Adventure sprouts, or "what to do when all you are given is an adventure seed"

@RogerBW and I had a little conversation last week about my trouble in getting ready to launch a new campaign. According to my usual custom I want to run a series of rationalised planetary romance adventures in which the paradigm is that the player characters visit an exotic world to investigate a case or carry out a mission, and have a challenging or otherwise entertaining encounter with the peculiar local society and customs. I easily jotted down a dozen missions that a party might be sent on if they were a team of “effectives” for Human Heritage (the interstellar NGO concerned with protecting artists, art, and culture). But I am having a lot more difficulty in dreaming up a dozen peculiar cultures that would present suitably varied challenges to such missions. I told Our Roger that I don’t think I can meet his rule of thumb for actually having a campaign idea that I can run. He said:

If the mission model is “we get the brief, we go to the planet, we do the thing, we leave again” that feels like an adventure to me.

But that when an adventure is not the mission that you’re trying to accomplish, but what happens while you’re trying to accomplish it

(t)he notes for the scenario will include confounding
factors; the scenario is over when the masterpiece is fully scanned and the PCs are back somewhere safe with nobody chasing them, however they achieved this.

I quickly jotted down enough missions to satisfy Our Roger’s rule of thumb, but I haven’t done the confounding factors for most of them, so as scenarios they are incomplete; I have not demonstrated that I have a campaign idea that I can run.

Following that conversation I got to considering the “adventure seeds” that are published with a lot of setting and genre material for RPGs. It strikes me that many of them amount to goals that PCs might be set as missions or seize as opportunities, with not enough material supplied about the conflict and opposition that would be needed to turn a McGuffin into an actual scenario. Many are scenario hooks but not adventure seeds.

“A beautiful dame walks into your office and hires you to find the bloke who ran off with her sister” is just a hook. The Maltese falcon is just a Mcguffin. Casper Gutman, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook, and Floyd Thursby in particular having a complicated falling-out, and O’Shaughnessy duping a PI to be her muscle: that’s an adventure seed.

Âą The Maltese Falcon (novel) - Wikipedia

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For example, here are the adventure seeds that I included in a piece of worldbuilding for Traveller that I wrote for the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society¹, back in the day.

Adventure seeds for second-rate boarding schools in the Third Imperium

  1. Iphigenia Alusz, beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter of a provincial billionaire, was returning reluctantly to Jennings Oratorium on a passenger liner when she became infatuated with a second-class passenger, Floyd Thursby. One jump short of her destination, she jumped ship with her lover. Fortunately (?) her brother Orestes bubbled the elopement, and managed to slip ashore just before the ship boosted. He has discovered where they are staying, and figures that once he get her aboard a tramp spaceship he can make her go on to school. Fortunately, the PCs’ intended next stop is in the correct system. So a fifteen-year old boy, well-dressed and well-spoken, attempts to book two berths on the PCs’ ship, with no luggage and some slightly strange questions.

    Heaven knows what the kid’s plan is. Can the PCs get him to blab his story? What will they do about it if he does?

    Thursby is a louse, by the way, with thoughts of ransom on his mind. And if that doesn’t work, girls like Alusz have a certain value places he might be going.

  2. Andrew Saltire is rich and proud. His wife Adeline is of poor but noble birth, and has left him. A messy divorce is in progress, delayed by a battle over jurisdiction. Whichever parent can get the divorce heard in his or her venue of choice will end up with custody of the money. Their son Makkom is in Thorneycroft Orbital School, preparing for a naval career. It is the mother’s status and the father’s money that got him there.

    The boy goes missing, simultaneously with the Vargr fencing-master. Has he been kidnapped for ransom? Has he run off to join his mother? Been decoyed into a trap by his father’s agents pretending to represent his mother? Perhaps he has an insanely jealous older half-brother who has lured him off and murdered him. In any case, the principal of the school, Dr. Prior, is in a fix. The scandal could destroy her. She needs discreet help, fast.

    Or instead, the mother, the father, or the older brother might hire the PCs to effect the disappearance.

  3. The young Sir Giles Montagu (baronet) has formed an undesirable connection. His trustees have therefore consigned him to the Bronze of Sparta Military School. With no pocket-money.

    Sir Giles’s inamorata, Roman Kaploo, wishes to charter the PCs’ ship to take her (or him) to a certain spot on a rather ghastly and out of the way planet, and bring her home, with a friend on the way back. (S)he has a wodge of cash and a vague plan.

