A structured plan for a garden

I mentioned in my last article that each GM evolves their own standard style and formatting for the adventures that they write. This time around, I thought I would look at exactly how I format adventures for my campaigns. I write most of my adventures on a PC – the same one I’m using to draft this article, in fact. For the most part, I will use the rtf format and Wordpad; when an adventure is finished, I will import it into Word for the addition of final touches.

As you read this, it may occur to many of you that its structure bears no little resemblance to a pseudo-coded flowchart. My professional background is in computer programming, and I still employ many of the skills learned in that capacity in various ways – adventure planning being just one of them.

Wordpad

Wordpad suits my needs for the bulk of the writing because it is a simple, fast-loading rich text editor – meaning that I can use fonts and text color, have access to bold and italic, and can indent text quickly and easily. I try not to use tabs because while the tab marks will transfer into word, the tab settings won’t. In fact, I would use Wordpad for everything (and sometimes do anyway) if it only had a few more features.

Word

I use Word to insert headers on all but the first page and footers with the page number on all pages. I’ll also insert page breaks at the last minute. Opening a Wordpad-created document in Word carries with it all the formatting and content of the document, but none of the page layout specifications, like page size and tabs. I generally don’t attach illustrations, props, and handouts to the adventure, keeping them in separate documents so that I can distribute them more readily. As a general rule of thumb, jpgs and pdfs are the formats used for these extras.

Laptop

In play, I will use a laptop to display images and a hardcopy of the adventure to GM from. The hardcopy lets me take notes. I’ll also have a copy of the adventure in electronic form on the laptop; at the end of play, I can use a color code to indicate scenes that weren’t played and where in the adventure we are up to.

Page Layout

Page layout is the final step in the process, but it’s also the logical place to start.

Margins

I’ll generally leave the minimum margin my printer can handle on the RHS of the page and about 2 inches / 3-4 cm on the left. This gives enough white space on the page for notes. The header will be located about 1.5cm (half an inch) from the top of the page, and the footer about the same.

Header

In the header, I’ll put the name of the adventure, in the same font (but a smaller size) as that used for the main title. I’ll use a font size that puts the entire title on one line, but certainly nothing bigger than 14 pt – or smaller than 7.5pt. Although I’ll leave the header off if pressed for time, I prefer to leave it in.

Footer

The footer is in a standard font, eg Arial, and 9 or 10-point text. It will only contain the page number. I spend minimum effort on this, and will also skip it if pressed for time – I can always manually write page numbers in, if I have to.

Adventure Structure

The overall structure of an adventure consists of two sections: The front page(s), and the content. Let’s look at the front page(s) first:

Example of title page using decorative fonts to add visual representations of tone & content

Title

The front page(s) contain a lot of different pieces of information. The first is the title of the adventure, rendered in a legible font that captures some of the style of the adventure, in a fairly large font – rarely less than 24 point, and occasionally more than 72-point. I don’t care if anything else fits on that page or not – this is something that I can hold up like a movie trailer at the start of play. In general, I won’t use a graphic, for two reasons: Clarity (I want the players to be able to read it at a distance) and Time (which can always be better spent elsewhere).

Subtitle, Campaign

As a subtitle, I will usually indicate which campaign the adventure is for. This is helpful when you go looking for campaign notes several years later, saving you from having to locate named characters to work out which campaign they’re from. In the meantime, it helps focus the mind on the unique attributes of that campaign.

Example of character names - player names list

Anticipated Participants

Either on the same page or at the top of the next, I’ll have a list of the characters I expect to participate in the adventure, in the following order:

PCs & Players – PCs and the players who own them are at the top of the list. These are the stars of the adventure, or should be. This also serves as a useful reminder of character names. I try to always address people by character name unless I’m instructing the player to do something. This is also a convenient place to jot down xp rewards after the adventure!

Key NPCs – I sometimes follow that with a list of the major NPCs, in the anticipated order of their appearance. If I find time, I’ll put a page number after the character name to indicate where the description is, but I so infrequently have the time that this is a convention honored more in the breach than in the observance.

NPC Illustration Checklist – After each NPC name, I’ll put a pair of open brackets separated by a space, like this: ( ). When I find and save an appropriate photograph or illustration (or create one) for a specific character, I’ll make an angled mark like this: (/). After I’ve done any editing or resizing needed, I’ll change the slash to an ‘X’ by putting in the other stroke. When I’m getting everything out ready for play (or packing, if the day’s play is to take place away from home), I’ll add a horizontal mark, indicating that the image has been printed and/or copied to a memory stick for use on the laptop.

