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Adventure Design

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Iíve recently started DMing quite a bit, its been several years and a couple editions of D&D since Iíve done so. I think the last time I ran a significant campaign was back with 2E. The rules have changed quite a bit, but the tasks that you need to do as a DM havenít really changed much. As Iím relearning those tricks I figured Iíd type up some of the notes so that if I take a lengthy break again I wonít forget quite as much.

One of the first problems that Iíve run into is that the modules I have for the current rules, meaning 4th Edition, arenít very good. They all tend to be fairly linear and very formulaic. The party is given some basic quest to fetch the MacGuffin or rescue some one and are promptly dropped into a dungeon crawl or lengthy stretch of encounters. If your group favors the tactical aspect of combat over the role playing, this probably works for you. However, if youíre like me you favor more of a story for the players to react to this doesnít work very well at all.

When I plan out an adventure I tend to view the area as a sandbox that the players are running around in. Iíll make a crude map with some points of interest, encounters, and other toys for the party to play with. The story should define what the players will run into at each location. The idea is that at each place the players will find some clue or object that helps them achieve the goal of the adventure.

Lets say the the party has tracked the bad guy to his tower in some ruins. Obviously their goal is to get into the tower, how they'll do it is anyone's guess. Players don't always do things rationally or logically so only having one option is likely to be problematic. There's obviously a front gate, but its heavily guarded; the players can take a huge risk with a frontal assault or attempt some trickery to fool the guards into letting them in. That's not much to play with in this sandbox, so toss in some wererats living in the sewers beneath the fortress. The party can either negotiate or kill them to get through the sewers and into the tower. Or perhaps somewhere else in the ruins is a collapsed wall revealing the catacombs below the tower that the party can use to get in. Maybe just for something extra some goblins or kobolds have claimed party of the lair, their portion might not connect with the bad guys fortress but it will give the players something else to do.

Looking at it it seems like this is a heck of a lot to plan for. Thereís four different areas that the players could potentially explore. That means youíll need maps, miniatures, and monster information for the first couple encounters in each area, thatís a lot to have to prepare for the first session. Instead of doing all that work, cheat. Create only one encounter but re-skin it for whichever path your players choose.

Change the descriptions from dark, moist, rock strewn goblin caves; to slimy wet filth encrusted wererat sewers; or dusty cobweb filled catacombs of undead. You can do the same with the enemies as well, goblin spearmen become skeletal swordmen, wererat slingers become goblin archers. The weapons they use might change, but there's no reason their stats and strategies need to change. Its unlikely that the players will explore everything in the sandbox, after all their goal is to get into the tower once they find a way in they don't have any reason to explore further.

So now you've lumped multiple possible exploration paths into a single bit of prep work. You could probably save a bit more time by just borrowing the terrain and enemies from some module, just change the descriptions of things to suit which ever path the players actually choose to explore. The only thing that needs special attention is that front door of the keep.

In the end you have to design 1 dungeon crawl and the tower's front door. To the players there are 4 different places to explore. Now its just a matter of dropping in a few clues to point the players at the option you'd prefer. As the characters are wandering through the ruins they come across a skirmish between the bad guys forces and some goblins, making them a possible ally. At the gate the guards might be complaining about having to plug up the sewers again, the wererats have gotten into the kitchens again. Possibly the kobolds have equipment adorned with the bad guyís seal on them, they've been stealing supplies from the tower to bolster their forces. These sort of clues also explain the relationship between the various pieces you've put into the sandbox. Which can be a big help if you need to improvise some dialog for them if the characters decide to talk with any of them, instead of just stab them.

One last thing to remember, save everything you create! Just because the players pounded their way through the front door and skipped the other stuff you put in place, is no reason to throw that stuff out. Eventually you'll be in a campaign where a small dungeon will be needed and you can recycle what you've made. Heck, even if they do explore the dungeon, what are the odds they'd remember the terrain enough to recognize it again later?

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  1. jpatterson's Avatar
    This is really good stuff. I don't really have anything else to add, except I'm compiling a list of components and things to put into a sort of "options" book type thing of things GMs can do, mainly for myself, and this is going in it. Thanks for posting this.