Players in a Cepheus Engine universe are adventurers, plain and simple. They will seek out experiences and exploits, reveling in the thrill and excitement that comes from the pursuit of their goals. Cepheus Engine adventures encompass the potential for adventure that can be found in classic era science fiction. The opportunities are virtually limitless, restricted only by the circumstances of the scenario and the capabilities of the characters. The Referee generates and adjudicates encounters that make up the building blocks of these adventures. As the characters move from one adventure to the next, the stories create a campaign, set against a universe of the Referee’s creation. Therein lays the core of a great roleplaying game experience.


Stories are about conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be violent, but without a struggle of some kind, there is no story, and without a story, there is no true sense of adventure. The key to a great adventure is conflict. As a Referee, you should make sure you have conflict, and that the player characters are directly involved in that conflict. If there isn’t any conflict, you lose the impetus for action. If the player characters aren’t directly involved, they are just watching a story, which sounds more like a movie or a play than a roleplaying game.

Conflict doesn’t have to be physical combat. It could just as easily be political or corporate intrigue, achieving a specific goal before the protagonist can either get there first or stop the characters from succeeding, handling courtly issues of a noble or legal nature, negotiating a diplomatic resolution to a larger conflict, and much more.

The Plot

The plot of the adventure is essentially the synopsis of the events that will transpire over the course of the adventure. You should be able to sum up the plot of your adventure in one sentence. Knowing your plot before you begin creating the adventure provides focus and direction, and creates context for the scenes you will create for your adventure.

If you have problems in coming up with a plot for your adventure, you might look into Polti’s “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.” It’s an extensive list of basic plots that you can use as the basis for your own stories and adventures.

The EPIC Adventure System

The Epic Adventure System provides a way to design and organize adventures, that incorporates enough flexibility that the player characters have the ‘freedom to roam’ without causing the Referee nightmares. An Epic Adventure is broken down into 6 parts:

  • Cast of Characters
  • Background
  • Minor Scenes
  • Plot Keys
  • Chapters
  • Adventure Checklist

The Cast of Characters

The Cast of Characters describes the major characters encountered in the course of the adventure.

The Background

The Background section provides the Referee with the background information necessary to properly run the adventure, and lays the groundwork for introducing this adventure to the players.

Minor Scenes

Minor Scenes (usually just referred to as ‘Scenes’) or just Scenes, are encounters or events that involve the player characters in some form. Many are directly related to the adventure, and may provide clues, equipment, or other information and materials needed to eventually complete the adventure. Others are merely to provide diversion and amusement. Scenes, unless noted in their descriptions, do not need to be played in any particular order, and may be sprung upon the player characters when the Referee deems appropriate.

Plot Keys

Plot Keys (or simply ‘Keys’) make up the heart of the storyline for the adventure. They contain vital pieces to the plot that must be played for the adventure to make any sense to the players in the end. You may play any number of Scenes before and after each Plot Keys, but all of the Plot Keys should eventually be completed in their proper order.


A Chapter (or ‘Act’) is made up of one of more Plot Keys, and probably one or more Scenes. They outline the plot to the Referee, and provide tips and information for playing the Scenes and Plot Keys that are contained in the Chapter. In order to complete a Chapter, each Plot Key within must be completed. Each Chapter must be completed, and played in order to successfully run the adventure.

Because of the ‘cinematic’ nature of an EPIC adventure, it is easy for the Referee to allow the player characters to temporarily deviate from the current adventure storyline to follow a false lead or pursue another short adventure that has interested them. When the player characters are ready to return to this adventure plot line, simply pick up with the next Scene.

Adventure Checklist

The Adventure Checklist provides the Referees with a recommended guideline of the order in which various Scenes and Plot Keys in this adventure should be presented to the players. As the characters complete each Scene or Plot Key, the Referee simply checks it off the list. When every Plot Key in a Chapter has been played, that Chapter has been completed and the Referee may begin the first Scene in the next Chapter.

You will note that not every Minor Scene is included in the Checklist. This allows Referees who would like to use the Checklist, but would like to change things a little bit to swap out scenes, or include their own custom scenes. If you feel comfortable in letting your characters stray from the order of the Checklist, you may determine the ‘cinematic’ order of the scenes as you see fit, or use a weekly events chart like the Example Weekly Event table to determine the course of events.

This example weekly events chart has been created for an adventure in which the characters spend several weeks in the outback searching for lost ruins in the hope of finding historical artifacts.

Table: Example Weekly Event
2D6 Weekly Event
2-8 Play a Minor Scene/Find a Ruin
9-11 Starport Run. The Professor has an errand requiring the characters to go to the local starport for the week.
12 Plot Key

Explanation of Example Weekly Event entries:

  • Play a Minor Scene Select one of the Minor Scenes and run the scene as directed.
  • Starport Run This is an excuse and opportunity to bring in sideline encounters, patrons and scenarios unrelated to this adventure.
  • Play a Plot Key Plot Keys should be plays in the correct order for the adventure to make sense to the players. If you change the order of the Plot Keys, you should be sure to adjust the other scenes to ensure that the adventure flows properly and makes sense.

