TL;DR Town adventures are a lot like dungeon adventures in structure. Developing them will help you develop better dungeon adventures. Read good detective stories for inspiration.
I’ve always had trouble with town (social) adventures. Partly it’s player and DM expectation: D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff. You can do other things but the interesting mechanics are all about combat and from there spring all the rewards. And I need to keep players from becoming bored!
But that mental blockage contributes at least a little to a difficulty in creating and running roleplaying adventures. So I’d like to share some thoughts on the premises of an adventure and how you can use your skills at creating a dungeon to create a detective adventure.
First off, the structure of the dungeon is that there are various treasures within, some hidden and some obvious. First you must find the dungeon, then discover the treasures within. Each treasure has dangers to navigate past to acquire it. And there are dangers scattered throughout the dungeon.
I propose that a detective adventure is exactly the same thing. First you must discover that there is a problem. The entire problem, including all the people and things and places involved, is your “dungeon”. The treasures (objectives) may be obvious at first, or you may have to dig around to find them. The dangers you have to nagivate to achieve your goals tend to be either people trying to keep you from succeeding, or else simply the mystery of how to exploit that objective. And of course there are other people and situations working against you.
Take an example from Red Harvest (no, I haven’t finished reading it yet. Life intervenes!)
(Spoilers below, if you plan on reading it. Which I recommend)
The narrator is a detective from an agency in a larger city. He comes to a town called Personville (Poisonville colloquially) at the request of a man who is murdered when the detective arrives. He starts investigating the murder. The dead man’s father, a wealthy man, hires the detective to break up the stranglehold that gangs have on the city.
The detective begins investiating. It turns out there are a few separate gang leaders who were called in by the old man years ago to gain control of the town, but who took over once they were there. Each has his own faction. The police chief is also a pretty nasty guy, and the police are described from the start as crooked and shiftless. There is a woman whose allegiance is based on money. The detective brings in a couple men from the agency but otherwise he can’t rely on anyone.
So the dungeon is Poisonville. The objectives (treasure) are the destruction of each gang. It’s possible that a gang will be ruined if the leadership is killed or driven off. The dangers surrounding the objectives are the gangs and the gang leaders. The miscellaneous harsh conditions are the unfamiliarity of the town, the crooked police force, and the shifting and conflicting alliances.
As it turns out, these complex NPCs can be used against each other. In a few instances the detective manages to get the police chief to assault one of the gang headquarters because he unearthed evidence that the gang leader had committed serious enough crimes in the past. But the chief privately doesn’t want the detective around, and tries to get him killed multiple times. He’s able to get the greedy woman Dinah to give him information that he uses to sow discord among the gangs. He gets information from locals who have a dispute with one of the gang leaders.
For a freeform adventure like this one, you can’t rely on a standard map of the town and NPC descriptions. You also need to set up a flowchart for your own use, to make sure there are plenty of connections and ways to find each piece of information. The players don’t have to follow your flowchart, this is just a way to check that you haven’t written a “room with no entrance” or an “unopenable lock”.
But in general, don’t write a story. Write a setting where things are in some equilibrium. If the PCs do nothing, things shouldn’t change much. Or if the situation is time-sensitive, write a short list of things that will happen if the PCs don’t intervene.
Morning May 12 A small dragon is slain by the Royal Cavaliers in the badlands outside town. They were hunting bandits.
Evening May 12 Illo the Woodsman brings word back to town. He was around when they killed it.
Noon May 13 The Royal Cavaliers ride into town. Everyone pretends to be surprised by the news of the dragon. The PCs arrive shortly thereafter.
Evening May 13 Illo and his two sons go out to the bandits in the badlands and tells them of the slain dragon. The bandits are excited and prepare to set out to find the unguarded lair.
Midnight May 13 Illo and son returns. The other son was attacked and mortally wounded by a rock lizard. He’s now resting at home.
