Anyone who knows me knows how much I love spreadsheets, and that’s why—like an absolute freak—I write the first draft of my adventures in a spreadsheet. Hold on. Don’t leave. You don’t have to use a spreadsheet. It’s just easiest for me.
There’s really only one step to that first draft—and I’m using first draft pretty loosely here—instead of something hammered down, ready for editing, my initial pass on an adventure mostly lives inside of my head, with about 10% of it on the spreadsheet, like some kind of RPG iceberg.
I used this method for both SWINEHEART MOTEL and adventures for my home game that I’m never going to release, so I think it’s a valuable technique for both avenues.
It’s very simple.
Write adventures by answering questions.
I create a new blank spreadsheet, freeze the top row, and I’m ready to go. At this point, I’ll probably have a vague sense of what I want the adventure to be about—something that has been percolating in the back of my brain, the culmination of inspiration and connection. In this state, the adventure is perfect and fun to think about, because it has no flaws.
As I go about my life and do my day job, I have the spreadsheet open on my phone. The adventure has presuppositions about it just from thinking about it, and I’ll start with these.
In my head, SWINEHEART MOTEL was going to be set in a derelict old Victorian manor, like you’d see in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (SWINEHEART MANOR was the working title.)
My first step was to take this assumption and turn it into a question. Easy enough. In one of the header columns on the spreadsheet, I wrote: “What is the setting?” and underneath that I put down my answer: “An old dilapidated manor in the country.” I continued this process until I had turned all the ideas about what the adventure was into questions instead, with the first answer to each of them being my first idea.
And this is where the real percolation begins. I formulated at least 5 more answers to each question, each one being a step further from the lowest hanging fruit. This is a slow process that, for me, requires the background processing part of my brain. If I sit down in front of the computer and just tell my brain to “generate ideas!” no ideas come forth. Surprising, really. So instead, I pick a few of the questions and then day dream about them as I go about my day: working, at the gym, driving, cooking, cleaning, you get the idea. Every time a new and exciting answer pops into my head, I jot it down (either directly into the spreadsheet or into a quick capture note file to migrate later).
No answer that excites me is rejected, even if that answer would play havoc with all the other answers in the document. The adventure, at this time, exists in such a nebulously quantum state that it can become anything. There’s no point in stymieing that during this draft.
As I record answers over and over again, new questions will pop up. I log those and start thinking up answers for them. At least 5 for each.
As time goes on, a bias begins to emerge in which I instinctively like the brain-feel of certain answers over others1:These answers are solidifying into the “canon” of the adventure, even though it still mostly exists only in my head. As time goes on and the adventure becomes more real, more specific questions begin coming up. A second layer of questions reveals itself, with these new entries relying on a truth from a previous answer.
When I go down these secondary paths and can’t find anything that excites me or satisfies me, I know that I need to backtrack and change my presumptions about what answers will become canon. This doesn’t happen that frequently, though. Once I’m at the second stage of questions, the adventure is pretty firmly in my head.
After a certain amount of time, the adventure needs to evolve past the speculation phase and solidify into something real. I try and take some time off and think about other things to clear the brain-cache, and then I open up the spreadsheet and go through each column (question) and choose the answer that fits best for each of these.
I take all of those questions & the singular answer and put them into a document. Spreadsheets can only take you so far, unfortunately.
If I’m working on an adventure that I’m going to use for my home table, that document of question/answer is honestly 90% enough to run it, and I’ll know what sorts of assets I need to prepare—maps, statblocks, etc. Important NPCs and locations will have already been created through the Q&A period. They might need some fleshing out, but for a home game, I’m usually comfortable enough.
If I’m going to write the adventure with an eye for others using it, I’ll need to type it up in a more traditional adventure format. That’s a whole other process in itself, but with such a strong “outline”, there’s not much guess work (right up until the point where I type something, realize it sucks, and change the whole adventure).
How many questions you ask yourself and how many answers you give is up to you and how much information you want to convey in the adventure itself. I would argue that you should have a firm grasp on the adventure world even if you only plan to include a small percentage of it for publishing. For SWINEHEART MOTEL I think I went a bit heavy-handed in the end: it’s pretty dense with information, and I had to stretch my layout ideas to make it useable at the table.
But the real advantage to this method is that you are forcing yourself to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t be able to come up with on the fly. The very nature of spending at least a week with something, stretching your creativity on it and reaching past the easy answers means that you will have crafted something that you couldn’t adlib at the table. It might not be wholly original or land with others, but it will be something you should feel proud of. And the next one? You can stretch harder, and that creative muscle grows.
Some Example Questions From Swineheart Motel
It’s hard to express the method without an example, so I went and pulled a non-exhaustive list of questions from my original doc. You can sort of see an evolution in Q&A as the adventure began to solidify in my head.
- Where is this set?
- When is this set?
- Who is going to be a major threat to the party?
- Why would the party want to go here?
- What could keep the party here even if they want to leave?
- What has corrupted the human threat?
- How does Swineheart corrupt people?
- Is anything here actively opposing Swineheart?
- How could the party find out about Swineheart?
- Why would there be other people at the manor?2
- Does everyone at the motel know about Swineheart?
- What could the party use to defend themselves?
- What will happen to the party’s vehicle if they don’t watch it?3
- How can the party defeat Swineheart?
- Why is Swineheart already weakened?
- What “innocent” things can the party discover that will creep them out?
- What keeps the party under pressure?
- What creepy imagery works for the motel rooms?
- How can there be a “masked murderer” threat in the adventure?
- How can memory come into play?
- How can the party be tempted by cosmic forces?
- What happens to those that drink the heart-blood?
- What happens if the players ignore the threat?
- Why did the friendly NPC come here in the first place?
- … and many more.
And that’s it! Hope it was insightful or helpful in some way.
- This short post by Zedeck Siew describes how he starts writing an adventure by beginning with fiction.
- Sandra from idomdrottning posits that in general, all design should be focused on answering questions that would arise at the table. She does this in a post called Question-Based Design, which would have been the perfect title for this post!
- John B at The Retired Adventurer talks about campaign planning as a series of decisions and I feel like it runs parallel to what I’m talking about here in terms of scope and idea.
It is without a doubt almost never the original answer. This method is essentially forcing yourself to avoid the low hanging fruit.↩︎
This is the question that made me re-evaluate and change the setting to a motel.↩︎
Answering questions like this provide an insight into the tools and methods that characters have access to in the setting.↩︎
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