A Situation and Adventure Design Process

An Approach that Works for Me

I want to share the adventure situation preparation I’ve used in my recent games.

First, I’ve been . However, this preparation can easily map to an analogue system.

The Preparation Process

This isn’t a review for Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins 🔍, but I do recommend picking it up. I’ve used it for the and an upcoming location for my A Grain of Truth in the World of Ardu campaign.

For the Campaign: New Vistas in the Thel Sector game, I used Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins to sketch out a MacGuffin; the location necessary for the “plot”. When I run games, I don’t plan plots. I instead establish an immediate situation amidst a backdrop of larger factions who might have an interest in the immediate situation. I spent about an hour developing a loose understanding of what would be in the location. The initial location with its simple map fit on an index card.

At this point my notes for the laboratory were as follows:

  • A discovery; what will the characters learn/get if they explore the laboratory
  • A node map; circles representing rooms connected by lines representing doorways or corridors
  • A phrase for each room
  • A list of rooms with creatures and/or hazards

As of , the players haven’t found the full discovery of the laboratory.

From the premium version of Stars without Number: Revised Edition 🔍, I rolled up the local society. I sketched out a few notes, flavoring this society with elements of the random location. Again, this would fit on a single index card.

I settled on Greek names for this society. I setup a quick means to generate NPCs with Greek names. An index card of 20 names would’ve been adequate.

that the company gave to the Player Characters (PCs 🔍). Their company, New Vistas, assigned them the task of finding the location and relaying that information back.

Knowing players, I assumed they’d be going into the laboratory. However, I didn’t want that to be inevitable. I wanted to leave them ample room to explore this new planet and city.

To address that I created Table 196: Heat Check. I used this table and associated procedure to model the opposition and interest in the characters' activity. This procedure proved to be the primary driver of conflict and dynamism of the city.

The end result of this preparation process wasn’t a fleshed out adventure. Instead, I filled my head and notes with ideas, images, and touchstones to draw upon during play.

We spent the first 8 sessions with the PCs gathering information. I used my preparation to respond to the characters as they explored the situation and dug around.

Pivoting to a Set Adventure Location

In , the characters began their delve into the laboratory.

In preparation for that session, I went back to my notes for the laboratory. The goal was to take those notes and write-up a more detailed location.

First, I skimmed my session reports. I wanted to fold the themes and concepts from the prior 8 sessions into the location; My initial situation preparation had informed those 8 sessions, I wanted to do likewise with the location.

With all of that in mind, I worked through the internal logic of the laboratory. Where I saw initial notes contrary to anything established in fiction, I honored those initial notes. I sat with these contradictions and made sense of them.

In my initial situation preparation, I had no idea that the characters would give so much focus to . However, the characters' response to the painting and ensuing situation established some thematic elements that I carried into the write-up of the laboratory.

Its the Journey, not the Destination

I am deeply satisfied with the results of my process.

The time I spent in the beginning established some mental parameters. I used those parameters and some procedures to create a dynamic city-base location (e.g. the Midcity and Cynosure). I improvised (and then wrote down) most all of those first 8 sessions.

Then, as the focus shifted to the MacGuffin location, I used the game session as inspiration to finalize the initial location.


In Episode 55 - AP: Improvisional Structure, Judd Karlman describes an improvisational worksheet and method that could easily supplements my approach.

As part of Judd’s daydreaming preparation for a game session, he divides a sheet of paper into four quadrants and adds ideas:

  1. Character Elements
  2. Consequences
  3. Cool Stuff
  4. The World/Current Events

I haven’t yet used this method, but plan to in future adventures.