Morning May 14 The townsfolk secretly meet to discuss the unguarded hoard. They elect several of their number to go out and search for it. A messenger is sent to the nearby abbey for a priest to heal the injured woodsman’s son.
Evening May 14 A Royal Cavalier gets into a fistfight over fondling a farmer’s daughter. The lieutenant wants to ignore it but the mayor insists on some punishment. The Lt. orders that the Cavalier stay at the inn with two others watching him while the other Cavaliers leave town to search for the hoard.
Morning May 15 A priest from the abbey comes into town. He has breakfast and moves on to the woodsman’s hut. He returns for lunch and has learned of the hoard from his patient. He seems very interested and leaves town for the abbey with all haste.
Evening May 15 Bandits ambush the Royal Cavaliers and flee. The Cavaliers suffer some injuries. One bandit is injured (lost a leg) and captured. The woodsman Illo and his sons come into town, buy some climbing equipment, and leave again for the badlands.
Midnight May 15 The Cavalier with the busy hands convinces one of the two guards to get them some more booze. They get pretty liquored up. The townsfolk who are still in town (mostly girls, and old women and men) meet and become angry that nothing will be done about the Cavalier. The mob goes to the inn and stands outside shouting. The three Cavaliers above shout back from the window. One of the crowd throws a rock at them, and a drunken Cavalier throws the chamberpot, knocking out an old man. A riot ensues.
Morning May 16 The town wakes to find bandits rummaging around looting. They’re beating people up and taking whatever isn’t nailed down (and some bandits have crowbars). A bandit rider gallops through town blowing an owl-whistle and they pack up with all speed and leave.
Noon May 16 The Cavaliers return to town with their prisoner. Six priests and six paladins from the abbey arrive at the same time and tend their wounds. The priests and paladins immediately leave town for the badlands at the protest of the Cavalier Lt. The mayor is angry at the Lt. and says his men got drunk and started a brawl. Many townsfolk wander around with bandages from the brawl and the bandit raid. The mayor demands that the Lt. keep his Cavaliers here to defend the town from the bandits. The Lt. wants to leave town to “exterminate the bandits in their lair” but really he just wants to hit the treasure first. The bandit prisoner is interrogated by the Lt. and the location of their lair is discovered.
Evening May 16 The Cavaliers leave town, including the three hung-over brawlers, much to the dismay of the townsfolk and the mayor. The innkeeper manages to give the men food poisoning in their breakfast on the way out of town, and it doesn’t hit them until they reach the badlands. The bandits hide the town loot in the woods.
Morning May 17 The abbey priests encounter the town’s expedition of men, some women, and boys. The priests “convince” the expedition to go home because it’s dangerous out here. The expedition circles around and continues searching. Later the abbey priests encounter the woodsman Illo and, thinking he and his sons are bandits skulking around, magically paralyze them and beat them mercilessly. They’re interrogated and Illo gives them the location of the bandit lair as the place where the dragon’s cave is. The priests and paladins set out for it.
Noon May 17 The Cavaliers cross the path of the priests. The Cavaliers know where the bandit lair is, and see that the priests are headed there. They set off to follow the trail. The folk in town board up their windows and hunker down.
Evening May 17 The Cavaliers and Priests fight at the bandit lair. The town expedition and the bandits simultaneously find the dragon’s lair and fight it out. The town expedition manages to drive off the bandits with few casualties and packs up the dragon’s loot. They send runners back to town to bring help for hauling and medicine.
Morning May 18 The runners reach town and most of the townsfolk leave to help haul treasure and care for the wounded. The town doesn’t look much different though since everyone was hiding from the bandits anyway.
Noon May 18 The Cavaliers and then the abbey priests return three hours apart. The Cavalier Lt. commandeers the inn. The priests bang on the doors and demand to be let in, then move along and commandeer the mayor’s house. The mayor is gone and his servants don’t put up much of a fight.
