View Full Version : DM Help What is your creative process for preparing dungeons and other adventures?

2016-03-16, 11:03 PM
So here's what I'm looking for:

How do you plan an adventure?

Do you use any formulas for laying out a dungeon?

How do you make a place interesting/believable?

How do you create intrigue in your campaign?

How do you make puzzles for your dungeons?

Do you do anything extra besides write? Coffee? Fantasy Music?

Here's why I ask: My party really likes playing and I like DMing for them. I really like to have my dungeons planned out. So I draw up a map (maybe with a basement included maybe not) with oh say....17+ rooms. The problem now is that I want to put things in those rooms, but every room can't be a fight and every room can't be a puzzle, and a litany of traps is sure to upset any party. So I have a lot of rooms that are basically empty rooms except for a couple of descriptors. (For example, "This room is a ruined chapel. It has pews and an altar," or "This room is a crypt. You can see several stone sarcophagi." What non-obvious things can I put in these rooms without having a dungeon with a fight/trap/puzzle for every room?

Let me give you an example from my most recent dungeon. The party was hunting vampires and the idea is they find their way into the vampire's lair and they find a room filled with stuff that has been around as long as this vampire has. This is the room that I wrote:

This room reminds you of several attics or cellars that you have been in. It carries the same general smell, and everything is coated in a fairly substantial layer of dust. If you were to guess, you would say that no one has been in this room for some time. There are several stone shelves that stand about this room with various ancient knick-knacks upon them. One shelf has an assortment of stone arrowheads, stone knives and stone axe heads. Another shelf has a bone flute that has crumbled on one end it lies atop a positively ancient fur skin. Next to it lies a shawm. A stone adze and a chisel sit upon another shelf, and yet another notable shelf holds a harrow, and a rusty iron plough. You're fairly certain even the most recent of these tools hasn't seen use in at least a century.

2016-03-16, 11:07 PM
I prefer abstract all my rooms where I haven't planned an encounter of some kind (whether combat or otherwise).

So the creative process for an adventure looks a lot more like a flow chart than a map.

Unless it REALLY matters what's going in each and every room, I much rather say "ehh, you look through some halls and doors, finding dusty old junk until you enter a room where an (insert important thing) catches your eye..."

I actually think your way is better. It builds suspense, it creates rest between points of action... but honestly, that's too much more work for me when I'm GMing >_>

2016-03-17, 08:44 AM
If you read some of the old-school D&D material (like the dungeon generator in the back of the first DMG) you will find that they expect only 1 in 3 rooms to have something of note. The reason for this is that it builds tension when the players never know if a room is truly unremarkable or has some danger or treasure within.

2016-03-17, 09:10 AM
It also adds to verisimilitude, if every room has some purpose clearly related to adventuring it seems unrealistic.

I try to figure out what the dungeon complex was used for in the past and figure out a purpose each room could have been set to related to this previous use. I also like to map out the dungeon.

2016-03-17, 09:54 AM
Usually when Im designing a dungeon i start by asking "What is the purpose of this dungeon to the game." I dislike having dungeons, which would have required huge effort to construct, to be around just 'cus. All of my dungeons must have a reason to be in the world, and must add to a story. Those things will give you the general content of the dungeon and how you hope to advance your story through a visit by your players.

I design all my maps using inkscape, which is like adobe illustrator, but free. It's very versatile software and you can do so much with it after a bit of practise. Its easy to add interesting features, while avoiding stupid things like meaningless 90-degree corners. I try to include many possible crosslinked paths, because exploring is fun and linear dungeons are boring.

Then its a case of populating the place with monsters, puzzles and traps. The former shouldnt be on a room by room basis generally, because creatures move around. Its better to have general areas they are likely to be in. Puzzles and traps are static, but must have a reason on existing in the first place and a reason they are positioned how they are. "To make life hard for the player" is fine sparingly, but will get boring quickly. (Although having said all that, i really like the idea of a roaming trap :-) )

Finally add treasure thats appropriate for the dungeon, treasure you want your players to have, or just roll treasure if youre lazy.

