Poor Man’s Adventure Cycles
Okay, not everyone has time to write copious notes about every adventure they intend to run. In fact, some of us don’t have time to do more than record the highlights and such and get on with it. Well adventure cycles are fun, but how do you work on one when you’re the time lacking type of game master? Firstly, this is all common sense, but I’ve seen many game masters ignore it before, so here is the gist. I am the type of game master who takes notes for important characters, communities, and writes lots of plot and back story. Or at least, it always seems like that’s what I’m doing. I certainly am not writing down adventures in a complete format that would allow for their consumption by other gaming groups without any work.
If I were to separate this into simply talking about adventure cycles from the greater issue of working with plot hooks to generate a “living, breathing” campaign world I would say that back story is the key element.
As I mentioned, I make extremely consistent use of plot hooks, both ones I have written and ones I have appropriated. A properly executed plot hook is just the plot component of any good adventure, but with a pre-existing antagonist you can flesh one of these out in no time at all. The back story becomes unimportant when the players are in the thick of it already and wander into a roaming plot hook.
However, when I write an adventure cycle, I am not really writing separate adventures complete with monster stats, maps and treasure matrices, I am writing plot hooks to string together utilizing back story elements or characters I have already conceived. If you string enough of these together you get a complex story, or a full campaign. So in this context, it is of paramount importance.
Continuing my example from the previous article, we have a Cardinal who likes to poison his rivals, and we have a Bishop who is being considered to become Pope. Learning that unsavory action is about to take place inside the confines of the Church is an adventure in and of itself. Stopping the planned strike is part of this overall first adventure as well. However, at the end of the adventure the PCs are presented with a choice: find the parties responsible or head on their merry way. PCs have free will, so while you can present them with reasons to continue the cycle, you can’t make them do it.
For example, most altruistic parties will choose to figure out who is responsible. For more mercenary ones the Bishop may offer them a reward to find out who had targeted him. Regardless of which type of party you have, if they choose to find out who is involved, you can’t send them directly to the Cardinal. This linkage can be more easily provided with a pre-existing back story. If the Cardinal is a heretic, consorting with witches, then the witches have an interest in him becoming Pope. He can turn a blind eye to their activities, and reap supernatural or monetary rewards as compensation.
So, now that we have the back story in place we see that the cardinal will turn to the witches for aid, or they will step in on their own to back their bought clergyman. Thus, the second adventure could be one about tracing some minor clue. It will however, lead to the witches trying to pick off and murder the PCs. After a minor confrontation with the witches’ agents the PCs can see a clear enemy. However, they can’t see the real reasons behind the attacks. The very fact that witches tried to murder the PCs after they foiled a murder plot on a Bishop is enough of a red herring to divert their attention from the Cardinal for the time being.
So this is the perfect opportunity for the Cardinal to invite the Bishop to visit him, and bring his lovely guardians with him. Thus we get to the third adventure in the cycle. The PCs are on the lookout for enemies from without, and are not suspecting that they are threatened by a supposed friend. Even if they do see the threats, which they should if by nothing but happenstance, they will associate it all with the witches, the known enemy.
Only at the end of the adventure cycle should the Cardinal be exposed. As with all good villains, he will escape to safety. This allows him to become a recurring villain, and one they will have trouble proving is at fault. Also, if he’s a threat to the bishop, might he be behind the Pope’s progressively bad health as well?
Being 3 linked adventures this is the barest of adventure cycles, but it suffices. The PCs again have choices: 1) go after the Cardinal immediately, but face the unbelieving council of Cardinals when they claim he is consorting with heretics and involved in a murder plot, 2) stop him personally from the shadows, but take on the witches as well. 3) Seek to preserve the Bishop in all this for the future, or 4) do nothing or something else entirely.
In most of my games, I don’t allow the third option as a viable choice. With unsavory events occurring around the map, the PCs can’t abandon the fight to preserve one good man. They have to take the fight to the enemy, so they can move on to other matters.
So that’s how someone like me, a Poor Man when it comes to writing adventures, writes an entire cycle of them. If you have your own suggestions, you can comment below.