  4. A seedy group of mercenaries approach the PCs to charter their ship. A gang of their buds were in a losing war on a nasty little hell-hole planet, you see, and they didn’t have no repatriation bonds. The clients are gonna blast them out of a stinking prison camp. They’ll bring their own low-passage freezers, no problem.

    The real plan is a raid on a remote boarding school, kidnapping pupils for ransom.

  5. Lylyan Doobwah has run away from Dotheboys Hall, and is trying to make her way home, disguised as a boy. Would the PCs be willing to let a young person work passage?

  6. There has been an accident to the cutter that the Harmiiltoanius School uses to teach elementary shiphandling. The instructing teacher is dead or in a coma, and half the senior class is (a) tumbling in an orbit that will intersect the local sun, or (b) languishing on the surface, threatened by savages, predators &c. The principal would like to hire the PCs for a rescue.

  7. A washed-up remittance man, down on his luck, recalls that his old school claimed to have been founded under the First Imperium, and that its buildings are simply stuffed with the most amazing antiques. And during the Long Holiday the place is practically deserted. He’ll show the PCs exactly how to get there, and how to sneak in, for just 15%. Alright, 10%. 7%, and a thousand up front to deal with pressing contingencies?

    It has slipped what’s left of his mind that perhaps two dozen pupils and ten staff will remain in residence over the Long Vac. And those kids love their school.

Âą This copyright material is a small part of a larger work, amounting to less than a page and less than 15% of the text, and is quoted here for the purposes of scholarship and review.

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This is a really good question and a mistake I must have made often as a GM not having enough interesting confoundings that I must then make up on the spot which works only sometimes when I am more fully alert than usual.

A first idea may be to ask what if questions. in (1) what if one PC resembles someone the brother knows and distrusts and may even report to authorities? What if the authorities are somehow involved in the abduction of the girl? What of the girl is just a bit older than the abductor thinks and is an undercover agent who is trying to break up a ring of smugglers and the PCs get in her way… yes the brother is too young and unaware…

Just a few thoughts maybe the technique is helpful.


I think there are degrees of inflation, or perhaps it’s hydration. You can say “hero eventually makes it home against all odds” or you can have The Odyssey; and similarly you can say “the PCs race across Europe to recover the pieces of a magical statue before the opposition” or you can have Horror on the Orient Express. (Or you can have the second edition of that campaign, which is arguably over-inflated, with just too much stuff to be practicable to run.)

Ooh. “Unfolded.” That’s good.

I have a fondness for the mini-adventure format in classic Traveller, which would describe the setup and then give options. For example, paraphrasing from 76 Patrons:

The PCs are approached by a young lady who says she’s the daughter of a local noble, and her brother’s been kidnapped by criminals to prevent his giving evidence against them. She offers money to rescue him and get them both off planet, and scrawls a basic map. Then two uniformed police and a doctor show up and say “sorry about the mental patient, hope she didn’t bother you, we’ll take her back to X Hospital”.

Then the GM rolls the dice:

1 the criminals are fairly incompetent, so there is no mental hospital of the given name, they take her away in a cab, etc.
2-4 there is a mental hospital but it’s run by the criminals, they take her away in an unmarked car, etc.
5-6 there is no brother, there is a mental hospital, they’re real police.

I suspect that part of the reason for this was so that if players read the book they wouldn’t know how to solve the adventure… but I’ve read a bunch of these and I’ve found it useful to get into the habit of thinking “what if it’s all lies”.

I do a lot of expansion on the fly. Say I’m building Agemegos’ example #2. I’ll pick whichever of those options appeals to my whim at the time (I’m a sucker for happy endings so the boy probably isn’t dead yet). Maybe combine them. Get some idea of NPCs I think will be significant. Start stringing together a web of clues: the fencing-master turns up drugged and beaten in a scummy city. Kidnappers send a ransom demand, but their proof-of-life is a little unconvincing. It will eventually transpire that the boy has escaped, but not far enough to be able to call for help; he’s being a rat in the walls while the kidnappers search for him. Then father’s agents can come into play as a confounding factor.

But all too often I find that the people and places I thought would be important aren’t the ones the players want to interact with, which is one reason I tend not to play on detailed tactical maps. So generally I have a page or so of notes for a single game session, and I’ll expect to make up details on the fly.

I do like to draw up a timetable of what each person plans to do if the PCs don’t intervene. (This is particularly helpful for checking that villainous plots actually make sense, at least in that villain’s head.) Then when interventions do happen NPCs start making intelligence rolls to see how well they re-draw their plans on the fly.