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Game Master Guide

The Game Master has a big impact on how much fun Adventure is to play. Here are some tips and principles to make it as easy and successful as possible for you.

You can find a one-page GM cheatsheet on the downloads page.

The Three Principles

Adventure is all about creating a shared story with your players. The GM describes everything in the world, and narrates what happens in response to the players’ actions.

The three principles that guide the GM are...

  1. Portray a fantastic world.
  2. Fill the characters’ lives with adventure.
  3. Play to find out what happens.

Starting the Game

Start a game of Adventure by describing the fantastic location or tense situation the players find themselves in. Throw them right into the action.

Then, ask them questions about why they’re there, what they know, and how they know it. Use their answers to drive the game forward.

Finally, end with a call-to-action: “what do you do?”

Example: The Isle of the Kraken

A Fantastic Location

Once every few years, a tiny island mysteriously rises from the depths of the sea for just a few hours. It never appears in the same place twice. Sometimes, it disappears before anyone’s even taken notice.

In the center of the island is a stone monolith, a small tower with a carving of a kraken at the top. It’s rumored that a powerful wizard who lived three thousand years ago hid a legendary artifact known as the Conch of Calling somewhere on the island.

Many an explorer has ventured to the island searching for it. None have returned. Tonight, the island has surfaced again. You’re in a rowboat, headed in the direction it was allegedly seen. Water laps at the low sides of the boat. Suddenly, you catch sight of it.

In the distance, you see the monolith, the carving of the kraken lit brightly by the full moon above. How long has the island been at the surface? How much longer until it disappears again?

You row harder…

Questions

  • How did you learn that the island had resurfaced?
  • Why are you interested in exploring it and/or retrieving the legendary Conch of Calling?
  • What have you heard the Conch of Calling does? No one has seen it in centuries.
  • What do you know of the wizard who hid the Conch here?
  • Who else might be interested in the Conch?

Call-to-Action

As you approach the shore, you see a ship moored to a tree, a black flag with two crossed tridents flapping in the gentle breeze. You notice two pirates, asleep next to the tree. Foot prints lead into the forest towards the monolith.

What do you do?

Play to Find Out What Happens

The stories you tell in Adventure don’t have a specific path the players have to follow or predefined endings. The things your players do will determine what happens.

The pre-made adventures are structured with this in mind.

  • Introduction. A brief summary of the situation and location the players find themselves in.
  • Questions. A list of questions that you can ask the players to help build out the world and fill in some blanks for the story you’re about to tell.
  • Fantastic Locations. Amazing places that the players can explorer, with a few details and unique features.
  • Creatures & Traps. Create fun and exciting challenges by introducing creatures, traps, and unexpected situations.
  • Secrets. As players explore the world, they’ll uncover secrets and hidden mysteries.
  • Magic Items & Treasure. Discover magic items and hidden treasure. These often reveal secrets about the world and give the players new powers and abilities.
  • Fronts. The big players and forces in a campaign, these are things that will affect the world and unfold in sequence unless the players intervene.

Each of these pieces is modular, and designed be dropped into the story whenever appropriate.

Just like at the start of a game, you can ask the players questions to fill in the blanks as you play. Ask them to describe things they see in new locations and unique physical features of creatures.

Improvising Outcomes

As an open-ended role-playing game, the players can take an adventure in a lot of directions. As a Game Master, you’ll need to improvise and make stuff up as you go along.

Some things you can do as GM.

  • Introduce a new location
  • Spring a trap or attack
  • Reveal a secret about the world
  • Put someone in a tough spot
  • Offer a choice… with a cost

Outcomes for Common Actions

There are a handful of types of die rolls that happen frequently in adventure. Here are some ideas for improvising outcomes to them.

