My planning cycles for my current game are, for me, pretty short — usually one week. That’s actually a good thing, because it forces me to focus on the important stuff and helps me avoid getting bogged down in crap that won’t hit the table, but it does mean that I’ll take all the help I can get.
One thing I find helpful is having a list of adventure types (not plots) to choose from, and that’s the focus of this article. Below is a big list of broad adventure types suitable for a wide range of RPGs, genres, campaign styles, and groups — I hope it’s useful to you!
Using the List
This list is like a menu: browse, find an adventure type you like, do some brainstorming on possible plots, and you’re off. If the first type doesn’t pan out, try a different one.
I got the idea for this list from the Decipher Star Trek RPG, which I’m currently running for my group. It includes a list of Trek episode types, which is a useful tool in trying to make my game feel like the show. It’s handy because it’s the broadest possible starting point — the first step on the road, the big picture.
The other thing I like about it is that seeing an option there makes me consider an episode type I might otherwise dismiss, like Trade in a non-mercantile campaign, and consider whether it might actually be fun for my players. The big list below works the same way.
Gnome Stew’s Giant List of RPG Adventure Types
Not sure what kind of adventure to run next? Start here!
- Assault: This adventure type features storming castles, wiping out or running off hostile groups, tracking down space pirates, and any other scenario where the focus is on the PCs taking the fight to someone else hard.
- Chase: Someone (or something in their possession) needs to be found or caught, and the PCs are in pursuit; alternately, the PCs can be the pursued, not the pursuers. Narrow escapes, thrilling car chases, redlined starship engines, false trails, and ambushes are the hallmarks of chase adventures.
- Comedy: Comedy adventures can be a refreshing break from more serious fare, and feature elements like botched capers, slapstick, embarrassing situations, “fish out of water” scenarios, and the like.
- Contest: Competitions, gladiatorial combat, jousting, and danger rooms from superhero comics all fit the bill as examples of adventure themes revolving around a contest.
- Delivery: A delivery adventure involves getting an inanimate “package” from point A to point B, and features complications en route, ambushes, hazards, inclement weather, and other obstacles that make the journey a challenging one. (Escorting someone? That’s Escort, below.)
- Diplomacy: In a diplomatic adventure, the PCs might be envoys, mediators, or emissaries of peace. These scenarios involve delicate negotiations, circumventing or negotiating treaties, forging alliances, driving a wedge between allies, convincing others to come to your aid, averting war, and similar social elements.
- Disaster: From giant asteroids headed for the Earth, planet-wide earthquakes, and the wrath of the gods to hurricanes, killer viruses, and rampaging monsters, the shit really hits the fan in these adventures (and the PCs are usually in the middle of it).
- Escape: The PCs are captives, prisoners, slaves, or otherwise locked up, and they have to escape. Escape adventures feature prison breaks, elaborate plans, sneaking up on guards, high tension, stealth, diversion, and often a thrilling chase scene.
- Escort: This type has fewer variations than most, but it’s a classic: guarding a caravan and escorting someone from point A to point B are the main variants. These adventures feature ambushes, situations that endanger the escorted character(s), bonding between escorts and escorted, narrow escapes, and thrilling set-piece chases. (Delivering a thing, instead? That’s Delivery, above.)
- Espionage: Espionage-themed adventures feature spying, subterfuge, learning or exposing secrets, clandestine activities, conspiracies, skullduggery, and conflict in the shadows. The PCs can be spies (professionals or thrust into the role), spymasters, or unwitting participants.
- Exploration: A new planet, continent, jumpgate destination, dimension, or sealed tomb awaits! Someplace new needs discovering, or has just been discovered, or someplace lost has been found again, and the PCs must explore this new land, planet, plane, or dungeon.
- Heist: Heist scenarios revolve around stealing something important or preventing it from being stolen, depending on which side you’re on. They often involve elaborate plans, disguises, breaking and entering, shady characters, and people getting double-crossed.
- Investigation: Investigation-themed adventures revolve around being presented with a mystery and getting to the bottom of it through detective work, science, research, poking around crime scenes, questioning witnesses and suspects, cracking codes, and similar activities.
- Journey: The real focus of these adventures is getting there, not what happens when you get there: arduous desert treks, perilous ocean voyages, interdimensional travel, traversing monster-haunted swamps, running silent while cruising through enemy space, and the like all fit the bill.
- Morality: Adventures about morality have a message, or they communicate a broader truth like “All people are created equal” or “Revenge is a never-ending cycle of violence.” It’s easy to be too heavy handed with the scenarios, and they don’t fit in many games — but when they work, they can pack an emotional punch.
- Piracy: The PCs are pirates, thugs, or vagabonds, and they ply the seven seas/space lanes/planar rivers seeking treasure. Alternately, the PCs are privateers or naval officers tasked with stamping out piracy.
- Quest: If a MacGuffin is involved, the PCs are probably on a quest. While lots of adventures can be quests, in this context it’s like a Grail quest: Object X will solve Problem Y, and you need to go get it. Along the way, many hardships will be overcome (and sometimes someone else is after it as well).
