Adventure Design

Writing for Popular IP (at a Wizarding School) – The Warlock’s Tunnel

May 25, 2019

Harry Potter has a special place in my creative consciousness not only because of my love for the books and movies, but also because I got to design and produce the very first Harry Potter videogame (a whirlwind of a production that I’ll save for another time, but all-in-all, fond memories of the insanity). A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get to visit the Harry Potter Exhibition in London. It’s a fantastic, museum-level tour through all the sets, costumes, and sights of the Harry Potter movies, and the sheer desire to dive back into the world overcame me.

The Rules of Design

In designing Harry Potter and the Warlock’s Tunnel, I actually got to apply a decade of expertise building games in someone else’s IP. While the guidelines vary from property to property, there’s ones that still stand out in my mind when it comes to this magical universe:

  • Obey the Canon – This one is the most important when it comes to Harry Potter. Working on the videogames, there were strict rules around the spells Hogwarts students would learn at different years, the locations of the classrooms, the rules of magic, and lots lots more. At the time, this felt restrictive… but over the years it came to be all of those details Potter fans would love about the franchise. So when I wrote the adventure, I decided that 100% of the adventure would be canon* But to give myself some flexibility, I set the adventure a few years before Harry arrived at school, so there would still be some mystery and newness to players who were deeply familiar with the lore.
  • It is a School Story – The charm of many of the Harry Potter books (and likely the reason the Fantastic Beasts films haven’t found the same success) is that 80% of the plot is highly relatable to anyone ever attended grade school. All of the magic and wonder is set dressing around stories of clever students, bullies, and inscrutable adults. To reflect this, I made sure that the adventure stayed almost entirely contained within Hogwarts (no hexcrawls through the Forbidden Forest…), with the obstacles being other students and professors first, magical foes a far second.
  • It is a Mystery – One of the other patterns the Harry Potter books establish, especially early on, is that the primary plot is a mystery. Who let the troll into the school? What is Fluffy guarding? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? Who is Sirius Black? There’s a lot of mysteries, big and small, all over the books. I took a similar approach and made sure that the central plot was a similar mystery — what is the Warlock’s Tunnel? Why are students getting sick?
  • A Scoop of Fan Service – Harry Potter fandom has spread like a venomous tentacula. Potter fans playing in an RPG are going to expect to see familiar faces and situations. But I also realized that it’s easy to go too far in this regard. RPGs are about original adventures, not running around in the shadow of famous characters. So I took a measured approach to fan service: I included a couple of familiar professors to make sure it felt familiar (welcome, Snape and McGonagall to the Warlock’s Tunnel), added minor elements that only hardcore Potter fans would recognize (the Architect of Hogwarts statue being a main element, an elder Parkinson, a Thunderbird transfer student), and then created some original elements that will surely give deja vu to fans (Welsh Crimbils, a new ghost, a Syrpens Mask). Surrounding the new elements with both well-known and obscure Potter lore will, I hope, make it almost impossible to tell what’s original and what you can look up in detail on Pottermore.

With my guidelines in place, and armed with hundreds of photos from the Exhibition, the adventure took shape quickly. It helps when I’d already spent over a year of my life working in this world professionally!

The First Session

I played the adventure a few weeks later, with a mix of adults and young teens. I got great feedback on the adventure, which I incorporated into the final version here. My players wanted to discover the identity of the big bad before the very end of the adventure (although figuring out who the big bad is in the last chapter is very Harry Potter…), so I allowed some smart play to uncover his identity before the tunnel is discovered. I also realized that my mystery had some big plot holes in it, so I had to go back through the adventure and create a more clear timeline for myself to fix that up. Fortunately, my players never spotted the inconsistency, but I learned a valuable lesson – if you’re going to write a mystery adventure, make sure it’s clear what actually happened before you write it!

