The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Potential Energy: Creating Responsive Adventure Scenes

They only had this fight because of the choices they made!

We take a deeper look at designing adventures using the design principle of potential energy: adventure scenes can be written to encourage players to engage with scene elements and create their own cool moments.

But first! I was a guest on Owlbear Soup! Check out this cool show where we talk about Acquisitions Incorporated, streaming Lore of Neverwinter, writing D&D with kids, and more!

And, I continue to stream The Lore of Neverwinter on Twitch and YouTube!

Okay, back to Potential Energy!

In the previous post, we reviewed techniques used in Adamantine Chef to add potential energy to a relatively simple combat scene through goals and tactics the foes used. We also looked at a roleplaying scene made more interesting and improvisational.

Let’s take a look at other approaches. This and other adventures we examine are available on the DMs Guild. You don’t need them to follow these posts, but your support keeps me writing. Thank you!

Here are the adventures we will be using across this series:

The Howling Void

In The Howling Void, I was asked to bring an elemental node to life. This was a hard thing to do. Previous adventures, such as Temple of Elemental Evil, had merely populated a large cavern with monsters associated with the element. I did a ton of research, and almost none of it was useful. Older adventures usually lacked engrossing themes or potential energy.

I wanted this elemental node to really capture the essence of elemental air, which is one of chaos. I was also inspired by one of my favorite adventures by Will Doyle, Tears of the Crocodile God. This was, amazingly, the first adventure Will had published. It’s incredible in many ways, including that it places many things in motion. Friendly NPCs, foes, and other elements are moving around and time-dependent. The characters have choices as they explore, and where they go and at what time will reveal different things.

The map for Tears of the Crocodile God with NPC starting locations… they all move!

Note: There are a few spoilers here. If you might play Howling Void, you can decide whether to read paragraphs marked as “Mild Spoilers” and should really avoid “Spoilers.”

Potential Energy and the Adventure Concept

Last time we talked about potential energy in encounters, but it’s important to recognize that engaging players isn’t just within encounters. To really engage players, they have to care about why they are here. Their goals need to align with the adventure goals!

When we create an awesome engaging concept for the overall adventure, the players buy in to the concept. They are now predisposed to enjoying the potential energy we place in the encounters themselves.

(Mild spoilers) With Howling Void, I wanted a lot of potential energy. From the moment you enter the air node, you see the rooms of the dungeon swirling above you, because the rooms are on cloud islands rotating above. You know the ritual will take place in the center of the node when the villain is ready, and you have very little time to learn about and weaken the ritual. The players choose where to go, and they can only visit a few rooms. Their experiences and the benefits they gain will vary depending on where they go. Foes are moving around, as are neutral parties. Players know that the decision they make matter. The adventure’s stakes become the player’s stakes.  

Combat Scenes and Potential Energy – The Laboratory

(Spoilers) At the individual scene level, I tried to create several scenes that had interesting elements to them, and with which the characters could interact. This is important because several scenes are tests – corruptions of the tests conducted by monks captured from the nearby monastery. Succeeding at the tests weakens the ritual, making the final combat easier. It’s all about the choices players make.

In the Sphere of Corrupted Humility, the scene is full of potential energy:

The boxed text doesn’t just set the scene. It sets the foes in motion with a purpose. It also puts innocents in danger and in need of help. Finally, it describes things the characters can use. The scene begs the question, “what do you do?” to be answered with something other than just the characters’ regular forms of attack. (Yes, I know, the boxed text is also a bit long. Sorry!)

The DM text describes what these things do, and how foes will react if they are or aren’t stopped. The DM is given clarity over the potential energy at broad levels, though they have great freedom in adjudicating player ingenuity. In the end, how it plays out is up to the players and the DM.

Exploration Scenes and Potential Energy – The Prison Tower

The exploration pillar of play isn’t just about traversing the wilderness or mapping a maze. Exploration covers scenes where the players have to interact with the environment while uncovering information about it.

These scenes can be tremendous fun for DM and players alike when we lean into potential energy. Here is the description when the players approach a tower on a cloud island:

Spoiler) The confusing sign and the scale of the tower offer clues, but no true answers. Approaching requires interpreting the sign, or using alternate means to bypass the danger.  Depending on other islands the characters have visited, they may have some insight into what is happening inside. There is another room where magic forces personalities to switch bodies. With that in mind (ahem), here is what the DM knows:


(Spoiler) This scene is a lot of fun to run. There are many variables, and they can all lead to fun interactions and exploration. They might set off the trap, waking the cyclops (who yells at the giant). Combat is possible, but not necessary. The party might not set off the trap, but not figure out what is happening inside. Or, they might figure out the situation and work with the cloud giant (who has a cyclops personality) to free the prisoner and quietly get out without disturbing the sleeping cyclops (with the cloud giant personality).