If the adventure is anticipated to take more than one game session, I’ll add as many sets of parentheses as there are expected to be sessions. The goal is to make sure that I always have what is needed to run the adventure.

Prop & Game Aid Checklist

The same technique is used for a list of any props or game aids that I want to be sure to take. The number of times this has saved my bacon is embarrassing to admit – and the number of times I wished I had taken the time to compile such a list for an adventure is even greater. And yes, character sheets and the scenario printout are both items to include on the list!

Dates

Sometimes, these will be followed by a number of dates.

Date Written – The date the scenario was written is of obvious use, since it permits different drafts and revisions to be distinguished.

Date Play Commenced – The date play commenced – or was expected to commence – is of obvious value in sorting the adventures chronologically. Sometimes I will number the adventures instead, especially if the third batch of dates listed below are to be used.

Local Date – This is the in-game date when the adventure is expected to start, and is usually followed by the in-game date when the adventure is expected to conclude. Some campaigns which involve time travel or interdimensional travel may have multiple dates shown. I’ve had to recreate the local date, or work out from scratch what the local season is, too many times. The Local Date is something I always like to include. If I’m not sure how long a preceding adventure will take, I’ll leave a space to write the appropriate local date in, and use a relative indicator for the end date: “Local Date  (_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _)  - (+5)”, for example – showing that while I don’t know when the adventure will start, it’s expected to take five game days to complete.

Synopsis & Structure

The dates (if any are shown) are followed by a brief synopsis of the adventure. Heavy emphasis on the “brief”. If it’s longer than 4 printed lines, it’s too long. This is an important and useful summation for me, as GM – it provides context for everything that follows.

General GMs Notes

That’s followed by any general reminders that I’ve made to myself. In addition to anything else that might be there, this will include three specific notes:

Metagame Function – What relevance does this adventure have in relation to others that may be planned or may have already occurred? This is vital information; in the event that I’ve somehow completely fouled things up, salvaging the metagame function of the befouled adventure is priority number one. I’ve written adventures specifically to introduce a character who will become important later in the campaign, or to establish a theme that will become significant, or to wrap up a plotline. I’ve written encounters whose sole purpose is to advance some background plot or other. Blair and I wrote a plot whose sole purpose was to justify the FBI taking over the Adventurer’s Club in the pulp campaign of the same name for various reasons.

Style, Tone, & Pacing Notes – What sort of mood am I shooting for in the adventure? Creepy? High-Octane? Paranoid? Mysterious? Romantic? Slapstick? Melodramatic? Sad? That’s the tone. How do I plan to achieve it? That’s Style. Do I want to push the pace or linger over details? Is there some portion of the adventure that should be especially frantic? Or perhaps there is a particular tone that I want to avoid – that’s been the case more than once. These questions should form the basis of everything in the plotline that isn’t there to serve the metagame function. Props, for example: if there’s a photo, rendering it in pastel colors and giving it a frame of love-hearts (things that my art packages make easy) gives everything a romantic overtone.

Moreover, if things get fouled up, salvaging the mood is the number two priority. Any decisions or action that I ad-hoc should still fit within the overall tone of the adventure – so that it is not completely obvious that I am ad-hocking the adventure!

Absentee Notes – What will it do to the adventure if one of the expected players can’t make it? What’s my strategy? Are there any absences with which the adventure could not cope at all? I only make notes under this heading when I absolutely have to, but there are times when it’s inevitable – when a plotline is designed to be a star vehicle for one particular PC, for example. If that PC’s player can’t attend, there are only three options: Cancel the game session, run the next adventure in the sequence (assuming that it’s finished and the metagame considerations don’t make it impossible), or run something else more-or-less off the cuff (even if it’s an out-of-continuity adventure). Under most circumstances, there are still more options available – you can brief the player and get key decisions in advance, and/or run the PC as a temporary NPC for the session, for example.

Content Structure

The final category of information to form part of the preliminary pages of the adventure is the content structure. Is this a three-part adventure, or a two-part adventure, or a one-part adventure, or a five-part adventure – and why? In general, if there is a major shift in focus or tone, it’s better to break the adventure into two parts at that point. Sometimes these parts will be given unique subtitles, sometimes they will simply be called “Part 1″, “Part 2″, and so on. Sometimes adventures end on a cliffhanger, and at other times they reach a firm conclusion with some downtime for the PCs before the next adventure starts. That’s the sort of information that I place in the content structure notes.

