The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Recently I shared how flowcharts don’t necessarily help adventures offer choices. What does create choice? How can we design adventures so that players feel that their actions matter? Let’s take a look at five adventures that offer fun and engaging choices.
Better yet, let’s narrow our sights on 4E adventures. 4E erroneously has a reputation for a linear style and a lack of player agency. Though I can understand why some think that, the edition was full of memorable adventures with excellent player agency. To make this more fun, I’ll look at just a narrow range of seven issues from the 4E era of Dungeon magazine. There is an astounding amount of talent and ingenuity in this era. These are my favorites, though each of these issues has other excellent adventures – you might prefer others from the very same issues.
Before Logan Bonner became the lead designer for Paizo, Logan worked at WotC and created some amazing adventures. Here, he presents a small-town murder mystery with a twist. A thief’s ghost is slowly killing off the members of the town vigilante group who murdered him. The vigilante group’s membership is secret, and the ghost appears only at night to kill a member. The party must race against time, discovering motives and memberships.
“Whodunit” mysteries are a great way to create player agency. Clues can be scattered in different places, slowly providing players with the information they need. Finding clues and making connections feels great for players, providing a sense of progress and accomplishment. “I found clue A, which led us to B! We did that!”
Murder mysteries can be hard to do well, because the players may flounder if we don’t provide enough ways to find clues and feel a sense of progress. And, it can be hard on the DM if there is too much information.
Logan cleverly divides up each day into segments: morning, afternoon, and night. For each segment, they can follow up on one lead. This limits what the characters can do. Each night will see a murder, and the DM knows what will happen ahead of time, based on the ghost’s schedule. If you think 4E adventures are always a series of set encounters, prepare to be proven wrong. The players have tremendous agency in how they look for clues, how they act on what they find, and the choices they have regarding what they uncover. In this adventure there is more than one story to be uncovered which can present some tough choices for the characters.
Infernal Wrath is excellent. If there is a class on adventure design, Logan’s adventure should be required coursework. You can find Dungeon 205 on the DMsGuild.
If you are a beginning adventure writer and want to experiment with creating more open play, this is a great adventure to emulate. It is a very simple and short adventure focusing on goblins hiding out at a windmill. The goblins had a clever plan, which the characters can easily turn into their own plan. (Spoiler: Okay, let’s spoil this 2012 adventure… the goblins have trained a bear, called Smiley Bob, to attack halflings. They did this by dressing up as halflings and poking it. Many goblins died for this plan to work, but now it mauls halflings. The goblins are super pleased.)
Chris Perkins achieves the end goal of letting players turn the tables by staging how the characters will encounter the goblins. At each stage, there are clues that can lead the characters to uncover what the goblins have done. Only a later stage brings the characters into contact with the actual trick, and only after that will they meet the goblin boss. This all feels very natural to the players, who can make plans and exert their will the moment they figure out what took place.
It’s the kind of elegant concept and sharp writing that enables players to come up with good ideas, and it’s fantastically simple for a DM to run. Just six pages, and a wonderful example of what 4E offered.
The formula used in this adventure is easily adopted. Give your foes something clever they have done. Maybe they set up a ruse, or built a contraption, or tricked a spirit, or trained an animal. Spread out the foes, and provide clues to how they did this. Have the boss show up at the end, with enough time for the characters to turn the tables. Sit back and watch how your players enjoy feeling clever! You can find Dungeon 205 on the DMsGuild.
This adventure is a lesson in making a dungeon crawl interesting. Yes, dungeons let us move around. However, if the order in which characters do things doesn’t matter, players pick up on that and choice feels arbitrary.
Tears of the Crocodile God is a dungeon with several ingenious additions. First, the characters aren’t the only thing that moves. We are given an awesome map, and on it are marked the starting points of four NPCs dropped into the dungeon as sacrifices. A second map shows us the paths they will take, and they move to their next path point each time the party completes an encounter, until the sacrifices eventually die. The PCs also have a starting point, and can head in any direction around the labyrinth. Thus, they may or may not save the sacrifices depending on where they go and how quickly they move.
There are also a few scattered items that allow the characters to sense which sacrifices are alive and a vague sense of how close they are. This allows characters to make choices and understand what they are trying to accomplish.
The map also has three locations that grant visions. When you reach that location, you are given a vision that helps you understand the truth behind the crocodile god. The party may experience the visions in any order, depending on how they travel. (Have I mentioned how much I like visions? I should blog about that someday…)
The various encounters are a mix of clever puzzles and interesting situations, often requiring the characters to do something. Actions have consequences, rewarding or penalizing players and further reinforcing agency.
