The atomic model of action in RPGs has implications outside of when to roll the dice. Most notably, it has a profound impact on adventure design. Skills make adventure design much easier, because they provide a pre-existing list of challenges to draw upon. Yes, there is still art in arranging them in an entertaining fashion, but if you were to break down the average published adventure, you could easily produce an itemized list suggesting that this adventure is composed of 7 lock pick rolls, 5 find trap rolls, 18 Athletics checks and so on. In this context, combats as discrete events make all the sense in the world, since they are really just microcosms of the same (a certain number of attack rolls and so on).
Consider our ever-popular locked door. We put it in an adventure because we want to give the thief something to do, not because its particularly interesting. In fact, we put in so many such things that it takes only the tiniest bit of plot and motivation to make an adventure work, so long as it just moves from atom to atom.
But if the game removes that roadmap (as more abstract games like FAE or certain Cortex Plus builds do) then that whole infrastructure goes away. With skills (and other calls to mechanics) you could add interest to things which were not intrinsically interesting by engaging them with mechanics. In the absence of that, you are forced to look long and hard at what characters are actually doing in your game.
The first time you strip away this veneer, it can seem daunting. SO MUCH of what classically defines an adventure is removed that you wonder how you can fill the time. If you no longer accepts that fights are disproportionately interesting, then what are you supposed to do? But fear not, the basics of adventure design will still come to your aid.
At its most basic, and adventure revolves around the players/characters wanting something and facing opposition to attempt to get it. When crafting an atomic adventure, it was easy for those to be fluffy things like treasure and adventure, but without the atomic structure to rely on, you realize that a weak motivation opens the floor to all manner of questions, including “is there a better way to get what we need than murder and home invasion?” With that in mind, motive needs to be a bit more rigorous.
Thankfully, this one is not hard to address, because it’s a questions your players should have already answered. If there is something on their character sheet which tells you what the want (like an aspect) then you have a clear signpost. And in the absence of that, you can also just ask them.
Assuming you have aspects (or similar) to draw on, then here is one key piece of advice – you do not want your characters to use their aspects in lame or uninspired ways, and you need to hold yourself to the same standard. Do not look at the sheet, see “Knight of the Red Dragon” on someone’s sheet and just say “The knighthood of the Red Dragon has asked you to investigate those mysterious ruins”. That is lazy and wasteful. If you’re going to use the knighthood as a hook, then the knighthood needs to really matter in this regard, and if that means changing the adventure to reflect that, then that is absolutely what you should do. And then make it transparent – mysterious orders from on high make for crappy motivation.
Once you have a compelling motivation, the hard part is done, because it’s a simple matter of asking “Why don’t they already have it?”. Look over the answers to that, and if they aren’t interesting enough, add some more. Do not think of them as mandatory hurdles to be cleared, but merely things which are true and which must me accounted for.
That’s all there is to it. Simple. Sort of.
Notice that there’s no reference to mechanics anywhere in this, and that’s why I would actually endorse creating adventures without a system in mind. You might go in with certain rules for how the world works (like magic) in much the same way a novelist might, but don’t stress over the specific names of things (though if you want to use an adventure design system, like 5b5 or random tables, go nuts). If you’re used to thinking about adventures in game terms, this may be a hard transition. It feels absolutely creaky when contrasted with your highly refined skills of thinking about atomic adventures, but once you have done it a few times you may find it’s very liberating. Once you can think of adventures that are interesting without the system, then adding system back in will only improve the experience.
Or such is the hope.
- This comes in many nuanced flavors. It is entirely possible to have no skill system to speak of but just have characters narratively move from encounter to encounter. ↩
- You also can create motive, by initiating something bad which the players will want to address. This can work very well, but needs to be handled with care. The frequency, intensity and nature of the GM pushes can vary based on table taste and genre (it’s a staple for supers, for example) but if you lean too heavily on them, you risk ignoring the players interests in favor of your own. ↩