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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design » Game Prep: Adventure Structure

Game Prep: Adventure Structure

This post is sort of a companion piece to the show in which we discuss the same subject.

This is not about story element, plot hooks, etc. This is about how you structure your story, your plot elements, your clues, etc. , to create the adventure.

I’ve identified five types of adventure structures. Why only five? Because most of the other ones I thought of ended up being a combination of two or more of the five.

The Linear Structure

This is a structure where one scene leads directly to the next. It could be a series of dungeon rooms connected with doors, a pursuit or a mystery where each scene only has clues that lead to the next scene.  This is probably the simplest of adventure structures.

Retro-Linear Structure

(I’m coining this phrase because I couldn’t find a fitting term). In this sort of structure where the players go through a linear set of scenes twice — once to discover the course of the plot and a second time to complete each task.

The simplest example is the so-called “errand boy” plot: NPC 1 wants the party to get Object A. They find out that NPC 2 has Object A, but wants Object B before he gives it up. So the party finds that NPC 3 possesses Object B, but want Object C first, and so on.

Event Driven Structure

In this sort of structure, a series of events occur progress or complicate the plot. These may be the plans and plots of villains, rivals ,etc; or these may be natural events, etc). These events happen at certain times determined by the GM (or perhaps randomly). They may progress until the party intervenes (if intervention is even possible), or they continue regardless of the party’s actions, and the party must simply react to them.

The most common example of this type of structure is  the complicated plot by a super villain, but it could also be a series of cataclysmic earthquakes, a series of storms, or a string of serial murders.

Multi-Branched or “Free Form” Structure

In a multi-branched structure, the party is faced with a scene with information leading in several different directions. Each subsequent location leads to the other locations and/or new locations, all of it culminating in a final scene.

A typical murder mystery may follow this type of structure, with a crime scene and several clues leading in a variety of directions.

Some people refer to this as a sandbox, but I disagree.


In a sandbox adventure, there is no plot — only a detailed (or somewhat so) setting. All plot hooks come from the players’ own initiative. The GM reacts to and attempts to complicate these plots and pans.

This sort of structure (or lack thereof) is suitable for so-called “evil” campaigns, where the players take on the roles of villians.

The most famous example of a sandbox is the “Let’s build a strip club!” adventure.


What I’ve provide here is simply a brief overview of the five structure types I’ve identified. In future posts, I’ll detail each one.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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3 Responses to "Game Prep: Adventure Structure"

  1. JoeGunNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent Article as usual Stu. The Multi-Branched/Free Form reminds me alot of the Plot Point campaigns that some of the Savage Worlds Adventures have. That is the usual way I try to run my game as well, as it gives the players a sense of a Sandbox, but still provides a nice story arc to go along with it ( something I have generally found lacking in a standard Sandbox game )

  2. Alex SchroederNo Gravatar says:

    As for sandbox games, I think most GMs will sprinkle their sandbox with other elements lest their game fail whenever the players are in a creative lull. Thus, my sandbox will have small dungeons and large dungeons which may end up being linear or multi-branched adventures, some towns will have political tensions that may lead to a retro-linear adventures, and I will have one or two villains that will drive the plot forward if the players are unsure of what to do, resulting in a an event-driven adventure.

    I think a campaign has all these elements. What differs are the proportions. My sandbox is large, and the other elements are small. When I run a Paizo Adventure Path, however, the main story is event driven, with small linear and multi-branching dungeons and little sandbox towns and villages to explore on the way.

    The distinction is mainly useful to help GMs discover the kind of adventures they might be missing out on, or help them argue why they dislike them enough to skip them in their games.

    And now I’m off to listen to the episode! 🙂

  3. Bradley HarveyNo Gravatar says:

    I found it hilarious when you described the Retro-Linear Structure. I did not realize that most of the movies and game sessions that blew were those that had that structure. When I think back the worst adventures I was part of required us to find something to get something. I can picture a GM looking at his watch and adding another item to retrieve, then another until he was ready to end the game.

    I made it a point to never use this structure in my adventures. I wanted the players to have some buy-in with the structure and eventually the plot. If the players do not like what is going on they will jump the rail and take off.

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