Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Campaign and adventure design using fronts and the 5x5 system

"Plans can break down. You cannot plan the future. Only presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers." -- Making Money
I've tried different approaches to campaign and adventure design over the years, from fully improvised to meticulously plotted. Here's the style that I'm now using for a new Fate Accelerated game. It draws from three concepts:
  1. Dungeon World fronts, described here.
  2. The 5x5 adventure design method, described here.
  3. The Five Room Dungeon model, described here.

Framing the campaign

Start with a set of "powers" - the big movers, shakers, and influences of the setting. I write these up using Dungeon World's fronts as a template.


The Star-Storm Attacks!

Power: The Star-Storm
Motive: Travel the star-ways, attacking, enslaving, and consuming to grow mighty
  1. Attacks on frontier worlds
  2. Assimilation of provincial planets' populations
  3. Conquest of a major star system
  4. Assimilation of one Imperial Armada fleet's forces
  5. Assimilation of a provincial capital planet
Endgame: The Star-Storm establishes a solid presence in Imperium space.

Power: Separatist Armada forces
Motive: Resist the Star-Storm for the glory of the Imperium - at any cost
  1. Militarization of a civilian shipyard
  2. Seizure or impressment of Imperium resources & citizens
  3. Loss of civil rights on a threatened world
  4. Ruthless suppression of protesters on various worlds
  5. Imposition of martial law across the province
Endgame: Armada forces establish a totalitarian, militaristic government through coup.


"The Star-Storm Attacks!" is a campaign plotline. Each power within it can be hostile, friendly, or neutral to the other powers within the plot. A given power can appear in multiple plots. What the powers should have in common is opposition to the PCs' goals in some way.

The point of writing these plots is to understand your campaign's opposition as a character. What do your big players want? What means are at their disposal? What's their final objective, and how will they get there? Once you know these things, you'll have a good sense of when and how the PCs learn of their activities.

Framing the adventure

For each adventure, I draw out a five-by-five grid, with row and column labels, like this:

Gateway Challenge Tension Climax Twist
Adventure issue

First sign of progress

Second sign of progress

First minor issue

Second minor issue

On the left are the issues that the adventure will include. I pick one that's specific to the adventure itself, and then two more that indicate progress by different powers toward their respective endgames.

For example, an adventure issue could be "stolen government documents": the PCs are tasked with retrieving these, lest some calamity befall the planet. The Star-Storm and the Imperial Armada are both making their first moves here as well: "attacks on frontier worlds", and "militarization of a civilian shipyard". I'll pick two other minor issues: the "disappearance of a diplomat's daughter", and a "bounty hunter that's been hired to take care of one or more of the PCs".

The elements across the top are drawn from the "five dungeon rooms" concept. They represent progression of the story, going from left to right:
  • The gateway is what keeps people out. It's why nobody else has solved the problem, or what the PCs must do to get in the door, so to speak. This can be a minor obstacle to overcome, or just a roleplaying challenge, but should really serve to set the tone for the rest of the plot.
  • The challenge is the first major problem the PCs must overcome. It won't fully put the plot to rest, but it creates the circumstances for that to happen.
  • The tension is where conditions change, become more difficult, and so on. This can be a red herring, but should provide some sort of payoff even if costs the group something. It can also redefine the conflict, or reveal the real plot.
  • The climax is where events start to accelerate and spiral to a cool conclusion. It can be the big (real) fight, the true boss, or whatever the real nature of your plot turned out to be.
  • The twist should be more than just the conclusion following the climax - it should serve to move the larger story forward.
This is somewhat similar to the five-act structure in Shakespeare's plays, as masterfully smashed into words by Film Crit Hulk here.

In addition, it's helpful if elements of these plots connect to each other. For example, I've got the Imperial armada taking over a shipyard on the planet. Why do the PCs care? Because their ship is docked there, so they have to somehow get it back. The bounty hunter may be lying in wait near the ship and attack as they come out. And as the Imperial armada is taking over, it may come to light that the missing diplomat's daughter ran off with one of its officers. And so on.

Filling in the blanks

With all this in mind, let's fill in the table with some specifics.

Gateway Challenge Tension Climax Twist
Stolen government documents

Star-Storm attacks on frontier worlds PCs intervene when some refugees are hassled by authorities

Militarization of planetary shipyard PCs are evicted from their own ship! By hook or by crook, get access to ship

Disappearance of diplomat's daughter

Diplomat's daughter took the documents
Bounty hunter
Survive the bounty hunter's ambush

"But the table isn't completely filled in," you say. That's right - you don't need to pre-plan everything. What is the purpose of the table then?

The point of the table is to structure your brainstorming and improvisation. Rather than staring at a blank piece of paper and starting with nothing, I've got about 25 boxes to fill in with specific moments. As ideas come to me, I can add them to the table.

How do you figure out what goes into each of these stages? The end of each stage should provide propulsion and finality. Propulsion means "the plot naturally moves forward". If there was a wrong, it must be avenged. If there was a MacGuffin stolen, it must be recovered. And so on. Finality means "the PCs can't return to the previous status quo". Someone important has died, or a revelation has occurred, or whatever.

Even if you reach the session with some of the table unfilled, this is fine - let your players' actions suggest the missing pieces. What you have is a set of ideas around which you can let the action flow.

Reviewing what you have

After you've got a list of plots in play, go back and think about them in light of your players and the PCs. Do any of them sound like things the PCs wouldn't care about? If not, see if you can revise the offending plots to be more interesting.

Since I'm using Fate Accelerated, I look at each box in my 5x5 grid and think about the resolution that each one calls for. Can I do it in a single die roll, or should I use a Challenge, Contest, or Conflict? Should I do something unique? And do I have a plan if the PCs fail? Not every individual plot needs to reach its conclusion - if one ends early, you have others that are still active.

Review the NPCs that each plot calls for. Do they need stats? If so, do you already have appropriate stats?


In short: design the major players and their overall plans, then plug each step of those plans into your adventure as a plot line, mixed with a small-scale plot specific to the adventure.

Not every adventure needs this much complexity. "Skyjack That Shuttle!" can be very straight-forward. But for those adventures where several competing forces are in play, or that should feel like significant turning points in the larger story, this model seems like it will work well for me. Hopefully you will find it useful as well.