There is loads of online guides about how to make interesting and exciting dungeons that arent just a series of rooms with some monsters.

2016-03-17, 10:07 AM
I must say I thought I am more random, but it seems that I follow certain process...

Usually I begin with an idea - it may be one sentence that encompasses either one good scene, a plot, interesting landmark or just something I saw in a movie and thought "cool, how would my players react?".

Example: duel in-and-on a cathedral with 1000 candles, while outside a storm rages; PCs travel back home, and as they pass a village, they are invited to visit a local lord they helped - and who is targeted by assassins; a lone ruined tower in the middle of forest; how would my players react to a meeting with followers of snake-cult?

This idea is then written into my idea-book. Whenever I get to a point where I see I could use it, I take it and play with it in my head. How will my players react? What NPCs will I need? What NPCs would be interesting?
How to start this...?

I write down some notes. And start with flowcharts.

I am also a fan of flowchart-like preps for dungeons, as Vitruviansquid. If I want suspense, I start placing empty rooms, but work on the narration - describing the dust, shadows flickering on the walls, movement caught by the corner of their eyes which turns to be just dripping water or falling rubble... and I must say they would prefer more a room full of orcs to this.
I tried the Angry DM's huge dungeons playstyle, but it didn't really fit with my players - they are not really the explorative types.
So, what I do is - I start with either the goal or the start. Sometimes both - I draw two circles on random places on a paper and just add lines and other circles. I usually just add rooms as I see fit - here would a small arena fit... and here? Definitely amphitheater. The BBEG loved his public announcements... and here? Hmm... long hall with nearly no door, just slits in the walls.
I usually just visualize the place in my mind's eye and follow from that on. Also, I put it away after some time and come back later - full of new ideas. I never work on just one thing :smallsmile:.

However, the most important thing I do is - I note the mood of the room. Usually I describe it formally (x width, x length, two exits, something something) and then I focus only on the mood. I address each player specifically with what they see through their character's eyes - e.g. while the barbarian sees a fighting pit as "intriguing, reminding him of his youth, allowing him to smell the fear, the blood, the victory", the fencer sees "an empty fighting pit, smelling of vomit, urine - a dirty, terrible thing".

After I have my flowchart, I look at it via the "logical" and "skeptical" glasses. E.g. arena and amphitheater next to each other? Naaah, the arena should be near the prison. With an elevator to the armory, operated from the upper side... and they would need also a kitchen.
I also think about the enemies' tactics at this point. Who would be there? How would they defend?
That's for the believable part.
For the interesting - I make sure that the players find a lot of trinkets, detail the enemies well, and work on their tactics. I attempt not to use standard "mooks" - each of them should have some traits, be specific. Of course, that works for humanoids. I don't do monsters much.
I also add things they can explore (e.g. mechanical stuff they can mess with, interesting uses of magic). Statues, writings, dungeon grafitti.
I also know what things my players expect and like to find in dungeons. The barbarian loves finding new swords and ancient viking-like artifacts (most of which are useless, but he can at least hang them over his fireplace) and fighting many weak opponents, who surprise him (with their tactics) and make him fight for his life. The fencer loves finding his predecessors' stuff (memorabilia, heraldic signs, ancient secrets, maps and deeds to their property) and books. The ranger just wants to find interesting animals to hunt & skin, but is always pleased at any trinkets (the guy just loves to receive jewelry). The thief expects shadows in which he can hide to observe the enemies and opportunities to grab some loot just for him (sneaky sneakers of sneakiness, poison vials of 1000 colours, he collects crooked daggers).

I also always ask myself - why would they go to the dungeon?

