How to Structure an Adventure?


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So as an upcoming GM, I'm learning how to put together an one-shot "playtest" scenario to try things out. And well, I was wondering how do you structure a mission or adventure path? Not write, as I'm pretty good at coming up with ideas and writing them down, but the creation of the skeleton of an adventure that anyone can just pick up the note papers and run. I'd love to look at the incident at Absalom station booklet and model after that, but the GM said no because they don't want me to accidentally spoil myself of anything.

Now I know you need dialogue, skill checks, room maps, baddies to kill. etc... for an adventure. But my question is how do you assemble all those pieces together in an organized and coherent matter. Are there any free/open source adventures I can look at to see how they organize their stuff?

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The ideas & writing are the harder portion, so you have little left to do except assemble your thoughts in a clear orderly fashion for others to follow along. Most quality RPG adventures (from any game) would do as a base, just find one you've enjoyed that has the balance of traits that you think best mirrors those of the story you wish to tell.
Haven't played much? There are many free modules available online, with maybe keeping an eye out for one's that are simply free because they're old (not because they're amateur).
How much emphasis do you (and your target players) want on combat? Investigation? Environment survival? Social maneuvering? Starship battle? Puzzles? Sheer wonder? (et al) How were those laid out in those adventures? Site based? Timeline? Sandbox or railroad? Did they resort to a different subsystem to handle complicated events or concepts?

If that's too open-ended, think about starting with a standard three act structure for an item quest with combats as the meat (as most players like combat) and some interesting battlegrounds and NPCs to interact with. All the encounters should feed into either the story or setting, not just be there because it's cool (everything should be cool anyway & you can save it for a better fit if it can't be tweaked for this one).
Act I: Launch the mission, PCs learn what they can, other forces move to interfere with PCs or their allies. Thugs happen.
Act II: Travel or site exploration, more interference from enemy forces (maybe different?) plus changes in environment & natural critters.
Act III: Move to endgame, what barriers/enemies/puzzles remain?, how has the danger ramped up? What state are the PCs in by the time they reach the grand final battle?

Sprinkle in colorful NPCs as able, maybe with a long term ally (to protect?) or enemy (who remains safely distant until the finale or is a group so can persist after losses).
This is generic, so add other elements, but keep a mind for time (i.e. the same puzzle can be really fast for one group and take an hour for another). Also remember, that players like having choices, but making choices can drain a lot of time so it can take finesse to balance those so the players make the better/quicker choices without feeling forced to.

Okay, maybe that was all stuff you knew, but I had to cover it just in case and for perhaps newer GMs reading this.

As for presentation to others:
Write a brief summary for the GM of the background and how the adventure would typically play out.
Set up various plot hooks that might draw the PCs in (or which may be of interest to whichever group the PCs work for). What do they think is at stake or to be gained? How did they learn of it?
What can the PCs find out beforehand? What are the skill difficulty checks? Who or where can they turn to for more info? What's the time pressure? Who are the powers that be where they're going?
As you noted, lay out the encounters with keys to the areas they'll be found in or the timeline in which they occur. Stick to the most likely order. Make sure all the elements on the map are necessary & functional (and cool).
What are the stats like levels of light? Toughness of doors? Height of ceilings or trees? And so forth.
Lay out the monster stats as Paizo does. What tactics do they use? How do they respond to some expected PC actions? Do they have allies or resources they can seek out?
For dialogues, have the standard opening plus a set of responses to expected questions. Are there DCs to spark more?
You can't account for all PC actions (nor should you try to), but do show how the NPCs think & react so the adventure feels active/reactive rather than static and GMs have a sense of an NPC's goals & temperament.
Address expected skill check DCs for inquisitive PCs during the quest.
What kind of adjustments should a GM make for a party which is smaller than usual? Lower DCs? Different enemies or numbers?
What rewards/kudos/boons/debriefing does the party receive once back at base?
Go through it in your mind as a player, thinking about what you'd be asking about and trying to do. What might need to be clarified for you to understand your party's goals & resources? How might a different type of player/PC approach the situation?
Have a friend GM peruse it to see how well they feel they could run it.
They'll likely comment on the whole story, which yes, somebody should give feedback on, but try to get them to focus step by step on where the adventure flows and feels immersive vs. where it derails or feels insufficient in detail.

I actually got the sense from your post that you understand much of this and just need confirmation and/or an example. Maybe download some other SFS scenario to get the particular style Paizo prefers, but it's pretty much how I presented it here.

Once you get this simpler one (not that that's a bad thing!) under your belt you can toy with ideas of deception or multiple factions battling or mysteries or complex social situations or infiltration or conflicting timelines or any of the many odder and/or looser scenarios possible. Best to start with straightforward so as to focus on presentation and structure.

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I would suggest reading the Gamemastery 101 by The Alexandrian.

He has entire blogs around adventure design, and it is just a really fun read.