Cast Spells
When casting a difficult or powerful spell…
  • 9+ The spell works
  • 6-8 The spell works, but you draw unwelcome attention or lose control of it
Combat
When fighting close-up or from afar with ranged weapons…
  • 9+ Deal your damage (optional: do 1 more HP of damage but the enemy hits you)
  • 6-8 Deal your damage, and enemy hits you or you get put in a tough spot
Defy Danger
Any time you try to avoid danger or getting hurt…
  • 9+ You succeed
  • 6-8 You stumble, and choose from a worse outcome or tough choice
Defend
When you try to defend yourself of a teammate from an attack…
  • 9+ Block the attack
  • 6-8 Cut the damage in half, or block all of it but damage your armor or weapon
Understand the World
Whenever you try to study the world around you, a person, or a situation… On a 9+, ask three questions. On a 6-8, ask one.
  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is useful or valuable to me?
  • Who’s really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?
Recall Knowledge
Whenever your character tries to recall something that they would know in the story…
  • 9+ The GM will tell you something interesting and useful
  • 6-8 The GM will tell you something interesting only
Influence
When you try to persuade or intimidate someone…
  • 9+ They do what you want
  • 6-8 They do what you want, but require something from you first
Last Breath
When a character is dying…
  • 9+ Death allows them to return to the living
  • 6-8 Death requires something in return

Improvising Creatures

In Adventure, a creature is any non-character being. They can be friendly allies, villains, or something in-between. Like player characters, creatures have HP and get knocked out or die when it reaches zero.

Assign HP and damage to creatures based on their size and toughness.

  • Small: 1 HP, 1 Damage
  • Medium: 3 HP, 1 Damage
  • Large: 6 HP, 2 Damage
  • Very Large: 9 HP, 3 Damage
  • Ginormous. 15 HP, 5 Damage

These are just guidelines. Feel free to adjust the HP and damage to make the creatures more or less challenging as desired.

You might also give your creatures special abilities or unique features. For creatures that attack in hordes, players can damage multiple creatures with one attack.

Examples

  • Rat. 1 HP, 1 Damage. Attack in hordes.
  • Skeleton. 3 HP, 1 Damage. Springs back to life after several rounds.
  • Giant Spider. 5 HP, 2 Damage. Can shoot webs.
  • Hill Giant. 8 HP, 3 Damage. Smashes things. Bad eye sight.
  • Dragon, 12 HP, 5 Damage. Breathes fire.

Make Failure Interesting

Statistically, failed die rolls will happen about a quarter of the time a player rolls. Even when a player fails a roll, something should still happen.

Otherwise, it’s boring and disappointing.

Examples

  • The player fails to pick the lock on the chest. It unleashes a curse, freezing the player in place!
  • The player tries to jump across a cliff and fails the roll. They slam into the cliff wall and fall onto a ledge 20 feet down. They think they’ve escaped the worst of it… until the ledge starts to shift and crack under their weight.

Balancing Campaigns

When you first start GMing games, finding the right balance between “not too tough” and “not too boring” can be hard. There are a few things you can do to help balance games in real-time as you play.

  • Bring in NPCs. An NPC (or Non-Player Character) is a character the GM controls. If players are missing things while exploring, getting stuck on challenges, or struggling in battle, a friendly NPC can help point things out and and give them much needed aid. If they’re finding things too easy, a troublesome NPC can slow them down and create more of a challenge.
  • Hold creatures back. Rather than sending in all the creatures at once, send in a few and see how the players handle them. If it’s too easy, you can send in a second-wave of attackers while they’re fighting the first. If it’s just right, you can wait until the first wave is done, or skip the second-wave altogether.

Every now and then, players may find themselves in a battle they just can’t win. Players can choose to flee a battle at any time, including in the middle of one.

Accounting for Difficulty

Under the die roll system, every action has the same probability of succeeding (or not).

But some actions are inherently more difficult than others. In addition to advantage and disadvantage mechanics, you can account for difficulty in complex situations by breaking each step into its own die roll.

Example

A player is trying to run up to a giant, scale his 20-foot high boot, and hit him with a sword. This would involve three separate die rolls.

  1. A roll to sneak up to the giant undetected (or avoid obstacles thrown at you while approaching).
  2. Another roll to scale the boot without falling or getting knocked off.
  3. A third roll to see if the hit with the sword does anything.

You might also require a roll to identify which part of the boot to climb, or a blind spot where the adventurer can sneak up undetected.

Total Group Knock Out

If every member of a group loses all of their health points, that’s a called a Total Group Knock Out (or TGKO).

A TGKO can happen if the difficulty of a particular challenge isn’t properly balanced for the skills of your group. It can also happen if luck just doesn’t work in the players’ favor (a series of low die rolls, for example).

