Friday, February 5, 2010

DM's Corner: Free Form DMing and The Formula

I’m what I like to call a “Free Form” DM. When I write an adventure for a party, I tend to write a skeletal outline for the events I want to take place and some of the major encounters, but other than that I just go in with an idea and no set plan. I don’t like to have every room accounted for and every encounter thought out in advance. I think this is because my history with gaming groups clearly tells me that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Not that I think of a party as the enemy, but I am writing an adventure to challenge the party and this they are sort of an adversary.
Meaning, you can never predict what a party of adventures is going to do. I spent many a night in my youth doing exactly that just to have the party skip vast portions of my well laid out dungeon. This is annoying, to say the least. It tends to make a DM want to railroad his adventurers so they can see all the work he put into the scenario.

So when I do sit down to write an adventure, I like to use a small formula to keep things varied and not just a hack & slash bloodbath. I have a list of encounter types that I will refer to, trying not to repeat the same encounter twice in a row if possible. This, I think, makes the adventure feel fresh throughout and not just a series of combats or conversations in a town.

This is the list I refer to:
  • Skill Use - Make one or more of the characters use a skill
  • Combat - Set encounter, Random Encounter or Ambush
  • Trap or Puzzle
  • Research or Investigation
  • Equipment Use - Some sort of obstacle that requires equipment and some sort of analytical thinking to use it properly
  • Decision - Party must decide between one path/ option/ direction or another
  • Background Hooks - Insert a hook that could lead to further adventure later
  • Interaction with an NPC
  • Safe Point - Allows the party to regroup and rest/ reorganize
  • Required Item - Party must have a specific item to bypass a specific location
There is never a set order to how I select these, and in some cases, they aren't even appropriate to the location. I may not put combat or a trap in a town, but it's a great place to interact with NPC's and to introduce adventure hooks through rumors and eavesdropping.

Staying "Free Form" has gotten easier over the years for me as I'm able to improvise my encounters a little more fluidly and I can read the mood of the players so I know when I need to spice things up with combat or add a little tension with a trap. I like to keep my interactions in the beginning of an adventure if possible because that's when the players are paying the most attention for hooks and clues. 

I'm a huge fan of sprinkling in adventure hooks throughout the adventure as it make playing long campaigns seem more flowing and not just a series of start/stop episodes. I like to keep some of the side quests pretty short so it doesn't detract from the overall goal, but I do like them to feel they can wander off the beaten path and that they're not being railroaded. In fact, I've dropped hooks in they they didn't even discover until much later. I once put an ornate drinking horn wrapped in leather in a treasure pile. The horn was actually a dragon tooth and there was a treasure map under the leather wrappings that I gave the owner a chance to spot every time he used it.

Of course, now it's coming around to bite me in the ass because I'm trying to write a module to see about getting it published and I can't remember how to write a complete module.


  1. I am another adherent of the Free Form 'adventure' mode.

    Nice article. :)


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