I’m especially keen to know how this adventure runs in other groups. I imagine groups will challenge the GM in unique ways if they know the Potter world well, or push off course for some sightseeing (“let’s get Trelawny and go check out the whomping willow for signs of the Prefect!”). The adventure doesn’t really cover all these scenarios, as I think that would require it to be the length of one of the later books…

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If you’d like to watch a video overview of the adventure, check out my YouTube channel:

*To the best of my ability. Keeping up with all of the official Potter lore may be a full-time job. But if you spot anything terribly wrong, let me know!

Related: Borrowing from the Past – a Star Trek Adventure

Update: Since the original release of this adventure, I’ve done an update that includes new formatting, tweaked pregenerated PCs, bookmarks, and updated VTT assets (with .GCA files for the characters). Enjoy!

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  1. Frohe Ostern,

    I just ran the Adventure for a couple of friends. (All in their mid-thirthees) and we had a blast.
    We had one really good potterhead, who gave us a lot of background infos of the univers. That really help the one friend who never read the books and just watched four of the movies.

    Bevor I can start planing another adventure of your I already promised some other friends to run this one.

    Your VTT assets were really helpful. Thanks alot.


  2. I noticed a few typos in the flavor text about Jayla Forester (one of the sample PCs).

    Line 2: happens –> happened
    Line 9: thing –> think

    I’ve been planning on running this one for ages. Finally getting the opportunity this afternoon. Looking forward to it. Thanks for this treasure trove of adventures!

    1. Thanks for catching my typos! I’ll update the adventure and fix those. The woes of not having a professional editor 🙂

      Good luck running the game – hope it goes well!

  3. The game was a blast! Four main players ranging in age from 9 to 12, and my youngest son (5) tagging along. Some of them wore robes and three of them sported fine wands. They chose to play Fiona, Kyle, Alissa, Benjamin, and Jayla.

    They loved the opening scene at the feast, each of them describing something that they ate. Things went predictably enough until they got to the library. They decided to try and enter the restricted section during the day. Two PCs distracted Madam Pince (the library, if I remember her name correctly), taking her on a wild goose chase through the stacks, while one kept watch and the other two tried to get past the rope. That was a big surprise for them. I think they eventually transformed it into a mouse.

    With only three hours to play and a lot of talkative kids at the table, I cut out all of the sidequests and focused on the central plot. We made it to the finale just as the first parent arrived for pickup. The final scene involved a tense casting of Expeliarmus on a foe’s wand. The odds were steep due to distance penalties and resistance, but they pulled it off. Without a wand, it was much easier for them to neutralize the BBEG.

    We all appreciated the rich Hogwarts flavor and the diversity of challenges.

    I’m going to run an epilogue with my kids after school today to tie up plot threads.

    Kudos to you for providing this splendid work to the community!

    1. Thanks for the recap! I love that they played in costume, and I’m glad you were able to squeeze it all into three hours. Would have been sad if the bad guy won because of everyone’s parents arriving!

  4. Brand new updates for this adventure. First, a Risus conversion for those of you who love rules-lite systems. Risus is the predecessor to the old D6 system, so it’s super easy to pick up (and it’s free too!). Also, the VTT assets have been updated with two new VTT maps for the Warlock’s Tunnel itself, and also a professional narration from the Architect of Hogwarts himself. Enjoy!

  5. Hey, I just ran the GURPS version of this on Foundry with three players in three hours, though I had to cut a few encounters (as I couldn’t resist the Snape detention), and we had a blast! It really felt like Hogwarts, and everyone had fun in and around the adventure. The spells worked great, and did what you expected them to do. Having all the VTT resources was really convenient, and a breeze to use on Foundry. Thank you so much for making this, and other adventures available online! I’m definitely going to have a go at running some others this year.

    1. Awesome! I’ve actually never run this one over VTT, so I’m glad it went smoothly. (Although I’ve been collecting EightfoldPaper’s amazing Hogwarts-inspired VTT maps for just the purpose one day…)

  6. “A beloved prefect has disappeared and a sinister force has found a secret way into Hogwarts… only a handful of brave second year students can prevent tragedy at Hogwarts”

    is this at Hogwarts?

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