Art of Adventures
What is an adventure? An adventure is a series of encounters that all add up to and ultimately resolve some overarching conflict. Every adventure should be significant enough to make a difference to the overall arc of your campaign. No adventure should be so trivial that no matter the outcome the rest of the campaign won’t be affected, and no adventure should have such a massive impact that it obviates the results of one or more earlier adventures. As with all rules, this one has exceptions – maybe you want to spend a few adventures patrolling idyllic forests for petty bandits before that setting is completely obviated mid-arc by an extraplanar invasion and the rest of the campaign is about resisting your new Baatorian overlords – but stray from the general rule at your own risk: Every adventure should make a difference to the rest of the campaign, and no adventure should be so important that the outcome of earlier adventures don’t matter by comparison.
That’s not to say you can’t increase the stakes and scope as time goes on, nor that you can’t threaten everything players have done so far, just that what they’ve done so far should impact the adventure that threatens to end everything. For example, if players spend low levels defending a specific town from a goblin king and the arc ends with the goblin king attacking the town, the town’s ability to defend itself from the goblin king should be informed by the players’ success (or failure) earlier. NPCs they helped should contribute their skills to defense rather than fleeing town, lieutenants of the goblin king they failed to defeat should show up again with additional forces (and not merely replacing similar generic enemies, although replacing defeated lieutenants with significantly weaker enemies is fine if that helps maintain the pace of the climactic adventure), and so on. If one adventure threatens every adventure they’ve had so far, then every adventure they’ve had so far should have some impact on their odds of success.
Theme Uber Alles
Each adventure should have a theme, a through-line that distinguishes it from the other adventures. You don’t want to run the Dragon Age 2 of D&D campaigns. “This dungeon is totally different from the first one, because it has hobgoblins instead of orcs!” Unique and interesting dungeon design is its own subject (we’ll be getting into it soon) that can do a lot to alleviate this, but the best thing, the thing that will make your dungeon not just fun to play in the moment but memorable afterwards, is to have a strong theme. It’s what takes a dungeon (or a mystery, wilderness journey, etc. etc.) from being a pinata full of treasure and blood and turns it into a story.
So what is a theme exactly? In non-interactive works, a theme is a statement that the story conveys indirectly. Large stories have more than one, but to give an example of a theme from Lord of the Rings, “bravery triumphs over terror.” Lord of the Rings is constantly reminding the reader (or viewer) that the orcs are driven on by fear of Sauron’s might, and how horribly outmatched Free Peoples of Middle-Earth must stand against them even when their leaders are abandoning the ship. The defenders of Minas Tirith stand on the courage in their own hearts and not what Denethor compels from them. This is a non-interactive theme, a statement that the story makes without ever saying it out loud (Lord of the Rings sometimes does explicitly state its themes, and for a sufficiently noble tone that can work, but it’s treacherous territory).
For interactive stories there is a very important difference. A theme from the Dungeon Master’s perspective is a question, and the players will complete the story by providing an answer. Your players’ answers are very likely not going to be as clear as they would be in single-author fiction and they might not all settle on the same one. Also, since you never state your question directly, they probably won’t state their answer directly. If you ask your players what the theme of an adventure was, then unless they happen to be one of those people who enjoys literary analysis as a hobby, they probably won’t have an answer for you. However, if you tell them what the theme was – what question you were trying to ask and what kind of answer you think they gave – and they tell you that your interpretation makes sense and is interesting, then you know you’re doing your job right.
So how does that work in practice? Let’s take the Lord of the Rings example and twist it. Instead of saying “bravery triumphs over terror” we can instead ask “which is stronger, bravery or terror?” To ask this question, you present them with the forces of evil being driven on by terror and you present them with allies who are fearful of the might the enemy is bringing to bear. A few NPC lieutenants answering to the PCs keep them informed of what the men are feeling and serves as a small and manageable handful of faces to attach the hundreds or thousands of soldiers the PCs are commanding. One of the lieutenants quietly suggests that perhaps they should avoid giving battle when so badly outmatched. One is convinced that it would be better to die fighting than to let the BBEG win. A third despises cowardice and suggests reminding the soldiers that the penalty for desertion is death (or implementing this policy if it is not already the case).
The PCs have to decide what to do. They have to give an answer to the question posed. They can either try to rally the men with courage and give the same answer Tolkien gave, they can try to intimidate them with fear and instead answer that terror is stronger and only greater terror can defeat that inspired by the dark lord, or they may come up with another answer altogether. Then the players face the consequences of their answer, although it cannot possibly be overstated how important it is that these consequences arise organically from the narrative and not from any kind of GM anger over players giving the “wrong” answer. There is no wrong answer to give to the question posed by a theme, but just like it’s anti-immersive (and dickish) for an option to blow up in the players’ faces because the GM doesn’t like it, it’s also anti-immersive (though less dickish) to have an option not have any drawbacks.
All options, even the ones that are decisively the best choice over all, have some drawbacks compared to alternatives. Motivating troops with fear means that they will remain motivated so long as they think the PCs can deliver on their threats, while motivating them with courage means they will remain motivated so long as the PCs seem strong in their convictions – even if physically they are literally being ripped apart by wolves, if they die shouting “freedom!” their gruesome death may only rally their troops to even greater morale. On the other hand, motivating men with courage means that they have to believe in and agree with what you’re fighting for, and rumors of treachery or cowardice or even just inevitable doom can undermine morale in a way that morale derived from terror is largely impervious to. Rallying soldiers with courage requires skill checks while chopping off a troublemaker’s head and putting it on a pike as a warning to others generally does not (nor does one soldier usually pose enough of a threat to bother with a combat encounter), but that kind of morale will fail at the most critical moments, the times when the tide of battle is starting to turn against you and it’s looking like you probably won’t be in a position to decapitate anyone by nightfall. But who’s to say the battle will ever even reach a moment that critical? And so on.
The goal here is that, no matter what option players take (including one they make up themselves), try to give them as many reasons as you can think of to convince them they made the wrong choice. The key words here are “reasons” and “convince.” In order to avoid GM dickery, you must always be able to explain to your players why the things that are going wrong are a result of their choices. Particularly if you or your players are still nervous about the whole concept, actually, literally explaining to them why their choices directly led to the consequences helps to alleviate fears of GM dickery (although the ultimate goal is to build up enough player trust that you don’t have to spoil the exact chain of cause and effect immediately). The attitude you want to convey is that all choices have drawbacks, and players are simply being confronted by the particular drawbacks of the choice they made. If they made different choices, there would be different drawbacks, and those drawbacks may have been easier or harder to manage, but no road would have been entirely free of consequences.
To ignore the drawbacks of either option (or of whatever third option PCs may arrive at) is harmful to immersion, whether the GM is ignoring drawbacks because he thinks the PCs made the “right” choice or just because he’s going to give them what they want no matter what they choose. Real consequences and drawbacks make choices meaningful, give the sense that it mattered that you chose to motivate with courage over terror (or vice-versa). Tabletop RPGs should not be nailing themselves to paragade systems that were developed for video games run by computers which need things boiled down to a bunch of numbers and true/false flags to function. One of the greatest advantages RPGs have is that they are run by a human being who can intelligently interpret the consequences of any choice the PCs make, and to reduce those consequences down mainly to cosmetics the way that video games often do is to forfeit one of, if not the, biggest reasons to bother playing an RPG over a video game in the first place.