On Line Structure and the Flowchart Style in Adventure Design

This is a continuation of my multi-part post discussing adventure design.

The purpose of the structure and style posts is to improve your game design

The first structure of adventure design is the line.  

Linear Structure or the "Flowchart Style".
Linear does not mean that there is only one path. It means options are limited in each scene as in a flowchart. Like in a flowchart a Linear Structure adventure with only one path can exist (Railroad Mode), but ones with many different paths and choices also exist (Jaquays Mode coined by the Alexandrian here)

So what is Linear Structure?
It is a structure made up of containers representing a place or scene from which there are limited but very specific paths or choices leading to the next place or scene. 
This can be a dungeon or a collection of scenes.

Since we're talking about adventure design in this post, we're going to avoid the specifics of the encounters that take place within these containers and instead focus on structure. We are going to examine several modes, or ways this structure may be used. In each one we'll discuss some examples of different types and the pros and cons of each. These modes are Railroad Mode, Traditional Mode, Jaquays Mode, and Menu Mode.

Railroad Mode:
Railroad Mode has few to no options within the given containers.

Players have little choice in what happens next, basically reduced to moving forward or sitting down and pouting. Even though this mode is traditionally reviled, it is not necessarily bad.

 First, you are guaranteed that the players will see every container. This means no wasted work; you're not spending your time on something the players never see.

Second, just because they have no option on where they are going next does not mean the players have no choices - what happens within the container may affect many many things besides what happens next (e.g. a final reward, the character's stats, or in-game knowledge).

It is important to note that this mode is often heavily disguised. WotC is exceptionally good at this.
is just as much Linear Structure: Railroad Mode, as this:
which is just the same as this:
Giving players a side passage that they can travel down and either choose or not choose to kill more of a monster does not provide a significant choice. The container is the one that holds the whole area - you're still being led down a very specific path to the next place.

So when is Linear Structure: Railroad Mode useful?

The chase scene - running out a pre-planned pursuit can be an exciting thing for both players and DM's alike and lends itself well to the Railroad Mode.

Chase Example
The first step is to create the impetus for the chase. Let's say your players are on a conveyance that is being chased by robbers. As in all Railroad Mode situations the players have the option to stop and not engage in the mode (e.g. "We pull over and fight them") but it is trivial to provide some motivation not to stop (e.g. put them on an actual railroad, make the cargo 'time-senstive', have there be a bridge or pass ahead that will allow them to escape what they cannot fight).

Then to use the Railroad Mode, as with any Linear Structure entry, lets use a flowchart:
1. Bandits appear, chase begins. Players have to defend for three rounds until reaching 2.
2. The path splits - they players may take the high road or the low road.
2a. The high road - Rocks fall! Defend from low-road bandits.
2b. The low road - Path is out, jump it! Defend from high-road bandits.
3. Path rejoins, five more rounds of fighting.
4. Obstacle! Pilgrims and innocents are carrying glass panes across the path!
5. You reached the pass. Victory!

The five room dungeon. This is simply the dungeon version of a traditional fictional structure. This is a very satisfying structure to use because it is a complete fictional arc and can often be completed in one session. The five rooms are:
Room 1: Introduction (Entrance & Guardian)
Room 2: Rising action (Puzzle or Challenge)
Room 3: Red Herring or trick
Room 4: Climax
Room 5: Denouement or Plot twist.

5 Room Dungeon Example
Here is an example of a 5 room dungeon, killing Coldscale the White Dragon (apologizes to Randy Maxwell)
1. Players are paid by the townspeople to kill Coldscale the White Dragon.
2. On the way to the lair the players fight two frost giants.
3. In the lair they see a sleeping white dragon on treasure. The dragon is actually a corpse and the treasure is illusionary
4. Coldscale is near and watches the party enter from a hidden ledge above. He attacks while they are distacted.
5. Denouement and distributing treasure OR they get back to town and someone else has taken credit for their kill.

Railroad Mode Pros: It can lead to exciting adventures because you know where the players are going to be, you can control pacing very well with such an adventure, you don't waste any effort.
Railroad Mode Cons: It removes all player agency, done poorly it's super annoying, and it is a trademark of people who want to author a story and fill it with DMPC's. (Cause seriously, f&%k you and your stupid DMPC.)

Traditional Mode:
In this mode there is a starting container and an ending container and many options in between. It is not Railroad Mode because there may be more then one separate and significantly different paths to the end and it is not Jaquays Mode because of its single entrance and single exit.

It is Traditional Mode because of its single explicit directional focus.

The traditional dungeon models the clearest and simplist example of this mode. Take the starting dungeon examples in the DMG and you'll see that that is the start of your traditional flowchart. One entrance to the area, but many pathways once inside. You simply follow the flowchart generator, er, I mean the random dungeon generation tables all the way to the final boss room and you have a Linear Structure: Traditional Mode style adventure.

How does this type of of dungeon work in a scene based game?
Traditional Mode Example
Let's use a private detective story as our game model for our scene based example.

