In the video above from the Nerdarchy YouTube channel Nerdarchist Dave, Nate the Nerdarch and Nerdarchist Ted explore an approach to creating tabletop roleplaying game adventures. Based on the Five Ws – traditional basic information gathering and problem solving steps – this method makes creating adventures for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons or any RPG much easier.
By asking yourself who, what, where, when and why a Game Master turns what could be a daunting task into a quick process. Preparing RPG adventures this way provides a solid foundation for both GM and players. Building on the basic structure you create is absolutely possible. But this simple method alone offers ample material to work with at your gaming table for fun, rewarding experiences.
The first time Nerdarchy mentioned the Five W method for adventure design was an off-hand comment made during a different video. In a response to a GM request for help, the idea of asking yourself these basic questions came up. At the time it struck me immediately as the most simple, elegant approach to adventure design. Looking back it’s really a no-brainer.
Since then I’ve used taken this approach several times and encouraged others to do the same. It’s so easy! More than that, it allows a GM to distill their thoughts and ideas. I’m no stranger to wild imaginings and grandiose thoughts of epic, intricate campaigns and dramatic story beats. But on a session-by-session basis you’ll build up to those things through a series of solid, streamlined quests. And the memorable moments occur organically anyway – a GM can never plan for the game experiences that make a campaign unique.
Who does the adventure turn on?
This is the easiest step for me, and has long been my go-to starting point for any adventure. Whether a cool monster that I want to use or a villainous entity to pit the players against, answering the who of an RPG adventure informs all my other decisions. Figuring out who the plot of an adventure stems from works on any scale.
The D&D 5E Spelljammer game I run flows from the campaign-ending threat of an ancient void dragon I imagine the party squaring off against at the climax – a very long-term goal. But this same campaign had to start somewhere, and as lowly 1st level adventurers the who was a cult in service to sahuagin. But the real who of their first arc was Explictica Defilus, a spirit naga and self-styled “reptile god.”
For a one-shot D&D adventure where the players all played as customized grung, the who was an aggressive force of lizardfolk.
In another one shot it was an evil druid.A Tales from the Loop Mystery I’m working on starts with a…well, I’m not going to reveal the who of that game. It’s still in the planning stages and I don’t want to spoil it for any of the players – especially since it’ll probably be some Nerdarchy colleagues! And since we’ll stream our game live I don’t want to spoil it for you either, Nerdachy fan.
At any rate, starting RPG adventure design by answering who the primary antagonist is helps inform the answers to the rest of the questions. Knowing who you want behind your plot naturally leads into the next step of the process, answering…
What are they doing?
Following a cycle of universal destruction and rebirth. Indoctrinating villagers to serve a cult. Biding time and building strength to fend off distant pursuers. Retrieving stolen eggs.
All of these goals are tied to the examples above on who is behind the adventurers’ troubles. They answer what those antagonists are up to. There’s room for nuance, and if a campaign is ongoing these goals will develop into more intricate stories. But answering in the most simple way the specific actions your who are taking serves two functions.
First, it gives a GM a clear idea of motivations to fall back on when unsure what to do in the face of player actions. This has often been a stumbling block for me with published adventures in the past. Whether the antagonists’ goals are just plain vague or perhaps simply buried or scattered throughout the material that they become lost, more than once I’ve been dumbfounded when players question motives or express curiosity about what exactly is going on and I don’t have an answer for them.
Second, giving the who a clear, concise goal makes it easier to imagine the steps they take to reach those goals. Without an idea what exactly a villain is doing, an adventure can become static. The party’s foe seems to exist in limbo, waiting for the characters to confront them in their lair where they coincidentally arrive just in time to stop them. On the other hand, keeping what a villain is up to in mind prompts a GM to keep their story progressing alongside the players’. They’ve got stuff to do, and you know exactly what stuff. More importantly it gives you a good idea of…
Where are these events taking place?
A void space beyond the prime material plane. An isolated fishing village island. An underground series of sea-dampened tunnels beneath the island. A remote, exotic jungle populated by monstrous humanoids in the absence of standard player races.
Adventure locations provide the palette a GM needs to illustrate the game world in the players’ imaginations. At this step in the process the basic story structure takes on physical shape when you determine where the who exists to pursue what they desire. The adventure can travel classic paths like goblins from the wilderness encroaching upon civilization or a necromancer raising the dead in an ancient masoleum not far from the quaint farming village.
On the other hand you can experiment with unusual situations to add extra layers of interest for an adventure. Perhaps a remorhaz is sighted in the desert, or a drider prowls a sylvan glade. Strange scenarios like these can inspire wild theories in player’s imaginations and bring an even more fantastical quality to a D&D adventure. By observing and listening carefully to players, new ideas may come up that spark a GMs imagination and add wonderful new elements to the basic adventure structure created by continuing the process and determining…
When does the inciting incident go down?
Every 50,000 years. Not long before the characters arrive in the village. Decades ago and nearing completion. Yesterday. Tomorrow. The next full moon.
The time element for your adventure sets up the framework for the characters’ involvement. A plot centuries in the making gives a lot of wiggle room for the party’s timeline. Conversely, a threat to safety that puts the characters’ very way of life in peril requires swift action.
Antagonists with far-reaching goals and long lifespans seem to have all the time in the world to prepare, scheme and plot. There could very well be an immediate threat or looming danger that needs dealt with before spiraling beyond the characters’ control, but a campaign like this usually involves a series of adventures that give characters a chance to stop the danger.
Or an adventure can take place in the aftermath of the villain’s success. Both approaches can work on any scale, too.
In the Critical Role campaign, a yearlong arc took place following a massive attack on a huge region. The characters spent the year in real time (several months in game time) searching for a way to fight back. On a much smaller scale, many an adventurer began their career rescuing a kidnapped villager before they could be sacrificed for a dark ritual or somesuch.
Knowing when the villain plans to reach their goals sets up the dynamic with the characters. Are they working to stop danger before it happens or deal with it afterwards? Will the villain know someone aims to stop them? Will they care? Do the adventurers need to make all haste or can they bide their time and be cautious? And along the way, will they be able to discover…
Why is this happening?
It’s always happened and will continue to happen. Our of fear. Hatred towards longtime enemies. To complete powerful magical rituals.
Knowing why an antagonist pursues goals is the last question to answer for a reason. All of the other elements help shape this answer to present a realistic, believable reason for the adventure. In the case of natural threats, this question can be answered quite easily through pure impulse. Unintelligent creatures need to eat, for example. A bulette may ravage the countryside purely because its hungry and there’s an available food source that’s easy and safe to get.
But even then, there is room for a GM to explore more interesting avenues (or let the players come up with their own cool ideas that you weave into the story). Why is a remorhaz out of its element? Why did the villagers suddenly begin to ally with sahuagin?
Characters at times may never learn the reasons why their foes do the things they do. Plot threads, clues and hooks can very that be overlooked and forgotten – by both players and GMs! That doesn’t mean leaving why unanswered is a habit to get into though. The why need not be elaborate, requiring pages of lore and backstory to explain. That sort of detail and flavor will come either through actual game play or between sessions.
To get started though, a basic reason why goes a long way. Even if it’s simple greed, it gives a GM insight into an antagonist that gives structure and guidance to the imagination. Once you’ve got these five basic questions answered – who, what, where, when and why – the next part is the more fun. It’s when you get to see…
How it all comes together
You gather with friends around the table with dice, pencils, character sheets and a few books. Hopefully someone remembered to bring the pizza. Everyone works together collaboratively to tell a tale of adventure. It’s as easy as 1-2-3-4-5.
So until next time, stay nerdy!