Designing an adventure is, for many, one of the biggest early hurdles in their life as a new gamemaster. This post will hopefully demystify some of the process and offer some advice of hammering together a simple adventure. Let’s dive in!
Stop Right Now!
A lot of game masters who are starting out are immediately going to look at campaign books or adventure paths or even some introductory adventures and immediately get flustered. Stop. These are all things that you can build up to. They’re not a great starting point, especially to get your feet under you for creating your first adventures. Start small and build up as you get more confidence in the creation process.
What do I need to know?
The two main things you need to know to design an adventure are a broad idea of the core mechanics of the game and how to build an encounter in it. Few tables expect the GM to know all the rules verbatim, you just need to know broadly how they work and have an idea about how any special rules your players have going on work. Anything else you can look up or make rulings for on the fly. Encounter building is the main thing though, and every game does it a bit differently. So, whether it’s a combat or non-combat adventure you’re wanting to design, you need to have a good understanding of the encounter building system in your game; and have an idea about what your players can actually deal with versus what the system says they should be able to deal with.
The other thing you’ll need to know is situation and scenario specific, and that’s special rules. If you’re planning something that uses rules outside the normal set that your table uses, you need to be familiar with them. I usually make myself a cheat sheet with them on it and have a few spares to hand out to the players so they have an idea about how it all works. This extra knowledge will greatly speed up the actual play of the game and keep things from getting bogged down.
Plotting it Out!
You’ll hear a lot of people rattle on about the Three Act model, or the Heroes Journey, but for a basic, get you going adventure? I like a simple plot pyramid.
Induction Point: The proverbial hook that gets the player characters into the adventure.
Rising Action: A few light encounters that result in information and move the adventure forwards.
Climax: The big encounter; this could be a boss, a complex trap, or arduous activity that tests the player characters in some way.
Return to Town: the falling action, where more information is revealed, treasures distributed, and the players decompress. Encounters here are usually social, and I don’t recommend combat ones. This is also where you place alternate endings, depending on the player character actions and decisions in game. I usually have a good, neutral, and bad ending.
Down the Pub: The adventure has ended and the player characters recover and prepare for the next one.
Why so simple? Because when you’re designing your first adventures, or if you’re more experienced and looking to create a fun one-shot that can be done in a single session, it pays to focus. You can still add lots of stuff like lore, discovery, or even new items, monsters, or peoples; but that’s built around the core of the adventure. Now, bear in mind through all this that “encounter” does not automatically mean “battle”. Encounters can be social ones, puzzles, traps, events… all kinds of things.
Now grab a seat and plot out your adventure! Pay attention to things like the amount of time you have to play in each session, how many sessions you want to use, and make some notes about what to do if there’ a no-show to the game. When plotting, unless you’re specially working with a player character’s backstory, strive to avoid placing any bottlenecks where a specific player has to do something to keep things moving.
There’s two rules to building encounters:
- The rules of the game will tell you how.
- The rules are lying.
What’s that mean? Well, the bulk of games out now will offer rules or methods for building encounters, and those that don’t typically have implied mechanics for it (like comparing creation point amounts, or descriptors for challenge etc…). The problem is that, to a degree, all these systems are lying to you one or another. Here’s a personal example:
Years ago in a 3.5e D&D game, our DM had us enter a city full of undead. We had no cleric, but we had a paladin, so we went in. Everything was fine till we encountered a pair of Shadows in a tower. Our wizard and sorcerer were both out of hard hitting spells, and only the rogue had a magic weapon. Within a few rounds, we had to run because both fighters and the paladin were on their last legs from damage and strength drain. The DM was confused, why did we run? We told them that we didn’t have the equipment to fight them. They said that the Challenge Rating was fine.
So what happened? The Challenge Rating had biases in it. There was an assumption that by the time we were fighting CR3 creatures, we’d have the means to do it. We didn’t, and narrowly avoided a TPK scenario. So that’s what I mean when I say the rules are lying. They probably work fine, but there’s other factors to consider before tossing player characters into a situation that they’re unable to deal with. And if you are planning to do that, make it clear early on that running or escaping are options, or that the plot will still advance. It’s okay to spoil things a bit, especially because it’s hard to pull off a “you got captured” as a surprise.
