Tag Archives: adventure design

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate

I’m used to having fringe tastes: I love Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy, and science fiction. These days, none of these passions rate as weird, but only because of a recent flip in popular tastes. As a teen, all these interests struck people as childish escapism. Worse, I failed to appreciate sports. Now books with dragons top the bestsellers, comic book movies get nominated for best picture, and I feel grateful for the change, but if I need a reminder of my weird tastes, I can just look at all the progressive rock in my music library. Giants may not be strange any more, but Gentle Giant still is.

Even in Dungeons & Dragons, I fail to appreciate things that normal fans like. In this post, I confess to six lapses in taste. As with my last post on this topic, this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 6 aspects of our hobby.

1. Game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

D&D’s original dungeon below the ruins of Blackmoor Castle drew so much traffic that a fairground filled with “hundreds of fabulous deals” catered to incoming adventurers. Turnstiles blocked entry into the dungeon (1 gp admission). Dave Arneson’s exhaustion with all the players insisting on dungeon crawls rather than Napoleonic naval battles drove him silly. In the Forgotten Realms, entry into Undermountain also costs 1 gp, but The Yawning Portal sells drinks rather than I-survived-the-dungeon t-shirts. As campaigns grow, adventurers start seeming common, so dungeons charged admission in the grand campaigns run by Dave and Ed Greenwood. Nowadays, so many adventurers crowd the Realms that they need a league.

The League’s version of the Realms really does teem with adventurers, but in home games I don’t understand the urge to elevate adventurer to a common profession.

If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend. Between all the time we spend waiting our turn and finding our place in the crowd, we play D&D to feel exceptional. Most campaign worlds only include 3-7 players—ample room for each to stand out as extraordinary. So why work to make adventuring seem common?

2. Characters with full names from the modern world. I’ve played D&D with Chuck Norris, Bob Ross, Walter “Heisenberg” White, Maynard G. Krebs, and many others. No, my time as a D&D blogger hasn’t landed me in games with famous and often fictional people. At my tables, players have used these names, and often these personas, for their characters. Sometimes the tone of a game fits sillier characters and everyone loves it. I want to play in a game with an entire party patterned after Muppets. Other games include cooperative storytellers crafting characters and their world. Showing up with Bill S. Preston Esquire may strike the wrong chord.

Still, I get the appeal. Some folks play D&D to hang with friends or to battle monsters, but pretending to be an elf feels awkward. Instead of an angel and a devil on their shoulders, these players have a class clown mocking Butrael’s elven name and a gym teacher saying, “Grow up!” So playing Burt Reynolds from Celene feels like taking a safe seat with the wise guys at the back of class. Players who adopt a modern persona for an elf in Greyhawk get to join the fun while declaring themselves too cool for the silly play acting.

The popularity of modern names and personas leaves me conflicted. Many players feel an affection for, say, Keith Richards and relish playing him as a swashbuckling pirate. I hate squelching the fun, particularly if it means dragging someone out of their comfort zone. That said, when I ruled to block real-world names from my game-store table, players thanked me.

Instead of writing a modern name atop your character sheet, just mash it into something like Bureyn. Dave and Gary’s players did it all the time.

3. Bungee monsters in multi-table adventures. Multi-table epic adventures join a ballroom full of adventuring parties together to battle for a common goal. Often these adventures assign one DM to take a monster from table to table, interrupting play to trade rounds of attacks. Like jumpers at the end of a bungee, these monsters plunge suddenly into a scene, and then snap away. Adventure authors hope these monsters unite the tables in a battle against a shared foe. Some players seem to like the surprise breaks from a session’s rhythms. High-damage characters particularly seem to enjoy vying for the highest output.

For me, the attacks just make an unwelcome interruption. These monsters’ sudden appearances typically defy explanation, so they destroy any sense of immersion. Also, the damage dealt to the bungee monster never matters; they always have just enough hit points to visit every table.

4. Adventures with carnival games. One shtick appears so frequently in organized play adventures that it must be popular. The characters visit a party, festival, or carnival where they compete against non-player characters in in a series of mini games: The dwarf enters the drinking contest, the bard tells tall tales, and the barbarian does the caber toss. For adventure writers, the device offers a simple way to let players flaunt their skills, presumably boosted by ample roleplaying. I know many people enjoy the setup, because I’ve heard players rank carnival-game adventures as favorites.

