Situational Design for TTRPG Adventures

This write up takes the lessons and tools from “Situational Design” by Brian Upton and explores how you might use them to create a simple ttrpg adventure. I highly recommend reading the book. It’s one of the most influential books on design that I’ve read in the last couple years.

The basic methodology is:

  1. Start with an experience you want the player to have.
  2. Identify moves or actions that express that experience.
  3. Figure out playful situations that will structure those moves.
  4. Determine the constraints we need to create those situations.
  5. Design a subsystem that will evoke those constraints.

Since this is a blog post it will be simplified for the sake of brevity. Let’s take some of the concepts from the book and see how we might use them to make an adventure.

What’s the experience?

Brief description of the type of experience you’re creating. Touchstones, theme, genre, tone, etc. Everything should relate back to the experience you want. This is our guiding light.


What are the players moves?

Moves are what the player can do in the game that evoke that experience. The goal of this step is to build up a specific sense of what it means moment to moment for the player to inhabit their intended role within the game.


What types of situations help structure those moves?

For the player to do these moves, they need to be in a situation that allows them to. This step is pretty straight forward. If your game is about exploration then the players need to be put into situations that allow them to explore. When designing situations always look for opportunities to incorporate choice, consequence, variety, and predictability.


Wait, what’s this about choice, consequence, variety, and predictability? These are our Pillars of Playfulness.

Predictability? Isn’t that bad? Choices you make should have some level of predictability. Not necessarily complete predictability, and in fact that’s usually quite boring, but you want some predictability. If you drop a rock it falls to the ground.

If you don’t have predictability there’s no choice because you don’t know what the consequences of those choices are. If you have a choice between going left or right and the paths are identical then that’s not really a choice. If down one path we smell fresh baked bread and down another we hear people talking, well now it’s a choice and there’s some level of predictability in the consequences of your actions.

What constraints do we need to create those situations?

Constraints are interesting because they are both the rules of the game and the rules we create in our heads. If I’m playing a wizard there may be rules that constrain how wizards work in the game, but also I may have rules I’ve created in my mind on how I would role play my wizard character. The rules may say how to use magic, but I might choose to have my wizard only use fire magic.

Situations are structured by constraints and determine what moves the player can do. We limit ourselves to the moves we believe are possible.


How can we create a subsystem that evokes those constraints?

This is finally where you create a subsystem that has constraints that create situations where the players perform the moves that embody the experience. Since this post is about ttrpg adventure design, this is often:

It could also be rules, procedures, maps, etc. As long as it’s helping create those constraints.

Also keep in mind the constraints the player brings with them from their previous experiences. This gets into who you are designing for and what they know. Play tests are a great way to check your work and see if your design is working as intended. You might accidentally design with yourself in mind and likely you know things that the players do not. This can create confusion and the experience may not be what you were intending.

The Adventure

Let’s see what this might look like in creating an adventure. First, what’s the experience?

Next let’s make some possible moves, keeping in mind the experience we’re trying to create:

What situations would allow the players to perform these moves?

Do these situations hold up to our Pillars of Playfulness?

Theres a choice to go to the dance or not, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any consequences. Maybe you have a date and if you don’t go then you’d be standing them up. What about variety? Currently I don’t think there’s much for variety. It’s mostly one choice, maybe one or two consequences. What if we have our second situation: the missing friend, happen at the same time? Then the choices and consequences are much more interesting. Going back to variety, we can also try not to repeat the same situations too much. Maybe we don’t constantly have dances happening and people going missing.

Finally, there’s predictability. You can probably guess what will happen if we go to the dance or not. What will happen to the missing friend if you don’t help though is a bit ambiguous. If the friend shows us the missing persons shoe and it has some blood on it though, then you have a pretty good idea of what will happen if you don’t find them. This becomes tricky though if the player suddenly thinks the missing person is way more interesting then the choice between that and the dance is diminished. Potentially it could not become a choice at all, which is the tricky part I think.

Finally, what subsystem(s) will create the constraints needed for these situations?

Starting the adventure off with the previously mentioned dance and missing friend situation seems to make sense and jumps us right into the experience we’re going for. We could also create some countdown timers to track the monster and other events in the game.

Let’s create some lists! I’m trying to tie these to highschool, horror, and mystery. I’m thinking about what the players would be doing and what situations they might find themselves in. These all should help express that experience.


  1. Highschool
  2. Graveyard
  3. Haunted mansion
  4. Abandoned convenience store
  5. Junkyard on the edge of town
  6. “Makeout Point”


  1. The e-girl
  2. Golfer bro
  3. Otaku
  4. Vlogger
  5. Camo queen
  6. Cyber stoner


  1. Vampire king
  2. Vengeful cheerleader
  3. Mind control parasite
  4. CIA/FBI
  5. Doppelganger
  6. Eldritch god


  1. Credit card
  2. Wad of gum
  3. Hairspray
  4. Super glue
  5. 2006 Toyota Corolla
  6. Bike helmet

Random Encounters

  1. Bad weather
  2. Monster clues
  3. Your phone rings
  4. !?
  5. !?

I think I’m going to end this post here. It’s not a complete adventure, but hopefully it gets the idea across. Again, I highly recommend the book and maybe this post will help give you some ideas. (I think I need to work on how to end these posts, this one’s a little abrupt)