebulous than SW normally presents them, as opposed to trying to cram my setting into a style I wouldn’t use.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Padol

    I run into this with Lovecraftian scenarios and campaigns. When I’ve had the most success is when I take a deep breath and let the players run with things and just race to keep up. One thing I’ve learned about one campaign I’m running is that something that’s a bit of a bug — a certain flatness in some critical NPCs — is also a feature, because it’s been letting me tailor them very much to the players I’m running things with right now. For a different group, it would be easier to push them a different way.

    Of course, Trail / Call / Realms / et cetera start with a limitation on a certain type of adventure — but it’s a very broad limit, and if one isn’t careful, you merely substitute “you meet in a bar” with “you’re hired to looki into”.

    Reply
  4. Gabriel

    Some types of scenarios are downright impossible or at least very hard with systems where players have vast amounts of various supernatural powers (Scion, I’m looking at you). The old-fashioned heist falls flat if players can somehow “possess” important NPC (security guards, head of security, leader of the organization). Regardless if the possession just means accessing their memories, their senses or controlling them completely.

    Reply
  5. Alphastream

    Thanks for tackling this issue, Rob! I agree that adventures are hard to write independent of system/edition. I also don’t think the audience usually wants that. While we can write an adventure as an open outline of possible events, personages, and locations, and we can even attack a timeline such that PCs can be motivated into action and have reasons to link to an ongoing narrative, I think the typical GM wants more than that. They want cool fights, cool scenes, and to be inspired. Often we are looking for inspiration for a specific system, because that’s what we are running. Players are looking for a great experience, especially if they are new.

    As an example, I’ve really been blown away by the way Eclipse Phase adventures beautifully capture the RPG. Most of the adventures take a really cool sci-fi concept and blow away both players and GM with it. In a world where you can make a backup of yourself, what happens if you wake up to find all the players are a version of the same self, and other versions are out there doing crimes? That’s an amazing job of taking a whodunit and shaping it so it provides a great Eclipse Phase experience.

    In contrast, I’ve found the Numenera adventures to be a lot more like a routine D&D adventure. You are in a town, someone wants you to go check something out. In that place there is an evil, you have to stop it. It has been underwhelming as a source of inspiration for what is truly a very imaginative and rich campaign setting.

    Other examples where I’ve really enjoyed adventure design specific to the setting/rules are Spycraft and Legend of the Five Rings. Both have done a great job of shaping the adventure to the genre. Spycraft adventures often create very open scenes where players can formulate a plan. Do you want to seduce the guy who has the attache? Steal it from their hotel room? Talk them into a high speed race, betting the attache on the result? Spycraft adventures have created great flexible scenes with just two paragraphs of text! L5R has done neat things to encourage PCs to do poetry contests, to role-play their clan affiliation, and to seriously ponder the meaning of cultural concepts such as compassion. It has done so not just by focusing on those concepts, but by taking a different approach to the structure of the adventures and the encounters within.

    Sometimes I wonder if an RPG shouldn’t focus more greatly on this aspect – spending time thinking about how adventures should be written to create the specific experience gamers want from the system. RPGs, especially ones encouraging open/sandbox-style play, could better educate others on the approach.

    Reply
  6. Madcapmachinations

    The trick is that adventures for a specific system give me a ballpark for where I expect the hooks to be. In D&D, it will probably be a dungeon that I can drop into my world, even if I need to tweak some details. In Vampire, it will probably involve clans and power structures I’m familiar with. In a generic adventure, I have no such starting point.

    Dungeons and Dragons is not really giving you a ballpark. If you take the total history of the game its pretty much as useful of a starting point as a generic adventure. I think its one of the reasons why people criticize the game for being one note so much because dam did they try to fit every genre imaginable into that game and it collapses horribly in on itself in a lot of those attempts.

    Reply
    1. Alphastream

      I don’t know about “it collapses horribly in on itself in a lot of those attempts.” Sure, it could often be better, but just about every D&D adventure ever has multitudes of fans. Barrier Peaks (mixing in sci-fi), Ravenloft (horror), and any number of other genre-melding adventures are all hugely popular.

      D&D is pretty unique in having such a rich adventure history. Everything that we can criticize (because it came before, etc.) has been built and improved upon to create an ever-refining approach to D&D adventures. That’s a strength few systems have.

      Reply
      1. Madcapmachinations

        Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a dungeon crawl. I’m talking more along the lines of Eberron where the ideal situation would have been to completely remove mechanics from the game because it violently clashed with what the setting was trying to do in terms of genre conventions. Sure its a very good setting all things considered but throwing D&D into the mix doesn’t help things at all.

        Reply
        1. Chad

          I think you might be confusing `adventure’ and `setting’. There are lots of D&D settings, but and some of them give rise to different styles of adventures, but the `ballpark’ of a D&D adventure is basically “explore a series of connected dungeon-like set-pieces filled mostly with adversaries and obstacles”. That’s nothing like the underpinnings of a typical adventure for things like Vampire, Leverage, or Ars Magica (to pull some random examples).

          In many ways, recent indie games like Dungeon World work best because they take the ballpark of Dungeons and Dragons and get you to play Calvinball instead of baseball.

          Reply
          1. Alphastream

            There is some truth to that, Chad, but I don’t think it is the whole and ‘top’ truth. D&D was always about jointly telling the story of PCs. Even with strong roots to miniatures, it was still about making that dream of being a fantasy hero come true, and to enjoy your (unpredictable) fate. We did get much better at creating the narrative (including in adventures, also in rules), but it isn’t the same as suddenly role-playing in Monopoly (or Calvinball). We’ve simply advanced the state of the art and the knowledge we have.

            Any gamer can learn (if they wish and take the time) how to have a heavy role-playing experience and rich narrative with any RPG. I think games like Dungeon World do more to make that easier by baking in trigger points for that type of behavior.

          2. Chad

            Ah, I can certainly agree with that. I was talking about the limited scope of widely-published pre-written adventures, but I probably didn’t make that clear enough. I can attest through personal experience that there are lots of different ways to play fun games in the ballpark. The points I was trying to make are:
            1) The D&D ballpark for mass-market adventures is a pretty well-known place.
            2) It’s pretty much the same place regardless of the setting (which is still important, but at a different level).
            3) Some other games have used that ballpark (or a very similar one), while others have used an entirely different ballpark.

          3. Madcapmachinations

            I think you might be confusing `adventure’ and `setting’. There are lots of D&D settings, but and some of them give rise to different styles of adventures, but the `ballpark’ of a D&D adventure is basically “explore a series of connected dungeon-like set-pieces filled mostly with adversaries and obstacles”. That’s nothing like the underpinnings of a typical adventure for things like Vampire, Leverage, or Ars Magica (to pull some random examples).

            Are you talking about a game exactly like Vampire or the dynamics of Vampire because D&D definitely copied the dynamics of Vampire in its setting and corresponding adventures?

        2. Alphastream

          Sure, Barrier Peaks is a Dungeon Crawl in that it is just “end the bad things in this place, so explore it until that happens”, but it is still a mix of genres. That is especially true for its time, when we had not had the amazing global bombardment of sci-fi ideas we now enjoy.

          And Eberron is enjoyed in its D&D form by many fans. It might work better with a different system for some, but that’s not true for everyone.

          Again, I don’t think “collapses horribly in on itself” is true.

          Reply

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