Nonetheless, I rate “carnival games” with “jumped by bandits” as easy ways to puff an adventure to fill a longer session. (At least the carnival games add variety.)

When I play D&D, I like to make game-altering decisions while (imaginary) lives hang in the balance. Competing for an (imaginary) blue ribbon feels like a disappointment. Much of the fun of roleplaying games comes from making choices and witnessing the consequences, but carnival games lack interesting options. Players only need to match the game to the characters with the best bonuses. Deciding not to enter the gnome wizard in the arm-wrestling competition hardly rates as deep strategy. Also, although adventure authors surely contrive to make the carnival shape the next encounter, I’ve never managed to pretend the mini games affect the adventure—aside from offering a route to end it and go to lunch.

5. Using miniatures for the wrong monster. During my last convention, I learned that I can easily become confused. Let me explain. Almost every dungeon master brought miniatures. Wonderful, right? Miniatures add visual appeal to the game. Dungeon masters who cart an assortment on a flight, and then daily through the convention center show a commitment that I value.

But no DMs carried minis that matched the monsters in the adventure. Every battle started like theater during a flu epidemic. “Tonight, the role of Lareth the Beautiful will be played by a grick. The roles of the goblins go to a barmaid, a shadow demon, and a hell hound.” I could never remember what figure represented what, so the miniatures proved a distraction. I spent two turns stabbing someone’s flaming sphere. By the end of the con, I wished for numbered bottlecaps that I could keep straight and I fretted that a miniatures fan like myself could fall so far.

To be clear, I’m only griping about games where the tracking the jumble of miniatures demands a cast list. I enjoy D&D games with coins, skittles, and pure imagination.

6. The dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. Many D&D fans rate this picture as a favorite, so why do I hate joy?

Most folks see the characters’ pride in slaying a baby dragon as humorous. I cringe in vicarious embarrassment at the pose. I like my dragons fierce, so the pitiful, dead one feels as sad as a pretty bird broken by an office window. And cameras don’t exist in the D&D world, so just what are these “heroes” posing for? Nobody paints that fast. See When D&D Art Put Concerned Parents Ahead of Players.

Related: Reader Reaction to 6 Things in D&D I Fail to Appreciate

Related: 9 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate

Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.

 

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

Four Essential Qualities of a 4-Hour Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Running adventures by other authors has raised my Dungeons & Dragons game. As a dungeon master for organized play, I have prepared adventures that seemed like duds. Sometimes, at the table, I followed an author’s script and saw that their adventure worked despite my concerns. When I had little experience with adventures other than my own dungeons, I found lots of pleasant surprises. I learned a lot.

Those surprises happen less often now. I feel confident judging which 4 elements I always want in something like a 4-hour Adventurers League session.

I have the voice of authority to back me up. The book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick includes a list of adventure tips from legendary designer Jennell Jaquays. Goodman Games publisher Joseph Goodman listed advice for penning a good adventures to accompany How to Write Adventures that Don’t Suck. This post features select tips from the experts’ lists. Believe them.

All 4 qualities in my list resist easy adjustments at the table. This post’s draft included, “Give it the villains a fighting chance,” but I cut it. If an adventure puts a beholder in a tiny room where the heroes can make it into a piñata, I can adjust at the table. If an adventure fails to include a variety of challenges, only a rewrite will help.

In every 4-hour adventure, I want 4 qualities:

1. A variety of challenges. This ranks as my number 1 by a wide margin. Typical D&D groups bring varied tastes, and few players like 4 hours of the same. Any session should include (1) a social scene, (2) a combat encounter, and either (3a) a thinking problem or (3b) a secret to investigate.

To qualify, the social scene must start with a goal and pose an obstacle. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. Social scenes that dump purposeless characters into a banquet or marketplace confound most players.

“Make sure some role-playing interaction with other sentient beings is necessary for success.” – Jaquays

A typical 4-hour adventure features two or three battles, and I like variety in the combat encounters. When I ran the D&D Encounters program and saw the adventure for a new season, I eagerly scanned the pages, noting which monsters would appear. A variety of foes excited me. (I remain easily amused.)

At Gen Con 2017, I ran adventures set on the streets of Hillsfar. Typically, city adventures suffer from recurrent fights against thugs, thieves, and assassins. Same fight, different alley. The authors of this Hillsfar series imagined ways to pit players against a variety of monsters, and that made me happy.