- Religion: Adventures themed around religion can involve holy quests, schisms, brainwashed cultists, religious discrimination, exorcism, oracles, spiritual awakenings, church machinations, and more.
- Rescue: In a rescue adventure, one or more people are in terrible danger, in prison, enslaved, or otherwise need to be saved, broken out, or freed from their captors by the PCs. (If the PCs are the captives, that’s Escape.)
- Resistance: Resistance adventures involve the underdogs fighting against those in power through subterfuge, raids, guerrilla tactics, underground operations, and asymmetrical warfare — think Robin Hood.
- Shepherd: In this type of adventure, the PCs are leaders, guides, or protectors of a community. They could be the rulers of a village, a city, or a kingdom; tasking with protecting a spaceport; or in charge of establishing a new colony — the key element is that the community is theirs to safeguard.
- Survival: The PCs are in a strange place (or a familiar place, but lacking resources), and they need to survive or help others survive. These adventures feature scavenging, resource management, threats to food stores, hostile people or creatures who want what little you have, living off the land, and struggling just to live another day.
- Trade: Trade adventures revolve around things like brokering deals, securing trade agreements, wheeling and dealing, smuggling, scams, scuttling deals, mediating trade disputes, and stealing cargo.
- War: Adventures themed around war can involve sieges (besieged or besieging), conquest, defending territory, leading armies, crashing the city gates, playing generals, acting as scouts, guerrilla warfare, and a host of similar activities.
(Many thanks to my fellow gnomes for helping me create this list, and to the Decipher Star Trek Narrator’s Guide — an amazing GMing resource — for giving me the idea.)
The List Is Just a Starting Point
When I’m prepping for my Trek game, the the list is my starting point — I need a lot more than just an adventure type to plan out a fun night of gaming, and you need more than Gnome Stew’s list.
For my game, I also pick a broad type of conflict (like Man Against the Unknown or Against Man, another tool the game provides), consider the episode’s place in context (Will it be too similar to what we did last week? Am I on pace to reveal everything I want to be part of season one?), and then come up with an outline for what it’s actually about and what might happen.
But that starting point, the menu of episode types, is a big help when it comes time to start sketching out the next session. It’s not the same as a list of plots (for that, try Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters or S. John Ross’ free Big List of RPG Plots) — it’s broader than that, which is why I find it so useful. I hope you get as much mileage out of this list as I’ve gotten out of the Trek version in my game!
(Incidentally, I’m not inventing the wheel here: many RPGs include a list like this in some form. But I wasn’t able to find a broad, multi-genre, multi-RPG list that could be used for many different games, which is why I decided to write one. If this list leaves anything out, I’m all ears!)
A great list, and another great article! Thank you especially for this one, as it gives me a “to-do” list. I plan on going through all of these and designing at least one adventure around each type, so as to give the players a broad range of experiences.
Further, I think someone (more talented with coding than I) could use this as a basis for an adventure generator. Perhaps you roll on these, as well as a few other random lists and it spits out a brief outline of an adventure?
Few comments here, but I copy-n-pasted it to use when designing.
@Ben Scerri – You might try checking out the scenario generators used in Realms of Cthulhu and Space 1889:Red Sands (Savage Worlds flavorizers, and jolly good ones too) and possibly in other places. A few die-rolls and Bob’s your mother’s brother.
If you are playing Delta Green you have another option: Pass a few notes that suggest suspicious behavior by the other players and simply sit back and watch the players LARP for three hours.
Yes I’m joking. Mostly. >Bo)
Motto: A Modern-era Call of Cthulhu player’s worst nightmare is a bored GM.
Nice list. I love a good list… Obviously it’s far from exhaustive (my next adventure’s not on it). But it’s a useful exercise to think “What kind of adventure is this?” when prepping because it means you put hints in the game to the pcs as to how they are to act and what their goals are. One of my biggest problems when writing is, in fact, ill-defined goals, so this is probably something I need to do more.
I’m glad you found the list useful, Ben and Noumenon!
@Bercilac – What’s missing?
@Martin Ralya – My last adventure centred around an underground fighting ring. As a category, you might call it “Gladitorial contests” including jousts, wrestling matches, etc. The category is defined by characters fighting each other for some prize or reward, combat is (mostly) non-lethal, and the purpose is to create a spectacle.
I did it as a something-for-everyone approach. The comic relief learned that the rival to his love was in attendance, so he entered to defeat him (never made it past the second round, but got to play the comic relief); tank players get a chance at the gold (our tank stayed home, the light combatant got through the first couple of rounds until the brick I threw at him squished him… I had designed it so the party could only win the match by cheating); rogueish characters could gamble on the results; and because it was a gathering of underworld celebrities, I slipped the assassin character a mission, which he subcontracted out to the party.
Perhaps, given that I used it basically as a container for a series of mini-missions, we could regard it as more of a temporary setting than an adventure, but it was a nice unifying theme that kept the whole party busy and involved. My next adventure is definitely on this list, but I’ll tell you about it after I run it. Not sure who reads this.
@Bercilac – I’d say that probably merits a new category, Contest. Good call, and thanks for the breakdown!