The Madlib Approach to Adventure Design
You may have heard of the “Story Spine” - a tool created by author Kenn Adams and used by Pixar and many other successful writers. For those of you who are just hearing about the Story Spine for the first time, here is everything you need to know:
Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. But one day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [bank].
It may be short and crude, but it’s simple and clear and 9 times out of 10 it will produce a decent story framework for you to work with.
You may also notice the similarity to the game “Madlibs”. This got me thinking… how could this method be applied to help GMs write adventures and campaigns for their RPGs? How could players use this device to help with their Flashbacks?
Let’s go through the Story Spine one sentence at a time and see why it works:
Once upon a time there was _____.
Cliche, right? However, there’s a reason that so many stories start out like this: good narratives are about change. If your players get to the end of your adventure and everything is exactly the same as when they started, they will feel empty and cheated.
A common trap is to think that the only change players ever care about is power advancement. “Once upon a time there was a level 1 human fighter. One day she killed some goblins. Because of that, she got some XP. Until finally, she became level 2.” What a page-turner!!
If we dig down, the real purpose of this line is to establish who the characters are and what defines them. I’ll come right out and say it: Your character should not be defined simply by your class, race, stats or the weapon you use. Make sure you include a few descriptive adjectives that explain the character’s personality and emotional state… these are the kinds of changes that make for interesting stories.
Every day, _____.
Again, this might seem so trivial that you can skip this step - yet it’s probably even more important than the first sentence. This establishes the status-quo for the characters. Going back to the important theme of change, your players needs to understand what “normal” life is like at the beginning of the adventure so that they can understand what impact their actions have had at the end.
In RPGs, it is common to set up the threat at this point:
“Every night, a necromancer comes to the graveyard to dig up fresh corpses”.
But one day, _____...
In your typical RPG campaign, this would be where the “adventure hook” starts - and hopefully you can see that the impact of this sentence can be significantly amplified by the two previous ones.
At this point, we should pause and talk a little about cause-and-effect. For a story to mean something, it’s critical that the events are connected in a logical way. Yes - one day a Titan might just turn up and start smashing the Citadel to pieces for no reason, but you’ll get better much mileage if the unusual event is somehow related to the status-quo established earlier.
“But one day, there were no more bodies left in the graveyard for the necromancer to take…”
Because of that, ______.
This is where things really start to get moving and you should now repeat this step until the end of the adventure. Cause-and-effect is paramount from this point forwards, because it gives logical structure to the events that unfold in your adventure. Remember a story isn’t: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens” - this will leave your players feeling confused and frustrated. A solid narrative ties everything together naturally: “Because of X, Y. Therefore, Z”… much better.
“Because he needed fresh corpses, the necromancer sent his zombies to kill anyone who left the safety of the town. Therefore, the townsfolk knew that their only hope was to fight their way out.”
I should also point out that in RPGs, your players also happen to be your audience. Just because something makes logical sense to you as a GM doesn’t mean it might not seem arbitrary and random from the players perspective. It’s always worth it to take the time to inform the players how events connect together, even if that means resorting to slightly clumsy techniques like journal entries or NPC monologues. A little cheesy dialogue is always better than having your audience feeling lost and confused.
Until finally _____.
This is the climax of the adventure. A chain of events has led the players all the way to the final chapter and now success or failure hinges on one final decision.
Obviously the purpose of this is just to conclude the story; but it can often be difficult to create a satisfying ending. You throw in a big boss-battle, fight a gigantic undead Titan, prepare a dramatic death scene… but somehow all feels a bit hollow.
This is where we return to the beginning. Remember that we took the time to establish the status-quo for the characters at the beginning, so now is the time to look at how things have changed. What have the characters learned? What have they gained? What have they lost?
Tie all these things together and try to give the players choices. Perhaps they need to sacrifice something that is important or valuable to them to resolve the situation. They might need to choose between two equally unpleasant scenarios - knowing they will have to carry the consequences of this decision with them. Perhaps they need to face a moral test that will see them grow and change as a person.
Now step back and remember that these 5 Madlibs are just the “spine” of your adventure! If you’ve done it right, it will be much easier now to fill in the details: small encounters to string everything together, memorable NPCs, colourful locations and events. If you take what you’ve learned about causality, change and character development and apply it to every part of your campaign, you should be able to put together a pretty compelling story.