An Adventure is a series of events that make up a single story within a campaign. A campaign, therefore, is a series of adventures linked by some common thread – usually the fact that they are undertaken by the same player characters. In turn, each adventure is usually comprised of scenarios – though a short adventure might only be one scenario.
One way to illustrate this is to look at the series of films featuring Indiana Jones™. Together, the four movies make up a campaign: a series of events related only because of the common presence of one protagonist.
Each film is an adventure. Raiders of the Lost Ark™ is a single long story. The movie has a single thread running through it, which could be entitled What Happened to Indiana Jones When He Sought The Ark of the Covenant. Everything in the film relates to that sequence of events. Because it all hangs together, in RPG terms it is an adventure.
Within the movie, there are ‘acts’, separate sequences in which the story unfolds. They are the component parts of the adventure, which in RPG terms are scenarios. Each has its own story structure: a set-up (how the protagonists reached this point – a function fulfilled by previous scenes in the movie, previous scenarios in an RPG adventure), the protagonists (Dr Jones, his friends, the Nazis opposing him), a situation (the Nazis are undertaking a covert archaeological dig in Egypt), a sequence of events (Indy and the girl are caught and dropped in a death-trap involving a tomb and snakes), and an outcome.
On its own, this sequence makes little sense – only by looking at it in conjunction with the previous and subsequent events does the story arc become clear. That is the difference between a scenario and an adventure: the adventure is self-contained, the scenario is not.
Depending on the campaign and the gamemaster an adventure might take a single play session (possibly making the terms synonymous), or it might take several.
The boundary between an adventure and a campaign is less clear. If it is long and complex enough, the distinction between a single adventure and a whole campaign becomes blurred.
An example of this is The Lord of the Rings™, which most role-players would consider a campaign. In fact, the whole series of books or films is a single adventure – one long story of how the One Ring was taken from Bilbo’s pocket to its fiery end at Mount Doom. Along the way, the protagonists have dozens of encounters and incidents. Some of them are scenarios – events which contribute towards the story arc: “How are we going to get into Mordor, Master Frodo?”
Others are self-contained adventures which could be enjoyed with no reference to the overall quest: the Hobbits’ encounters with the Ents and Saruman, for example. It does not rely on knowing why the Hobbits were there. Some game systems encourage GMs to begin adventures in media res – “in the middle of things”. In these games, to say “You are in the wilderness one day when orcs arrive and...” is a perfectly acceptable start to an adventure. The Ents-Saruman storyline is also self-contained in that it does not affect the outcome of Frodo’s quest, except that Sauron is supposedly distracted by all the events west of the river and fails to keep his good eye on his own backyard.
To run an adventure, a Game Master (GM) needs a plan of what is likely to happen. Generally, the GM will start with an idea for an overall goal to be accomplished by a party of Player Characters (PCs). He or she then works out more details. What will the PCs need to do to reach their goal? Who or what is opposing them? What is the opposition’s motivation?
The GM then subdivides the plot into a set of scenes (scenarios) that the characters could encounter during the course of play. These scenes should advance the plot: perhaps the PCs need to acquire an object which will allow them to do something, which requires that they go to a certain place and overcome whatever is guarding it. Once they have that ‘plot token’ they can move on to the next scene.
Sometimes there will be diversions along the way: scenarios which will not advance the plot, but must be dealt with in order to reach the next of the core scenes. These may be ‘random encounters’ – such as when a party travelling through the wilderness is attacked by a large predator interested only in eating them. Others may be ‘side treks’ – mini-scenarios which actually have nothing to do with the adventure but still take up time. Sometimes the GM is interested in stretching the party by testing their ability to reach to unexpected situations; possibly he needs to delay them to allow time for the villains to do something which needs to be complete (or nearly complete) before they arrive; occasionally it’s simply that the GM has worked out a cool scenario that he wants to play and won’t be building a complete adventure around it.
The next stage is to flesh out the details of each scene. The GM will work out descriptions of the locations, the creatures and other characters that could be encountered, and information concerning potential obstacles, hazards, and opportunities. The adventure will often contain one or more maps that the GM can use to locate points of interest and manage movement.
