In this post I'm going to break down a bunch of the current adventure/campaign I'm running in Sorrow. We are still playing and there are some threads that haven't been plucked by the players. There are a few spoilers in here - so if you are one of my players, read this later! The whole thing isn't laid out, just where the group has gotten to so far.
An Example of How I Write Adventures
Start with the problem - this is what the players are presented with - the "objective" of the adventure.
0: "There is some sort of reverse-aging plague ... uh oh!"
So now the fun bits: why and then why and then why...
1: Why this plague? The plague is caused by a dungeon that has grown out of control.
2: Why out of control? Some wizard was working on a time-related thing and screwed it up.
3: Why is it screwed up? He was under pressure and died (and wasn't as good as he thought).
4: Why pressure? His wife pushed him to do it.
5: Why the push? She married him to gain power.
6: Why power? because she knows about a magic wishing dungeon one someone else's property
7: Why this other place? MAGIC WISHING DUNGEON
So that defines a reason for this adventure. Lets add a few complications. Complications are the hooks and subplots.
0.1 The plague is very dangerous - people age to nothing in about 48 hours. It has the potential to spread and disappear all of Haven. Yikes!
2.1 The strange machine built by the now-dead wizard is being run by members of a faerie court
4.1 He was rushing to provide a time potion to the dangerous gang leader Micky the Fish
Now let's flesh out these NPCs a bit - specifically their motivations.
The wizard: Yent was an esoteric interested in the search for truth. Having the luxury of being upper class, he had the time and money to pursue these things. But he wasn't really a wizard - he was an occult hobbyist (albeit an advanced one), and made mistakes. He was just doing his thing, but was manipulated into going down this route by his wife.
The wife: Ulona was Yent's 4th wife and got with him to try and create a method for extending time because of the Wishing Fountain. How does she know about the wishing fountain? Because she was the lover of Micky the Fish! But she was just using Micky as well (more on that in a moment) because she wants to get to the Wishing Fountain
Micky the Fish: once an GDD member, ran across the Wishing Fountain during a 'routine' dungeon crawl. He got corrupted and is turning into a terrible monster. Ulona was a hireling of the GDD crew and knows what kind of power Mickey has ... but doesn't care about the details of HOW, she just wants it for her own nefarious purposes. Ulona continued to manipulate Micky even as he became a rampaging murder machine.
The Other Estate: Yent figured out that the Wishing Fountain, which appears from time to time around Haven had a regular pattern and made some calculations. The next appearance was in the nearby Clopman estate. Why? Because the former head of the clopman's was a wizard who was ALSO interested in the Wishing Fountain and built a statue to attract it. Magic, man. Sweet.
Now with all the bits and pieces sorted I can write up the wheels. These are what drive the campaign. They are the events that unfold if the character's DON'T get involved, but also set the general trajectory. PC interaction is the heart of a good RPG game, so every time the PCs get their grubby selves involved I update the direction of the wheels (and those related to them). For example, the PCs messed up Mickey getting the time potion, so he changed his mind and decided to hunt them down (after they talked about how awesome they were and generally bragged around town).
Wheel 1: The Plague
- Consume the Blesmont Circle population
- Consume Magnen Village neighborhood
- The Hammers (kind of the supernatural police) get involved
- Spread to All of Shady Thicket
- CAMPAIGN CHANGE: Massively depopulate Haven before being running its course
Wheel 2: Micky
- Get the Time Potion
- Instead of giving it to Ulona, use it himself to "live forever"
- Continue to grow more murderous and monstrous
- His gang becomes a cult
- Consolidate Power in Shady Thicket
- CAMPIGN CHANGE: The Hammers form up, recruiting for a a war within Haven
- Get the time potion
- Raid the Clopman estate and enter the dungeon
- Use the time potion to extend the time it is open (don't want to get trapped)
- Wish for her cult to get power
- CAMPAIGN CHANGE: a bad cult-related thing happens
I left out the details on that last bit because while I told my players not to read this ... they might.
Now with the big picture laid out, I can start littering clues and connections all over the damned place. Create rumor tables (the Ulona of Vious Moon has been attempting to purchase the Clopman estate), add descriptive notes to encounters that infer something or another (like the dead "wizard's" clothes in the time dungeon indicated he was upper class.
I didn't know what would happen or where the adventure would go. Who ever knows what the fuck players are going to get up to? In this case they stopped the time dungeon/plague, started a gang war against Mickey that ended in street riots and wide-scale destruction, and ended up carousing and getting Imdar Clopman drunk and tricking him into being their friend. Now they are going to attempt to kill off the Wishing Fountain Dungeon. Also one of the PCs killed another PC and has gotten himself addicted to some nasty drugs - which is a completely unrelated but really interesting side plot.
This was over a few months of actual play ... you can't have this much interconnected stuff in a few sessions without spoon-feeding the information. That just feels like telling the players a story I wrote and letting them know what to do next. At any point the crew could have ignored something or gone off on a tangent, let events transpire and the campaign would be irrevocably changed. All of which is AWESOME. And if they get in there and deal with the dungeon cropping up, that will be awesome too.
And here is the best part - I don't care how the adventure/campaign ends. It doesn't matter as long as it is interesting. I've seen so many adventures (and posts on reddit and whatnot) where there is a foregone conclusion that the PCs will save the say - they will get to a major battle on the top of a mountain and the GM has written up this epic encounter and bla bla bla.
I'm all about setting the wheels in motion. The players' job is to get in there and mess about with things. If they want to stop the impending doom, great! if not, that's cool! if they succeed? fantastic! if they fail? no problem. It isn't about telling a story, it is about having an adventure. The story is what happens when the players retell the adventurer to their friends.