We just gushed about how important players and their characters are to telling stories in RPGs, but let’s look at the most ubiquitous tool in a Dungeon Master’s toolbox: the adventure. If you’re ready to put together a campaign or one-shot, you want to try to make it memorable. This is a guide to organizing your thoughts and creating ideas that you can use to write the best Dungeons & Dragons adventure of your own making.
Steal Ruthlessly From Things You Love
Generally, a good Dungeons & Dragons session boils down to to two things: “As a DM, did I have fun?” and “Did my players have fun?” When making an adventure, start with things that you know you like. Did you love Dune? What about it? The giant worm monsters? The vast desert? The weird, vector-graphics shields? Throw it in there!
From there, think of what your players love. This can be a genre of gameplay; some players love combat, some love storytelling, and so on. It can be a genre of fantasy, like sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, or science fantasy. The classes your players chose play a part, too; if one player rolled a monk, they may want cinematic action, while a rogue player may prefer skullduggery and Assassin’s Creed-inspired gameplay.
That said, don’t blatantly plagiarize your adventure. Pick elements to add to your own mix.
Choose a Pillar
With this in mind, choose a genre of gameplay to center your adventure around. The Player’s Handbook says that D&D has three major pillars of gameplay: Exploration, Interaction, and Combat. Every adventure has a little bit of each, but it helps to choose one pillar to focus on. When in doubt, what do the players want to do? Search the room, talk with someone, or pick a fight?
Each pillar lends itself to a certain mode of play. A classic dungeon crawl lends itself to exploring ancient ruins and fighting its inhabitants, with minimal diplomacy. The typical wilderness adventure strongly focuses on exploring a large swath of land, often in search of a specific person, place, or thing. It’s about equal on the interaction and combat pillars, since sandbox settings give characters a lot of leeway on whether or not they want to fight or parley. An intrigue adventure puts diplomacy front-and-center, with players resolving most of the major conflicts through roleplay and not “roll-play.” Combat often takes place when negotiations get too hot or assassins arrive in the night, but exploration is rare.
Make a Skeleton
You have two big ideas floating in your head: where the fun is and the angle of approach. Now it’s time to draft this baby. Let’s assume that your adventure can be finished in a single game session. If you want to tell a story with your adventure (as opposed to simulating reality, which doesn’t abide by any rules of storytelling), consider using the classic three-act structure as a framework.
Act I is setup. Jot down any plot hooks that will draw your players into this week’s adventure and the NPCs they’ll meet early on. For tips on making quick, low-effort NPCs, check out Chapter 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide—it has fantastic advice! Act I establishes the important characters, places, and objects of an adventure and why the PCs should care.
Act II is the beginning of the adventure proper. In a dungeon crawl, it may be the first half of the dungeon itself, or maybe the journey to the dungeon. In a mystery adventure, it’s investigating the crime, grilling suspects, and gathering clues. If you do anything in the middle of an adventure, make sure you build tension, so that it all can be released in Act III.
Act III is the climax and resolution of the adventure. In order to talk about it better, let’s talk about the Five Room Dungeon. The concept is easy; most dungeons in published adventures are designed to be explored over the course of multiple sessions, but a five-room dungeon can be completed in the course of a single game. The five rooms follow this simple pattern:
- Entrance and Guardian. The PCs have to figure out how to get inside.
- Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge. After fighting or sneaking their way in, the PCs now have to change gears and use their smarts or charm to progress.
- Trick or Setback. Whether it’s a spiked pit trap or a Legend of Zelda-like monster with a specific weakness, something happens that catches the PCs off-guard or otherwise makes them re-evaluate their strategy.
- Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict. The grand finale! If the PCs have been hunting a dragon, this is its lair. If they’re negotiating a prisoner’s release, this is the courtroom scene.
- Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist. This is the denouement and the sequel hook. Sure, the PCs found the golden idol they were searching for, but the ruby eye that grants wishes is missing! And left behind is the taunting note of the treasure hunter who got there first…
Notice how these five rooms cover both Acts II and III. Rooms 1 through 3 are Act II, building tension and danger, which then reaches a climax in room 4 and is resolved in room 5. This simple framework is so broadly applicable that it can even be used for adventures that have nothing to do with a dungeon, instead becoming a sort of flowchart of locations, events, or even relationships. The Gnome Stew article linked above goes into greater detail, describing different ways to order the “rooms” of your adventure. Hint: don’t make them all a linear progression—if you create branching paths between points of interest, your players will have choices that let them meaningfully interact with the game world.
Notice also that this skeleton doesn’t have an “Act 0,” or backstory. A little bit of history is fine, even useful, but if your players can’t interact with the backstory then your time would be better spent elsewhere. Adventures with lots of “gameable” content are cleaner and more exciting than those with lots of backstory.
Fill Your Dungeon
This is the home stretch. You’ve already molded your high concept into a working skeleton, now you just need to put some meat on those bones by filling your adventure with traps, terrain, and monsters. When creating encounters, think about more than XP budgets and encounter balance (though those are important). Think about how the terrain can create a more interesting scenario than three ghouls in a large, open room. Exciting terrain could be as simple as increasing the elevation every few feet, or it could be as fantastical as an upside-down waterfall with bizarre gravity that sucks all nearby creatures into it.
There’s a lot of great advice for stocking your dungeon in Appendix A of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Some of it’s a little overkill for a Five Room Dungeon, but a little overkill never hurt anyone.
Be Prepared to Throw It All Away
Our final word: no plan ever survives contact with the PCs. Run your adventure with confidence and excitement, but don’t get too attached. Remember that you can change anything on the fly if the PCs haven’t seen it; none of it exists to your players until you say it does!
Originally published on April 10, 2016.