Adventure Creation Thought Process
Every time I run a one-shot for my friends, there is a good chance that I’m going to come up with an adventure I’ve never run before. Why is that? Why do I put so much trouble into creating a good adventure, and then likely never use it again when I have new players? I do have one adventure that I use on groups of new players when I’m intentionally trying to showcase D&D as a game, but generally I’ll just start making something up in my head days before and write it out on the day of. Kind of like the essays I wrote in university…
My method of planning adventures is different than others, and there is a chance that the way I do it will not be helpful for DMs, but here is my thinking. A lot of other DMs that want to teach you will give you a bunch of very specific strategies; they likely assume that if you are looking for help then just “going with the flow” hasn’t worked, or maybe they have crafted a system for planning that really helps keep them on track and keep them organized. I will admit, sometimes in my storytelling as a DM, I have to pause to find my place again in my notes. However, I trade the imperfection in my delivery for a much more comfortable and easy planning method. Here is how it goes:
First, when I have a game coming up in a few days, I’ll start to brainstorm. Sometimes I’ll have added a single sentence story idea to a document I keep in Google Docs for just such an occasion. These lines will say things like “A druid sits by the road, the forest behind him blanketed in snow despite the summer heat.” or maybe “A red haired woman walking past the party rummages through her pack, accidentally dropping a scroll case containing a powerful spell down into the sewer without realizing it.” These are very basic, but that’s because I never know when an idea is going to get used, so I save the planning for later. So a few days before a game, I pick one of these or make one up. Here, I’ll make one up as I write this blog. “A bent, cloaked figure approaches the party and claims to be a forgotten king, cursed to wander until his crown can be returned to him.” Done.
Next I will think about how experienced the players are. This will determine how much of the adventure will need to be more generic vs something that incorporates knowledge of the game/setting. New players are more likely to be tasked with retrieving a lost magic item, or protecting a caravan from monsters. Experienced players may find themselves uncovering a plot within the Harpers, or trying to help a mindflayer deal with its recently altered alignment to good. Some plot hooks will be juicier for players who know the significance of certain people, places, or monsters, and I need to figure out how much time I want to spend teaching players about a setting or letting them just play around in it while things are learned more organically.
Finally, I get to planning it in writing. My planning document is a page full of bullet point notes, the first of which beginning with “The game starts with ___” and where the characters start. I then mentally walk the players through the story as I plan to present it to them. At any point that I think I may need to consider a detail, remind myself of some feature to keep hidden, or suggest a branching path they may take, it’s just another bullet point. I give an outline of events; I say the NPCs they’ll meet and their disposition, the monsters they’ll encounter, and the story hooks plus the solution I expect. Sometimes I have to jump between points when I’m running the game as things get skipped, but ultimately, I’m just trying to have enough bullet points to remind me of the setting in my head. This way, I can respond to things appropriately when players do the unexpected. Here is an actual example of some of my DM plans from a game session I ran a while ago. I have added my thoughts in italics after some points to show you what I was doing.
- The party is seeking out the large empty expanse where the castle used to be. Special rituals had been cast on the area preventing any sort of teleportation or plane shifting into the area. If the players attempt to fly, they first watch as, ahead of them, a flock of birds is consumed by a pack of winged monstrosities that fly up from the trees. If they continue, these things will attack them, and their tactics are specifically to try and cause flying creatures to fall to their death. Here I’m planning for them to walk the path, but am ready if they try something clever so I’m not caught off guard, and make something that can easily be bypassed.
- Walking through the forest they will encounter a pair of corrupted bears, and encounter a rare fey; A Road Trixie. This human sized fey with insect like antenna is blocking the road with a puffy blue cloud and tells the party that he will only allow them to pass if one of them can beat him in a drinking competition. He will provide the alcohol, which is a special fey spirit (knowledge arcana to know that it genuinely does get fey drunk). You must succeed at a Con save DC: 12, then a Wisdom save DC: 12, then finally a Charisma save DC: 12. If any of these saves are failed, the person falls into a deep slumber for an hour. If everyone falls asleep, he will take their gold. I made up the fey because it’s easy and I love fey. It’s a one shot adventure, so losing all your gold isn’t so bad.
- Once they reach the edge of the forest, and they see the centre of the sanctuary. This massive open expanse was where the castle used to be; now there only remain some old stone structures that were built outside, as well as some large pieces of stone that were moved here for construction after Caecindril left. You are able to see 5 stone platforms have been built, with winding steps leading up to them, 20 ft high each. This is me giving them a clue about what kind of monster they might encounter.
- As they start walking into the clearing, they notice that animals have started to follow them in great numbers. A family of deer appear to be watching from a distance, and the sound of many chirping birds can be heard. Stopping to look, you can notice all sorts of animals, including mountain lions, dogs, sheep, montor lizards, and all sorts of birds, hanging back and watching them. As they continue to the centre, a group of 2 dozen rabbits race past the party, and start darting and weaving away from them through the ruins. If the party does not follow, they loop back and circle them a couple times before running off again.
- If they follow them, they will find Caecindril petrified among the ruins. At the same time, they will encounter the Beholder.
- If they go to the centre, they will only encounter the beholder once they do something that makes noise, or if they spend time on the platforms. In either case, they will first discover that they are suddenly in an anti-magic zone (its main eye is open). I don’t put any plans for tactics, because the monster will respond according to how the party is arranged and enters combat.