Stealing a Page from Screenwriters


We are often asked as gamemasters to create a scenario for players that we know is intended to allow their characters to carry the day and claim victory. To do this, we have to imagine the end goal of the adventure and then plan to have the challenges be just difficult enough that the characters when even if they have to struggle for that outcome. One of the tricks that we can use to make our lives easier comes from film and television, and many gamemasters are probably using it without realizing that it is exactly what they are doing.


In effect, this is an elevator pitch approach to adventure design known as a logline. The point of the log line is to sum up the main plot of the story in approximately 25 words or less. Loglines are not intended to capture the entire story; rather, they are useful devices that let us focus our intention on the most important elements the story is about. Consider the following example using Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:


“From a place known as the Shire, a reluctant hero, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, is tasked by the wizard Gandalf the Grey to undertake a journey with a companions on a quest to make it all the way to Mount Doom in Mordor and find a way to destroy the One Ring while avoiding an epic battle that engulfs all of Middle Earth and a host of beings intent on retrieving the ring for their evil master, Sauron, who will plunge the world into eternal darkness if he succeeds.”


Now consider this:


“The reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins is charged with the task of destroying the One Ring while avoiding fanatical pursuers and the war engulfing Middle Earth.”


If you have seen the movies you know there is obviously more detail than either of these two descriptions can encompass. But, which one feels more intense, the one that goes into detail, or the one that cuts to the heart of the story? This is where a logline can help you plot out your adventures.


The point here is not to cut out any contingencies, side quests, or wandering encounters. Rather, the purpose of the logline is to help you plan out the eventual goal of an adventure no matter how many distractions or subplots you can stuff in there to your players’ delight. While it takes more time to prepare for such adventures, the logline works for adventures of any length, meaning you can recycle the logline with a few small changes here and there to alter the plot enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Here’s an example:


“The adventurers look to rescue the local merchant’s son who has been kidnapped to force the man out of business and cripple the town’s economy.”


Now, with a few changes and several levels later, the logline can be recycled with the following tweaks:


“The adventurers track down the mysterious group that kidnapped the head of the all-powerful merchant’s guild, bringing the starving city to its knees.”


Notice that there really is not that much of a difference in the plot the loglines. The challenges are greater in the latter, but it is all just a matter of scale. Both are stories of struggle for survival and the key role the characters play in saving the day. What makes them different is how they are dressed and all the trappings that go with those implications, which includes subplots and side quests.


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