(This post is part of an end-to-end UX design project.)
In tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, a game master (GM) or dungeon master (DM) leads 1–6 players on a story-based adventure. Players are free to attempt any action that seems plausible within the world, and the GM evaluates each action based on the player’s characteristics and the rules of the game. Dice are rolled, Mountain Dew is consumed, and everyone has a great time.
However, the GM has the added responsibility of knowing everything about the adventure the players are about to undertake, and of responding to them doing unexpected things throughout. This can be a lot of work, and GMs often shortcut this process by running or adapting preexisting adventures.
The good news is that there are literally thousands of officially published adventures for Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives going back to 1974. Many of these adventures have been scanned and are available for purchase online on sites such as dmsguild.com.
The bad news is that only a small subset of them are compatible with the ruleset, general feel, player level, and constraints of each individual GM’s campaign, and there is no easy way to tell if an adventure will meet their criteria based on the available descriptions.
In addition, GMs are sometimes in a great rush to find not necessarily whole adventures, but short encounters or fleshed out locations to drop into their games as players go off the rails.
Before we can begin to design a solution to the problem, let’s try to define it a bit more rigorously.
Anatomy of Adventure
A roleplaying adventure is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As with most stories, there is conflict, typically between the players and some malevolent force (a demonic cult, an invading army, a usurper). Through combat, roleplaying, and exploration, the players advance the story and achieve intermediate objectives.
Adventures are played in sessions of 2–5 hours, and each session consists of 1–4 encounters. An encounter is a single obstacle in the players’ path: a thrifty innkeeper, a trapped hallway, or a troop of orcs. Players interact with non-player characters (NPCs), fulfill quests offered by patrons, fight monsters and bosses, and explore locations such as cities, dungeons, forests, or caves.
Adventures are written for a particular rule system and version, optimized for player characters of a certain level of experience, and multiple adventures may be tied together in longer story arcs called campaigns.
With such a complex hierarchy of possible properties, presenting an adventure so that a Game Master can determine its suitability or the suitability of any parts of it to her campaign is not an easy task. Yet, it has been attempted, to varying degrees of success.
The page for a current adventure by D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast contains the back-cover blurb and very limited details about the storyline, adversaries, or encounters. Number of pages, expected levels, and concept art, but no list of maps or even chapters.
Online PDF Retailer
Older, officially scanned D&D adventures are available through sites such as Dungeon Master’s Guild. They sometimes provide a longer description of the adventure, including story tropes and the history of the product, and offer some adventure-wide filtering functionality. It is possible to find adventures set in the Forgotten Realms, for instance, but not adventures featuring an abandoned mine.
Official adventure database
Paizo, the company behind popular D&D variant Pathfinder, keeps a database of its own adventures, sorted in a few different categories.
Unfortunately, while the categories are vaguely useful, they lead only to online store listings of Paizo’s own adventures, which are very sparse in details.
CampaignCrawler is a site dedicated not to selling, but to cataloguing adventures, so it has better search functionality and the descriptions are meant to inform, rather than entice.
Here we see excellent filtering functionality at the adventure level. Searching can be filtered by rule set, adventure theme (horror, fantasy, etc.), by player level, by publisher, by year, by author, by length, by number of players, etc. It also includes binary flags such as the presence of maps, handouts, or premade characters.
However, for the adventure itself, apart from setting some of these optional flags, has the same brief cookie-cutter description.
This problem was recently raised by a community of D&D enthusiasts around game designer Matt Colville, who proposed a better way to search for adventures. Currently in development, a prototype of AdventureLookup shows a more nuanced understanding of the components of an adventure, offering a full listing of locations, monsters, items, and characters. However, it is not clear how useful these would be to a new GM.
There are some options for adventure-level filtering and broad descriptions. But is this what GMs really need? When pressed to find a quick encounter, do they look for adventures, or for subsets of adventures? What fields do they value? What problems do they try to solve?
In my next post, I will ask them.