I will mix narrative and notes as I write about my family's adventures in the Empty Lands. The narrative attempts to be an enjoyable account of their discoveries, struggles, and progress. The notes are my preparatory work. Comparing them reveals my balance of planning and improvisation, and might be useful for anyone else wanting to steal these adventure ideas.
My preparatory work uses a mental structure of parallel layers. I first imagine a bottom layer that vaguely resembles a map of the Empty Lands. But this map cares little for the standard geographical features such a mountains and rivers, or towns and roads.
Wrinkles are issues that provoke responses from the locals. As examples, in the wilderness they could be the arrival or departure of a threat, the discovery or depletion of a valuable resource, or even the normal change of seasons and weather. In a settlement they could be a policy change, holiday, notable visitor, or some kind of crisis.
Not all wrinkles are tied to a specific physical location. But a worthy wrinkle does (eventually, if not initially) involve something tangible: a person, item, or location that is the focus of all the fuss. So I do visualize imagine this bottom layer of my mental structure as a tangible wall map with many pins. Each pin shows the person, item, or location at the center of gravity for one wrinkle. It helps me to visually picture each wrinkle as a distortion of the physical map around its pin, a roughing-up of otherwise flat fabric. I also picture connections as strings between pins.
Pins (and their wrinkles) might need to be relocated on the wall map as events unfold.
Each pin is described in a paragraph with four descriptors: summary overview, key person, connections, and typical encounter.
As an example, the roads around a village are troubled by disappearing travelers. The cause is a popular Kobalt Warrior named Railey the Clever. With the help of a half-dozen friends he has collected five kidnapped captives, and seeks more to earn the status of Captain. The distressed village has offered rewards for information about the missing travelers and for ending the threat. One villager is a Bergtroll named Viczoria who crafts magical lenses; she will lend reputable adventurers a pair of lenses that would allow whomever looks through one lens to see from the location of the other lens. Another likely connection is with village elders, who are a Bergtroll couple named Wruno and Phloe. The typical encounter would be meeting one or more Kobalts. Railey the Clever and four other Kobalts move together. The other two Kobalts are taking shifts guarding the captives or gathering food and firewood. Whether the Kobalts are met on a road or at thier hideout depends on if the hero tries to search the area around the village, pretend to be a traveler, ask someone to pose as a traveler while using the lenses to watch from a distance, etc.
In the above example, Viczoria and the village elders will only truly become connections after being developed into the key people for other pins. Viczoria has a task for the hero to do first, to prove being trustworthy for the loan of the precious magic lenses. Perhaps the village elders need a message delivered to a relative living in another village.
The next step is to brainstorm factions. Each faction (or its prominent members) need both public and secret goals. These goals should sometimes cause strife among factions, and other times encourage alliances. The factions should represent a variety of the 9P races and Powers.
Each faction only needs those same four descriptors: summary overview, key person, connections, and typical encounter.
As an example, the village's machinists are all dues-paying members of the nation's Tinkers Guild, locally led by a Dweorg named Lachary One-Thumb. This guild espouses that Frosty Kostkey has indeed mended his ways and promotes selling utilitarian machinery. The guild opposes people who harm the guild's reputation by remaining loyal to Frosty Kostkey's historic plans of conquest and Winter bleakness. Typical encounters could be testing, delivering, or protecting new machinery, or dealing with a dangerous machinist.
In my mental structure of parallel layers, each faction has a layer floating above that bottom map-like layer of pins and wrinkles. These upper layers are a network of nodes floating above the pins. Each node describes how the faction responds to that particular wrinkle.
In the above example, the Kobalts kidnappers are using machinery. They build traps on the road. They wear forearm-crossbows. If these devices are found, some villagers might blame Frosty Kostkey for allowing, or even assisting, in machinery being used for wicked purposes. Lachary One-Thumb can immediately prove that none of those devices are of Kobalt design, and were not built by village machinists. However, the Tinkers Guild quietly asks the hero to bring them as many of those devices as possible, to learn from reverse engineering them and to obtain valuable parts useful for better purposes.
Not every faction will have a node above every layer.
I owe a debt to Justin Alexander's writing about structural issues in fantasy role-playing games. He wrote about how a dungeon crawl has a standard location for player choices (a room) and default player choices (explore the room, move to the next room). Most fantasy role-playing games thus have game mechanics specifically designed to deal with what is in a room, how to interact with the contents of a room, and how to move to the next room even if there are locked doors, secret doors, portcullises, or other complications.
These structures and game mechanics do not apply as neatly in a wilderness or urban adventure. Justin Alexander proposed his alternative. From that I took the insight of a three-dimensional network of faction nodes above a more tangible layer. But his alternative remained location-based without my distinction between wrinkles, pins, and locations.
My structure has standard issues for player choices (the wrinkles) and default player choices (investigate a wrinkle, move to the next wrinkle). Stories now have a natural flow towards depth of problem-solving. Investigation and exploration lead from wrinkles to pins and nodes. More investigation leads from pins and nodes to locations. Entering these locations leads to encounters.
Unlike the classic dungeon crawl, there are no game mechanics to push the story along. There are no random tables for creating wrinkles or pins. There are no rules for moving to investigate the next wrinkle. There are no rules dictating when to finally encounter the wrinkle's tangible pin. It is even true that because players use creative methods of investigation it will be player choice more than game mechanics that determines the most obvious or appropriate skill used when investigating or exploring.
Now I have words for why I always wanted to run wilderness and urban adventures. I like when the story itself, rather than game mechanics, pushes the story along. It feels right when the story itself takes over and handles its own flow.