Tailoring Adventures to Player Characters
by Jack Norris
Adventure design is a funny thing. Published adventures need to appeal to the widest possible group of PCs. Whether the PCs are bandits, knights, businessmen, or criminals an adventure included in a publication needs to do the best job they can to motivate and include those characters in the action. This is why published adventures based around classic plots like the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven are a good model; anyone who needs money, is a halfway decent person, or has some useful skills can be hired to defend a village from bandits or monsters.
Designing adventures for a particular group is a different beast. You can tailor an adventure to the PCs you actually have, not those you might have. This allows GMs to populate the adventure and the setting with plots, characters, and twists that speak directly to the PCs, their motivations, and skills. I call this the Silverado Effect, from the Lawrence Kasdan western film of the same name.
In Silverado, four "PCs" find themselves on the wrong side of some bad people. One of them used to ride with the main bad guy, now a corrupt sheriff and boss of the town of Silverado. Now he seeks some peace but still ends up coming against his old "friends." Two other characters, brothers, find themselves the target of the evil sheriff’s business partner, the son of a robber baron the eldest son killed to save his kid brother. They come into town to see their sister, and end up getting revenge when the bad guys take a run at their family. The final character arrives in town to find his father beset by the sheriff and robber baron who want their land and that his sister has abandoned the homestead to work as a saloon girl. Throughout the film these four characters alternate between friendship and suspicion until they finally come together to take on the bad guys and clean up the town.
It’s a great film and a classic of the modern western, but perhaps more importantly for the topic at hand it’s a story that only works with those characters. You can’t throw in a different main character without changing the whole dynamic. That’s because every bad guy, sympathetic character, and event is designed to motivate those characters in ways that wouldn’t work on someone else the same.
Have a PC whose parents were killed by bandits? Put in a bandit chief antagonist. Another PC loves kids? Add a needy waif who will meet a bad end without their help. Another is a politician and schemer? Then maybe the bandit chief is working with a corrupt lord or worse, maybe the lord hires the chief and his men as his personal magistrates to help him execute a complex scheme. By making these adjustments, you can even tailor a published adventure to your group and make it a very personal affair for the PCs.
This is the great advantage of designing adventures directly for your gaming table and while it can be some work, it can lead to truly fantastic games. It might not always be easy, but it is often worth it.