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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 Role of the Game Master

The GM runs the game, and is generally not a player themselves (though they can be).

They introduce situations and narrate outcomes. They throw challenges at the players. They narrate the world and the creatures in it. The GM’s job to keep the pacing, action, and suspense at the right level for the skills and age-level of your players.

Adventure is all about creating a shared story for the players. Give them a chance to do epic things.

Starting the Game

At the start of each game, a problem or situation arises that needs the help of a group of adventurers. The Game Master reads the game introduction to the players.

You can make your life a lot easier as a GM, and get your players far more engaged in the game, by asking them questions about why they’re there, and what they’ve heard about the problem or situation. You can work these hooks into the story and use them to fill in missing details.

You can also make the game a lot more exciting by starting players off right in the middle of the action, after a quest has already been accepted.

Feel free to use toys, props, sketches/drawings, and fun voices to add to the excitement and mystery.

Example: The Tower of the Black Pearl

Once a decade, the tides are low enough that the underwater tower of a late, powerful wizard peaks out from the sea for just eight hours. Tonight, it’s spire crested the waves.

You’re in a boat, rowing towards it, in the hopes of retrieving the magical black pearl rumored to be hidden inside. Many adventurers have tried over the centuries. None have made it out alive.

Suddenly, in the distance, you catch sight of it: the Tower of the Black Pearl, peaking out from the depths of the sea.

Questions:

  • Why are you interested in the black pearl?
  • What have you heard about the wizard who used to live here?
  • Do you know of anyone else who might be interested in it?
  • What creatures and traps do you think await within?

Improvising

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

If you’re using a pre-made adventure, it’s a good idea to read through it before playing, so you have a better sense for the places players can go, and the types of things they might find there.

Here are 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

Accounting for Difficulty

Under the die roll system, any action has the same probability of succeeding or failing.

But some actions are inherently more difficult than others. In addition to the Best Roll and Worst Roll 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. An Agility roll to sneak up to the giant undetected (or avoid obstacles thrown at you while approaching).
  2. An Agility roll to scale the boot without falling or getting knocked off.
  3. A Strength 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.

Make Failure Interesting

Statistically, failed die rolls will happen about a third 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 monsters back. Rather than sending in all the monsters 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.

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 monster 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!

How to Create Your Own Adventures

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

Start with a Hook

What are the players supposed to do, and who has asked them to do it?

Most adventures fall into one of a handful of archetypes:

  • Retrieve/rescue an item or person from somewhere
  • Deliver an item or person to somewhere
  • Escape from somewhere/something
  • Something in the village is different/no longer working

The players could have been specifically asked to complete a quest by someone directly, or may have heard a rumor or overheard a conversation that drew their interest.

Examples

  • Lord Grasshopper has asked you to retrieve a magical gem rumored to be hidden deep within the Cavern of Mysteries.
  • You’ve heard rumors that the Black Pearl is in the basement of the tower, and grants immense power to whoever possesses it.
  • You overheard a party of dwarven miners talking about a hidden cache of gold deep within the mountain, guarded by a sleeping dragon.
  • A man arrives at the village looking like he hasn’t slept in days. As you approach and ask him if he’s ok, he tells you that he fled his town on the other side of the mountains after ice giants attacked and enshrined everyone and everything in a deep, magical freeze.

Fill in the Details

Once you have an adventure hook, you can fill in some details.

You don’t need to have all the details figured out, though. A lot of blanks can be filled in by asking the players questions and through playing the game itself.

Here are the key things you want to work out:

  • Some initial locations the players might visit
  • Some monsters and traps they may encounter
  • Some events that might happen, based on what the players do in the world
  • Some questions you might want to answer about the situation while playing

Monsters, traps, and events can be tied to specific locations, or be standalone challenges you use to help improvise if players go off the beaten path. You can find more details on creating monsters and creating traps later in this guide.

Example 1: The Sorcerer's Gem

In this example, monsters and events are connected to specific locations.

View Details

The Situation: The players have been hired by Lord Grasshopper to find the mysterious “Sorcerer’s Gem.” It was lost some years ago, and is rumored to be hidden deep within the Cave of Mysteries. No one is quite sure exactly what it does, but many powerful people want to get their hands on it.

