Fantasy Adventure Writing

Fantasy Adventure Writing

By Christina Stiles
RPG Moderator

©2001, Christina Stiles 

I’ve spent the last few months writing a D20 fantasy adventure entitled Unhallowed Halls for Atlas Games, which will be published in April or May of 2002, so this topic quickly sprang to mind for a Vision article. Part I, presented below, is an overall look at the genres’ elements, and some things to consider if you are writing for this market. Part II, in the next issue, will look at the actual adventure format. 

Fictional Nonfiction 

Adventure, or module, writing fuses fictional elements like setting, plot, and characters with a logical, nonfiction style. Not only must your plot weave an interesting evening or two of gaming for the Game Masters’ players, but you must also provide the Game Master with the technical information (like character/monster game statistics and tactics or new magical item information) necessary to run the adventure in the game for which it is written. To do this, you must become very familiar with the game's core rulebooks; if you can’t convince the game line’s editor that you know how to write for the game in question, you won’t sell her your storyline.  

You also have to think logically when writing adventures, as you second-guess the players’ actions and provide conditional responses to them. For example: “If the characters succeed in killing or bypassing the orc bandits, allowing none to escape, then the minotaur in Area 10 will not have been awakened. If any orcs escape, however, they warn the minotaur, and he rallies twenty more orcs and ten goblins to ambush the characters in the tunnels leading to his lair.” 

Before beginning your adventure, consider your plot type, adventure length, and the generic quality of your project, as these features affect your submission prospects.  

Adventure Plot Types 

Two plot styles typify adventure writing: the event-driven and the site-driven plot. Event-driven adventures usually involve thwarting a villain’s plans or solving mysteries; in fact, many event-driven adventures spark the player characters’ involvement by presenting them with a kidnapping, murder, or a missing item of some importance. Timelines, conditional elements, and characters drive this plot type. My Unhallowed Halls adventure and most of Atlas Games’ Penumbra D20 line fall into this category. 

Site-driven adventures are those in which a locale, like a ruined castle or an evil temple, takes prominence, and the plot is minimal and mostly concerns exploration. These adventure types may also be about thwarting villains, but most involve treasure hunting--a favorite character pastime. And, of course, castles and temples can and do exist in event-driven adventures, but the plot is the focus.  

If you are naturally drawn to mysteries, then event-driven adventures may be your forte. Take care in reading the company’s guidelines before you submit, however, as some companies and magazines prefer not to publish them. Dungeon magazine and Necromancer Games, for instance, prefer site-driven adventures. 

Adventure Lengths 

Adventures under 2,000 words, called "Side Treks" or "Treks," are equivalent to fiction’s short shorts, being drop-in plots to fill time between longer adventures or travels.You can find examples of these in Dungeon magazine and in Atlas’ most recent release, En Route. Writing a Trek could be an easy means to get your name out into the gaming community, and they are generally the only submissions you can send in without a formal proposal. Unfortunately, there are few markets for Treks. 

If you are writing an adventure up to 12,000 words, then the magazine market is appropriate, though anything over that is pushing it. For manuscriptslonger than about 15,000 words, you may want to consider submitting to an actual game company for consideration. Game companies print these adventures as stand-alone adventures of 36 or more pages, and you can find numerous examples of them in your local Waldenbooks or on Of course, you’ll need to submit an adventure proposal for consideration in either venue. Be sure to look over the writer’s guidelines to know what things you should include in the proposal. 

Generic Content 

While writers love to build their own worlds, you as an adventure writer must fight the urge to detail your adventure with world-specific information—unless the game line you are writing for requires it. On the whole, editors prefer generic adventures that can be easily transplanted into another Game Master’s campaign. This isn’t to say that you can’t create new towns and cities, but you must be careful if your plotline revolves around the politics of these places, for another Game Master may be unable to equate these goings-on to societies in her campaign world.  

Self-publishing your adventures allows you to get more world-specific, though it may limit your market—turning off those who are looking for new adventures in an already established campaign world. The gaming market is very much a niche field, so anything that broadens your readership is for the best. 

Okay, Now What? 

Okay, you’ve thought about these things, and you know where you stand with each. Now, you want to get cracking on the actual adventure. Well, join me next issue for Part II, and we’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of adventure building. Start that brainstorming!