The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Potential Energy: How to Write Engaging Adventures

This is the first in a series of posts that will explore how to write engaging adventures. Throughout the series, I will draw upon adventures I have written. You won’t need the adventures, but if you own them it will give you a fresh lens through which to see those adventures and may make them easier and more fun to run.

You can support me by picking up the adventures from the DMsGuild. Through May 17, 2020, I receive 100% of all royalties, so it is an especially great time to support my work. Here are the adventures we will be using:

Designing Great Adventures

Shawn Merwin wrote an amazing series of articles for D&D Beyond on how to design adventures.  If you are new to adventure writing and it interests you, turn to this fantastic series!

In one of his posts he happened to mention the idea of potential energy, at the same time I was talking about it on Twitter. My argument was and is that one of the greatest keys to writing good adventures is for the scenes to have potential energy. Let’s examine how this works.

Defining Potential Energy

In physics, kinetic energy is energy from something in motion. The monsters in the room, lunging forward (and rolling initiative) can be thought of as kinetic energy.

At the simplest level, potential energy in writing is a design principle creating the capacity for something cool to happen. Potential energy is something at rest that could be put into motion. Maybe the monsters will make use of it. Maybe the players will. Creating and placing potential energy into an encounter is incredibly gratifying when it plays out well, and I consider potential energy to be critical to good design.

Think of potential energy as a design guideline. When we create a scene, we go through various design steps. One of them should be to analyze the potential energy in the scene. When creating potential energy, we can ask the following: “What can the creatures here engage with in an interesting way to affect the outcome?”

Potential energy can be added in any number of ways. Here are a few:

  • Something in the scene can be used (by characters or foes) to gain an advantage.
  • Something in the scene can provide new knowledge, allowing PCs to see the scene in new light.
  • There is an obvious significant offensive or defensive benefit, which foes will activate unless stopped.
  • There is impending doom for some or all creatures, which happens unless stopped.
  • An area might become inaccessible, treasure lost, or foes escape unless quick action is taken.
  • Foes have a goal other than fighting, and the characters can learn this.
  • The scene can drastically change if certain elements are activated.

Potential energy can be obvious in the description of the room, or it might be revealed during play. It may be something only the DM has, but which characters can respond to. Or, it might be something only for the characters to use.

Realizing Adventure Goals and Themes

Potential energy works at both a micro and macro level. It is a great way to enable the goals you have for a specific scene, but it also can drive home the overall themes of your adventure.

Maybe you want this to be a “fun house” adventure where there are constant fun surprises. Maybe it’s a mystery, where player investigation is rewarding. Maybe it’s a very open design, where what characters do should have tangible impacts. Maybe there is a deep story to uncover, or the adventure should have a particular theme. Potential energy can help you achieve those goals in every scene.

Let’s showcase some adventures where I make use of potential energy, starting with a simple example.

Potential Energy in Adamantine Chef

Most of this adventure’s scenes (other than the wild conclusion) are relatively simple. Despite the simplicity, each scene has a lot of flavor (ahem) so that the themes of food and martial arts constantly engage the players.

Potential Energy in the Hands of Foes: Acrobat-Thugs

In this scene, characters are on or around a caravan wagon when it is attacked. If all we have is bandits surrounding and attacking the wagon, the fight could be pretty boring. Such design would also fail to live up to what we want for the adventure – the feeling of classic martial arts movies.

When I worked on the design, I envisioned the bandits attacking like high-flying acrobats. I also wanted this encounter to encourage the party to see themselves as protectors of the owners of the wagon (the chef and his family). It’s the start of a small mystery, and this scene sets up later scenes that reveal who is behind the attacks.

The scene gives the DM some potential energy, to which the characters can respond. First, we design the Acrobat-Thugs to have a special ability to leap around, and we use tactics to which the characters should respond:

We want characters to respond to the thugs damaging the wagon and its cooking supplies. Speaking to the DM about potential energy can be just as important as speaking to the players. The DM is given guidance to look for ways to guide and reward the players in countering them in clever ways:

Potential Energy in a Roleplaying Scene: The Merchant’s Customer

Potential energy can be in any type of scene. In roleplaying scenes, we can create engaging potential the PCs can use. Players feel clever when they identify advantages and put them into play. To do so, they must roleplay (whether in character or not). Potential energy is fun for players of any experience level, and even a small amount of potential energy goes a long way for some players.

Potential energy is also a lot of fun for DMs, because the scenes are more dynamic. The DM can see some possible outcomes, but will often be surprised by the exact approach used by the players. Responding to what players do creates a fun scene and helps DMs sharpen their improvisational skills over time in a relatively safe way. In Adamantine Chef, the characters can go to a market to find ingredients for a meal. When they seek the plum wine merchant, they find the following:

Negotiating with a stubborn merchant is expected. Adding the potential energy of the arguing customer provides a richer scene . The DM has more to roleplay, and the characters are encouraged to decide how to intervene. There are some relatively obvious paths, though even these are good ways for characters to roleplay and have agency. This is not meant to be a long or complicated scene, but it can still be memorable.

Next Time

The Howling Void is an adventure taking place in an elemental air node! This chaotic element is represented through many surprises and choices the characters can make as they try to stop the cult of elemental air.  We will take a look at placing interesting elements in combat encounters, as well as setting up a scene so it can act as exploration, puzzle, and perhaps combat.

We also look at how potential energy makes short adventure scenes memorable in Jungle Treks. Inspired by Indiana Jones, we have the party and bad guys looking for something as chaos overtakes a tavern. Grung swing from vines. And much more!

The last part of this series looks at The Artifact and how we use potential energy to further roleplaying and engagement with a mystery! We then look at Acquisitions Incorporated and some of my favorite scenes I’ve ever written.

2 comments on “Potential Energy: How to Write Engaging Adventures

  1. Pingback: Potential Energy: Creating Responsive Adventure Scenes | Alphastream

  2. Tomas GR
    June 22, 2020

    I usually compare this potential energy you talk about with videogame mechanics to alter encounters, the classic being red explosive barrels. I’ve started to add one or two moments with possible potential energy per session lately and it’s definitely something else!

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This entry was posted on May 14, 2020 by and tagged , .


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