For example, the final adventure of the previous Zenith-3 campaign had the overall title of “The Light Of Morning”, which was a somewhat poetic allusion to the coming of a “New Dawn” within the campaign. It was an adventure in five parts.

Part One was subtitled “Elements Of Perpetuity” and was all about lasting impacts and the preparations by Zenith-3 for their ‘retirement’ and their replacements taking over. At the same time, two of the team had retired to serve the newly-elected President – one as Chief Of Staff and the other as chief advisor and wife – and were in the process of moving into the White House. There were a number of difficult policy decisions that had to be made. So the subtext of this part was “After we’re gone”. It ended with a cliffhanger – an explosion in Southern Arizona creating a crater 32 miles across and 8 miles deep, which quickly began filling with Lava while Temporal Warning alarms went haywire all over the team’s headquarters, signaling a massive incursion from off-dimension.

Part Two was subtitled “Elements Of Conclusion” and was all about wrapping up outstanding plot threads (including some that the team thought had already been dealt with). Ironically, some of them led back to the crime boss they came across in their very first adventure. The explosion was the literal destruction of one of those plot threads. The temporal incursion was not explained, but side effects – like the Daleks who were invading Korea dropping like flies – show that if anything it’s even bigger than they thought. This also ends in a cliffhanger (one which would take too long to explain here).

Part Three was subtitled “Elements Of Transition”. The solution to the two cliffhangers was revealed, leading the retired ex-members to return for one last mission. It transpired that the real villain of the entire campaign (who had just been defeated in his bid for the Presidency) had one final card up his sleeve – a desperate plan for a suicide mission to achieve his true goals, one which united the power of the three biggest threats that the PCs had encountered in the course of the campaign within his body. Mutually as compatible as matter and antimatter in collision at close to light speed, the combination turned his body into a huge bomb capable of destroying almost anything. This was all about the changes within characters – both the PCs and the villain.

Part Four was subtitled “Elements Of Resolution”. It brought a permanent (is there any such thing in superhero comics or games?) end to the villain, and resolved the central themes that had been part of the entire campaign – unstated at first, hidden for a time, and then overt for the final year or two. And it ended with the godlike beings who had been protecting and surreptitiously guiding the PCs for the entire campaign ‘going away’ to rest and recuperate. “For now, you are on your own.”

Part Five was subtitled “Elements Of Regeneration”. It featured Inauguration Day of the new Presidency that the PCs had brought into existence, the final departure of those characters who were going to move on to the new campaign, and the arrival of the NPCs who were taking their place. The theme for this part was the new beginnings for that campaign world.

The first three chapters were all buildup; the fourth was climax; and the fifth was conclusion and denouement.

Where there is no major change in tone, but the adventure is deliberately planned to span more than one game session, I will divide it into Acts instead. There’s no real difference in practical terms, but this nonclemanture shortcut helps me keep the overall structure straight.

Some plotlines have more complex structures. Blair and I once ran an adventure that was actually four simultaneous plotlines, one of each PC, in different times and places. We cut from one plotline to the next at the conclusion of a scene in one of the plot threads. This permitted cross-connections between the plot threads. There were two metagame reasons for doing so: First, it gave us the opportunity to show the PCs how much their lives had changed since they started play within the game; and second, it let us try out, and get experience in, the technique, which we knew we were going to need in the future.

Part or Act Structure

Okay, so those are the constituents of the front pages of the adventure. In a pinch, if you’re good at off-the-cuff adventures, that might even be enough; I’ve done it before, and used to do it regularly. But, in general, I find it helpful to have an actual written adventure, no matter how brief the writing might be.

Each Part or Act has the same overall internal structure. Some Parts are further subdivided into acts, especially in a threaded plotline.

Jump Flag

The first thing that might be encountered – on the same line and in the same font as the title (see below) – is a Jump Flag. That’s a number preceded by a trio of hashmarks, like this: ###2. I’ve tried using fewer, but I find that the repetition of three makes the jump flag stand out when just glancing at the page. Each is also followed by a space.

A Jump Flag works similarly to an Anchor or Target in HTML – it’s a destination that indicates that players might arrive at this point having bypassed some of the plot. In other words, it’s a point in the plot to which the characters might Jump – hence the name. I’ll talk about Jump Flags and their use in Scene Structure / Choices & Navigation, below.

