Roleplayer #29, November 1992

Writing for GURPS

The Art of Adventure Writing

by Jeff Koke

In the last year and a half, Steve Jackson Games has produced five collections of adventures, covering genres from fantasy to space to cyberpunk, and more. These books have been modest successes, and the company plans to continue producing them. This creates a high demand for competent adventure writers.

Writing an adventure is one of the best ways to break into the game industry. Adventures are usually short enough to represent little time and risk for the author or the com-pany, yet they provide an opportunity for the company to evaluate a writer's ability – both in style and substance. To the author's advantage, adventures give more creative leeway than sourcebooks and worldbooks, allowing an author to "show off" his flair for characterization, plotting or description.

But what makes a good adventure for GURPS? There aren't any sure bets – there are more bad ways to write one than good – but there are a few areas that deserve special emphasis.


An adventure should read like a good story, and most good stories are built on well-defined, interesting characters. In fact, if the characters are good enough, they can save a bad plot. In an adventure, the non-player characters that the PCs interact with need to be fully developed and memorable. Here are a few ways to develop strong, intriguing characters.


Everyone is weird in his own little way. We all have personality traits that stray from the norm. For NPCs, this can be achieved through a liberal sprinkling of unique disadvantages (Phobias, Odious Personal Habits, Delusions, Secrets, etc.) and quirks. Quirks are especially good for showing off an interesting trait. For example, "Carries a lucky penny" is an uninteresting quirk that would rarely come into play. But "Rarely passes up a chance to go swimming" could make the character annoying, funny or both.

Background and Motivations

Believable characters are motivated to do what they do. Without good background stories, characters seem like cardboard cutouts, or simple tools for the GM to manipulate the players. When creating an NPC's history, the writer should think about the character's role in the adventure and then work backward, developing a past that would logically lead up to the time of the story. Although the players may never find out that Dr. Ludicro was abused as a child, the GM will know that this is part of his motivation for torturing his prisoners, and will portray the good doctor more realistically.


As in life, players in an adventure often first judge the people their characters meet by their appearance. The adventure writer needs to use this to his advantage. If he wants the players to be wary of the undercover agent, he'll give the man dark features, a bad suit and a crooked nose. But if he wants them to trust the agent completely, so they will be ripe for betrayal, he'll paint the person as attractive and well-groomed. One of the most important things to avoid with appearance is cliché. Not all villains are male with black hair and dark eyes. In fact, some of the most sinister villains are those who look the part the least: children, repairmen, cats . . .


Good characters, however, can only go so far. If all the PCs do is interact with interesting people, the adventure will end up pretty boring. This is where plotting comes in. All adventures have a central objective; the plot is what moves the characters from the introduction to the finale.

Linear Plots

The most common type of GURPS adventure uses the linear plot. This type of story moves the PCs along from one scene to the next, giving the GM information for a specific number of encounters and puzzles. If the players stray from the plot, the GM has to rely on his wits and skill to either ad-lib or manipulate the players back into the plot line.

The advantage to linear plots is that they read and, more important, play like stories. The players are the protagonists, and the scenes are well-defined and (if the adventure is good) exciting. Players feel at the end like they've been a part of a dynamic, professional story.

The problem with linear plots is simple: players are unpredictable. There's no way the writer can foresee what the PCs will try in any given situation. Scenes must be written to appear flexible, yet only provide one or two possible outcomes – a very difficult thing to do. The best way to prepare a GM for the inevitable straying of the PCs is to write a section on debugging the plot: tips for the GM on how to return wandering players to the main story line.

Non-Linear Plots

Non-linear plots are less like stories and more like detailed, well-described settings. A background setup is presented, along with an objective, and the PCs are let loose in a certain limited area – perhaps one city, an underground complex or a point in time.

The advantage to this type of plot is that it gives the players and GM a great amount of freedom to explore the area, and each time the adventure is run, the objective can be achieved in a different way.

The disadvantage is that the objective may never be achieved. With no defined plot, the players may just wander, leaving it up to the GM to spur them in the right direction. This is the biggest difficulty in writing this type of adventure: how to provide enough freedom without allowing the PCs to get lost – leaving them confused and unsatisfied.


Regardless of the type of plot, each adventure will be made up of a collection of scenes. One of the writer's jobs is to describe the scenes in enough detail and style that the GM can convey an appropriate feel for the scene. Some descriptions can be short and still provide the necessary elements: "On the road to the left is a Midwestern truck stop."

Others need much more detail, especially if they vary from what most people would expect: "On the road to the left is what appears to be a Midwestern truck stop, except that closer examination reveals that it hasn't been in use for years. Cobwebs decorate broken window panes, and the front door is leaning slightly to one side. The usual smell of gasoline and food is absent, replaced by a stale, musty aroma that seems somewhat unnatural. From within comes the sound of an old turntable, perhaps a jukebox, sputtering out the scratchy sound of a Patsy Cline record."

Descriptions should also include the full range of senses. Most writers describe things that are seen, which is important, but often the things that the PCs hear or smell are what convey the essence of a scene perfectly.

Game Mechanics

Finally, it's very important that a writer realize that although an adventure should read like a story, it is still part of a game – a game that has rules. Players like to make skill rolls, and an adventure with few skill rolls is usually boring. Statistics and game mechanics need to be present and obvious enough to make it easy for the GM to use the adventure. If a scene calls for the PCs to sneak past a guard, the text should be specific as to whether Stealth or IQ rolls are required, how alert the guard is, and whether the time of day or weather has any effect on the situation.

However, the scenario should not read like a rulebook. The GM should not try to come up with a new game mechanic every time a novel situation comes up. The Basic Set covers nearly every possible occurrence, one way or another. The writer can usually figure out a way to cover any situation with the existing rules.

In the few cases where a new mechanic or rule really is needed, common sense and simplicity should act as a guide – the easier a rule is to understand, the less likely a player will screw it up.

No writing is easy, and adventure writing is doubly hard. The writer must balance plot, characters, descriptions and mechanics – all the time keeping the story entertaining and the plot consistent. In the end, though, there are few things more satisfying for a writer than to know that people will take his creation and use it to inspire their own stories and create their own adventures.

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