Each adventure is based upon a particular gaming genre and is normally designed for use with a specific game or gaming system. In a mystery campaign, you might have an adventure like 'Who killed Mr. George? Fantasy campaigns are more common, and often feature something like 'The One Ring must be destroyed!'
Once the rules under which the game is to be played are decided, the GM can pin down more details of the adventure. At this point the exact qualities of the opposition can be decided. For generic ‘bad guy’s guards’ that’s quite easy – most game systems have examples that can be re-used many times over. But in this case, in her initial overview of the structure, the GM may have decided that the object to be seized is guarded by a Hydra from Greek legend. Some RPGs may have detailed rules on the powers, strengths and weaknesses of the Hydra. Others may not, in which case the GM calculates its capabilities using the game rules.
Skilled gamemasters can often convert an adventure to different game systems, and many adventures are designed with such conversions in mind. Published adventures (also called adventure modules) are often fairly long and detailed, with maps and statistics on every major NPC.
Ultimately, the campaign, and its adventures and scenarios, are offered up to the players. They will take the GM’s briefing about what leads them into the adventure and ask their own questions. A well-prepared GM will already know the answers to them, a skilled GM will be able to make the answers up on the spot because they know the situation.
The actions they take are up to the players – unlike Indiana Jones’ scriptwriters, the GM cannot really determine which way events will proceed. Hopefully, the PCs will follow the path the GM planned – but if they miss some vital clue or make an unexpected choice, it’s up to the GM to decide how – or even whether – to get them back on track.
As each scenario is played, the GM will decide whether the following ones need to be adjusted in any way – if a significant NPC is killed before the point where the GM expected them to be crucial, how will the subsequent events change? Does the GM need to introduce another NPC to fulfil the same role? Should that be another character in the same role (Big Villain’s Chief Henchman is killed, Henchman’s Lieutenant is promoted and the evil plot continues seamlessly), or another character with the same input (Aunt Matilda is dead, but the auctioneer clearing her house finds the Big Clue in the secret drawer at just the right time)?
Most RPGs reward PCs for their achievements with ways to improve their abilities – they may call them character points, experience points, or something similar. As the scenario progresses, the GM keeps notes (mental or physical) of what each PC does to advance the plot, and also what ‘role-playing’ the players do to keep to the spirit of their character, or what they do to increase the others’ chances of success. The character of a player who suggests a lie which the Disguise specialist should use to bluff his way into the Secret Location will gain points as well as the character who actually disguises himself and uses that lie. Sometimes these points will be awarded at the end of a scenario, otherwise they will be accumulated to the end of the adventure. It is generally best to distribute them after each scenario so that the PCs can improve gradually, especially in the case of long adventures which may last years of both game- and real-time.
For an example, see the page on ‘Lord Beresford's Travellers in Africa’. That is one single GURPS adventure, in which the PCs were asked to accompany a psychic archaeologist as she sought ancient relics in Africa. It is part of the ‘Lord Beresford’s Travellers’ campaign, which is now in its third adventure (to Tibet).
Dozens of scenarios made up the adventure: hunting big game in the veldt, overcoming monsters holding river crossings, being cursed by a leprechaun at a colonial ball, dealing with the spirit of a Roman engineer possessing ‘their’ psychic, getting involved in wars between native tribes, and finally sorting out a slave-trading ring which used magical Gates to transport their captives around the whole of Africa. Twice the players decided that the offered scenario looked too risky for their characters, and bypassed it – perfectly in character, but frustrating from the point of view of the GM who had worked on them. From the characters’ point of view, the adventure lasted three years, for the players it was even longer.
After each scenario, the GM awarded character points, and the PCs grew more skilled in the requirements of their professions. The magician developed more power and skill with his healing spells, the leading fighters were better shots and tougher brawlers, and so on. At the end of the adventure, when the psychic archaeologist was put on the Imperial Airways dirigible for London, the PCs received another big award of character points for successfully completing the overall ‘mission’.
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