I can’t remember the last adventure I ran that actually moved in a linear fashion. Often, I find that if I am running a pre-gen, or have built an adventure with a definite plan of execution, it ends up one of two ways. The players swing the story around like a rat flail, mangling the world until the story fits their play style (while I weep in despair over my beautiful creation), or I reign them in and keep them straight on the planned course only to find them not enjoying the game as much.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
– from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Needless to say I gave up trying to run linear games a loooong loooong time ago. Mostly out of self-preservation. I adopted a new philosophy towards adventure design: Island Design. Island design style isn’t new. It doesn’t involve sitting in a Hawaiian shirt with a margarita and throwing seashell darts at a corkboard with notes (Well sometimes it does). What island design style is, is a way to rethink what the important parts of the adventure are and how the players get to them.
Island Design Style
Linear plots are fine, but flexible ones can be more realistic and more fun to play. Island Design keeps your plots loose and malleable, making them easy to adjust.
One plot element may be the hidden fortress where the BBEG resides. The PCs might discover the location in some way that you hadn’t thought of. They might bribe an NPC who knows the location, or sneak in with the laundry delivery. This might get them there earlier than you had intended, but that doesn’t mean you have to bring them back on course. If you don’t want them to fight the BBEG yet, then move his island farther away and make up a new island or bring something more appropriate in. Maybe a minion NPC is there instead of the BBEG. Maybe they find the fortress unoccupied but without the treasures it would normally have because the troops were away mounting a war someplace else. These elements can be turned into their own islands and moved back in at a better time.
If a story goes in the wrong direction, it doesn’t mean everything about it needs to go. The elements of it can be re-skinned for later use. If the PCs get the artifact that was needed to awaken the dead god, maybe the BBEG doesn’t spend time trying to get it back but researching a new spell, or killing 100 people from a certain area in revenge. The giant cave beast the PCs would have encountered as they tried to infiltrate the BBEG’s lair could now be sent out with a squad of thugs and trainers to help assault the king’s city.
Some Things To Keep In Mind
So, what do you think of my Island Design theory? Any thoughts, critiques, suggestions or questions? Did you notice I used the term Big Bad Evil Guy a lot? Ever use a similar way to lay out an adventure?