“Pace it well. Long, tiresome combats should be followed by quick rooms. Thought-provoking puzzles should be followed by bloodbaths. Slow, trap-filled hallways should be followed by a rousing fight.” – Goodman

2. A fast start. When players sit for an organized-play adventure, their characters land in the the adventure too. I like adventures that speed through the chore of getting the characters to agree to the mission their players already accepted. DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks includes a favorite hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters. Bang! We’re off!

“Always begin a new adventure with action: a fight, a chase, a breathtaking escape, a witnessed crime, and so on.” – Jaquays

Nothing vexes me more than an adventure that challenges players to uncover the secret of their goal for the adventure.

Most organized-play adventure hooks should also promise a reward in gold early on. Not all characters aim to do good or to seek adventure. Players will take adventures without seeing the rewards ahead, but on behalf of their characters, they still wonder why are we doing this?

“Maintain a ‘cut to the chase’ feeling—start with a bang and get to the action fast.” – Goodman

Some critics argue that starting an adventure with a fight ranks as a cliché. Ignore them. For many D&D players, the game only starts when they start rolling dice. At my weekly D&D game, the kids can sit without a battle, but at least one parent pines for action. (Not me. Well, not just me.)

3. A choice. Players accept that a 4-hour time limit leaves no room for open worlds, but when an adventure shunts the party through a fixed sequence of scenes, players notice—and they grumble. Every adventure should feature an option that leaves players wondering what would have happened if we had….

I love DDEX2-13 The Howling Void by Teos Abadia and DDEX03-15 Szith Morcane Unbound by Robert Adducci for offering players unusual freedom. Both also demand more from a DM than a typical session. Some overwhelmed convention DMs bridle at the prospect of prepping many encounters that may not occur.

In practice, just a couple of choices satisfy players. But avoid false choices that could lead to the same scene. Players should know enough about their options to expect a different outcome from each possibility. See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

4. A dash of the fantastic. In D&D, authors sometimes reserve the mind-bending fantasy for high-level characters. But I like every adventure—even that 1st-level strike against bandits—to include a fantastic element. Have the goblins uncovered some lost bit of magic that lets them do something wondrous?

I remember a D&D adventure that relied on a bomb as a threat, and how that made me sad. In the fantastic world of D&D, could the most interesting threat really be a bomb? I turned the bomb into a magical box that opened a door to the spirit world and lured vengeful souls onto the material plane.

Not all the fantastic elements need to be dangerous or useful. Interesting trinkets and strange phenomena can create the same wonder. The magic fountain feels tired by now, but you can create fresh wonders that put enhantment into your world.

“Convey a sense of the fantastic. Convey this through encounters, descriptions, and most importantly, magic. The fantastic is what makes D&D so much fun, and that has to come across in the adventure.” – Goodman

Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

Running Shackles of Blood: Making the good adventure into a great session

The free, issue 4 of Dragon+ includes the Dungeons & Dragons module Shackles of Blood by Joshua Kelly. This adventure comes from the Adventurers League Expeditions program. Normally, this program only lets you play such adventures in public venues such as game stores and at conventions, so the download introduces home players to the program. Shackles of Blood features a turning point in the Rage of Demons storyline, and concludes with an unforgettable final battle.

Shackles of Blood flooded arena

Shackles of Blood – the finale in a flooded arena

At this year’s Gen Con, I ran Shackles of Blood several times. Now, I will tell you how to make this good module into a great play experience.

If you plan to play this adventure, stop reading now. But if you intend to run it as a dungeon master, or simply want to peer under the hood with me, keep reading.

The dungeon master’s dilemma

The thorniest aspect of Shackles of Blood stems from the way leads characters into a virtually unwinnable encounter. The set up serves the aim of capturing the PCs so they wind up in that great final battle. During one session I ran, when the players’ capture left them feeling defeated, one said, “Don’t worry, this just leads to the last encounter and, trust me, you want to play the last encounter!” He had already playtested the adventure.

At Gen Con, the dungeon masters running Shackles felt conflicted about sending players into an encounter they could not expect to win or even avoid. Most DMs feel that railroading ranks as the worst abuse of their power. To be fair, none of the players at my tables felt railroaded. They had never read the adventure, so they never knew it was a setup.

