This post is laden with tropes. Fair warning.

The last week or so I’ve been working on developing a new adventure format for more open-ended tabletop roleplaying. It uses an event timeline and three plots revolving around five “persons of interest” to create a more flexible roleplaying environment than most written modules I’ve seen over the years.

The adventure format started to take form around February, but is based on designs as far back as my work on Escape From White Cliff, circa 2010.

Adventure Path Math (Feb 7, 2013)
What’s In An Adventure? (Feb 8, 2011)
Too Many Encounters (Nov 2, 2010)

There are many different ways to run the adventure using the format I’ve developed. If you have a group who is generally uninspired to seek rumors on their own, you can run the encounters roughly in the order they appear in the adventure, or however you feel inspired to use them.

The first element of the adventure, an Event Timeline, provides basic structure. There are five major events which may or may not be connected to one another, but generally serve to escalate tension toward the adventure’s conclusion.

Events provide the players with something for their characters to “react” to, which is an important part of character roleplaying. I’ve heard the expression, “acting is reacting” applied to roleplaying before, but I think too much reacting is a bad thing in an RPG. Characters lacking goals and motives are bland characters.

Next, there are five Persons of Interest. These characters are the “face” of the adventure, helping to add personality. Every module might be the same, if not for its central NPC cast — I’ve found in the past that a few NPCs that stand out in a module are a tremendous aid to the preparation and execution of an adventure.

Generally, I find it best not to designate NPCs as protagonists or antagonists — but to simply leave them “blank” as to whether they will aid the party or not. The players’ “first impressions” are incredibly important — how the players initially react when meeting the NPC will make the difference in how the NPC should be used.

Finally, there are three concurrent plots for the player characters to encounter and investigate. Each one escalates in a fairly straightforward manner, and relates back to the Events and Persons of Interest. I call them A-, B-, and C-Plots.

How the adventure develops is ultimately up to the players — if the party is oddly dogmatic in working through a particular plot, give it to them, and try to make that the dominant plot thread. Tie the others into it using Persons of Interest.

Characters ultimately receive experience rewards regardless of the outcome of individual encounters. Encounters are really there more to encourage character action than to encourage dice rolls, but you should take what you can get.