GTM #209 - Tricks of the Game Trade - Tip #15
by Jon Leitheusser

Forward to Adventure!

We have another batch of great roleplaying game sourcebooks and supplements this month, but first let’s follow up on something mentioned in last month’s Tricks of the Game Trade. In that column, while discussing the new Starfinder series from Paizo, I alluded to the Starfinder Adventure Path: Incident at Absalom and that led to thoughts about adventures for new campaigns, which is what we’ll be discussing this month.


When a new game system or setting is released, the rulebook often includes an introductory adventure. Everyone from the writers, game designers, publishers, and players have a bit of a love/hate relationship with these adventures. Why all the hate?

Adventures take up a number of pages in a book, but are typically used only once, if at all. So, you may have a 16-page adventure that makes up 5 to 10% of your rulebook, but after you run it, those pages are useless and just take up space. If those pages weren’t there, the game designers could have either saved on writing and printing those pages, thereby allowing them to charge less for the book—or they could have filled those pages with additional, useful rules, information, references, and tidbits. Things you would likely get a lot more mileage out of than a single adventure.

Okay, so if all that’s true, why do companies still include adventures in their core rulebooks? Where does the love enter into the picture?

There are a few answers to that question; the first being that sample adventures show new gamemasters the ropes. The game’s creators can include advice on getting the player characters involved, offer information to make running the first combat or skill tests easier or more dynamic, and offer both GM and players the chance to run through one part of the game system before moving onto the next, prior to an encounter or challenge to be faced and ultimately solved (or not).  

Secondly, the writers can use the adventure to provide examples of creating traps and hazards, as well as give them space to include a few more adversaries. Sure, there’s likely some sort of ‘bestiary’ in the book already, but throwing in a few more bad guys (perhaps to illustrate some other feature of the game system), is always a good thing. Plus, these additional resources are still useful after the initial adventure has been used.

Thirdly, game designers know that most adventures aren’t used as written. Instead, GMs often borrow ideas or encounters from them to use in adventures they create for their groups. Again, that’s expected, and having sample adventures and encounters is an invaluable resource for GMs of a new game.

Lastly, introductory adventures give GMs and players a sense of what the designers and writers of the game believe is pivotal to run the game “correctly”. This may not seem like a big thing, but really, it’s the most important thing about adventures in core books (or for the first adventure released after the core book is available). In a game like Shadowrun, for example, the adventure writer would want to include more than just combat, for example, to encourage the players to go into the Matrix, use drones to reconnoiter or track someone, and present an opportunity to the combat monsters to cut loose, all in service of a mysterious Mr. Johnson who’s hired them to give a corporation a black eye.

A simple formula like that can not only be used and recombined in a number of different ways to create new adventures, but also to lay out the framework in the first adventure the GMs and players. It sets expectations, shows everyone what an adventure in this setting looks and feels like, and, hopefully, it’s fun!

When you pick up a new game system, check to see if the book includes a sample adventure—or if one of its first supplements is an adventure—then read through it with an eye towards the story, setting, and ambience. What they think is important is more-than-likely included in that adventure. Emulating the foundation they’ve laid out is likely the key to success in coming up with your own adventures.

Sometimes It’s Good to Be Bad

Changing gears, let’s focus on the new Pathfinder sourcebooks available this month from Paizo. The first is the Antihero’s Handbook, which examines characters who aren’t the beacons of light and hope, concentrating on some of the shadier aspects. Not necessarily evil, but certainly not heroic, characters like this are popular in novels, such as Glenn Cook’s The Black Company and Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy for good reason; imperfect characters make for good drama and storytelling.

So, if you’re a fan of darker characters and stories, this book provides some excellent guidance and options for creating an antihero all your own. It includes new archetypes, feats, new alchemical items and discoveries, and magic items. It’s always nice when the game rules reinforce your character’s role along with their backstory.

Evil, Horror, and Torment

The Pathfinder RPG: Book of the Damned conjures demons, devils, the planes they rule, and the cultists who follow them. This massive tome is brimming with tons of information, including expanded (and extensive) details on the Abyss, Abaddon, and Hell, along with the creatures and denizens of these infernal realms. In addition, the Book of the Damned introduces a number of new fiends to surprise and challenge your players’ characters, and covers rules for rituals and infernal contracts. Very useful information for GMs interested in adding a bit of devilish fun to a campaign!

“There’s Piles of Treasure … I’m Not Going to Draw It.”

Another fun and useful offering from Paizo is the Pathfinder Pawns: Traps & Treasures Pawn Collection. It’s a collection of sturdy, illustrated, cardboard tokens with more than 100 depictions of traps and treasure to make your grid maps more interesting and accurate. Whether you need a scything blade, explosive runes, falling boulders, or the piles of coins, chests, and other goodies the survivors will crave, this is a great addition to any GM’s arsenal.

Sherwood? Sure would!

Robin Hood is an enduring and endearing roguish character—and he’s coming to D&D 5th Edition thanks to the folks at Battlefield Press. This is a setting book that gives you all the information you need to play a game set during the Third Crusade, while King Richard is off fighting and the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John run roughshod over England. Along with tips for playing in Medieval England, the book includes new classes designed for the setting. It’s a great resource to scratch that “steal from the rich to give to the poor” itch!

Take It To the Tabletop

Hopefully, this column has given you a new insight on adventures and why they’re usually included in core rules, and allows you to look upon them from a fresh perspective. Now, go game!

Jon Leitheusser is a writer, editor, and game developer. He published the Dork Tower comic book, was the HeroClix game designer for years, was a content designer for Champions Online and Neverwinter, was the Mutants & Masterminds game developer for Green Ronin from 2008 to 2016, and freelances for a number of different companies. He cut his gaming teeth on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and still games twice a week with his friends online or in person.