My first DMs Guild adventure, Battle Walker From the Abyss is out and you should get it. The adventure draws inspiration from countless sources. Either another D&D creator offered guidance that inspired my thinking, or another author’s adventure achieved something that I wanted to attempt in my own creation. While crediting my influences, this post includes minor spoilers.
When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea distills his Lazy DM preparation method to a minimum, his method includes just three essential steps:
- Develop fantastic locations
- Create a strong start
- Define secrets and clues
As I wrote, all three steps guided me, but nothing inspired me as much as developing fantastic locations. D&D allows an unlimited special effects budget and I wanted to spend it all. My adventure hops from a ruined city in the sands of Anauroch, across multiple levels of the Abyss, to battle in an iron fortress standing over a lake of molten metal.
The adventure Dead Gods (1997) by Monte Cook inspired me to imagine wondrous adventure sites in a plane-spanning adventure. Dead Gods brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of a demon lord. Battle Walker also includes a nod to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980), a classic by David Sutherland.
The strong start proved a little harder. Originally the adventure started with a battle where the characters tumbled down a gate to the Abyss, but playtesting showed that players needed more context to start. Now that battle comes later. In the published version a simulacrum asks the players for help stopping his chaos-tainted original from gaining a weapon capable of leveling cities. I hope the situation’s novelty and mystery captures the players’ attention.
A few years ago, when I prepped Blood in the Water by Ashley Warren, I felt charmed by how deeply Ashley drew from the Sea of the Fallen Stars (1999) sourcebook to add richness to her adventure. The Forgotten Realms ranks as one of the most documented fictional worlds, and the DMs Guild allows authors to borrow from it all. I drew ideas from Netheril: Empire of Magic, the Fiendish Codex: Hordes of the Abyss, and from the adventure The Wells of Darkness by Eric L. Boyd in Dungeon issue 148. Only a few D&D superfans will recognize my nods, but I think my research lends an extra depth to my adventure.
I aimed to write an adventure that I could run to a satisfying conclusion at a convention, but I also wanted one that didn’t feel linear, where players chose their destinations from options. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia offered a model. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location.
Battle Walker doesn’t lay out options quite so plainly. Instead, much of the scenario works as an investigation where players uncover secrets and clues that lead to more investigation. The principles of node-based design explained by Justin Alexander provide the engine that makes the adventure work. Each location, encounter, or “node” unlocks multiple clues leading to other locations. I aimed to drop enough clues to ensure players never feel stuck, and to create some choices.
The Lich Queen’s Begotten by M.T. Black ends with the sort of fascinating dilemma that reveals character. An innocent youth in the adventure seems destined for evil. Should the characters let her live? My adventure ends with a dilemma a bit less thorny. Should the simulacrum of the Abyss-tainted wizard be spared? The construct is just ice and snow and magic, but it still feels like a living thing. Does the duplicate share guilt or have the same potential to be snared by demons?
No one knows more about high-level D&D adventures than Alan Patrick, so I interviewed him seeking help for DMs running tier 4 games. Even though top-level characters can play like demigods, Alan looks for ways to ground them with an emotional connection to the adventure. For my creation, I couldn’t bring the character’s back to their roots, but I worked to create some emotional resonance with the ordinary characters snared in the plot.
To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. For groups interested in facing stronger combat challenges, I include “Scaling the Adventure” notes that mostly suggest increased damage, and then I invented game-world reasons for the extra punishment.
Designers tout the value of letting other gamers playtest an adventure, so I dutifully recruited playtesters. But I started the process with laughable overconfidence. After all, I ran the adventure twice myself. How much more polish could it need? I came from the process with a greater appreciation for playtesting. Feedback drove me to work harder to improve bits of the adventure that seemed good enough before. The adventure became much stronger.