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Writing GURPS Adventures

Someone over on the forum asked for advice on writing adventures for GURPS. Or more specifically, in context, writing GURPS adventures with an eye towards publication by SJ Games, which is a very different animal. Whatever method and structure you have for writing up adventures for your own use is, of course, the best and you should use it for your own purposes. But we're talking about commerce here, not just art, so this should be thought of as advice on how to do business with a particular publisher, not generally useful advice on how to write adventures.

I need to start by defining a term. SJ Games means something specific by "adventure." As the wish list uses the word, an adventure has a plot, or at least something plot-like in it. It presents a specific problem to solve through a progression of encounters. They are not sandboxes. Sandbox-style adventures, with their multiplicity of possible PC objectives, are, in the terminology of the wish list, locations. There are people and places, and there may even be ongoing events in which adventurers may become involved if they so choose, but if there's not a particular thing PCs are there to do, it's not an SJ Games adventure-type product. There's certainly overlap between adventures in richly detailed settings and locations full of plot elements, but I'm talking about adventures in that sense, not any other.

Adventures, then, are structures containing things for adventurers to do in pursuit of the point of the adventure. There's an overall objective (escort the professor and her son out of East Berlin, find the Lost Sword of Thwacking at the bottom of the Tomb of the Dead Dude, figure out who murdered Lord Crumpet before the cruise ship reaches port), and there's a series of people, places, and events along the way which can get the adventurers closer to that goal or farther away. This need not be a railroad, but it can be a game of Mornington Crescent, with a variety of paths eventually leading to a small set of conclusions. In a dungeon crawl, there can be multiple paths through the dungeon. In an investigation, suspects may be interrogated in any order and clues turned up at different times. It's even entirely possible to write an adventure which provides multiple contrasting objectives which revolve around the same issue, like taking one of several different sides in a complex conflict (say, a coup attempt involving loyalist vs. revolutionary vs. outside imperial power factions). However, everything is ultimately likely to lead to a climax resolving pursuit of the objective.

It is, of course, difficult to set suitable challenges for adventurers without having some idea of who those adventurers are. And in GURPS, knowing who those people are can be a big challenge. There's a huge potential range of capabilities. Editorial policy is to maximize the utility of an adventure. However, you don't have to make an adventure equally useful to all types of characters and campaigns. It's OK to specify some parameters, though you do want to make those as broad as possible. If you're doing a murder mystery, it's OK to say that the PCs should be people who would be likely to be involved in a police investigation, but it's important to be able to stretch the boundaries of such a group as far as possible. That is, it should work if the characters are not just cops, but also include lawyers, forensic technicians, little old ladies with remarkable insight into the criminal mind, and so on. Conversely, it's OK if dungeon delving heroes or 31st century disembodied AIs just won't work.

Nevertheless, it's important to make an adventure as flexible as is feasible. Indeed, large parts of the apparatus of the introduction as set out in the template are about widening the boundaries as much as possible, but that sort of thing applies through the book. One way to ensure flexibility is, for any given encounter, provide multiple options for success. I tend to break capabilities down into three classes: fighting, social, and technical. And for the important stuff, I try to provide at least two of those as viable options for success. For example, if trying to get through a guarded gateway, adventurers might try beating up the guards (fighting), talking them into granting entry (social), or sneaking past them with Stealth (technical). GURPS is, of course, full of options, so it's useful not to narrowly specify how to succeed within each channel: it's equally possible to defeat the guards with swords or axes, they may be persuaded with Intimidation or Fast-Talk, and there may be multiple technical approaches (stealth, invisibility, flying over or tunneling under the gateway, etc.). It's also a really, really good idea to write for a range of power levels. The Dungeon Fantasy works I've written use an "N" notation for scaling the number of opponents adventurers might fight. An adventure might also set up ranges of skill levels for opponents to scale their abilities relative to the PCs, or there can be special guidelines for things like Action's BAD.

The big stumbling block, though, appears to be the tripartate structure set down in the adventure template, with separate chapters for
  • Locations
  • Events
  • Conflicts
This seems to many like an odd and counterintuitive way of writing an adventure. And I don't entirely disagree. Now, having worked with it a bit, I get it. Sort of. That is, I think I see what SJ Games is going for. It's decomposing the adventure into constituent parts which can be examined and altered individually to fit the needs of the specific instance of running the adventure. The thing about the SJ Games adventure template is that it makes a lot more sense outside of the context of dungeon crawling. There's a strong unity between these three elements in a dungeon crawl. Any given room in the dungeon is likely to have a particular set of inhabitants, and there's a very short list of things which might happen there. It makes a lot more sense to say "room #16 is 10' x 10' and contain 50 storm giants who throw a surprise party for anyone who enters" rather than specify the features of room #16 in the Locations chapter, the storm giants in the Conflicts chapter, and the deployment of confetti in the Events chapter.

But consider, say, an adventure where the PCs are cops investigating a gang murder. Locations include the crime scene, the precinct house, court, and a variety of residences and public places. During the course of the adventure, events will take place: the cops will perform stakeouts, search for evidence, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and possibly make arrests and engage in shootouts. And there's a whole cast of conflicts involved, from immediate suspects to other possible actors in the murder to rival gang members to maybe corrupt cops or politicians who have their own interests in the case. All three of these factors play against one another, but they don't move in lockstep. The dance hall isn't the only place to make contact with the mysterious man with in the Lakers jersey. The East Side gang won't ambush the PCs only on day 3. And an adventure broken down into components this way is more resilient with adventurers who wander "off script" and do unexpected things. Which is what they do.

The way I dealt with this in the adventures I've written, then, is not to use the format. Sort of. Mirror of the Fire Demon and Pagoda of Worlds do address all three of these elements (where things happen, what happens, who they happen with), but in a different way. Events are subordinated to locations, and conflicts are basically a bestiary and catalog of NPCs. So all of those elements are there, just arranged in a way that makes sense for their purpose. Given sufficient cause, editorial policy is flexible enough to allow some leeway for changes. But the point here ultimately is that those elements are there for a reason, and they can be leveraged to express what needs to be said.

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