How to Write a Tabletop RPG Adventure
The Writer's Challenge
Assuming you have a group of friends to play with, it can be terrific fun to play a tabletop RPG. Video games have popularized RPGs in a big way these days, so many gamers are familiar with them. If you have the interest, writing a playable adventure is a great challenge for writers and can help sharpen your skills and storytelling abilities.
Writing a game like this can be significantly more difficult than writing a novel for several reasons.
- You don't control everything. Players aren't fictional people who do your bidding; they are wild, uncontrollable creatures who might desire to fly off the rails as often as possible (depending on the person).
- It's unpredictable. The very thing that makes this type of game entertaining is also one of the hardest things to deal with (at first). Players might try to kill crucial characters randomly, or break plot objects. There are no restrictions like there are in video games.
- It's non-linear. Much like Skyrim, players might ignore the main quest to explore Werewolf Cave or rescue the farmer's daughter.
Did you notice how each of these bulleted points were essentially the same thing? That's because this is the primary challenge of running this kind of game.
Prep & Research
You need to understand that tabletop RPGs are not simply a game (or board game). They're a cooperative storytelling experience. You're not just telling a story; you're giving your players a framework in which to create their own.
If you're unfamiliar with tabletop games, there are several systems to choose from. Mostly, people just play the one they know. If you don't know any, I suggest you read this article and then come back.
- The first thing to ask yourself is "what kind of game do I want to run?" The simplest solution is to start with the things you know. If you're primarily a fan of Lord of the Rings (or similar fantasy books), you're probably better off writing a fantasy adventure. Are you a fan of Cozy Murder Mysteries? You could also write that kind of game. The point is to stay in your comfort zone, as it'll make it easier.
- Next it's time to commit to a system. If you're more interested in a board game-like battle for a whole evening, you could pick something like D&D, Pathfinder or other high-detail combat systems. If you want to stay away from that amount of "crunch," you could use the no-combat investigation system called Gumshoe. If you have the time, you could even make up your own system.
- Know your players. Hopefully you know your friends well enough to know what they like and dislike. If you have friends in the group who really love gory horror and a few who hate it, it might be best to find a middle ground. Like in advertising, the last thing you want is to make your audience uncomfortable. If you're not sure what your friends like, just ask them. "Would you rather kill Smaug the dragon or Darth Vader?"
- Research. There are lots of free resources online for game masters to use. Find out what an adventure looks like on paper, read how other game masters solved their problems. Get an idea of what might happen.
- Get writing. This can be as intensive or relaxed as you want. Some game masters write only the briefest of outlines for their adventure, creating a story "skeleton" to hang the rest of the game on as it's played. This leaves lots of room for improvisation, which is extremely important. Others will write down the name of every city, NPC, item and pet in the game, which amounts to a lot of wasted time. It's like making a television show: Only spend your time where the effort is going to be seen. Don't get hung up on stupid details that will most likely go unnoticed. Find your comfort zone and stick to it.
- Don't memorize anything. You're going to have your notes right in front of you during the game.
Albert Einstein famously didn't know his own phone number. When asked why, he replied, "why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?"
Now you're ready to play. Invite over some friends, get some snacks and spend a few hours playing. The optimum duration of time for my group is an hour and a half to two hours. Some people will go as many as five or six, but I find that unacceptable. We all have lives, and most kitchen chairs aren't meant to be sat in for that long.
Remember that your players came to have fun, not to have you boss them around for an evening. If they're more interested in planning the perfect heist for a jewelry store than catching the villain, let them do it. Your adventure is no longer yours once it's played; it belongs to everyone, so everyone gets to write it.