The setup

The adventure begins with PCs charged with finding a family of halflings, the Tinfellows, who disappeared from a valley near the city of Hillsfar.

Meanwhile, a group of Hillsfar’s Red Plume guards plots to capture the PCs so they can be forced to fight in the city’s arena. Even if the PCs avoid an ambush, their investigation leads them to be overwhelmed by Red Plumes firing crossbow bolts laced with sleeping poison.

Tactics for the Red Plumes

When the Red Plumes battle the PCs, they fire crossbow bolts until one of the PCs fails a save and falls unconscious. Then a Red Plume can bring a knife to the sleeping character’s throat and the demand surrender in exchange for the character’s life. Of course, he’s bluffing, but the players will typically stand down. Because they chose to surrender, they feel like heroes opting to fight another time. Any PCs who call the bluff become the focus of attack.

In the battle with the Red Plumes, avoid letting the PCs scatter so that some escape. Hold a few Red Plumes back at the perimeter of the battle. Some PCs may still use invisibility or other tricks to get loose. If they succeed, a divided party makes running the adventure a bit more challenging, but the free PCs will trail any captives.

Plan B

If the players manage “the impossible dream” of escaping the Red Plumes, the adventure supposes that the party will return to their patron. (They probably won’t. See “Choices players never make.”) She tells them to get captured intentionally. After the players win against impossible odds, they must go back to lose on purpose. How unsatisfying!

Normally, players would trash a lousy plan that puts them in shackles and deprives them of their gear, but for the sake of the adventure, they will abide. Then you, as the DM, must improvise a narrative that puts players into chains.

Dismantling that unseen railroad requires a better plan B. Here is what I recommend.

In the unlikely event that the players escape capture during their investigation, they cannot rescue the entire family of Tinfellows. In my tweak, the players can rescue some of the Tinfellows, but most have been sent ahead to the arena at Hillsfar. Now, whether the players get captured or not, they must return to Hillsfar to rescue Tinfellows from certain death.

This pursuit leads the PCs to a meeting with Margery “Mags” Thrier outside the Hillsfar arena.

Unless your table features the first-ever all-human band of adventurers since the era of little brown books, the party must find a way to get their non-humans into Hillsfar and to the arena. Some party members might adopt disguises—it works for Breex Vandermast. Others could pose as captives bound for the arena. If you prefer to avoid this challenge, move Mags and the slave market outside the Hillsfar gates.

Mags explains that she purchased the Tinfellows legally and refuses to relinquish her property without compensation. The Tinfellows languish somewhere deep under the arena, slated to fight, and undoubtedly die tomorrow. If the players would be willing to trade places in the upcoming battle, Mags will set the family free.

Mags’s pet Goliath tries to startle the players. When they prove their nerve, she questions them about their combat experience. Inevitably, some party members will rise to pose as tough guys.

If the players worry that Mags will betray them, she steps to a betting kiosk and places a bet on the PCs in the next day’s battle of the bell. “Now if you lose, I lose, but I have a feeling about you lot.”

Once the players agree to take the Tinfellow’s place, Mags warns that if they fail to fight, the Tinfellows will fight, and die, in an upcoming contest.

Because of the non-human PCs, the entire party must surrender to the guards and go to that cage on the arena floor.

Dismantling the railroad

Now that you have a plan B that leads to the final encounter, you don’t need the PCs to lose to the Red Plumes. Instead, that confrontation can end in a draw or even a win. The Red Plume captain has no reason to see his men die in a fight with the PCs. If the players slay a couple guards, I suggest having the captain call a truce. He can tell the players that the Tinfellows have already been sold to Mags at the arena in Hillsfar. He might even promise not to take any more captives from the hills. You can decide whether he tells the truth.

Meeting Breex Vandermast

The half-orc sorcerer Breex Vandermast serves as the adventure’s final villain.

Whether the players find themselves on the arena as willing or unwilling fighters, they must meet Breex before the battle. This can happen as written, on the road to Hillsfar, or later with the PCs caged on the arena floor.

Either way, Breex tells the PCs how much he will relish seeing them die in the arena. He taunts the non-human characters for their filthy taint, and then turns his disgust on the humans for joining such rubbish. Describe Breex’s filed down canine teeth. Tell how his ears appear clipped to a human roundness, and how he wears a powder that lends his skin a more human tone. When the players identify Breex as half orc, I guarantee that his hypocrisy and bigotry will inflame them. During the arena contest, my players searched the stands for Breex, eager for a chance to strike at him.