  • The Cavern of Mysteries
    • Monsters
      • Giant Spider
      • Rats
      • Troll
    • Events
      • A trap door gives way to another level of tunnels
      • Lava floods a chamber
      • A troll accuses the players of trying to steal his gold
  • The Goblin Village
    • Monsters
      • Goblins
      • Lizardfolk
    • Events
      • Goblins begin attacking neighboring town and stealing livestock
      • Players find lizardfolk being held captive
      • Lizardfolk turn on the players and attack them
  • The Dark Forest
    • Monsters
      • Wolves
      • Elves
    • Events
      • The elves are also searching for the Sorcerer’s Gem, and want create an alliance
      • The elves double cross the players
      • The wolves are controlled by the sorcerer, and track the players wherever they go

Questions

  • What does the Sorcerer’s Gem actually do?
  • Why does the Sorcerer want it back?
  • What do you know about the elves? Why are they interested in the gem?

Example 2: The Tower of the Black Pearl

In this example, locations, monsters, and events are standalone items that can be mixed-and-matched while you play.

View Details

Locations

  • The locked entrance
  • The hallway to nowhere
  • The trap stairway
  • The river of the dead
  • The lava passage
  • The room of the black pearl

Monsters

  • Water snakes
  • Giant crabs
  • Sea rats
  • Undead merfolk
  • The boatsmen
  • Pirate thieves
  • The kraken

Events

  • A room seals the players in, and begins to flood
  • Pirates also in search of the pearl encounter the adventurers
  • Stairs drop-out from under the players, becoming a slide
  • A maze of tunnels sends players in circles
  • The tide begins to rise, swallowing the tower into the sea
  • The enchantment keeping sea water out of the tower fails
  • The kraken that guards the pearl awakens

Questions

  • Does the black pearl even exist?
  • What happened to the adventurers who tried to find it before?
  • Why is the tower underwater?

Inspiration for Adventures

Here are a few ways to come up with fun ideas for adventures.

  • Take the main plot from a favorite movie or story and change some of the details.
  • Mash-up stories for a few different books or movies to create something unique.
  • Is there a superpower you wish you had or a mythical place you wish you could visit? What would happen if it were real?
  • Take a look at some of the maps on Dyson Logos and 2-Minute Tabletop. Imagine exploring them. What cool stuff would your adventurers find there?

Creating Monsters

In Adventure, a monster is any villain (not just humanoid ones). Like player characters, monsters have HP and get knocked out when it reaches zero.

Assign HP to monsters based on their difficulty.

  • Easy: 1 HP
  • Normal: 2 HP
  • Hard: 3-4 HP
  • Monstrous: 5+ HP

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

Monster Ideas
  • Rat
  • Bat
  • Spider
  • Scorpion
  • Goblin
  • Ogre
  • Troll
  • Slime/Ooze
  • Skeleton
  • Wolf
  • Bear
  • Treefolk
  • Carnivorous Plant
  • Giant Toad
  • Snake
  • Fairy/Pixie
  • Giant Eagle
  • Clockwork Golem
  • Mammoth
  • Pirate
  • Thieves
  • Kobold
  • Gargoyle
  • Basilisk
  • Centaur
  • Knight
  • Shark
  • Yeti
  • Hydra
  • Dragon
  • Sorcerer
  • Witch
  • Lava Monster
  • Rock Monster
  • Ice Monster
  • Kraken

You can also get random monster ideas from Kobold Fight Club.

Examples

  • Rat, 1 HP, attack in hordes
  • Skeleton, 2 HP, springs back to life after several rounds
  • Giant Spider, 3 HP, can shoot webs
  • Dragon, 5 HP, breathes fire

Creating Traps

Traps are obstacles that the players must overcome to move forward.

They often catch players off-guard, like a trap door or collapsing bridge. They can also be simple obstacles the players can see, like a locked door or an icy pass.

For surprise traps, you might require a roll from players to see if they notice the trap or are able to avoid being hurt by it. With obstacles, you might add more dangers after a certain amount of time or number of failures.

