Want to write an adventure for Zenith Games (or just make sure your own adventures are up to snuff)? Follow these 12 rules.
1: Show, Don't Tell
Don't tell the PCs something if they can see it for themselves. It's much more compelling to interact with a scene then to have it explained to you.
Bad: The inspector calls you into his office. He tells you about the murder in gruesome details.
Good: The inspector calls you to the crime scene. He tells you what little he knows, but relies on you to draw conclusions from the area.
Bad: The newspaper says Dr. Jones has killed himself. Not a good sign.
Good: You turn the corner to find a crowd of people. When you force your way past them, you find Dr. Jones hanging from a tree branch. The villagers whisper of suicide.
2: Two to Four Quirky Characters
Don't overload your players with named characters. Two to four new important characters is the maximum for single game session. Each character should be describable in a single sentence, with one or two distinct physical and personality features. Think quirky or archetypal. More complex characters are only necessary for a few NPCs per campaign.
Additionally, NPC names should not sound anything like one another. No Sauron and Saruman, particularly if they are both evil wizards.
Bad: The dwarf before you is a stocky fellow, no more than chest height on an average human. His clothes, while well kept, are old and somewhat faded. On his left hand, he wears a ring bearing a star and lion, symbols of house Greygull. Massive black eyebrows cast a shadow onto his weather-worn face. This is a dwarf who has experienced much sorrow in his long life. Those brown eyes have seen disaster, even if the dwarf does not want to show it. Still, he maintains a firm upper lip, and talks with quiet confidence.
Bad: The dwarf scowls at you.
Good: Underneath the dwarf's massive black eyebrows, deep creases in his face hint at a sorrowful past.
Bad: A villager greets you at the door. "Welcome to my house! My name is Gunther, and I would be pleased to host you. Meet my wife Endria, and my two sons, Backan and Brukan. My daughter, the fair Veleania is out with the doctor's son Murton. If you need anything, just ask!"
Good: An red-cheeked, jolly looking fellow greet you at the door. "Welcome to my house! My name is Gunther, and I would be pleased to host you. If you need anything, just ask!" Gunther's wife and two sons stand nearby, eager to assist.
3: Consequences for Success/Failure
The plot should change depending on the character's success. Simply retreating from a fight or failing a skill challenge should make life harder or worse the PCs in some tangible way. If the outcome of an encounter is the same no matter what, then that encounter does not need to take place.
Bad: The troll devours the mayor's son, then disappears into the night. He begs you to continue on your quest to slay the beast, lest others should meet the same fate.
Good: The troll devours the mayor's son, then disappears into the night. The villagers now treat you with scorn, and the price of all items in town have doubled.. AND you still need to kill the troll.
Bad: You defeat the villain, but he teleports away. Drat!
Good: You defeat the villain, but he teleports away. However, the ring torn from his hand during the fight bears an unusual signet... A clue?
4: Three-Clue Rule & No Dead Ends
Provide at least three separate clues for important points. If your PCs can't find any clues, then they still move on with the story, but are penalized in some way. Perhaps they miss a crucial bit of information, or must expend resources to proceed. PCs should never reach an absolute dead end or have to rely on GM handholding to move forward.
Bad: You didn't find the letter ... so you wait around for a few days until something happens?
Good: You didn't find the letter or the footprints, but you did stumble upon a piece of torn cloth. Even if you missed all of these, you still have your previous information to work with. You can still go to the next victim's house, even if you are woefully unprepared for the horror that awaits you there.
5: No Timing Coincidences
The PCs should never randomly stumble across any event that takes less than 5 minutes to occur. Just happening to turn the corner to witness a murder reeks of unlikely coincidence. If the PCs observe something time sensitive, it should be a direct or indirect result of the PCs actions.
This rule can be stretched for the very start of an adventure, but no further. If you don't need to stretch this rule, don't.
Bad: You've arrived just in the nick of time! The cultists only have one minute before they complete their hours-long ritual.
Good: The cultists see you approach. "Damn them!" exclaims the leader. "We need to speed this up!" He draws a knife and slits the sacrifice's throat. "It's rough, but it will do! Finish the ritual!" The cultists look panicked, but skip to the last minute of the ceremony.
Good: "Perfect!" Exclaims the leader as you approach. "We need the presence of a god-blood to finish the ritual!" The cultists begin the last stanza of chanting.
Good: It looks like the ritual is nearly complete, but the cultists have stopped to argue about something. Once you are spotted, you are certain they will put aside their differences and finish the ceremony.
6: Context: When and Where?
Every scene has relation to the previous scene. If the location is new, words must be spent describing the distance between the two scenes, the time it took to get there, and what it looks like.
Bad: After dispatching with the griffons, you make your way into the village.
