Whether you’ve convinced a group of people to play Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, or a group of grognards gathers at the table for a new campaign with fresh characters, there’s one thing all D&D players need – an adventure.
The Player’s Handbook does a good job of explaining the dynamic of a D&D game, with DMs presenting the world and various scenarios to players, who then choose what their characters do in that world. The dice and the DM are there to arbitrate those choices and determine the characters’ successes and failures.
At its most basic, an adventure is a story seed that gives players a point of entry into the game world. Many adventures strung together over time evolve into a campaign, which is essentially the story that the players and their characters create together.
For an experienced DM, it can sometimes seem more challenging to create adventures than it is for a novice. Brand new players tend to approach D&D in a more lighthearted way, taking to heart its nature first and foremost as a game. Whereas longtime players might consider things like the tone of the longer campaign, the themes woven into intricate plots and how their character’s place in the world may evolve, there’s something to be said for keeping it simple. People new to the hobby generally view D&D as a game where characters fight monsters and win treasure.
Most DMs and players at some point begin to look beyond the current adventure and consider lengthier and loftier goals for their players. It’s inevitably that some sort of story will emerge, if only through the antics of the players. Nevertheless, in order to reach those heights a series of adventures is still in order.
Making memorable adventures can be tricky business, but it doesn’t have to be. Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide does a terrific job of walking DMs through the steps of creating great adventures, including structure, villains, encounters and complications. Depending on how much time and effort a DM wishes to invest, adventures can be designed to be mathematically sound in terms of balancing the three pillars of play (combat, exploration and social encounters), monster ratings vs. party power and complications like side quests and twists that make things less straightforward.
My DM style is very loosey-goosey, an approach that i apply to both small-scale adventures and campaigns as a whole. D&D is very fluid, and i omit a lot of details in adventures to account for what players do.
To start an adventure, the first thing i do is choose a primary antagonist. There’s so many cool monsters in books like the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the Tome of Beasts and more that spark the imagination. When i set out to DM for my current group, we had no idea if we’d play more than one session – a pretty common pitfall i’ve encountered as i’ve gotten older and people have increased responsibilities like children, erratic work schedules and so forth.
The sahuagin caught my eye while flipping through the Monster Manual. They’re different from the usual goblins, orcs and bandits that tend to populate low-level adventures, and lent themselves to challenging environments that i thought would make fun challenges for the players.
With interesting aquatic enemies in mind, i thought about what they might be up to. With the oft-recommended idea of starting small in new campaign in mind, a sahuagin plot to take control of an island village formulated. Starting the adventurers off on an small island was a practical way to keep the characters in a contained setting. Like many DMs before me, i plundered the work of others and drew ideas from the classic module Against the Cult of the Reptile God, as well as my experience with the Dungeons & Dragons Online MMO. The sahuagin, under the direction of the naga Explictica Defilus, fostered a cult devoted to a dark deity and isolated the island from the rest of the world with a curse that plunged the tropical fishing village into an unnatural winter. There was opportunity to introduce underwater adventuring as well – complete with sharks to fight!
Armed with a plot by a naga, with sahuagin and human cultist minions, to dominate a remote island, the next step was to give the players a few quests to do. To avoid railroading and to reinforce player agency, i came up with a three shorter quest locations they could tackle in the village, with two longer dungeons in the island’s interior. The plan was that the players could follow branching paths within the village that would prove their mettle, and afterwards the loyal guard captain would allow them out into the wilderness (it was gated to keep the village safe from dangers). Of course, the players almost immediately went off in a different direction than i anticipated, something DMs should always keep in mind – no matter what you think the players will do, they’ll do something different.
But for the matter at hand, i designed the in-village adventures to be relatively short and include elements of combat, exploration and social interaction in varying degrees.
One quest involved investigating the town’s temple. The goodly clerics had been converted to cultists and shut the villagers out, severely dampening their spirit. The map for the temple was relatively simple: a 20′ wide hallway that formed a big square. At three of the corners, doors led to side chambers were sahuagin necromancers were animating zombies of deceased prominent villagers to further demoralize them. The fourth corner had a secret door, beyond which the temple’s wealth was kept in a chest made safe by a trap that sprayed acid at anyone who opened it. In the center of the temple was a small vestibule where they party could take a short rest. Across from there, in the main chamber, a sahuagin priestess was conducting a complex ritual with several cultists, sahuagin and zombies, the chamber protected by a magical barrier puzzle. This quest was mainly combat-oriented, with a bit of exploration. Party ingenuity turned one of the combat encounters into a social encounter as well, which was a nice development.
For another quest the party learned that the village mage had traveled to the island wilderness some time ago to find a way to stop the cult activity. So naturally, the party broke into his house to find clues. Because this quest relied mostly on puzzles and skill challenges, i opted to describe the party’s surroundings instead of mapping out their explorations. The goal here was for the party to discover the mage’s notes and a map leading them to some ruins out on the island. In addition, they uncovered a hidden alchemy lab and an even more hidden puzzle that guarded a magical crystal. Unfortunately for the party, a group of sahuagin had been secretly watching them and, unable to bypass the puzzle themselves, attacked as soon as the puzzle was overcome. This quest was focused on exploration, with a combat encounter thrown in for liven things up.
Finally, there was a social encounter for the party with a crazy old retired adventurer. Admittedly, social encounters are not my strong suit as a DM. i often have a hard time coming up with NPC responses to player questions, which is something i need to work on. Exploring this topic is worthy of a future post all it’s own, but for the time being my best advice is make sure you know what an NPC’s motivations are at the very least. On a related note, this is one of my criticisms of many published adventures, that don’t effectively explain why NPCs do what they do. This quest was totally social. There was a possibility of combat, dependent on some behind-the-screen criteria like the time of day they visited and what they’d already done. Since it was the first branch the party followed, they hadn’t aroused the interest of the cult yet so they weren’t being watched or followed.
Designing adventures for your group is not terribly difficult. Many people cleave to the notion that DMing is an incredible amount of often thankless and complicated work. To that i say, rubbish! Like anything else, the more a person DMs, the better they’ll get at it but even novices can put together adventures pretty easily by keeping just a few points in mind, including the notion that it is the players who will develop the story.
And always remember – the players don’t know what you have planned and prepared, so if your adventure needs the characters to go to Point A to proceed, and they go to Point B instead, then just make Point B into Point A – they’ll never know!
Need to come up with an adventure for you D&D group? Here’s a few points to keep in mind that will help you come up with quests quickly and simply.
- Pick a monster you think is cool
- Consider what the monster might be up to
- What’s their goal?
- What is directing the monster’s actions?
- What sort of environment does the monster live in?
- Pick a handful of allies for the monster
- Do they have a more powerful boss?
- Do they have bestial minions?
- Do they have any allies to help accomplish their goals?
- Develop three short quests based on the pillars of play
- One focused primarily on combat
- One focused primarily on exploration
- One focused primarily on social interaction
- Sprinkle elements of the other two pillars in each quest
- Keep the monster’s goals in mind, but let the players guide the story
- After a session, think about how the players’ actions affected the monsters goals
- Give the players options, even if limited
- Avoid railroading
- Point B can become Point A – players will never know!