Adventures in Five Acts

Many satisfying adventures have been inspired by the five-act structure of literary and dramatic creations. Made famous by Gustav Freytag’s analysis of Shakespearean plays, the five-act structure lends itself well to basic adventures with only minor modifications.

At its core, the five-act structure for adventures depends on five major scenes or Plot Keys: the Story Hook and Challenge, the Escalation, the Complication, the Climax and finally the Reward. Even though this structure is based on five Plot Keys, you can easily add or subtract as many minor scenes as the adventure you’re creating calls for. Don’t be afraid to deviate from this pattern as you become more comfortable with adventure creation.

The Story Hook

The key to the opening scene of any adventure is action. The story hook Plot Key should therefore be an action scene, involving either combat or some form of physical challenge. This draws the characters into the main conflict of the adventure’s plot, and introduces the party to agents of the main antagonist. As this scene is wrapping up, you can either provide clues to the direction of the next Plot Key, or introduce a minor scene that ultimately points the party in the direction of the final climax of the adventure.

The Escalation

Now that you’ve met the needs of your more action-oriented players, you should create a series of roleplaying scenes or puzzle challenges that further escalate the plot, leading ultimately to a Plot Key that helps the players form a plan of attack for reaching the climax of the adventure. This allows non-combat characters an opportunity to shine. Investigation and information gathering make for excellent scenes in this regard. In addition, it provides the full roleplaying experience to the players, emphasizing why the group is playing a roleplaying game instead of a board game.

The Complication

Nothing is ever as straight-forward as it seems. The third major Plot Key introduces a complication to the party in fulfilling the needs of the plot. This Plot Key often requires the characters to expend resources, forcing them to decide on whether to spend their resources on this particular challenge or the big climactic challenge that is coming up next. In addition, this scene often introduces a plot twist or restriction that makes the resolution of this challenge and/or the climax that much harder.

The Climax

This Plot Key is the final showdown, the final fight with the primary antagonist of this story and his minions. This scene is most often a big fight or confrontation, but under the right circumstances, it could be a social or mental challenge instead. This is the big scene where everyone should have a chance to shine. It is suggested that this scene require a challenge more complex than “kill everyone”, even if it’s as simple as “kill everyone without any collateral damage to property or other persons”. If the climax is a combat scene, the site for the climax should also include at least two different terrain features, to provide for some interesting situations that make such scenes memorable. While you don’t want to overdo yourself, you also want to make this scene feel more exciting or important than the other scenes in the adventure.

The Reward

This scene is the dénouement, where the plot is wrapped up and the characters receive their reward for their victory, or experience the consequences of their failure, on those occasions where things didn’t necessarily work out. Often in Cepheus Engine adventures, the reward is monetary. However, characters might instead earn titles, receive ship shares, gain political support, earn some form of social advantage, recover lost or hidden information, or even learn a campaign secret that could change the face of the world forever. Sometimes, there’s a final plot twist here, such as a secret guardian guarding the reward or a false reward serving as a distraction from the true reward of the adventure. If you have ideas for a future scenario you’d like to offer the players, you can even drop the first hints of things to come in the reward scene, giving the characters motivation to pursue the clues that may well lead to their next daring adventure.

Other Suggestions

When creating your own adventures, keep things dense and concise. You will find that players have a knack for complicating things all by themselves, so don’t feel a need to include a lot of false leads and irrelevant details. You can always improvise the additional of extra scenes as the need arises, but it is hard to work around a large number of required scenes if the adventurers suddenly take the adventure in a totally different direction.

The Three-Dimensional Campaign

Unless you’re running a “one-shot” adventure, put in the effort to keep your setting, plot and adventure three-dimensional. That is, even if your campaign has a very strong overarching plot, not everything has to be tied in it directly. For example, if your campaign revolves around a massive struggle between two interstellar polities, there should be some NPCs, sub-plots, protagonists and even organizations that don’t work directly (if at all) for any side of the overarching conflict. Not every protagonist in your game has to serve the enemy government, and not all good guys have to get along together very well.

The reason for this, besides realism, is that both you and your players will eventually want to take a break from the main plot and do something else, especially during a long campaign. Sometimes you’ll want, say, to steal a high-tech prototype, and that research facility belongs to a third interstellar government that remains outside the overarching conflict; sometimes you’ll just want to explore an old, forgotten ruin uncovered in the wilderness of a backwater planet, a place unrelated to the main plot. Besides, making two factions work together against a common enemy despite hating each other with a passion could be a cool adventure, and so could be playing one opposing faction against another without getting caught.

The Rule of Three

As a general rule of a thumb when creating background elements involved in conflicts, such as organizations, factions, political figures, etc., you will best be served by creating three of them. For example, when you’re designing a power struggle in an interstellar government, you should probably have three factions. The typical war can be created with three opposing sides, even if one of them is simply a large band of pirates with goals at odds with the two “official” sides. Creating three elements vying for the same goal creates a greater degree of dynamic complexity, allowing for adventures that explore the different relationships between the three elements without reducing the conflict to a simple “black-and-white”, two-dimensional confrontation. Three sides give you plenty of opportunity to explore shifting alliances, subversive practices, negotiations, alternate paths to personal success and greater variety in your scenarios.

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