Evening May 18 The town expedition filters back secretly. Each carries a little loot. They’ve hidden most of it in the woods and will carry the rest back tomorrow night. They’re enraged that the inn and mayor’s house have been seized. The Cavalier Lt. blames the priests, and the priests just come right out with it and say they’re going to tear the town apart until they find every last scrap of dragon treasure. Both remain entrenched.
Midnight May 18 The bandits roll into town and start torching buildings. The townsfolk drive them off but not before the inn and the mayor’s house are on fire. Instead of putting them out the townsfolk surround the mayor’s house with a pitchfork mob and stab anyone who comes out. The Cavaliers remain cautious and just put out their own fire.
Morning May 19 The mayor now leads a small band of hardy farmers who wear the armor and weapons of the abbey priests. They gather at dawn with the other townsfolk at the inn. They overpower the squires at the stable and seize the horses. They threaten the Cavaliers and demand they leave town. The Cavalier Lt. demands that the “King’s Tax” be given to him out of the treasure, and fines for attacking an officer of the law equalling the rest of it. The mayor refuses and says he will send along the standard portion of the tax with the tax collector at tax season. The Cavaliers file out and are given their horses but their stirrups are cut so they can’t fight back.
Next week a large band of the Royal Cavaliers returns demanding the entire treasure and locking up a bunch of peasants. But everyone is tight-lipped and the treasure is well hidden. The Cavaliers leave, unable to do anything and unwilling to start killing civilians. The abbey sends an agent to live in the town and hopefully eventually discover the treasure so it can be stolen later. The bandits, much reduced, clear out the remnants of their lair and scatter. They become mercenaries and pirates and soldiers in the months ahead.
In the next tax season the mayor gives up the full normal tax for the year plus the 20% tax on found treasure. But because nobody knows how much treasure was found, it’s unclear whether the town gave up the full amount. Only the mayor knows the actual total, and he is found to be telling the truth under a lie detection spell. Whether this is because he is telling the truth or because he now has a magic item to protect him is unclear.
Here we have a few factions: the Town, the Cavaliers, the Bandits, and the Priests. And the PCs of course.
There are many ways the PCs can get this off track. One of the main things they could do is eliminate a faction. But it’s pretty easy to see what happens when you take out any one faction.
Another wrench in the works would be if they defuse the situation between the townsfolk and the Cavaliers. Or if they prevent the priests and Cavaliers from fighting. They could prevent the priests from getting involved at all if they’re quick to heal the woodsman’s son before a messenger can be sent to the abbey.
So you should let the game develop as it will, but if you’re in doubt of what happens next because the players aren’t driving it or just aren’t affecting that faction, check your timeline. The timing may not be the same but the decisions the NPCs make might be.
Just remember to make your timeline very reasonable. You don’t want things to move too fast or the PCs won’t have a chance to influence things. You also need to be free with the information. The adventure here starts with the PCs already discovering the goal: the dragon is slain and the treasure is unguarded. From there they may completely ignore the rival factions and events in town, and just strike out for the wilderness. They might encounter the priests, or Illo and sons, or the townsfolk, or the bandits. And when they return to town they’ll find that interesting things have happened in their absence.
You should also have a short paragraph for the following for each important character or faction:
* Who does he think are his allies?
* Who are his actual allies?
* Who does he think are his enemies?
* Who are his actual enemies?
* What is his motivation?
* What he does if he achieves it?
* What he does if it becomes impossible to achieve?
* What can he offer in exchange for his life?
* What are his secret strengths?
* What are his secret weaknesses?
If you can’t give any information for one or two of those, it’s okay. But if you can’t give any information for most of them, consider whether this character is really that important. Maybe you just need to write up more characters / factions / etc. to develop the adventure more. You can always pull things out if it gets more complicated, but the inspiration you get from the process is worthwhile.
You can use this motivational summary for groups of NPCs in a dungeon as well. I can see this being applied properly to a tribe of goblins, a band of pirates, or a hamlet of gnomes.