Since a TGKO would otherwise stop the adventure in its tracks, the Game Master can use their creativity to save players from this situation.

  • A pet belonging to one of the players runs off and returns with healing potion, or a non-player character that can help.
  • Players awaken some unknown time later. The creature is gone, along with what they were looking for and a bunch of their gear and items.
  • Players awaken to find themselves trapped in a locked room, unsure of where they are or how they got there. They must use their skills and items they can find in there surroundings to escape.

This can add a really fun new aspect to the game, so don’t be afraid to get creative!

Creating Your Own Adventures

You can get by for a long time on pre-made adventures. But eventually, you may want to create your own.

  1. Start with a fantastic location. Adventure is about exploring amazing places. Imagine a place that’s really big, really old, or really weird.
  2. Identify a situation. Why are the characters there? Are they searching for something? Delivering something? Lost?
  3. Add details. What kind of creatures live there? What are some other locations in the area? What kinds of treasure and magic items might they find? What secrets might they uncover?
  4. Write down some questions. What can you ask the players to fill in the blanks in the story and get things started?
  5. Create fronts. These breathe life into the world. One to three are good for a short campaign, but you can have five or more for a bigger one.

Example: Isle of the Kraken

Locations

  • A mysterious island that emerges from the sea every few years. A ship moored to a tree, with a black flag featuring two crossed tridents. A tall monolith protruding from the trees. Sleeping pirates and empty rum.
  • Jellyfish Lake. A massive cavern with huge subterranean lake. Jellyfish fill the water, glowing blue/purple. A rowboat with no oars waits on the shore.
  • Tentacle Gate. Big iron gate, slats woven tentacles. Kraken head at the top, with a gem in one eye, missing in the other. A pile of rocks nearby.

Situation

The island has just emerged from the sea for the first time in a few years. There’s rumored to be a powerful and ancient artifact hidden there. You’ve just caught sight of it… along with another ship moored to a tree.

Creatures

  • Crabs. 1 HP, 1 Damage. Attack in swarms.
  • Giant Crabs. 3-6 HP, 2-5 Damage. Look like rocks when hidden.
  • Pirates. 3 HP, 1 Damage. Searching for treasure. Fight dirty.
  • Pirate Captain. 6 HP, 2-3 Damage. Triton/Merfolk. Teeth filed like shark teeth. Can teleport and create tidal waves.
  • Magic Manta. 10 HP, 2 Damage. Emits anti-magic field. Can charm creatures and make psychic attacks.
  • Lightning Eels. 3 HP, 1 Damage. Can zap things.
  • Glow Jelly. 1 HP, 1 Damage. Painful sting. Emit a purple light.
  • Kraken. 15 HP, 5 Damage. Guardian of the island. Tentacles can paralyze, electrocute, ink, and be shed into smaller attackers. Can teleport short distances.

Magic Items

  • Seaweed of Speed. When consumed, the person who eats this seaweed is able to run twice as fast as they normally could.
  • Armor of the Leatherback Turtle. Automatically heals 1 damage at the end of any combat encounter.
  • Whale Ward. A wooden necklace carved into the shape of a whale, it reduces all damage by 1 HP.
  • Staff of the Merfolk Shaman. A staff of firey red coral, grants its possessor advantage to spell rolls, and access to the following spells:

    • Shell Skin. Reduce damage by 1 HP for 10 minutes.
    • Wall of Waves. Does 2 damage to all creatures in a 30’ area
.
    • Coral Growth. Fire coral sprouts, does 3 damage when traversed.

Secrets

  • A kraken guards the treasure, and hunts intruders
  • A group of fishfolk cultists worship the Kraken and live there
  • One of the pirates is not there of his own will
  • The Pirate Captain wants to use the artifact to destroy one of the characters’ home town
  • The artifact belonged to Pirate Captain’s family (or so he was told)
  • The Island is actually a giant, ancient turtle!

Questions

  • How did you learn that the island had resurfaced?
  • Why are you interested in exploring it and/or retrieving the legendary artifact? What will you do with it?
  • What have you heard about the artifact and what it does?
  • Who else might be interested in the artifact? Why?