Plot threads (if any) are identified by alphabetic character as part of the Jump Flag. This is incredibly useful in writing the adventure because it permits the writer to focus on one plot thread at a time within an Act or Part, complete the current iteration of drafting/writing content for that plot thread, then move on to the next.

Act Titles

All parts or acts have a title, even if it’s just “Act I” or “Part 3″. Some have specific titles, as is the case in the example offered above. This will again be rendered in a decorative font, usually in 14- or 18-point type.

The font chosen might be the same as that used for the adventure title, which has the advantage of providing an ongoing thematic consistency; or it might be a separate font if legibility is an issue.

Scenes

Each act consists of one or more (usually more) scenes. Each time the action takes place in a different location, it happens in a different scene.

Next Act

Each Act concludes with any notes about what action or interactions be resolved before the next act can begin, and any notes about wrapping up the Act.

Example reads "B2.2a Dry Gulch, California (20 min)"

Scene Structure

Scenes also have a standard structure. There is a header line and then the content.

The header line consists of up to 4 elements: Plot Thread ID, Scene Number, Location, and Estimated Playing time.

Plot Thread ID

The first is an identifying thread code, if necessary. These are exactly the same alphabetic character used for Act jump flags.

Scene Number

And, like Jump Flags, scene numbers follow. These are in the format Act-decimal-scene number.

Where a scene is written in more than one way – reflecting changes in the plot as a consequence of anticipated character decisions made by the PCs – it may be followed by a lowercase alphabetic character indicating which version of the scene it is. So scenes “1.3a” and “1.3b” are variations on scene 1.3; only one of the two takes place, and the end of each scene will have a jump flag to the next scene in that particular thread and variation.

Location

Where does the scene take place? This is just a summary or location reference, not a full description. It is on the same line as the scene number.

Estimated Playing Time

Sometimes I will include an estimated playing time for the scene. This is especially important in threaded plots that are eventually expected to coalesce back into a single plotline. If there is one, it will be in brackets on the same line as the location and scene number.

Pacing Notes

Immediately after the header will be a line with any pacing notes to observe in the scene. These are only included when the pacing of the scene is noteworthy. I have sometimes employed a technique in which one or more players are sent away from the table (and out of earshot) for exactly X minutes; the result being that characters not sent away have just so much time to act before they are ‘interrupted’ by the ‘arrival’ in the scene of the other PCs.

Pacing notes are preceded by three percentage signs and must fit on a single text line, for example:
%%% slow and deliberate until the wolf howls, then v.fast

Introductory Narrative

Every scene has a description of something. It may be a location, it may be the action being performed by an NPC, it may be a list of those present. This narrative is intended to be read to the players verbatim.

Timecheck

Where it’s important, the narrative passage may conclude with a timecheck – what time it is where the PCs are. Coordinated threading is almost impossible to get right without timechecks.

Referring to Players

For anything relating to game mechanics – calling for a skill check, for example – the players name is used. Everything else refers to the characters by name. Tenses are used appropriately for the narrative to be read to the players, as are first and third person usage.

Dialogue & Action

Dialogue is separated from narrative or other dialogue passages by a blank line. It is written in the style of a script (though aligned left) – character name (in bold), with a colon, and with subsequent lines indented. I will usually use quotation marks to distinguish dialogue from actions employed instead of words. Italics are used for any foreign language.

For example:
Girlfriend: “Ludo, sweetie, does this mean that we won’t be going to Casablanca after all, mon         capain?

If a PC is expected to respond, especially the case if this is a conversation with the PC or a question to one, I will put (reply) after the line of dialogue. If a PC is expect to respond to an action or announcement, I will put (react) after the dialogue/action. In both cases, the bracket means “pause for PC(s) to” do whatever is in the brackets.

GM Notes

These are quite common, and include any instructions to me as GM. They are preceded by a row of three asterisks and a space, like so:
*** Describe the journey to Nassaud, Romania. Aprox 106km, 3hrs by hired car or train.

Choices / Scene Navigation

Sometimes the PCs will have a choice that has more substantial repercussions than can be contained in a single scene. These will be preceded by a less-than greater-than pair, a space, and then the decision to be made. Indented on the following line will be navigation directions within the adventure. For example:

<> How do PCs react?
   - Break down the door: goto scene 3.13a
   - Shoot out the lock: goto scene 3.13b
   - Pick the lock: goto scene 3.13c
   - Find another entry point – continue

Note that the most likely choice continues within the current scene, presumably scene 3.13.

