Nov 152010

Adventure writing is often viewed as a free-form creative exercise where the “sky’s the limit”. The fantasy genre, with its emphasis on magic, can especially leave the adventure ideas open to pretty much anything our minds can imagine. Science fiction isn’t as open-ended, since it’s supposed to be at least theoretically scientifically plausible (or at least feel like it is), but even here, the adventure-writer’s options are legion, as they are with any other genre, from modern horror to steampunk to superheros.

You would think that such openness would be liberation, allowing our many ideas to flow effortlessly and for some writers, it is. But for others of us (including myself), this sense of infinite possibility actually causes us to freeze up. There are simply too many choices and our ideas run dry. How do we get around this?

There is a surprising answer: limit our choices. It seems counter-intuitive. Yet, by placing limitations–rules, if you like–on your adventure-to-be, you restrict yourself to a more limited set of choices, something you can handle more easily. The trick here is to strike a balance: too many rules and you can make your adventure feel stiff, shallow, or trite; too few and it can become unfocused and leave players wondering what they should do next.

How do you know you’ve got the right amount? I’ve found that applying rules one-by-one, I’ll reach a point where my ideas start flowing. That’s the point to stop restricting and start brainstorming. Some rules are already set for us, even if we don’t think of them that way. The first restriction we usually have to take into account is the genre we’re playing in. Unless you’re in a homebrew or cross-over game, you’re not going to want to place magical wards in your Traveller game.

Another common restriction is setting, whether you’re using your own or a published one. The worlds has some established rules, rising from how the setting “works”. Does magic come from ley lines and the further you are from them, the weaker magic is? Then you know you can’t place a magically dense area far from ley lines, unless you have a good explanation about how it can exist. Does your SF game contain alien technology? If not, then any seemingly Clarke’s Law MacGuffins* are going have to have rational explanations that fit in with the available technology of the setting.

Can you see the plot ideas developing here? With the SF idea, for example, the PCs find a piece of technology that seems way to advanced to exist. Intrigued, they track the item back to its source or set out to find someone who can analyze and explain it. Along the way, they’re shadowed by the company that created the item and want to get it back because either a) it doesn’t actually work or b) they’ve developed some proprietary new technology and don’t want anyone else getting their hands on it before they’ve developed and introduced it to the market. Or it’s a military secret and they can’t risk the PCs putting it into the wrong hands… You could probably take this adventure from here.

That’s the idea behind setting rules. You’ll want to be careful about not violating the rules of your setting without a good reason. It’s okay to look like you’re violating the rules, as long as you have an explanation that makes sense within the game setting. One note: you don’t have to give the PCs the explanation right away; make them work for it. That’s where your adventure comes from.You just need to make sure you actually have one and that your PCs can eventually find out what it is.

If setting rules aren’t enough to get the creative juices flowing, you can establish rules for this one adventure. Perhaps all the PCs are trapped in a single room for the entire adventure. This idea leads to questions:

* Why this room?
* Where is the room located?
* Why are they trapped?
* Who put them there?
* What conditions do the PCs have to fulfill to get released?

By the time you’ve answered these questions, you’ve created your adventure.

By selectively applying limitations or rules to an adventure-to-be, you can actually increase your creativity and your ideas. Take one rule at a time and explore it’s implications, thinking about the questions it raises and answering those questions. This can lead to many interesting adventures you would never have thought of otherwise.

[This article is an excerpt from’s upcoming product The Adventure Creation Handbook.]



*Clarke’s Law, posited by SF writer Arthur C. Clarke, states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  A MacGuffin is a plot element that drives the action of a story.

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I’ve been gaming since August of 1980 when I crashed a D&D game at summer camp. Two weeks after that, I DM’ed a game for the first time. Since then, I’ve GM’ed everything from D&D to World of Darkness to Toon. Basically, if I can get my hands on it, I’ll try to run it. I’m a web designer and freelance writer by trade, and I’ve written articles for Inphobia (originally called White Wolf Magazine), Challenge, and Ars Magica’s supplement Medieval Tapestry. I also write two other blogs: Evil Machinations and On My Own Two Feet.

  4 Responses to “Coloring Inside the Lines: How Limitations Can Improve Your Adventure Ideas”

  1. I have found myself all to often sitting with my fellow players, wondering what to do next. I think that if more GM’s restrict themselves, as you have said, we’ll have a more focused vision of what we should be doing, and what the adventure is about.

  2. Jade, nicely done. Our group has been talking along these same lines, but with regards to campaigns. Many gamers will tell you they want big, open, I-can-do-anything-be-anyone-go-anywhere settings. However, it is amazing how much more interesting and focused your story can be if you are looking through a narrow window on a campaign. This can allow your party to have a well-defined identity instead of just “You are 4 adventurers looking for action who have met in an inn and will now spend the rest of your lives together chasing action…”

    I hadn’t yet approached adventure design consciously this way…

  3. Hi Jade,

    Creative constraints are one my favorite tools when coming up with ideas. I have also found that it can be applied in several others senses, i.e. not just for building up encouonters and dungeons, but also for other aspects of the adventure. Some may be weird such as ‘monsters may ony be the type that deals blunt damage’, so club-wielding orcs and golems with huge stonefists are the once to be used, and then you go from there. Others may be that the motive behind all NPCs is love – so the villain in the dungeon is motivated by love, and so is the NPC who sends our adventurers out in the wild.

    I also employ constraints for my players. I GM a campaign, where they are all wizards, and their spells get an extra bonus, if the players describe their spells within certain limits – if they describe the spells as how their masters taught them, then an extra bonus is earned. This both works as a creative constraint, and that helps them coming up with colorful descriptions, but it also creates a continuity, where you can see, which wizard was tutored by what master. Creative constraints can be applied to back stories, but also to in game descriptions – as the forementioned rule about spell casting does.

    For the same campaign the player also had the constraint, that only elves and humans were available, and only fighters, rogues and wizards as classes.

  4. @ Morten. You’ve got some great ideas for constraints I’d never thought of. I really like the idea of limiting the type of monsters with a rule or theme. I’ll definitely try that out in the adventures I write in the future.

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