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How do I prepare adventures?

"You! You just died!" - Photo by Douglas Fóis

When I first started playing RPGs, I would try to prepare for every possibility I could think of. I almost tried to write "Gamebooks" to run as adventures, with numbered index cards and sayings like "if players try to do this, go to card 15" or something. It was exhausting, and mostly useless. Players will do things can't ever imagine ourselves. And that's awesome!

So I needed to come up with a method that could provide me with enough information so that I could run a game, but not so much that I would lose more than half of it because it never really appeared in the game. Preferably something that could take as little time as possible.

So, taking inspirations from many sources (which I can only remember now as Tome of Adventure Design, The Lazy Dungeon Master and Fiasco), I came up with what I call the Adventure Structure method, and it works as follows.

Adventure Objective


I write simple statements of what players might want to accomplish in the adventure. Things like "rescue kidnapped priestess", "find the lost tome of Szalay", "kill the demon Fharrak". Sometimes I will list more than one objective, so that I remember there are many things they might want to accomplish.


Locations


I list the main locations of the situation, like the abandoned tower they want to enter, the old and smelly tavern on the way where they can hear rumors, the underground altar where the demon will be summoned. I try to come up with some inspiring locations and a few characteristics for it so I can quickly remember them during the game. No full blown map or anything, just the main elements and function of the places, and possible what you can find there.

Cast


I try to come up with at least 3 NPCs that want something out of the situation at hand, possibly with opposing goals, or at least with some divergences. Preferably, I come up with someone who will actively oppose the player characters, someone who is kind of neutral but can be tipped either way, depending on how they interact with him, and a possible ally that might turn against them, or the opposite, an opponent that could be an ally after all.

Complications


Now I try to come up with possible events that are not directly tied to the situation of the adventure, but that could interfere with it and alter its course somehow, or, at least, make it more difficult to deal with. Like rival group coming to town, a natural disaster, an opposing force wracking havoc, an old ally asking for help with something unrelated. Complications can be almost anything, and once you've got a few adventures on the campaign, you will have lots to draw from for them.

Possible Encounters


If I can think of cool encounters, with puzzles, riddles, weird monster or strange stuff that I need to remember to use, I take some notes here. Most of the time, I can improvise some cool things, but when I think of something highly specific that I know I won't be able to come up with on the spot again, I write it down.

Rewards


Now I try to list what the PCs might actually gain out of the whole ordeal. Maybe new allies, new information, magic items, treasure, some form of power. I list them here to remember to insert hooks for them during the game, to make sure I leave bread crumbs on their path that could lead them to the rewards. If they don't know they might get something out of all that trouble, they won't bother with it anyway.

...

Well, I guess that's pretty much it. I make these notes mainly to remember ideas during the game, so I can improvise and react appropriately. I try not to over prepare, mainly because I am lazy, with a 2 year old son that requires attention, and because I know my players will figure out a way to ignore all that I've prepared (and I am not a fan of railroading them).

So... What do you guys to when preparing your stuff?

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