For many years I’ve been a happy owner of Scrivener – originally an OS X-only product but now available for Windows – and have adapted it for use in adventure design. Why? Because the nature in which Scrivener operates – treating your bits of writing as objects you can move around – is excellent for whiteboarding your thoughts. Scrivener gives you total freedom to move what you will and when done, hit “Compile” and generate a finished, flowing document. Read on how you can do the same with Scrivener!

What It Is & Isn’t

The creators of Scrivener at Literature & Latte describe the program as a “content-generation tool,” which is a little difficult to fully comprehend what Scrivener can do. It’s part word processor, part mind mapper, part whiteboard, part idea catcher. It can also appear, on the surface, to be pretty intimidating. Scrivener, however, is one of those programs that you can use quite happily without touching 75% of its features and then, later down the road, expand as you learn to master it. Myself, I am far from an expert at Scrivener; there’s an entire forum of folks who can answer questions and give potential users tips on how to use Scrivener.

Make sure to check out the Scrivener website where they have some excellent video tutorials to help demonstrate the power of the program.


Scrivener is template-based, which is to say that your starting format can be tailored to whatever style you’d like. I use the normal default style for my own but you could use any one of Scrivener’s built-in templates as your baseline. Since they’re XML-based – and Scrivener has an easy “Export as Template” option – you can create your own. In fact, one such template exists for RPG campaigns, hosted by Ricardo Signes.

In my examples I’ll be using the default template with only slight alterations to illustrate the power of Scrivener. You can follow along by downloading a 30-day (actual use) demo version of the software from the Literature & Latte website as well as the sample adventure that I created to follow along.

The Corkboard

Were you to ask me the one killer feature that I love about Scrivener the most, it is the corkboard. Virtual index cards that you can title, organize, and put summaries on and then move around as you need. In fact each index card is an object that you can also fill with data and then include in your final compilation. For me, using the corkboard is most useful for keeping all my characters in an adventure straight. Each character receives an index card, can be cataloged and/or color coded by type (NPC, monster, villain, etc) as well as hooks, backgrounds, sample mannerisms – anything you can think of. Using characters from “Masks” would be an excellent example.

Now the corkboard is only a view of your objects. These index cards can also represent the various acts of your adventure as well as the sub-sections of each act where the action takes place. Using the corkboard you can create each piece of content individually and move around quickly and easily, adjusting your adventure design on the fly without having to re-create material.

Power Tools

My adventures don’t tend to be large enough to merit indexing each component and setting custom labels (“Chapter”), status (“Draft”), document references, keywords, and metadata. This would be useful were your Scrivener project to house your entire campaign document (which it easily could) inside it.

The outliner is another way to organize your content, establishing each scene in a logical order and giving quick summaries as you piece it all together. Once you have the structure you like, you dive into each individual object and provide its content.

Of course Scrivener has all the tools you’d also expect in a word processor, such as word counts, a spelling checker, a full-screen, no distraction mode and, my favorite, a built-in name generator! It’s fantastic!

Scrivener also recognizes just about any datatype you can throw at it and embed into your project. So PDF handouts, maps, URLs, pictures – everything – can be inserted and linked. Typically these items go into a Research area (I renamed mine “Handouts”) that is not included when you compile your final document; it’s more useful to have access to during a game to organize your maps and handouts.

The Example, “Forgiven, Not Forgotten”

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Scrivener so now I’ll give you a few examples of my own. I dusted off an old adventure of mine from my Stargate SG-4 campaign and entered it into Scrivener to demonstrate its usage. You can follow along by downloading the project file here and using it with the demo version of Scrivener.

The adventure, “Forgiven, Not Forgotten” actually revisits an earlier world that SG-4 explored in a prior adventure. At this point in the continuity, former Col. Maybourne has become part foil, part helper as it suits his needs and the Trust continue their interference with the Stargate Program. While not an emphasis in this adventure, the Goa’uld remain the primary antagonist of the series. This adventure was unique in that it intentionally split up the party into two groups: one solo with Capt. Aaron Decker removed from command with a mystery to solve and SG-4 off-world, supplemented with a previous member of the team from the series premier.

CharactersThe first example you will see is the layout of the characters involved in the story. Using the corkboard I’ve created a virtual card for each character along with a one to two sentence description of the character. Now I could also color tag each of these cards to denote their hostility to the PCs, what Acts they appear in, etc. I could also enter each of these objects and fill them with actual data, be it stats, history, or the aforementioned “Masks”-like data. On the far right pane is the Inspector pane, where many of these advanced options can be done. You could create your own custom label or status, or use one of the built-in ones. The “Include in Compile” is a very important checkbox as that denotes as to whether the object contents will be included in the final output. (More on that later.)

ActNext is a breakdown of the various acts. In this case I use the Three Act Model for my serialized adventures. Each act is comprised of scenes; each scene is its own object. Now, just like the characters, the scene objects can be titled, moved around on the corkboard, coded, etc, anyway you’d like. Inside each scene object is where the content of the scene is included. This is where the real meat of the adventure exists.

EncounterIf you look at the example scene of “No Place Like…Nevermind” you’ll see the writeup for that encounter. It has the GM notes, what happens in the scene, as well as the relevant stat blocks required. Essentially everything about that scene is self-contained in that object.

But what if I’ve built all my scenes and realize that one scene, “Field Trip” should happen before “In The Wild,” instead of after it? Scrivener makes it easy as you just grab the object and move it wherever you’d like it. You could even move it to another act entirely! That’s the real power of Scrivener in content-creation and then allowing complete freedom to move it around as you’d like. You could even create your own folder of “Ideas” to put unused scenes and then uncheck “Include in Compile”; the contents will remain invisible in your final output.

EmbeddedOn the left hand side, towards the bottom, is the folder that I’ve designated for Handouts. In here I have a PDF letter that I created for the adventure. I can reference this item with a scene in split screen mode, or in this case I’m just using the folder as a container for the PDF. Were I to run this adventure I would, ideally, be doing so with Scrivener open and with access real-time.

But what if you don’t want a laptop in front of you when you run your game? No problem with Scrivener. It is designed to take all of your content and then “compile” it into a singular, complete document that seamlessly flows together. Now the compile options are one of the more complex portions of Scrivener but at its most basic level, take all the content of your virtual objects and if they are checked to “Include in Compile” then their content will be put in the final output, in order.

I’ve included “Forgiven, Not Forgotten” in PDF Format, as compiled by Scrivener. Now some of you may ask “where are the characters?” Remember, the content of the objects are included in the compile, not the object titles or object synopsis (by default). This is the way I like it; the Character objects are used as reference when building the adventure but aren’t included in the compilation. However, if you wanted your characters included in the final output you certainly could.

Final Thoughts

I’ve only scratched the surface of what one can do with Scrivener. Granted, RPG adventure and campaign design is a bit outside of Scrivener’s wheelhouse put it performs admirably in my mind. It’s an excellent program, competitively priced, and useful to me as a writer, not only as a GM. In fact, Literature and Latte are known for their annual NaNoWriMo promotions so look for a good deal on Scrivener very soon. Also, I’m told an iPad version is in the works as well.

Do you use Scrivener or have any questions? Sound off below!