Fronts

  • Fishfolk Cultists. Want to harness the powers of the island and expand beyond the fringes.
    1. Collect and steal magic items, gold, and prisoners
    2. Reproduce old wizard’s experiments
    3. Gain control of the kraken and/or island
  • Pirates. Reclaim the artifact for their people and exact revenge.
    1. Locate the artifact
    2. Figure out how to unlock its power
    3. Attack the mainland
  • Turtle Island. Return to the depths after getting some air.
    1. Deep bellowing, rushing air, gurgling
    2. Several rumbles or tremors
    3. Total collapse, massive earthquake

Building Immersive Worlds

Adventure is all about immersing players in a new world.

You can create any type of fantasy world you want, but I’ve put together an imaginary land, Farfaria, that you can use with my premade adventures. An intro is included with each adventure.

A Living World

Immersive worlds are full of details, movement, and life.

One easy way to add richness and texture to your world is by asking your players a bunch of questions at the start of your game. You can even use these to improvise a campaign on-the-spot if you want.

  • What have you been sent to [retrieve/deliver/fix/figure out]? Why are you here?
  • Who sent you, and why are they interested in this quest?
  • Are you being paid or rewarded to complete this quest? What is the reward?
  • What rumors have you heard about [the object or person you’re searching for/the location you’re exploring]?
  • Someone is [chasing you/also on this quest]. Who are they, and why?
  • Dangerous creatures are believed to be in this area. What are they?
  • What could happen if you fail your quest?
  • What’s one strange or unique feature you notice about this location?

Translating Skills into Mechanics

You can make the skills your characters have feel more rich and meaningful by adding mechanics like advantage and disadvantage around them.

  • When a character does something related to [skill or ability], roll with advantage.
  • A character has the ability to [power they can actively choose to use]. Roll to see what happens.
  • A character has [special power with a constant effect].
  • A character has [object]. When applicable, roll with advantage.

Giving them benefits and costs based on their choices makes their characters and the world feel more real.

Examples

Fin is an elf with the ability to speak to animals, a talent for nature magic, and a staff made from a magic birch tree.

Elven Agility
At home in the trees, you’re quick and agile. Roll with advantage when doing something that requires agility.
Elemental Magic
You can control the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. Roll to see what happens. On a 9+, the desired effect comes to pass. On a 6-8, you also lose control of the effect.
Animal Friendship
After spending years in the forest, you’ve learned to communicate with animals.
Staff of the Woodlands
You possess a staff made from an enchanted birch tree. Whenever you cast nature spells, roll with advantage.

Meaningful Magic Items

One of the most exciting parts of exploring fantastic locations is finding magical items.

The most meaningful items are tied to the locations where they’re found, and provide some kind of minor benefit or magical effect. What’s the story behind them? How do they thematically tie into your world?

If you need inspiration, you can download a long list of minor magical abilities on GM Binder. Modify them as needed.

Examples

The Isle of the Kraken was home to merfolk wizard who spent his days experimenting on sea creatures and crafting items from their magical properties.

Armor of the Leatherback Turtle
Provides advantage on defense rolls and heals 1 HP at the end of any combat encounter.
Seaweed of Speed
When consumed, the person who eats this seaweed is able to run twice as fast as they normally could.
Ring of Aquatic Beasts
A ring made of abalone. The wearer rubs ring and names an aquatic animal. On a 9+, you gain two traits of named animal for 1 hour. On a 6-8, the GM chooses one of those two traits.

Non-Player Characters

Depending on the skills of the players and the difficulty of the challenges they’re facing, it can be interesting to add Non-Player Characters (NPCs) into the game.

These are characters that the Game Master creates and controls. They can be friends, foes, or somewhere in-between.

NPCs can provide critical information that players aren’t picking up on, give them misinformation to send them on a bonus encounter, jump in to provide extra fire power for an epic battle, or thwart their efforts if they’re finding an adventure too easy.

They could be shopkeepers who can sell useful items to the players in exchange for favors or gold. Or they might be inn keepers who provide a place to rest before a big campaign.

Use NPCs as much or as little as needed to keep the game fun and interesting.

Duration and Complexity

Games of Adventure can take as little as 30 minutes or last several hours.

As the Game Master, you have a lot of control over the length and complexity of each game. You can add or remove creatures, reveal or discard secrets, adjust the HP of creatures, and save the day with NPCs.

You can also spread an adventure over several sessions, stopping after an encounter, and picking things back up another time.