How to DM: Adventure Writing

Last time, I wrote about running games as the best way to learn how to DM. And while that is true, you will eventually want to turn one of your cool ideas into an adventure or an ongoing campaign. Let me clarify some definitions for you:

Adventure: a one or more session story with a definitive beginning and end.
Campaign: a series of adventures with an overall story or plot-line, linking the adventures together, even by way of “We are just seeking one adventure after another” (what I like to call an “episodic” campaign, as there is no overarching story, with the adventures being more like episodes of an 80’s action show)

Today I am going to write about adventure planning. Most folks and even the Dungeon Master’s Guide will tell you to plan small and work your way bigger. That’s cool an all, and I get that, but I don’t do that. At the beginning, I told you that I would give you my methods, so that’s what I am going to do.

I start with deciding what kind of adventure I am going to run.

There are several types according the the Dungeon Master’s guide (Chapter 3, beginning on page 71), which they label as Location-based (like a dungeon, castle, or other such place where things happen based on rooms or other such locations), event based (the villain stole the king’s royal crown or there is a crime spree happening throughout the hamlet the Player Characters are travelling through and they are blamed), mystery (the party is invited to a party and the host is found dead, or a strange creature is found terrorizing the townsfolk in the middle of town and nobody knows where it came from), or intrigue (the party is sent as a diplomatic envoy to the elven nation they are at war with, or the king is trying to name a royal successor, and a local noble wants the party’s help to get them named over the other prospects). Some can be a combination of two or more types, or even all four!

Think I can’t do it? I’m coming up with this on the fly as I write, but here it goes: the king has agreed to bestow a fiefdom upon anyone who can find out why an ancient temple (location-based) mysteriously (mystery) rose out of the ocean off of the coast of his kingdom. The party must race to solve the mystery before another adventuring party (event-based as things each party does can effect the other, even within the temple), hired by one of the corrupt nobles in the king’s court, hoping to curry favor with the king in order to be gain standing with the royal household (intrigue).

Don’t like it? I came up with it on the fly. If you think of something better, put it in the comments below. The best idea gets a shoutout next week from me.

In any case, after I figure out what type of adventure I am running, I begin outlining.

Yes, outlining. That is that skill you may have learned as far back as 5th or 6th grade that your teacher said would be important? That.

So, what are we outlining? The adventure, of course! A before, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Now, since this is can be so daunting, I recommend using a template to help you along. Personally I use this one here (with a BIG thank you to the Welsh Piper for coming up with it!). Let’s take a look at it and you can see why I love it for adventure planning. There are others available online, but I really like this one so that’s what I will use for our example.

Let’s start from the top and work our way down, shall we?

See that grey box? I use that to put in the adventure name. If I know what I’m calling it, based on some theme or such that I’m making in the adventure, I’ll put it there. If not, I’ll leave it blank until the end.

Next we have “Hook.” This is the thing that gets the party interested in the adventure. Unless the adventure hinges on a specific hook (like, “A man walks into the tavern you are at carrying a sea chest, dressed as a sailor, limping on a cane, and falls unconscious as he enters!” or something similar), you can leave this blank for now. We’ll come back to it.

The next is the background and end goal. This is where we answer the question as to what happened before the party got involved in this particular narrative and leading up to the problem to be solved. Remember, D&D is a cooperative story-telling game! If you treat this like telling a story, it becomes much easier. And like we said earlier, a story has a beginning a middle, and an end. The only difference is that an adventure has background to give the antagonist (the “badguys” or other sort of adversaries, who may or may not be “bad” but whose goals are opposed to, in some way, the party’s goals) a reason for doing what they do.

As an example, let’s say your adventure is about exploring a dungeon. At this point you have to ask yourself: why was the dungeon built? Was it built to protect something like treasure or a specific item? Was it made to keep people away from something, like a dangerous magic item or to lock away a dangerous monster? Maybe it is a long forgotten tomb of an ancient wizard. This is all called background. This is otherwise known as everything that happened before the adventurers showed up.


In addition to this, this box is for including what the and goal for the adventurers should be. Should they destroy the ancient evil found beneath? Should they free whatever is trapped inside? Should they find all the treasure? Whatever it is, this is the end goal for the party of adventurers who will be playing this adventure.

The next box is the rewards. This isn’t the box to put down all of the individual treasures that the party will receive at the end, but to generalize. is the reward the everlasting friendship of the Duke whose son they rescued? Is it the treasure that they will get from slaying the dragon? Maybe it is information leading to another adventure. The possibilities here are endless but dependent on the type of adventure you’re going to run (as discussed earlier).

The epilogue is where I generally put how, if it is a campaign, the overarching villain or story runs as a result of what the party does. Even if it’s not a campaign, depending on how the party performs or what their actions are, towns can be on fire, dungeons can be collapsed, and all sorts of other, either positive or negative, consequences can happen as a result of the parties involvement in the adventure.

For the next section, You build the encounters that the party will have throughout the adventure. How do they get from point A to point B? If this is location-based, it is easy to number each of the rooms in the dungeon, Castle, whatever, and put whatever monster, trap, or other such obstacle down for each encounter. Of course, there are only eight slots on the sheet. This is why this is a template and not necessarily an all encompassing worksheet. This section, with eight encounters, is much better for encounter based adventures. It could also work well for mystery adventures or intrigue adventures (which, In my opinion, our types of encounter-based adventures). I simply write in the encounter and what sorts of things happen within the encounter. A short summary works just fine.

Now, as I may or may not have said, I play Dungeons & Dragons 5e. The specific columns under the “Foes” section don’t really mean much to me. For me, I write out what and how many of each monster or NPC is for each encounter.

I will discuss encounter building another time, but suffice it to say that this is where I list out the monsters, if any, for each encounter, numbered as per the encounters above.

You may notice that there is a large grid area on the top right corner of the sheet. If there is any significant locations or possibly even the map of the dungeon can be drawn up here. Personally, I like to draw larger maps on graph paper and attach it to the sheet, with a particularly significant encounter area in this corner grid area (just a note, you can download one with hex instead of grid if you prefer that sort of thing).

Look back over your sheet, now that you have everything filled in. Congratulations, you have your adventure planned out!

You’ll notice that, in addition to not discussing creating encounters, I haven’t discussed describing rooms. I intend on covering that in another post as well.

In the mean-time, revel in the fact that you have, in fact, just created your first adventure!

Published by The Daily DM

I'm just a DM telling the stories of my tables.

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