Good: It's another three miles (1 hour's travel) between the griffon nest and the village. The simple wooden shacks are a welcome relief from the oppressive darkness of the forest.
7: Variety is the Spice of Life
Don't fight the same enemies twice. Don't run the same skill check twice. Vary energy damage types, weaknesses, and strengths. Throw in a trap, poison, and a haunt. Make sure that everybody, regardless of his or her build, has a chance to shine. Jacob's Tower is built on this principle
Bad: In the lair of the monkey king, there's loads of monkey to kill and plenty of climbing challenges. Strong characters, particularly rangers with favored enemy (monkeys) will go far.
Good: The monkey king has diversified his evil villain portfolio. The PCs fight strong apes, scale a tree, murder a bunch of feces-throwing monkeys, contend with rotting banana storage, then take on the spell casting monkey king himself. Everybody has a chance to contribute.
8: Social/Skill Encounters
Vary your encounters! For every one or two combats, include one skill or social encounter. Players (generally) like a mixture of both. Even better, make sure that a few encounters can be resolved through either combat or skills.
Bad: After slaying the guards at the gate, and then the knights in the courtyard, and then the evil advisor in the throne room, you now set your sights on the king in the treasury.
Good: You climb over the castle walls, then figure out the mechanisms for opening the main gate. You slay the knights, then convince the evil advisor to turn good. Finally, you set your sights on the king in the treasury - if he doesn't come quietly, you'll have to kill him.
9: Encounters Move the Plot Along
Encounters move the plot along - they don't interrupt it. Don't add encounters to take up space. All encounters should be important. If you can cut an encounter without changing the plot, then do it. If your adventure is too short, then add more PLOT or clue hunting. Don't just throw in encounters.
Bad: You've rescued the damsel! On the way back to the castle you encounter and kill a troll.
Good: You've rescued the damsel! On the way back, you encounter and kill a troll branded with the sign of Archduke Franz! Is he trying to stop the wedding? Perhaps you should approach the castle more carefully.
Good: You return to the castle after rescuing the damsel.
10: Encounters Have Set Pieces
Encounters of any sort - combat, social, or skill - should take place in an interesting location that provides flavor and potential utility to the encounter.
Bad: The thief draws his dagger in the street.
Good: Under the shadows of Notre Dame, the thief draws his dagger.
Good: In the middle of the carnival, the thief draws his dagger.
Good: The thief draws his dagger, his face cast into grim shadows by the flaming market.
Good: The crowd turns their eyes from the juggler to you and the thief.
11: Encounters Have Gimmicks
fight should have some sort of gimmick. No
fight should be fully described as the PCs vs. some creatures.
Bad: The misguided knight charges from across the field. Roll Initiative!
Good: The misguided knight charges from across the field. Be careful! He has an innocent damsel tied to his horse.
Good: The misguided knight charges from across the field. However, this knight is well known for his quick wit - perhaps he can be distracted or mollified with some clever word play?
Good: The misguided knight charges from across the field. This storm will make conditions challenging for the both of you.
Good: The misguided knight charges from across the field. The watching crowd is expecting a joust, and has even provided you with a horse. If you do poorly, they may turn against you.
Good: The misguided knight charges from across the bridge. Too much weight, and the whole thing could go plummeting to the cliff below!
12: Losing Actions isn't Fun
There are plenty of ways to lose actions in Pathfinder and other RPGs: Blindness, curses, paralysis, etc... While it might fun to inflict these on your enemies, losing your turn is not fun for the PCs. Whenever possible, avoid giving the villains abilities that prevent the PCs from acting. In the same vein, use weakening abilities sparingly. In general, save or suck should be avoided.
Instead, damage the PCs directly or throw obstacles at them. You really need to keep a PC occupied for a round? Don't paralyze them: Thrown them in a pit, place a weak enemy in front of them, require them to pull a lever, or encourage them to flee from a bomb. These all accomplish the same thing as paralysis (eating actions), but they allow the character to have a good time by taking actions to overcome challenges.
Bad: The sorcerer has bestow curse, blindness/deafness, hold person, and phantasmal killer. Have fun watching others take actions!
Good: The sorcerer has create pit, shout, summon monster, and fireball. Also, he's got some lackies. To reach him you must pull two levers simultaneously, then scale a pillar and break some glass.
Bonus: Writing Tips
Don't use "very."
Don't use "will."
Bad: After talking to the PCs, the dragon will attack.
Good: After talking to the PCs, the dragon attacks.
Minimize use of "that."
Minimize use of "is/was/are/has/have". Use action verbs!
Vary sentence length.
Vary word usage whenever possible. Don't use the same word in a paragraph more than once (articles/prepositions/conjunctions excluded).
Don't introduce something without saying what it is doing.
Bad: The man is green and has a big grin. He walks towards you.
Good: The green man walks towards you, grinning.