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
Take all the things that you feel are important to the story. These should be things such as the Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal, Important NPCs, Important Story Arcs, Important Story Elements, Items, Rewards, Character Goals, etc.
Keep them all in your head, but arranged as little islands floating in the water without any direct connections to each other.
Arrange the islands in a loose order via proximity and where they should come in the story. Islands that the PCs should get to first, keep up front. End game islands should float around in the back.
As the PCs progress through the story let them find their own paths between the islands or move islands into and out of their path by modifying elements of the game being played.
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.
When the players find an interesting solution and you decide to go with it, they feel like they’ve just “beaten” the game. Their character’s actions had an impact and their ideas came into play. The world gets fleshed out a bit because they feel they circumvented an obstacle instead of following a predefined course.
If something goes awry, or is unplanned for, it is easier to change the plot around to accommodate.
The Game Master can leave some of the plot in the hands of the players and let them do things that are more interesting to them.
Even though the plot progression hasn’t been laid out beforehand, it feels more linear to the players since they never, or rarely, had to backtrack and try something again.
In the end the Game Master has more control over the general plot progression since he or she can change things on the fly.
Players who like order and following the Game Master’s lead might find it hard to adjust.
Depending on play style, Game Master’s can feel like there is little structure to the story since it is being built as it is played.
Playing in a more rigid system can have some issues when it comes time to adjust statted properties.
More time might be taken to research and prepare new things at the gaming table.
Putting things under definite categories becomes harder to do. A document or file for NPCs will be shredded once you start moving them around in different places in the story.
Some Things To Keep In Mind
Pick out the game elements that are malleable and can be incorporated in different places. Make these your islands.
Making connections between islands becomes important. If you bring in a new island that the story so far hasn’t had any reason to lead to, you’ll have to throw some things in to lead the PCs there. You can also use unused elements that are already in the story so far, as long as you remember they won’t be available until later.
Remember, the players don’t see the planning and changes you make to the islands. To them it looks like one big semi-coherent story. Especially at the end. They will, however, realize that they had more to do with actually making it happen.
Keeping notes for the islands in a way that they can be shuffled can be a great benefit. Writing things down on index cards or in definitely separated sections of a document can be very helpful.
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?