The Bell in the Depths

The adventure ends with a battle in the Hillsfar arena that pits the PCs against a team of halfling gladiators. The contest spans platforms erected over the flooded arena floor. Both sides race to ring a bell atop a central tower.

Describe the battleground as fenced and flooded enclosure on the larger arena floor. That way, when blood-crazed spectators spill onto the floor to climb the pool’s walls and tear at its bolsters, its collapse and sudden draining seems inevitable.

Shackles of Blood - drained arena

Shackles of Blood – drained arena

In the battle of the bell, a 15-foot gap separates the halflings’ tower from the bell tower. The halfling thugs have a 15 strength, so they can jump that gap. This means that if the halflings win initiative, they could ring the bell before the players even act. Let the halflings’ overconfidence and their urge to preen for the crowd slow their assault on the bell. On their first turn, the thugs take positions on the bell tower.

The halfling spies can use Cunning Action to gain an extra dash action on their turns. If the halfling druid casts Longstrider on a spy, the ally can cross the arena quickly and assault any PCs who choose to stay on their tower. In my sessions, the druid never managed to concentrate on Barkskin long enough to matter, so Longstrider made a better buff. Because the druid lacks long-range attacks, don’t make him an easy target. Instead, he buffs allies and carefully advances into Thunderwave range.

A halfling who uses a dash action can swim the 4 squares from a starting tower to an assault tower in a single turn. That pace brings them out of the water before the quippers can attack.

Don’t bother holding Breex’s entry until all the halflings have been incapacitated. Bring him out when the contest starts to lull. The players will be eager for the showdown.

As the Red Plumes struggle to quell riots, the PCs will have no trouble rescuing the Tinfellows. After prevailing in the arena battle, the players will feel they earned this easy success.

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
     
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.
     

     
    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create a detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

Designing for spells that spoil adventures

In my last two posts, starting with Spells that can ruin adventures, I discussed the various spells with the potential to spoil Dungeons & Dragons adventures, turning hours of fun into a quick ambush. You may say, “Why worry? Just rule that these spells don’t exist in your campaign.” Clearly, you have enough foresight to carefully examine the spell lists, establishing a list of dangerous spells and magic items that might ruin your campaign plans. Of course, you could also rule that Zone of Truth doesn’t exist in your game the minute it becomes a problem. But your players will hate that.

The D&D system’s spells and magic contribute to an implied setting that most D&D players and DMs share. As a DM, you can ban spells, but that offers no help for authors of adventures for organized play or for publication. Authors writing D&D fiction also must work around these spells, or ignore them and hope the readers fail to notice.

The fourth edition attempted to eliminate every last adventure ruining effect. Fly effects really just let you jump. The ethereal plane is gone, or at least inaccessible. Linked portals replace the long-range teleport spell. While I favor this approach over keeping all the problem spells in in the system, I concede that the purge might have been heavy handed.

So that brings us to today. Seeing Zone of Truth in the D&D Next spell list inspired me to write these posts. These spells and effects need careful weighing of the benefits they offer to the game, and more thought to how they effect adventures and the implied game setting.

For the designers of D&D, I have the following suggestions:

  • Spells that compel honesty or discern lies do not add enough to the game to earn a place in the game. These spells could exist as a optional elements.
  • Spells that detect evil should only detect the supernatural evil of undead, outsiders and the like.
  • Divination spells must provide hints and clues rather than unequivocal answers, and should discourage players from seeking answers too often.
  • Scry spells must be subject to magical and mundane counters such as the metal sheeting that blocked Clairvoyance and Clairaudience in the first edition.
  • Scry spells should never target creatures, like Scrying, but only known locations, like Clairvoyance and Clairaudience.
  • Ethereal travel must be subject to barriers such as gorgon’s blood mortar, permanent ethereal objects, and perhaps even vines, as mentioned in the original Manual of the Planes.
  • The game should offer some magical countermeasures to teleportation, such as Anticipate Teleport, and the ability to make these spells permanent.
  • The Dungeon Master’s Guide needs a chapter on magical effects that the DM should plan for in campaign and adventure design, starting with fly and divination.

Next: But how do you win?