Making a good adventure follows many of the same rules as writing a good story.

A three act structure, and all that entails, is a pretty solid base.

If you're really curious, The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is an excellent resource for improving any kind of storytelling, not just gaming!

There's a free Starfinder Society adventure in the store now if you're just looking for an example for formatting.

In my experience, though, everything really depends on how you run your games. I've played with DM's that literally improvise everything they do, and others that write pages of dialog and background for every NPC. I've run campaigns both ways, and mostly in between, and there are pros and cons to every style. If you've never GM'd before, you're going to have to figure out what works best for you. I'd probably start out with a purchased adventure or two until I got my feet wet.

I second the recommendation of the Alexandrian's Gamemastery 101. There's a lot of great advice - in particular avoiding preparing plot points.

My own advice would be to keep it simple and short. I've seen a lot of new GMs try to start off telling epic tales and losing the forest for the trees.

Start off with an interesting location you want the party to encounter. Space rock, planetary site, barrio in Absalom station, whatever. Make it small (5 rooms or so). Come up with one interesting thing about each room.

Once you've done that, determine the adversaries the party will face. Come up with their goals and reactions. A few short notes on what they are trying to do.

The biggest thing is try not to predict what the PCs will do. Give them multiple avenues to approach the adventure, and have enemies and scenarios that react to the party.

Thank you all for the outpouring of help and sources. I kinda had to admit, I had a bit of a writer's block panic attack. After collecting my thoughts, I've managed to come to my own solution of writing the adventure as how someone would narrate it, or like a script for a play with the three act structure, which seems to be the general go-to suggested here.

So far the one-shot mission I have in mind should be fairly simple and small in scope. (Note the PC's start off in two groups in this mission) Here's the general plot structure:

Act I
-Group A Is approached by an NPC (We'll call them 1), that requests the groups aid in dealing with a recent group of space pirates, or rather that their brother (NPC 2) has become one of them to scrape by (these NPC's are on hard times), and NPC 1 thinks they are going down wrong path and that they need the party to show them that piracy is dead end. since they are doing it for necessity, convincing them to turn tail shouldn't be too hard. This NPC's suggest they gather a 4-5 man team, and that they'll scrape together something as a reward for the group. So far, they give the party a pulsecaster rifle and some basic supplies.

-Group B Hears news about a recent space pirate attack that resulted in the destruction of a ship that had (insert vip/family/relative etc...), and the pirates have a bounty posted by an anonymous contact. The group meets with the contact (NPC 3) and the contact states they lost a VIP in that pirate attack, and they wish to have the group eliminated, and they suggest interviewing one of the pirate's relatives on the station (NPC 1) as a lead.

-Groups A & B meet up, they discuss their missions. NPC 1 is distraught at the extermination mission, but a possible loophole is that if their brother is able to be convinced to abandon them, they'd no longer be part of that group and be exempt from group B's elimination mission.

Act II

-Just as the party prepares to leave, they get into their first combat as they were tailed by a small squad of that space pirate group and they open fire on NPC 1 and by extension the group for ratting them out. (Regardless of whether or not not NPC 1 survives, if the group can get aholed of security footage, they'll have really compelling evidence for NPC 2 to back down.)

And that's about as much as I wrote out for currently. There's to be a small skirmish in starship combat, and then a final battle at the pirate base before the group returns home and gain their material reward from thir contact, and the feels reward if the brothers are reunited.

Instead of groups A and B, give them a reason to be Group AB from the start, and have the NPCs be people that have some small connection to individual group members. NPC 1 can meet with the full party, while NPC 3 probably contacts their party connection on their own. See if their party contact mentions that they've already met with NPC 1 while talking with NPC 3. The group can then all go back to NPC 1 and hash out thier options.

Probably best if connection for NPC 1 is somewhat personal (old friend, early mentor, grandma) and NPC 3 is mostly impersonal (previous employer, freind of a friend, corporate connection).

I would personally have the party be just returning home from a lengthy but not too arduous task for a corporate entity. Perhaps they just flew a shuttle back and forth from the Diaspora, making multiple stops and dodging more than a few pirates over the last couple of weeks as they delivered their supplies.


Actually that doesn't sound like a terrible adventure seed either, but never mind.

Steal...ahem...'lightly borrow' older existing material. Maybe an older pathfinder adventure path, just reflavored for Starfinder. Though probably work better with stand alone modules just because you can then add in spaceship stuff. Adventure paths might be a bit more tricky since they tend to be more 'party groundpounding' level or drawing in things Starfinder doesn't have yet (kingdom build, militia build, how to run a war, etc)

I actually ripped off Shadowrun missions and turned my campaign into a cyberpunk story. Filled with Evil Corporations and Johnsons.

Agreed with AnimatedPaper - combine A & B and don't split the party.

When starting out, it's best to keep things simple.

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