crafting adventures with screenwriting

22 July 2021 § game design § guide

There’s some stuff that I’ve picked up over the years from screenwriting that I thought could be useful if applied to adventure writing for RPGs! I’ve used this method in a couple of my works and now I feel like I have a good enough grasp on it to share it with you through this blog post…

And as a disclaimer: I am coming at this topic from the perspective of a screenwriter and someone who is more familiar with narrative focused play! I am 110% sure that the following info won’t be helpful for every type of adventure, but I hope you take away something useful <3

Power of Theme

In adventure writing theme is everything for me. Most of the time you are not writing a complete story, or a static description of a place. No, you are building a vibrant world, a scene for the players to explore and take part in. In doing so, you will transfer some sort of theme to your audience (the players), who will take it in their hands and discover all it’s intricacies, quirks and surprises by creating their story around your theme.

So what is a theme exactly?

Theme can be one or a couple of words describing a concept you want to explore with your project. Really it can be anything and you can go as deep / as casual, as concrete / as abstract as you want.

Example: Winterhome, a scenario about visiting your home during the winter. Theme is coziness.

Applying theme during the writing process is quite straightforward. Write your text as usual, and when you are at a decision point, you choose the variant that’s the closest to the theme you are going for.

Example: should the village have houses made of metal or wood? I chose wood because it felt more cozy to me.

IMPORTANT: theme can change during the writing process! Don’t be afraid to go ahead and change it to something that suits your draft better. Though I personally try my best to at least stay true to the feeling I had in mind for the project at the beginning.

You can also specify the theme when you are further into the writing process. Specifying your theme can help narrow down the scope of your project, and also guide you through more tricky decisions.

Example: coziness —transforms into—> finding coziness in travel

Now we can move one to setting up the foundations of your adventure. In this post I will focus on 3 major elements props / locations / characters. All of them will be in some way informed by the theme you’ve chosen in the beginning.

Using prop / Location / Character

Prop / Location / Character are the three elements I think about when building a scenario (sorry that I don’t have a cool acronym for them). You can focus your writing on one, two or all three elements depending on the scope of your project.

While the division of the three elements helps with concentrating on certain aspects, I try to keep in mind that the Prop-Location-Character always exist in relation to one another. Ask: whom did this item belong to? Who inhabits this location? How do the actions of the dwellers affect their environment?

Next, you want to introduce some potential of change, or as I like to call it - momentum. My favourite adventures are never static. If the players don’t do anything the situation will usually worsen or even have an affect on player characters themselves.

In classic fantasy RPGs it would be something like:

A place of safety -> moment of risky travel -> a very dangerous fight.

Instead of this framework of basic rising tension, I propose introducing change into one of the Prop / Location / Character elements. For instance:

Prop: a changing object. A ticking time bomb is the best example. Something that requires the players’ attention, and it will create more problems unless dealt with.

Location: a change of scenery. Either the location itself changes or the characters travel to a new place (an adventure set on a boat for example).

A neat framework could be: place one -> place two that tells us more about place one -> place three that ties everything together.

Arrival at Winterhome (view of the coastline / obscured) -> walking in the town (some understanding of the streets) -> climbing the mountain top (gives a view of the whole town / complete knowledge).

In this example, the process of discovery is what drives the momentum / players’ interest, not necessarily rising action. There’s always a group that will enjoy a calmer / more methodical experience.

Character: a character desires/enacts change. A leader on the brink of a revolution. An scientist on the verge of discovery. I always try to introduce the players to the story at the latest possible moment before the change happens. This gives them a chance to participate, but also puts them at a tense time limit.

Now that we have our foundational blocks moving and turning (probably not the best thing for an irl foundation lol), you may start expanding your ideas into an entire adventure.

In the next section I talk a bit about contrast, a useful tool if you want the elements of your adventure shine.

Applying Contrast

The elements above can be strengthened by contrast! Though not obligatory, your foundational blocks (prop / location / character) may benefit from having an opposing counter part.

A king will seem greedier next to a peasant. A sailor will seem more adventurous next to a clerk etc.

Disney films are the most obvious example on my mind. For example how Mufasa and Scar are juxtaposed in their approach to leadership in The Lion King.

I’ve been giving contrasting characters as examples, but exactly the same logic also applies to locations and props!

Closing Thoughts

This is in no way the true / the only way to write adventures, but I think it’s a good start if you are not sure how to begin! Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to conform to the framework above, it’s totally okay (and expected!) to go off rails and explore your own route.

If you have any questions feel free to reach out @mayvisit on twitter! i’ll try my best to help out.

Further Reading

Some links if you want to read more on the topic. The following posts are primarily focused on polishing your adventure and getting it out there.

A Doodle Is Worth A Thousand Hallway Descriptions on Papers and Pencils - a very cool post about dungeon maps that I think highlights well the importance of making sure your adventure can be easily referenced at the table.

How I Plan and Write RPG Books on Coins and Scrolls - a step by step walkthrough of creating an RPG book. And by RPG book I mean RPG BOOK. Lot’s of the steps can be skipped if you are working on a smaller scoped project, but the advice is still solid.