Pacing is a Thing!
Pacing is the tempo of your adventure in both real time, real world terms and in game, in game world terms. Pacing can be fast, it can be slow, it just needs to match the desired vibe at the table and of the adventure. But one thing it absolutely needs to be is smooth. Smoothness will come with practice and familiarity with both the game and the players, but still try to aim for it in the design phase.
This comes down to how your table works. Some tables use these, and others don’t. Personally, I like them, and it really comes down to your person time budget. There’s lots of free assets out there you can get to use, and that’s 100% okay. If you can find a resource that matches your needs, use it! If you have the time, there’s services like Inkarnate’s that let you create maps for personal use for free, or the DonJon that offers a tonne of mapping needs all procedurally generated. You can even hand draw it. My point is that this is an option and if it makes your adventure better, take advantage of it.
Don’t worry about formatting it like a professional adventure. Write it out in the order that things should happen in, and make sure you have all the numbers and stats you need for each encounter with them. The main thing here is to capture al the information you need to run the adventure. I recommend adding notes to where rules are in the book if you need to do a quick reference.
No Plan Survives!
Now that you have your adventure all sorted, you’re ready to run it, but the players aren’t cooperating and have gone way off track. It’s okay. It’s not a sign that your adventure is uninteresting or that you’re a bad GM. Sometimes players just do their own thing. You can try gently nudging them back on track, but don’t take it hard if they just keep on obsessing over the well in the middle of the village or the droid they just met. You can always revisit things when they’re ready to go.
REMEMBER: YOU ARE FINE, YOUR ADVENTURE IS FINE.
Adventure Idea: The local village lost its Holy Rock from the local shrine, and think the Goblin Village stole it for their shrine. They offer a small reward for their help.
Induction Point: The villagers, led by their Cleric, approach the player characters and ask them to retrieve their Holy Rock from the Goblin Village. Their Planting Festival is coming in a few weeks and they need it for the ceremonies and rituals. They’re too scared to go themselves because there have been so many Feral Goblin Swine in the woods.
Rising Action: The players Encounter someone calling for help in the woods on the way to the Goblin village; some Goblin hunters are trapped in a tree with two huge Feral Goblin Swine circling the base. Their weapons are by a destroyed campfire. If the players save them, they direct the players to the Goblin Village via a safe route. If they leave them, the player encounter a 1d4 Swine Traps as they move through the woods to the Goblin Village. If the player kill them, then the best ending available will be the neutral one.
Climax: When the players arrive in the Goblin Village, they see the Goblins are preparing for their own festival, as a its farrowing season for the Goblin Swine. The Goblin Elders tell the player characters that the Holy Rock was once shared between the villages, but that 10 years ago the new cleric at the village decreed it should be there at all times. Since then, there’s been more instances of Feral Goblin Swine each farrowing season, and the so the Goblins stole the rock back to hold their ceremonies. The Goblin Elders challenge the players to wrestle their prize Goblin Boar. If they win, the Goblins will return the Holy Rock on the condition its shared again. If they lose, the villagers must ask for it back themselves. Wrasslin!
Return to Town: Victory in the mud pit means the Holy Rock is returned right after the Goblins finish their rituals. The player characters are free to join in the festivities, or can head back immediately with the Holy Rock. Good ending: on arriving back, they’re greeted as heroes, and the Cleric grudgingly accepts that the Holy Rock should be shared. Neutral Ending: The players return to the village, but are stopped by Goblin Swine Riders on the way. They’re told that their actions have soured the deal, and while the Goblins will abide by their word, the player characters are no longer welcome in their lands. The village celebrates the return of the Holy Rock, but the Cleric laments that they’re likely to face harder times with the Goblin village in the future. Bad ending: the players arrive back empty handed and with an unfriendly Goblin Village; the Cleric and village elders lament the turn of events and prepare to go try to negotiate for access to the Holy Rock.
Down the Pub: the player characters rest up, discuss the future, and prepare for the next adventure.
So, there it is. Some handy tips and steps that you can use to help get your first adventures off the ground. Start easy, don’t beat yourself up, and have fun with it. Building adventures is a fun part of being a GM, and lets you tailor the game for both your own and your players’ tastes. So good luck!