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Sample Module Design - The Synopsis (Part Two)


In Getting Started, we explained the five main ingredients in making a module: Setting, Synopsis, Critical Path, NPCs, and Maps. This series of tutorials is an example for new DMs who want to create a setting for their modules. In Part I: The Setting, we described the creation of the kingdom of Heirokanth as the setting for our campaign. Now we begin the creation of the Synopsis

A synopsis is the condensed or outlined form of a story. For creating modules, it is a critical step, and may be as simple or intricate as we need it to be. The key is to eventually flesh out our synopsis so that the outcome can be used as the source for the story that will occur in our module, from NPC dialog to text pop-ups to the design of the map itself. If you plan on creating a module that is more than a "hack & slash" adventure, you'll need a synopsis, and that means we need...

Theme, Premise and Plot

There are many ways to develop a synopsis, but it is always a good idea to have a theme and a plot! The Theme is the central issue that we want to present to the players. Love, war, greed, famine, disease, freedom, oppression, sacrifice... whatever we choose, the theme should pervade the adventure. No matter where our story takes us, a good theme should be our one constant, like the soundtrack to a film. We'll use the theme of "Treachery".

The premise is the seed of the story, created from the theme. It can be thought of as a generic conceptual statement that the story will show as "proof" of that statement. A premise can often be expressed as an equation. For example, our premise is: Power struggle + Outside threat = Treachery revealed.

As for the plot, we could take our setting and decide who the big players are and from there determine what might occur according to their agendas. We could look at the history we have for our setting and make some conclusions about what might happen next. We could borrow from a story that we enjoy and use it for our own purposes. We could even just start with a generic plot and transform it into a fully fledged epic. It has been observed that only a handful of plots exist; a story is original in how it combines the plot with its theme, the characters, and the setting. The film, "Star Wars" used the generic "rescue the princess" plot; even if it's been done a million times before, remember that it is how you tell the story that is important, not the originality of the plot. A good plot always involves a conflict of some kind. For our purposes, plots may fall into one of the following setups:

  • Rescue/Recover an important person/item
  • Thwart/Stop an adversary/monster/disaster
  • Compete/Follow/Race with an adversary
  • Survive/Escape from a strange/dangerous place/situation (prison, desert, island)
  • Solve a mystery/puzzle/dilemma

Of course, a module adventure can mix plot elements, or have several elements involved, and intertwine over the course of a campaign. Sometimes, however, the best adventures have a very simple plot that turns on itself or has an unexpected twist.


If we want to design an entire campaign, there should be events going on in the background that thread through most of the adventures we create. It is not necessary to invent that sub-plot right away, but if we have one in the beginning, then our campaign will be that much more interesting. Our backstory suggests a theme involving treachery and political intrigue.

In the kingdom of Heirokanth, the corrupt church of Beolyn seeks to spread its control from the capital city of Ruthelis into the outlying towns and villages. For the town of Murkfield, this manifests itself as a rivalry between the town's ruler, Baron Melchior, and the church's representative, Abbot Velyn.

As part of the backstory, a list of secrets should be made. By revealing one of those secrets in every module, players not only get a sense of interactivity with the world their PCs are in, but they learn more about the world as well. For this module, the player may discover Abbot Velyn's plans, and may elect to aid him or thwart his efforts. A secret about his daughter can be used by the PCs as leverage, and could reveal a secret about the abbot himself.

Synopsis Breakdown

As our synopsis takes shape, we break it into six parts to define the module's story. They are: Summary, Characters, Conflicts, Scenes, Climax and Conclusion.

1. Summary: The theme, the premise, and a few sentences describing the plot of the story.

  • Theme: Treachery
  • Premise: Power struggle + Outside threat = Treachery revealed
  • Plot: Murkfield is threatened by werewolves. Abbot Velyn uses the opportunity to seize control of the town. The PCs aid Baron Melchior in thwarting the werewolves. The PCs discover Velyn's plans.

2. Characters: Introduce the main NPCs and their goals. Include a main villain or antagonist, as well as an ally or protagonist for the PCs.

  • Baron Henrik Melchior - ruler of Murkfield.
  • Abbot Quintus Velyn - representative of Beolyn's church.
  • Miri Velyn - The abbot's daughter.
  • Trader Vic - The local merchants' guildmaster, with interests at the Silver Mine.
  • Jon Hardy - Leader of the lumberjacks, is in love with Miri.

3. Conflicts: Describe the situations the PCs discover, points of conflict, struggle, or risk.

  • Traders are reluctant to travel north, due to goblin activity.
  • The townspeople fear for their safety, due to a local werewolf attack.
  • Abbot Velyn seeks to control the town's militia and the baron's order of knights.
  • The abbot's daughter, Miri, is in love with Jon, a lumberjack.

4. Scenes: List events, plot twists and reversals; allow for variations due to PC interaction.

  • Recently, the baron lost many of his knights, sent into the forest to defend the lumberjack encampment, which was attacked by wolves. The howling in the forest at night can be heard from Murkfield.
  • The baron contracts the PCs to hunt down the wolves. When it is discovered that they are werewolves, the PCs are asked to escort a small caravan from the Silver Mine to the north, which can be used to make weapons for the PCs when they return, so they may fight the werewolves.
  • On the north road, the PCs are attacked by goblin raiders. While gone, another werewolf attack takes place within the town's walls!
  • The abbot takes advantage of the townsfolk's fear to rally the them around the church, and calls on Beolyn's power to aid them. He is recruiting paladins, knights and soldiers, including "defectors" from the baron's army.
  • Secret revealed: Miri is a werewolf.
  • Twist: She was not one of those that attacked the logging camp or town.

5. Climax: The impending disaster, moment of decision, or final showdown.

The PCs discover the module's big secret: Abbot Velyn's is also a werewolf, and is responsible for the creation of his own clan of werewolves, and the continued attacks. With the baron's aid, the PCs fight the abbot and the other werewolves, or with Miri's aid, discover a cure.

6. Conclusion: The Resolution; consider outcomes due to alternative actions taken by the PCs.

  • If the abbot and the werewolves are defeated, Murkfield remains under the baron's protection.
  • If Miri helps find a cure, the abbot is tried by the church and sent to a dungeon in Ruthelis.
  • If the all of the PCs are infected and become werewolves, they join the abbot — and the campaign takes a turn for the dark side. Most players will want to start new PCs.

So the first draft of our synopsis is complete. We should continue refining it with a second and third draft, until our story is complete. We can do this by asking questions at each step. How can we add evidence of the abbot's treachery in earlier scenes? Are the goblins connected to the abbot's schemes? Do we need more NPCs? What is Jon's reaction to Miri being a werewolf? Is Miri a true follower of Beolyn, unlike her father?

As you can see, the synopsis is the most important part of a story-based module, and a well thought-out synopsis is vital. Integrate and expand key elements of the plot until you are satisfied that your players will remain interested in the trail of breadcrumbs your story reveals, as well as allowing them to take independent actions. For that, we must make a map of the critical path they need to take, which allows you to more easily lead them back to the path if they stray too far.

In our next tutorial, Part III: The Critical Path, we take the next step by integrating our setting and story synopsis into a critical path map.

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