Building Reusable Convention Adventures Part 2: Start With an Outline

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Welcome to Part 2 in my series about building reusable convention adventures! Part 1 set up the series and asked GMs to stop trying to read the minds of their players, and instead build a world or environment or playground for gameplay.

In this part, I’m going to talk about creating the overall outline of the adventure. It maps out where I need to do detail work, and it functions as a sort of ‘checklist’ while I’m running the game to ensure I’ve done everything I need. While running the game, I’ll often flip back and forth between this and the details pages that come after.

If worse comes to worse, and I can’t get in the amount of prep I want, I can run the entire game via the outline. I don’t advise this unless you’re really comfortable with improvising in front of strangers, but it works, and I’ve had to do it from time to time.

Here’s how my outlines typically start:

  • Introductions

    • Pass out pregens, let everyone choose.

    • Go over safety mechanics / expectations.

    • Finish pregen character generation.

    • Make basic introductions. Tell us a little about your character.

      • Ask questions, help the player fill it out.

    • Round-robin choose relationships with each other character in the game.

    • Go over a brief explanation of how the game is played.

I’ll talk about how I do this whole intro section more in future parts of this article, but this introduction spot is a ‘catch-all’ for all the things I want to do before the game actually starts. Imparting all the information the players will need to play a good game, giving them a basic run-down of the mechanics (I always run games suited for new players, so I usually have mostly new players), and giving them a few choices for their pregens so they can customize their characters.

When I’m at the table, I can get flustered pretty easily and quickly. Player soften have a lot of questions, there’s other things going on, distraction happens super easily, so I like to have a list in front of me so I don’t lose focus.

Now, I’m getting to the part of the outline that’s the meat of my adventure. For the sake of my example, I’ll use a story most people know: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Except, rather than assuming the players (the bears) will do any one thing, I’ll just set up the playground so they can wreak merry havoc however they like.

  • Hooks to Start the Story

    • Ask the players how their bear family might spend their time outdoors, and set up an introductory scene based on consensus.

      • Examples:

        • The bears have run out of their favorite condiment, honey, and are looking for a beehive to refresh their supply.

        • The family is spending a peaceful Sunday morning picking berries.

        • The family has decided to pack a lunch and have a picnic in the forest.

      • If the players can’t come to a consensus, make a decision for them.

  • Hooks to Introduce the Adventure

    • Allow the opening scene to continue for a short while to let the players get used to one another, and the game.

      • Try to have at least one roll happen so the mechanics get used.

    • Tip the bears off to the fact that their home has been broken into:

      • A wolf comes by and tells the bears he thought they were at home because he saw a glow from their window.

      • The bears come upon some human footprints leading peculiarly in the direction fo their home.

See what I’m getting at? I add more than just a couple of examples, of course, and frequently come back to add even more as I journey through the outline, setting up the details. Next, I start on the details for clues, locations, NPCs, items, and any other component of the playground our players may encounter.

Whenever possible, I like to keep all these components separate from one another. It makes it easier to pivot as I need to when I’m up against time constraints, and gives me something to help the players with should they get stuck or end up with analysis paralysis.

Gaming buy-in is a balance between boredom and frustration, especially at a convention. If it’s too easy, they’ll get bored, and quickly become uninterested. If it’s too hard, they’ll get frustrated, and rage quit. Good GMs hope the adventure itself will keep that balance. Great GMs adjust the adventure on the fly to accommodate the group.

  • NPCs

    • Goldilocks

      • A peculiarly picky little girl with ringlet hair, wearing a blue bonnet and dress.

        • She’s wanted in multiple counties in the animal kingdom for breaking and entering.

    • Albert, the Wolf

      • Believes Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks are the same person, extremely paranoid since “the incident”.

  • Locations

    • Woodland clearing

    • Tree with beehive

    • Home cave

      • Living Area / Hearth

        • Something has torn through two of the chairs, and left the third one pristine.

      • Dining Area

        • A mess. Porridge on the walls, chairs turned over in rage.

        • One bowl has been eaten.

      • Mom and Dad’s Bedroom

        • Has been ransacked. The pillows are torn, the blankets have been angrily thrown off, and the curtains were torn off the rod in rage.

      • Kid’s Room

        • Goldilocks is here, fast asleep, her dress rumpled, torn, and stained from her escapades.

          • She wakes up if any of the bears enter the room, starting the final boss fight.

  • Clues

    • Wanted poster, featuring Goldilocks.

    • Child-sized human footprints.

  • Items

    • Nearly-empty honey jar.

      • The honey sharpens the nose and gives +1 to investigate.

      • Must pass a save to not get paw stuck.

When I outline for dungeon crawl games, it looks a little different, but not a whole lot. The icebreaking portion of the game is usually the introduction to the crawl, the reason why the adventurers are there. With investigative/mystery-type games, all the location detail I need I bake into the outline. NPCs are more important, so I give them detail in later pages. With dungeon/city crawl-type games, I do the opposite. NPC detail is done in the outline, and locations are described in detail elsewhere. For both, though, I keep a set of mobile clues and items separate from NPCs or locations to sprinkle throughout the game.

I always name my NPCs at this stage in the process, too. I have a love/hate relationship with names. I used to be terrible at making them up on the spot. I’ve since gotten better, but it’s still one of my weaker points. Getting it out of the way at the beginning helps make writing detail later a little less stressful.

Once I have my outline finished (sometimes before if I have a really strong idea, though I usually come back again after to add more), write about a paragraph setting things up from an omniscient point of view. This is objectively what’s happened in the environment, a set of facts to go along with all the other parts.

Wanted thief and terrifying lycanthrope, Goldilocks, has been ransacking homes in the Animal Kingdom, stealing things, eating food, and squatting. Her latest target is the home of three bears, the PCs, Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear (the pregens). While they were out, she wrecked their home, and passed out in the baby’s bed after a porridge eating frenzy.

The adventure ends when the players explore the whole dungeon, figure out what’s going on, solve the mystery, or fix the problem. In this case, the Bear family needs to remove Goldilocks, but we leave it open so the ‘how’ is determined at the table. I like to set up some things about the resolution, though, so I can end the game on a short story.

  • Resolution / Ending

    • Goldilocks can be returned to the Big Bad Wolf for a cash reward, dead or alive (though if turned in alive, she’ll end up dead). She’ll leave the Animal Kingdom alone.

    • Goldilocks’s family, however, will pay even more to have her returned to them, safely. She’ll remain alive, but she’ll rampage again.

I try to tie up all your loose ends, and keep it open to change and interpretation. Players will often jump in with additions to the ending and ultimate resolution, and I seldom say no.

One last thing before I go… I’m laying this out in a particular order because I’m writing a series of blog posts, and it breaks up easily that way, but I’m a rather messy creator. I’m constantly scribbling little notes, altering the outline, altering the intro paragraph, moving between detail and broad strokes as needed.

Now that I’ve laid down the outline, it’s time to focus on some details. In the next part, I’ll talk about how I set up webs of NPCs visually before detailing the NPCs themselves, and go through a few tools I use to give my games visual elements.

Stacy Dellorfano