Trap Ideas
  • Darts/Arrows
  • Collapsing Bridge
  • Trap Door
  • Crushing Rock
  • Room Floods
  • Quick Sand
  • Entangling Vines
  • Lightning Stones
  • Darkness/Fog
  • Ice/Slime
  • Lava/Acid
  • Fire Statues
  • Exploding Ruins
  • Illusions
  • Gas
  • Insect Infestation
  • Shifting Walls
  • Magic Inhibitor
  • Earth Tremors
  • Animated Objects
  • Ambush

Examples

  • As you make your way through the dungeon, a trap door opens up beneath you. Roll to see if you can jump to the other side instead of falling in.
  • The door in front of you is locked. You failed to pick it open twice already. The third time you fail, the door on the opposite end slams shut and the room suddenly starts flooding with water.

Creating Spells & Magic Items

Magic is everywhere in Adventure. As players explore and complete quests, you might reward them with new spells and magic items.

Common magic can be used at-will. More rare magic should be restricted in some way: maybe it can only be cast once per day, or it requires a special, rare item (like a phoenix feather) to use.

Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Common Magic
  • Magic Missiles. A blast of magic energy shoots from your hands or magic item.
  • Wave of Thunder. A wave of sound shoots out from you, pushing everyone near you 15’ back and doing damage.
  • Identify Object. You can take Best Roll while trying to determine what an object is and what it does.
  • Sleep. Make one large monster, two medium ones, or four small ones fall asleep.
  • Illusion. You create a small illusory sight or sound that lasts for about a minute.
  • Heal. Heal 1 HP on a creature you can touch.
  • Tangle of Vines. A tangle of vines 15’ wide grows and restrains any creatures in the area.
  • Speak with Nature. Place your hands on an animal, plant, body of water, stone, or other natural element and learn about recent events from it.
Rare Magic
  • Teleport. You can teleport to a different location that you can see.
  • Fireball. Launch a ball of flames. Does 2 HP damage. Can only be used once per battle.
  • Cage. A monster becomes restrained in a magical cage. Nothing can get in or out. The spells ends if you can no longer see the monster.
  • Suggestion. A monster or NPC that can hear you does what you suggest. It cannot harm itself or do anything unreasonable.
  • Animate Objects. Up to 8 tiny objects, 4 small objects, 2 medium objects, or 1 large object come to life. You command them for up to a minute.
  • Flight. A creature you can touch (including yourself) gains the ability to fly for two minutes. If it’s still flying when the spell ends, it falls.
  • Shapeshift. You can transform into an animal. You have all of the physical characteristics of the animal, but your own mind and thoughts. You cannot speak.
  • Weather Weaver. Manipulate the weather to your liking. Weather must be area-appropriate. No snowstorm in a desert, for example.
  • Elemental Storm. A storm of hail, fire, or lightning rains down from the sky, doing damage.
  • Diguise. You can make yourself look and sound like someone else you’ve seen and heard before.
  • Invisible. You can make yourself and anything you carry invisible for one minute.
  • Message. You can send a secret message to someone else with your mind, and they can respond.

Creating Treasure

As players explore and complete quests, you might reward them with treasure.

These can be items that have real monetary value, like gold or gems. They could also be useful items like weapons or armor. Or, they can just be cool or interesting, like jewelry, a figurine, or a fancy hat. Some might also contain magical properties.

Treasure Ideas
  • Gold
  • Gems
  • Jewelry
  • A map
  • A book
  • Art
  • A figurine
  • Weapons/armor
  • Clothes

Creating Interesting Locations

Adventure is a world filled with fantastic places to explore.

You can make extraordinary locations by adding one or two interesting details to otherwise mundane places. Unique physical features and unusual items can bring a location to life.

One easy way to do that is to make something really big or really old.

Location Ideas
  • Cave/Tunnels
  • Castle/Mansion
  • Dense Forest
  • Raging River
  • Misty Lake
  • Secluded Cabin
  • Mountain Pass
  • Cliff/Drop
  • Bustling Village
  • Quiet Farm
  • Canyon/Valley
  • Hidden Entry

Examples

  • Crocodile Cliff looked like any other seaside cliff... except for the rocky outcrop shaped just like a crocodile's mouth. A pirate hideout is rumored to be in the hidden in the mouth, if you can figure out how to get to it.
  • The cave is filled with a forest of giant mushrooms, each one the size of a small house, glowing in strange neon hues. You've heard legends about this place, and the magical properties the mushrooms possess, but no one is certain just what they are.

Creating Maps

A good map can really bring a world to life, and help players get a better sense for where they are, where they can go, and what’s possible.

