Story-Based Adventures

Both my current and immediately previous campaigns could be considered "old school" campaigns. Right now I'm playing Dungeon Crawl Classics and my previous campaign was of Call of Cthulhu, something of a living fossil in that despite being in its 6th edition it is very close to the game it was when it started.

Despite this I don't necessarily consider myself to be an old school player and this blog has discussed newer games in addition to the older ones. I've enjoyed both flavors.

Reflecting on this has made me think of the transition from old school to new school gaming. In the 70s and early 80s most adventures, at least for D&D, had the slimmest of plots. There was typically a dungeon and sometimes there was a bit of a plot and reason for you to go there but these were usually easily changed. In his Grognardia blog, James Maliszewski has referred to this transition as the Hickman Revolution. Tracy Hickman wrote the Desert of Desolation series of adventures which had a stronger plot than previous D&D adventures - though even at this point I would say that it would be awfully easy to discard much of the background of those adventures. For those unfamiliar with this series, it was expected that the adventurers would unleash a fearsome Efreeti on the desert, later free a Djinn and finally seek out the Tomb of Martek as a way to re-imprison the Efreeti. However, the adventures were centered around fascinating locations that were very easily pulled out of their plots and adapted to other plots - a trap-infested pyramid, an oasis with various factions, a sea of glass, pocket dimensions, etc.

What would probably be considered the tipping point is Tracy and Laura Hickman's Ravenloft. Published in 1983 the adventure was at the time incredibly revolutionary. It featured maps that to this day gamers remember with fondness. It featured a memorable villain with an extensive backstory - Count Strahd von Zarovich, a vampire who diverged from standard game stats And it featured a variable plot - usually playing cards as a type of tarot reading to decide Strahd's objectives, his weakness, where he could be found, etc.

While Ravenloft featured an important villain, I believe the adventure kept a reasonable balance - while the DM was encouraged to play him intelligently and keep him alive as long as possible, he was definitely designed to be beatable. It did have a regrettable ending which gave the PCs the opportunity to watch events unfold, something that would become more common with time.

However, this opened the floodgates into plot-based adventures. Shortly after came Dragons of Despair, the first of the Dragonlance adventures. It featured pregenerated PCs you were strongly encouraged to use, PCs and NPCs were protected from death by an "obscure death rule", and there were certain things players were just not allowed to do. This isn't to say people didn't play the adventures or enjoy them. But it did indicate that a change had indeed happened.

This isn't to say every adventure was a pseudo-novel. But truth to tell, some were. Looking back the biggest offender would be, in my mind, the Avatar series from the Forgotten Realms, featuring the PCs watching gods battle it out with one another.

I think that points to the danger of story-based adventures. Everyone has there own preferences and there are some who just don't care for that style of play - truth to tell I tend to prefer location-based adventures as they are far easier for me to adapt. But... if one is to make a story-based adventure I think the key is to make it without "one true ending" and to avoid at all costs making the PCs observers - the PCs need to be stars, not observers, not puppets.

One adventure I think did this exceptionally well was the an adventure published in the same year as Ravenloft - The Assassin's Knot. Sequel to the location-based adventure The Secret of Bone Hill had the PCs trying to unravel a murder mystery with the Baron of Restenford assassinated, apparently by someone from the nearby town of Garrotten (what in the world would an assassin be doing in a town called Garrotten...) There is no requirement the PCs succeed in their mission and the adventure covers what will happen if they fail. Heck there's nothing to stop them from making a deal with the people behind the assassination. Garrotten was a memorable town, with the suspects being interesting NPCs, useful for other purposes beyond a murder mystery. If you didn't want the murder mystery there was still a lot you could do with the adventure.

While TSR was producing story-based adventures for AD&D 2nd edition they would find themselves facing what I imagine was the first real challenge to their dominance in the gaming industry. 1991 would see the release of White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. Vampire was a strongly story-based game - heck the entire game line was called the Storyteller System. The PCs were vampires with a humanity system designed to show how close they were to giving into the beast within them. Vampire typically assumed the PCs were at the bottom of the social ladder of the undead with limited ways of advancing - this allowed the PCs to find themselves as pawns of ancient vampires and could unfortunately turn them into observers - something I believe is the greatest danger of any RPG. That said to this day I'd jump at the chance to do a Vampire game. But as a wiser and older GM (err, storyteller), were I to run such a game I'd be certain to keep the PCs as the stars of the story.


  1. Very nice post sir, since I'm just starting on writing out my first adventure that other people could - hopefully - run, it's given me some very nice food for thought.


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