1. Girl enters office. She tells sob story of dead husband. She describes a mean fight with his business partner, and that he borrowed money from the mob.
2. The players have three choices. Tail the girl, talk to the partner or talk to the mob.
2a. Encounter with partner. Claims they had a fight because he felt entitled to some of the money the husband came into. Points the players in the direction of the money
2b. Talk to mob. They tell the players that the husband paid all his money back because he won big. Mentions that the girl is having an affair on the husband and he planned to leave her. Point the players to both the money and the boyfriend.
2c. Follow girl, see her meet up with the boyfriend.
3a. Find the money
3b. Find the boyfriend.
4. Climax. Boyfriend goes to money.
5a. Let money, boyfriend, and girlfriend go.
5b. Kill/Imprison boyfriend, take money.
6. End

Traditional mode Pros: More player agency, yet still able to have a directed story. drama and pacing is still tight, yet retains traditional momentum.
Traditional mode Cons: Weaksauce approach, need to plan for all reasonable actions, more difficult for players to see the path in a scene based game and more disruptive if they try to leave the path. Still DM driven, not player driven.

Hopefully she's finally happy
Jaquays Mode:
This is the most open mode available. At its most extreme it resembles the Space Structure. The key components of this third mode are multiple starting and ending positions as well as frequent interconnections between paths.

Good examples of this type are Gygax's classic module Keep on the Borderlands, Caverns of Thracia by the eponymous Mr. Jaquays, or in a scene based game the structure of a Dogs in the Vineyard town (Mormons, I know).

The Dungeons in the first two examples have multiple entrances, many end points and numerous connections between the different sections.

In Dogs, you have a selection of scenes in which to start each town (e.g. talk to the people, talk to the stupid guy in charge who's always useless, etc.). The next one will lead you to a different selections. Occasionally you'll backtrack, or you'll have a scene caused by your previous one. This continues until a final decsion of what to do is made by the players, at which point several endings are possible.

Jaquays Mode Pros: Players have maximum agency within certain well defined limits (the dungeon, the town), and the game is primarily driven by the players and their choices.
Jaquays Mode Cons: A substantial portion of your labor will not be seen or have to be reused later. Also although the players have a lot of control, the next city or dungeon has to be their destination.

Menu Mode:
There is a final mode of Linear Structure that must be considered. That is Menu Mode.

This mode is very useful for areas the players may spend a lot of time in, but that contains little of novel interest (e.g. the city over a megadungeon or purchasing goods during character creation). In this mode there is a list of containers, each with a series of options. This mode is very useful for saving time and keeping the focus of the game on the chosen focus of the game (i.e. we're here to kick orc ass and take names, not act out the shopping network). Here is an example of Menu Mode applied to the town of a megadungeon.

  • Clan
    • sell goods (consignment)
    • research spells
    • repair gear
    • request assistance
    • get rumors
  • Inn/Bar
    • rest
    • recruit henchmen
    • rest
  • Store
    • purchase/sell goods (on the spot)
  • Civic
    • locate sage
    • receive quests

So how does Linear Structure help you out as a DM? Several ways. Often being explicit about these structures can make it easier to lay adventures out and let you see where you might have problems. Also, using these structures are fast. The limited paths and outcomes can help you during each container play up the options the PC's have and it can help keep the PC's focused on what's important instead of getting distracted. The downsides of Linear Structure is that even in the best cases it limits player agency in some way, sometimes invisibly (i.e. you can't walk through dungeon walls) and sometimes not (i.e. "Get in the damn car already or there won't be an adventure")

Next time: The Space Structure or "Sandbox Style"


  1. It's often a great challenge for a DM and a heavy balancing act. In one hand the DM spends time preparing an adventure or putting together various situations and in just about all forms, the game is always linear. I try to keep my own games as open ended as possible allowing the players the opportunity to choose there own path and how they want to accomplish an objective but the end result is the same.

    For example, in a recent low level game the PCs were hired to free some captured merchants from an orc camp in the forest. There were several ways they could have approached it. They could try to sneak in and release the captives, or go in weapons blazing in straight up combat, but the result was the same, either you free the prisoners or you don't. I think the key is giving the players flexible room to determine how they will handle the situation they are presented with.

  2. Yes, as I mentioned, this is a series. The next article will look at the Space Structure, then Time Structure and then Power Structure. These tools together provide awesome power to the DM, and in the process giving his players maximum agency (because if they, by choice, buy into a Linear Structure, then you use that to make it exciting and agency was never removed)

  3. Oops, Blogger ate my comment! Reposting...

    "This: [railex.png] is just as much Linear Structure: Railroad Mode, as this: [Railex2.gif] which is just the same as this: [railex3.png]"

    Sorry, you are wrong. As you said, [railex.png] and [Railex.2.gif] are the same thing. So far so good.

    Jake is on a quest to rescue Finn from the Ice King. His Majesty is in the first room, Godzilla & friends are in the second room, Cthulhu & Co. are in the third room and Finn is held prisoner in the fourth room.

    But [railex3.png] is a entirely different business.

    Cake is on a quest to rescue Fionna from the Ice Queen. Her Majesty is in the west room, Godzilla & friends are in the north room, Cthulhu & Co. are in the south room and Fionna is held prisoner in the east room.

    Cake's quest will be a cakewalk or not depending of her choices, but poor old Jake is totally screwed.

  4. Omigod, I love this article. Where has it been all my DMing life?


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