  • Ready-to-go maps are created ahead of time, and are useful if your game has well-defined locations.
  • Improvised maps are built in real-time as you play, are great for games that have more improvisation or open-ended exploring.

You might mix-and-match both styles in an adventure. Players may explore well-defined location, and then venture down a hidden path in a direction you didn’t plan for.

You can also choose to use maps for certain areas, and nothing but your imagination and the theater of the mind for others.

Depending on the age and interests of your players, it might also be fun and interesting if you added a physical element to the game. You can create maps for locations by building them with blocks, or using toys and figurines for characters and monsters.

How to Create Maps

Want to try drawing your own maps? Here are some great tutorials!

You can also find tons of free maps at Dyson Logos, and inexpensive maps and other printables at 2-Minute Tabletop. It may also be helpful to pick up an erasable gaming mat.

If you want minis and figurines for your games, Paizo’s Beastiary Box and Player Character Pawns are good options.

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.

This video on Dungeons & Dragons GM Matt Mercer is chock full of tips on how to be an awesome Game Master (warning, some R-rated language in this video).

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 can last several hours.

As the Game Master, you have a lot of control over the length and complexity of each game. You can add more monsters and optional encounters, adjust Difficulty Rating for encounters up or down, and save the day with non-player characters you introduce to the game.

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

Becoming a better GM

One of my favorite resources for improving your skills as a Game Master is Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish.

This book is packed with tips on how to build fantastical worlds and create a more fun and memorable experience for your players with less work. I highly recommend it!

House Rules

House rules are strongly encouraged in Adventure. Here are some ideas you may want to adapt to your game.

Pets. For added fun, characters can have a pet that accompanies them on their adventures and helps them along the way.

Pets can be small and sensible (a cat, dog, or woodland creature) or large and absurd (a dinosaur, dragon, or elephant). A player’s pet can be used to get them out of a tough situation, as a weapon in battle, or just for added flavor and interest in role playing.

Example

Quill didn’t expect the rope to snap on the sharp edge of the well, or he never would have come down here by himself.

Fortunately, he brought along Geoffrey, his pet rat. He instructed Geoffrey to scurry up the wall and find help.

Roll to see what happens.

Tinkering. A tinkerer can build small creations from bits of scrap metal and wood.

Here's how it works...

  • Tinkered items can be robotic toys, weapons, tools, and more.
  • Tinkered items are small and fragile, and stop working after a few turns.
  • Only one tinkered item can exist at a time.
  • The parts from a tinkered item can be reclaimed to build another (either after it break, or when the adventurer decides they’d like to build something else).

You may choose to have the adventurer first acquire a tinker kit: gears, bits of scrap metal, and some small tools from a shopkeeper in the game.

Chaos Magic. For added fun, you can introduce rare magical items that randomly unleash a surge of chaotic magic and create random effects.

Some things that can cause chaos magic...

  • Wands, staffs, and magical talismans, when used to cast spells or conjure abilities
  • Weapons and armor, when used in battle
  • Potions and herbs of unknown origin, when consumed

You don’t need to have random effects occur every time the item is used. In fact, it’s probably more fun if it happens occasionally. If you want, you can flip a coin.

Chaos Magic Effects Table

Roll three D6 dice and them together, or roll one D20. Then find the matching number on the table. All effects end after a few rounds of combat, or a few minutes of exploration.

Roll Effect
1 You can only speak by shouting
2 A 10’ round cloud of bubbles appears
3 A flock of chickens appears and runs around
4 Anything you touch catches fire
5 Your hair turns into flowers
6 Lightning strikes up to 3 targets of your choice (1 HP damage each)
7 You glow a color of your choice
8 You grow to twice your current size
9 You shrink to half your current size
10 Teleport to any spot you can see
11 Turn into a bunny, chicken, bear, or bird (GM choice)
12 A wall of ice, vines, stone, or water appears in a spot of your choice
13 A burst of sounds erupts from you, doing 1 HP damage to nearby creatures
14 Everyone within 20’ of you falls down
15 Heal every ally by 1 HP
16 You can climb walls like a spider
17 You can speak with animals
18 You’re invisible, and no one can see or hear you
19 An inanimate object comes to life
20 You float and drift in the air, unable to control where you fly