The Artifact:

(Minor Spoilers) This adventure is part of the Adventurers League story arc supporting Curse of Strahd, and uses the Amber Temple – an awesome location in that adventure. I created a secret level below the Amber Temple, where ghost wizards have been driven by a powerful entity known as an Obsession. This Obsession is all about undying dedication to love, and her presence pushes the wizards to endlessly focus on their own personal obsessions.

To unravel what is taking place, the characters must find out which of the wizards recently committed murder, and with what item. It’s inspired by the Hasbro board game Clue! The guilty wizard is determined randomly or chosen by the DM, so it can be different every time the adventure is run.

Overall, the potential energy is lower in particular scenes, because it occupies a higher level woven into the adventure: that of being possessed by spirits with roleplaying aspects.

(Spoilers) From here on, there are spoilers! Avoid if you will play this!

During the adventure, one or more characters may be possessed by a wizard’s spirit. This imbues their personality on the character, creating a roleplaying opportunity and granting knowledge. If in this game the spirit is the murderer, you get special instructions. You can see the differences below:

From a design perspective, the possessions are another aspect of potential energy. Here, the player is given tools with which to engage in future scenes. They get roleplaying hooks, are directly tied to the locations through knowledge, and receive agendas. They have a greater stake in the adventure’s outcome.

This worked really well. I can still go to conventions and find someone who, voluntarily, still roleplays aspects of the spirit that possessed them!

Rooms that Ask “What do you do?”

An easy way to harness potential energy is to force the players to make a choice up front. Here is how the ballroom looks to the characters.

The situation requires engagement to proceed. There are no wrong ways to engage, and the DM is given information so they have some ideas on how to react to the players.

Simplifying Potential Energy – The Laboratory

Potential energy is often about adding things to a scene so players interact with them. It can also be subtractive – removing the expected and forcing the players to discover what is missing.

The entire dungeon has translucent amber doors. This is deliberate, to entice players into taking a look. They will naturally want to go inside. Here, the room is interesting for what is missing:

The instructor is invisible, and will watch the players before taking action. Because the room reacts to what the players do, it will reflect their actions better.

The Vault

(Major Major Spoilers! Seriously!)

The Vault is where the game will end, though it can be visited at any time. This room acts as the envelope in the game of clue. The party must come here to solve the murder. If they are right, the door opens. If they are wrong, they can at least peer through the door and may learn some clues. The DM can offer up more clues if needed. The hints depend on who the murderer is in this particular game.

When the party knows the identity of the murderer, this triggers the reveal and roleplaying:

It’s very much deliberate that the player who was possessed gets the spotlight, and the other players engage with them (probably roleplaying the spirits that possess each of them!). This scene is a lot of fun for DM and players, and the payoff everyone was seeking.

This adventure was ambitious to design, but seeing players react to the potential energy is very gratifying.

Next Time

Next time we will look at Jungle Treks, and apply those lessons to random encounters. If we have time, we may finally look at Acquisitions Incorporated and the design of its adventure!

4 comments on “Potential Energy: Creating Responsive Adventure Scenes

  1. Tomas Gimenez
    August 2, 2020

    I was extremely interested in the Artifact upon reading the DMGuild description. Now that you presented a little bit more, I’m totally going to steal it for my lich’s megadungeon!
    Is it easy to modify the adventure enough for a lvl15-16 party?

    • Alphastream
      August 2, 2020

      Yes! The adventure is largely one of exploration and roleplay, as it is a murder mystery. There are several relatively short combat scenes, primarily there to offer combat as a way to change the pacing (and somewhat because players often want combat to feel good about adventures). The monster choices aren’t inflexible. You can easily swap in different threats and it will work just fine.

  2. Mike Olson
    September 8, 2020

    I know it’s like months after you posted this, BUT:

    One of my characters is imbued with two spirits from The Artifact, the hunter and the dancer. He already always suspects everyone of being a vampire or a werewolf, so the hunter’s hatred of werewolves fits right in, and he’s still wearing his blue gown under his plate armor, something I make sure to mention whenever I introduce him. Personality-wise, he’s a cowboy poet, so the dress is suitably at odds with the rest of him.

    In fact… at the same Gen Con where I played him in The Artifact, you and I played in a game together — The Raven, I think. Full circle!

    • Alphastream
      September 9, 2020

      Thanks for sharing that, Mike! I remember that table and just being so happy to see you playing that character and making use of the spirits!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This entry was posted on May 22, 2020 by and tagged , , .


Follow me on

Mastodon logo Mastodon


Follow me on

BlueSky logo BlueSky

Privacy Policy