The Default Adventure Skeleton
by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish
We've talked about the importance of pacing but this is a hard concept to understand at a practical level. How can we worry about pacing when we have a pile of friends on their way over and need to keep them entertained for four hours?
Simple tools and checklists can give us a lot of leverage when running our RPGs and we can use such a checklist as a basic guide for maintaining an interesting pace during our next game.
This article contains one such checklist in the form of an adventure skeleton.
The adventure skeleton is a simple outline that can fill out a two- to four-hour gaming session. It builds in pacing throughout and maintains enough flexiblity to support a wide range of interesting adventures. It's a dangerous tool, though. Use it too much and all your games start to feel the same. Still, when nothing else is working quite right, this is a good way to build some solid pacing into your game before you begin.
In short, here is the adventure skeleton:
Start with a battle.
NPC interaction that sets the stage for the rest of the adventure.
More exploration or interaction.
The final battle.
Step 1: Start with a Battle
We know how important it is to have a solid start and there are few more gripping starts than a good battle. D&D combat gets everybody rolling dice and focuses on the strongest pillar of the game—combat. This battle also serves as a good way to introduce the PCs to the problems they may face. This battle might even LEAD to their problems. Perhaps they killed the Wererat kingpin's only son or cut down the king's favorite mercenary lord. Sure, he was a jerk, but he was the king's jerk.
Step 2: NPC Interaction
Next jump into interesting NPCs and some useful conversation. After the battle is over it's time to bring in our helpful questgiver who steers the direction of the PCs. Maybe this is a good person or maybe it's a scumbag, but someone needs to help the PCs navigate the rest of the story and point out the interesting locations.
Step 3: Exploration
Next comes our scenes of exploration. This might be an investigation into some sort of crime. It might be the exploration of an ancient ruin. It might be a series of interviews with other NPCs to understand the full scope of the situation. However we play it, this is the scene where the players get to do LOTS of non-combat sorts of stuff. Uncovering clues, disarming traps, manipulating the corrupt town guard to learn of the criminal underpinnings, that sort of stuff.
Step 4: Another Fight
Time to bring the pace back up again with another good solid fight. This one shouldn't be too hard. Maybe slightly less diffcult than the first and certainly less difficult than the final fight. Keep in mind that most fights should give the PCs some clue about the overall storyline going on. Pepper in interesting clues all throughout the game. This fight could be less about monsters and more about an interesting environment. Are they hanging from the side of a cliff? Are they fighting on the remains of a crashing airship? What's the environmental hook in this fight?
Step 5: More Exploration or Interactions
Depending on the type of adventure going on, this is a great time for the PCs to tie up any loose ends. This is where the big reveal occurs. It might be the lowest level of a dungeon, a secret chamber in the castle, or finding out that the queen's attendant is really an ancient sorceress in disguise.
Step 6: Final Battle
Near the end of the adventure our heroes come face to face with the true villain. This should be a nice challenging fight with interesting terrain and other interesting variables that make it an exciting batle. This is your big set-piece fight if you're using cool maps or 3d terrain.
Step 7: Conclusion
We don't have to leave a lot of time at the end but we should leave some time to tie off the loose ends and give the PCs some closure. Usually, by the end of a big final fight, players are packing up their dice and starting to check their watches. A little extra time to describe the impact of their actions usually ties off the game right.
A Blunt Instrument
This outline isn't perfect and it shouldn't be used all the time. In particular it doesn't work for more standard serial adventures where, in many cases, stories will be broken up across multiple sessions. Still, a good balance of interaction, exploration, and combat helps keep the beats of pace going.
As a tool to get you started building a fun adventure, you could do a lot worse than an outline like this one. Like all of our tips, try it out and rebuild it into something useful for you.