This adventure is one of my favorites, and you can find it on the DMs Guild here. I loved the idea of the NPCs moving as the party explores. When I wrote The Howling Void, an adventure inside a chaotic elemental air node, I applied the concept to two sets of villains. The villains have two predetermined routes, and the party may encounter one or both as they explore. After a certain number of encounters, the head villain reaches their destination and triggers the final confrontation.
This excellent adventure originally appeared at PAX West 2011. There are several reasons DMs and players alike raved about Steve Townshend’s design and requested WotC share it more widely. First, the premise. It took us back in time to see how Madness at Gardmore Abbey (a highly regarded boxed set adventure where a deck of many things magic item caused destruction) came to be. What a cool concept!
Second, it uses fun pregens who have some very interesting roleplaying hooks and goals. These have tangible impacts on play, and several have specific moments where they can shine, creating special experiences for the players. The adventure also has a nice variation on a skill challenge to prepare for the siege, providing rewards for the players later on. The combination of pregens and skill challenge results create an open experience here, even though the siege portion is a series of set encounters focusing on combat. This is a great example of an adventure that fits what many may think of as a typical 4E format (a series of linked scenes) and simultaneously is an adventure that provides impactful and engaging choices – all in a short convention one-shot!
This adventure cleverly leans into its requirement: it’s an adventure for level 1 characters, who must all be pixies (a race/ancestry in 4E). Will Doyle cleverly creates challenges suited to the pixies’ size and capabilities – especially their ability to communicate with animals.
(Aside… if you read this adventure, it will be no surprise to you that Stacey Allan and her husband Will Doyle were the primary writers for the upcoming official WotC fey adventure, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. They clearly understand how to make fey fun and interesting.)
Glitterdust uses three acts to frame the action, a clever way to segment play. The first act is where the pixies scout a hag’s hut and figure out a way in. This includes exploring the area around the hut, which can uncover threats and allies. There isn’t just one way to get in. There are a number of options, and the PCs may not discover all of them. The PCs’ personal superstitions (we get a table at the beginning) can influence the choices as well.
We also get a timetable for our hag, Rotten Ethel, so we know where she is at any given time. This can be used by the characters if they spy on Ethel, or she may catch them by surprise if they haven’t figured out where she is.
The hag is too difficult a challenge for level 1 PCs to defeat in combat, but Ethel is given several excellent weaknesses. For example, she has trouble seeing. Ethel uses her cane to lift up the eyelid on her one good eye. Steal her cane and she takes a penalty attacks to Perception and all attacks. Steal her cough medicine and she suffers several setbacks, and so on. Ethel also has a snake familiar, Curdlemilk, and defeating Ethel severely weakens her – I’m not saying Will invented disadvantage, but this does force Ethel to roll twice and take the lowest roll. And, again, the characters may not figure out all the weaknesses. The ones they do uncover lead to choices. If we poison her cough medication… will that work?
One of the signs of good choices is that they cause players to stop and discuss. This adventure has several situations that will get players scheming and discussing approaches.
Glitterdust’s design creates an excellent feedback loop, where the characters are rewarded for their actions. To offer choices and open up play, Will creates compelling situations. For example, a giant snail following a trail of vegetables. Change that trail, and it goes off course, destroying the net it is pulling around the lake. Many of these situations provide clues as to how Ethel might be weakened, opens up ways to reach the hut, or cause the hag to take certain actions. You can pick up the adventure and two other excellent ones in Dungeon 211.
There you have it. Not a single flowchart, but each of these adventures offer the players engaging situations and clear indications that they have options… and the choices they make will matter. All written in a span of a few months, during 4E.
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This has inspired me to go back and reread these! There were some great adventures in the 4e issues of Dungeon (and some great articles in the 4e issues of Dragon too!)
Rodney Thompson uses a similar mechanic in his Dusk City Outlaws heist RPG to the one you describe in Infernal Wrath. The PCs only have so many day or night segments of time before they must execute their heist, and can only do one scene each per segment. If they want to spend time planning, they get 15 minutes on an egg timer, then either have to stop or use another segment. Works really well!
I hadn’t made the connection to Dusk City Outlaws, but you are absolutely right. It’s a great way to get people going and choose the thing they most want to do. Great point!
This was a fantastic list! I Immediately added some of these to my one shot list. Please do more articles like this 🙂
Thanks! I had a few I wanted to look at that didn’t make it into this article, so I may revisit them for a second article. Thanks for the encouragement!