Johnn Four of roleplaying tips fame asked me to do a guest post for him a couple weeks ago on the topic of writing adventures. It's repeated here for those who aren't part of his mailing list.
1. Write in stages! If you have the time, a relaxed deadline, etc. leave blocks of time between creative spurts. Those non-writing periods allow the subconscious mind to influence the creation in unexpected ways. I call this period shadow creation because it happens in a sneaky, crafty way under cover of darkness. Using shadow creation, things are being put together and designed without our direct awareness. One just needs to space out those active periods of writing in order to activate the subconscious. The bigger the project, the more frequent and longer the blocks of time should be.
2. Start each session with the three sentences of power! Most players don't actually want to hear a GM read a couple pages of flavor text or "interesting" historical facts... they want to get straight to the action. All that writing is unnecessary for the GM and just bogs down the game at the most crucial point - the beginning.
Ok, so what are the three sentences of power? Your elevator pitch, that's what! Think of it as a fast-paced movie trailer. Sentence one: "In a world..." This describes the overall place or setting. Sentence two: "During the time of..." This describes the when, giving a general idea of what's going on. Sentence three: "One rag-tag group stands in the way..." This is the basis of your adventure. It makes things personal.
Alright, let's put it all together. "On the desert planet Xixt, surrounded by three black suns, everyone is a slave to the necromancer king. An uprising has just been squashed, millions dead... hope being the last casualty. Lord Nocren has decreed that every male child is to be killed and every female child brought to him when the largest of the black suns rises above the others - in seven days time."
Now, you have an adventure. It gives just enough detail, the right kind of detail, to get players interested and eager to involve themselves. Move outward from the three sentences of power.
3. Borrow from the best! Take an idea or concept from your favorite movie, tv show, or novel and adapt it to suit your needs. Several months ago, I planned on running The Lost City D&D module. Just for fun, I wanted to add something new. I borrowed the test of manhood scene from 80's movie Flash Gordon. Instead of a mound of dirt or whatever it was, this was a metallic column or pillar with holes. Certain holes would chop the hand off a character instead of yielding a poisonous bite like in the film. Unfortunately for the PC, he happened to put his hand in a chopping hole. For the rest of the adventure, that player's wife teased him by calling him "lefty". Incidentally, she also spotted the borrowing. "That reminds me of Flash Gordon." She said. "Yep, that's where I got the idea from." Came my reply.
It's important to note that having our influences or borrowed elements recognized doesn't detract from the encounter. In fact, the passing familiarity can be an advantage! Feel free to borrow, just remember to at least make one small change so it's not a total rip-off of the source material.
4. Come up with at least one really cool and unexpected feature in your adventure! Unexpected is the operative word as this adventure aspect must be as creative as it is unfamiliar - the stranger the better. We've all fought orcs and kobolds. We've all found a sword +1. We've all experienced the flaming end of a fireball spell. Predictable. If the whole adventure is filled with that kind of stuff, then it goes one step past predictable - boring. Ouch! No one wants to play a boring adventure, right? Who wants to be known as "the boring GM"?
Before running the session, create at least one monster, magic item, spell, NPC, or location that will blow the socks off your players. Just one should be enough. Sure, it might take an extra 20 minutes of brainstorming to come up with a worthy piece of singular strangeness, but the work will be worth the effort.
5. Put a little of yourself into each adventure! What are some of your problems? Strengths and weaknesses, favorite things? What are you afraid of? What are your aspirations? Favorite character traits, hobbies? What comic book were you reading last week?
While this tip isn't as crucial as the others, I still think it's kind of a good idea. Why not include a wizard and a cleric playing chess if that's something you're into? Put your arachnophobia to good use by including half elf / half giant spider hybrids! Did you ever write a short story about a citadel made out of ice when you were in junior high? Now's your chance to re-use it. Deposit a little of your own subjective taste or experiences into every session. It'll be just that tiny bit more personal and satisfying.
p.s. Why, yes, The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence kickstarter is still going on. About 5 days left to help make this weird, sci-fantasy module a reality! ;)