World Building 101: The Best Laid Plans, Part One

Planning your adventures and your campaign as a whole are two very important tasks that every DM must undertake, and every DM must find a way to do so that feels comfortable to them. In nearly 20 years of playing I have seen all manner of techniques for planning, and I have learned that a tool that works wonders for one DM may not work at all for another. Defining your campaign and the adventures you plan within it can be a major undertaking, and the aspects of the campaign world you choose to emphasize can be affected by what the needs of the game you choose to run within it are.

There are a wide variety of tools for adventure and campaign design, and every DM has his or her favorite methods of using them. Some DMs plan well in advance using flowcharts detailing as many possible paths as they can think of through an adventure, others assemble simple lists of possible scenes loosely connected to each other that might result in one of a number of outcomes, others still run by the seat of their pants responding largely to player input. Each method can give a different amount of control to the players, and none is necessarily better than the others—and through your DMing career you may rely on all of these and more at different times, even within the same campaign. No list of planning tools and methods can be completely exhaustive, since each DM comes up with their own methods and styles, but there are a few common examples that can be good starting points for adventure and campaign design, which will be discussed here in brief.

While it can become quite cumbersome quite quickly, one tool that can be very valuable is creating a flowchart describing the process of your adventure.

This image details the different shapes I used in creating the example flowcharts in this article. I created these flowcharts early on in my campaign, to help me determine the paths my first two adventures offered my players.

The first adventure was fairly simple and narrow in scope. The players were mercenaries hired by a king to investigate the rumors that one of his dukes was secretly raising an army to seize power while the king was off at war. The structure was direct and straightforward—they arrived in the town, performed a relatively open investigation with a few options I had planned out and room for their own ideas, then ended with a confrontation between the mercenary forces and the mad duke. It’s worth noting that I didn’t actually create the flowchart until after I had run the game for some of my players and asked what they thought. One player—the one with the largest amount of DM experience—complimented me and said she had rather enjoyed it, even if it was a bit railroady. I was crushed by that, but once I put it in a flowchart I could see what she meant. There really wasn’t a lot of room for player choice in there. It’s a pretty linear progression from start to finish, in spite of the freedom to tackle the investigation in any order the players like.

For the next adventure in the campaign, I did use a flowchart to map out the various paths through it, making sure that there were meaningful choices for the players. In retrospect, I would say I overplanned this particular adventure in order to avoid railroading. The same basic formula of being given a mission with a particular end point in mind is used, but there are several mutually exclusive branch paths to reach the destination, each of which also branches at least once, in order to give the players as many options as I could think of for getting from A to B. There were certainly no accusations of railroading after that adventure, and haven’t been since. Of course, since I had planned out a number of encounters on mutually exclusive paths, I did a lot of additional work—my group could only take one of the three paths, and the encounters designed for the other two were essentially extra work for nothing.

If your adventure is a traditional dungeon crawl, you may not even need a flowchart. The map of the dungeon environments serves much the same purpose—you can visibly determine whether your players are in what amounts to a single hallway with a series of sequential rooms, or whether there are branching pathways that they can choose to explore in whatever order they wish, even bypassing some encounters if they choose. Thinking of a flowchart as a dungeon map for adventures with no dungeon walls might not be too far off the mark, in fact.

Using flowcharts is great for visibly determining whether your adventure restricts the paths available to the players, but if you try to give as many options as you can then a flowchart can become cumbersome and confusing to read. Also, a full flowchart requires that you plan the entire adventure well in advance, which may make it less than ideal for you if you happen to enjoy DMing on the fly or if your players are prone to coming up with unforeseen solutions that bypass or negate much of the planning you put into the adventure ahead of time, or even if you simply don’t have enough lead time before you’re going to be in the DM seat to detail more than an encounter or two and a rough outline.

Flowcharts can also be used for entire campaigns or campaign arcs. The Scales of War adventure path, for example, is essentially structured as a direct and sequential series of adventures leading to a single predetermined conclusion. The current Chaos Scar campaign offers a less linear series of adventures, though it is unlikely that it will offer multiple possible endings—it is simply a much less fixed route from level 1 to 30.

A more complicated campaign path may have dramatically different outcomes based on player choices—though one would rarely use a flowchart or fully plan a campaign ahead of time thoroughly enough to predict such choices, it does serve to illustrate the point.

If the strength of flowcharts is in illustrating the freedom of players, what of more loosely defined options? We’ll continue this discussion next week with more planning strategies and tips.

Comments (4)

Jeremiah Genest (September 16th, 2010)

Process mapping is a great tool for adventure/campaign planning. I use it all the time.

Just as an aside/best practice, I recommend using more BPMN nomenclature. It’s better for this sort of activity (but I may be biased, its part of my job to do process mapping). One of the easiest things to do is not use a parallelogram for decision points, but just use the diamond and then have the options on the lines. So to use your example: Investigate is a decision point (a diamond) and the lines off it (the paths) are the bar, ask a citizen, impersonate a guard, other ideas. You can then have the events off of that be parallel or exclusionary depending on needs of the story.

Brandan Landgraff (September 16th, 2010)

Jeremiah, thanks for the tip on best practices. I actually have no formal training in process mapping, and thus have not previously encountered proper BPMN nomenclature—for the most part my knowledge of flowcharts is rudimentary, but sufficient to provide some examples of their use as a planning tool for D&D.

As I mention in this article, I largely use flowcharts as a method of determining how linear an adventure is, and I find it can quickly become cumbersome as a planning tool for truly complex or large adventures.

Next week’s post discusses alternate methods in more detail, and in all honesty I rely more on those methods than on flowcharts when planning adventures.

Noumenon (September 16th, 2010)

Are you aware of Justin Alexander’s node-based approach to adventure design? Because if you scroll down to part two here you will see your exact branching flowchart with lots of unused material, and if you keep reading, you will see how he designs adventures that preserve the freedom without the extra work.

Brandan Landgraff (September 21st, 2010)

Noumenon, I had not previously seen that, though it is informative and an interesting read. I don’t actually use flowcharting for design, though—more discussion follows in this Thursday’s post about some other methods.

One of the big problems with writing a bunch of articles all at once and having them posted over a period of time is that I sometimes forget, when I’m splitting the content up, that people won’t be reading the whole of a multi-part series at one go, and it’s kind of misleading. In essence, this part was long enough just describing the flowcharting method that I didn’t have time to go into anything else without running it to an even longer article.

Part two, coming on thursday, explains some other methods, including my current favorite technique. There’s not really a good way to be exhaustive, though, on this kind of topic, since everyone has their own unique methods and finds something they’re comfortable with that works a bit differently to everyone else; my intention was simply to present a few concepts and suggest ways of thinking about design that lead to less linear adventure structure and more choices for players.

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