Props & Handouts

Amongst the other GM instructions that may given are those which involve props and handouts. If these are simply given to the player to read, I use the normal GM Notes indicator (***) but if the player is expected to do something more than that, I use a trio of ampersands instead: &&&. This is followed by some means of identifying the prop or handout. There are two ways of handling the question of what the player is to do with the prop: a standard GM note (*** )on the following line, or a Choice Flag (<> ).

Act Exit

Choices, actions, NPC dialogue, or even a descriptive passage of narration can signal the end of an act, or even of the entire adventure. Something has to go last, after all. Two equals signs followed by a greater-than signifies the end of the act, and is followed on the same line by the jump flag code that identifies the next Act in the adventure. If there’s no flag code it means go to the next act in sequence, i.e. the next passage of text that starts with the words “Act XX”. If, instead of a flag code, the direction is “PCs Exit, stage left” or “fade out” or any of half a dozen other terms that mean the same thing, they are to be read to the players and signify the end of the Adventure. While I sometimes use these terms at the end of an Act for dramatic effect (by putting the text on the line after the Jump Flag), it is more usual to reserve them for the adventure exit.

Break Points

Three exclamation points in a row signify a Break Point. These come in two varieties: minor and major.

Minor Break points are points in the action which are suited to letting people get up and stretch their legs, go to the rest room, have a cigarette break, etc. These will have the advised length of the break shown in brackets after the Break Point signal; this is followed by anything that the plotline requires me to do as GM during the break. The estimated time to complete the task is included in the break length – so it’s not impossible to see things like

!!! (20 mins) setup battlemap town #2.

That might include a 10-minute break for me as GM and 10 minutes to set up the battlemap, or 5 and 15, or whatever. I will usually set up the map and then take the break, but sometimes I’ll do it the other way around – especially if I’ve told the players to stay away until I come and get them (a sure sign that I want the layout to come as a surprise).

Major breaks are exactly the same as Minor Breaks except that these are also suitable cliff-hanger or dramatic beats on which to end the day’s play. A Major break is signified by simply underlining the exclamation points.

I will also, on rare indications, wish to indicate “don’t take a break at this point!” That is usually the case where the plot would seem reasonably suitable for a break based on what has just happened, but that the action that follows is unsuitable to restarting after a break, or it might be because there is a better breakpoint a couple of minutes away.

Next Scene

The final element of a scene’s structure is any “*** goto” instruction pointing to a jump flag or new scene. This is only present if there are some scene variations to be skipped. For example, Scene 3.13 is to be followed by variant scenes 3.13a, 3.13b, and 3.13c according to the earlier decision example. At the end of each of these (except 3.13c, obviously) there is a notation to proceed to scene 3.14, or perhaps to Act 4.

As We Play

Two things will happen as we play. The first is that I will take notes on the printed page of the adventure (if necessary using the back of the preceding page for extra room). This will usually include noting the choice of figures used to represent various NPCs.

The second is that I will color code the electronic copy of the adventure. Gray indicates a scene that’s been skipped, Red indicates a scene that had a radically unexpected outcome, and blue indicates a scene or act that proceeded more-or-less according to plan.

The big advantage that is conferred by this color-coding method is that I can review the adventure days or weeks later and make any adjustments necessary as a result of any red-flagged sections. They serve as a mnemonic device that can be invaluable – even if it’s only for preparing a synopsis of play for the start of the next section.

The Wrap-up

So how many of these do I actually use? The answer is all of them – slightly inconsistently. The GM Notes indicator is pretty ubiquitous. Everything else comes and goes. The objective when formatting an adventure is clarity of communication to the GM – not when you’ve just finished writing it and it’s still fresh in memory, but 2, 3, 48 or more months later. To achieve that clarity, I’ll sacrifice anything I have to – including the standard formatting.

It’s probably worth noting that I don’t add these formatting marks in after the fact, I insert them as I go. Sometimes, with a complex plotline, that requires keeping a separate document that’s nothing but act and scene structure notes and navigation pointers, so that I can see more of the plot breakdown at the same time.

Most GMs would be unlikely to have as formalized a structure as this. Heck, some of my adventures are nothing more than title and bullet-point notes. But by classifying the types of information that might need to be incorporated into an adventure as I have, at least you have an option to bear in mind when the issue comes up in your adventure writing!

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