Now you're talking...
I write several dozens of possible NPCs/groups.
Nightstalkers. False Nightstalkers. Imperial Inquisitor Clethus. Xanarath, the Highest Priest of Three-Gods-Being-One. Zhenia Darzi, the renegade captain. Uglub the Dragon. The Nine. Nizardean the Seer.
Then I give each other a goal, a plan, several methods and tools.
Nightstalkers - group of high-profile assassins, best in the world. Dressed in black, wear small golden symbols. Goal - were hired to kill the PCs. Plan? Lay traps everywhere, prepare ambushes, lure them and kill them. Methods/tools: assassins, duelists, poison.
Imperial Inquisitor Clethus - wants to overthrow Xanarath and take his place, but is working for him currently. Minor magic user. Goal - wants to use PCs to destroy Xanarath and then use them as reason to start war on their countries. Plan? Will falsely accuse them of killing people, then drive them to kill Xanarath publically. Methods/tools: inquisitorial guard (fanatical units), magic, lies, subterfuge, propaganda.

And then I set them on the world.

My players dislike puzzles, so I usually don't or prepare these. However, if I have to - or have a good idea, I make sure to place lots of clues. The players usually miss 3/4 of those.
The best puzzles however are the vague ones, without correct answer...

Black tea, lots of it. Keeps you better focused than coffee. Fantasy music helps - if I want to put a specific mood on the whole dungeon/adventure, I listen to one soundtrack, if I want just to inspire myself, I listen to shuffled list - and change the mood specifically to the music.
Also, any "moodsetters" are fine. But beware - wine, candles and RPGs... sometimes it is counterproductive... :smallbiggrin:

2016-03-17, 10:13 AM
(Although having said all that, i really like the idea of a roaming trap :-) )

Guards. That's in their job description.

Although having mimic guards would be interesting alright!

2016-03-17, 10:17 AM
(Although having said all that, i really like the idea of a roaming trap :-) )

A "pit" creature, who moves under the floor, swallowing people and letting them fall down few levels? Now that's something interesting... :smallbiggrin:

2016-03-17, 11:13 AM
So here's what I'm looking for:

How do you plan an adventure?

Do you use any formulas for laying out a dungeon?

How do you make a place interesting/believable?

How do you create intrigue in your campaign?

How do you make puzzles for your dungeons?

Do you do anything extra besides write? Coffee? Fantasy Music?

Other have made some pretty good suggestions already, but I'll go ahead and add a bit to the discussion. When answering your question... I'll use an adventure I wrote as an example.

Well, first I think of a quest for my players. The premise of quests are usually simple. e.g there's only four types of quests in RPG's ever, and they are: Collect item(s), kill target(s), save target(s), Destroy item(s). There are some nuances of course, but they all stem from those four basic quests. (i.e, you might have a quest to guard a given area, which is just an extension of either save target or kill target, depending on the circumstances.

Once I have an idea for a quest, I try to think of a reason why my players would want to do this quest. It can be a simple reason such as "get money". Or it could be tied into a(the) PC(s) background.

After I have that down. I decide on a environment theme, which helps determining the monster theme.

And finally, I start thinking about what kinds of obstacles the players will have to overcome.

For my adventure "Kolsagasburg", I decided I would be giving my players a fetch quest. They were going to go after the "Gem of Dragon's Might", which was lost in the ancient city of Kolsagasburg when it fell to giants. It was relevant to one of my PCs, because they needed it to turn the tide of a war that was raging in their homeland.

Being in Hawaii at the time, I of course wanted this ancient and remote city to be atop snowy mountain peaks... And giants made natural enemy choices.

Without getting into the specifics of each obstacle, I decided early on that in addition to the dungeon's denizens, there would be rival factions each vying for the Gem. The Gem was buried deep beneath the city, so they first, they had to figure out where in the city the Gem was being hidden, how to get there.

Depending on it's size, I would break dungeons into down in different section, possibly with varying themes. As far as floor plans go... I try to think of everything that my location would realistically have. Once I have the mundane stuff figured out, I start brainstorming interesting rooms that have relevant events/encounters/puzzles.

In Kolsagasbug, I broke the adventure down into 3 "mini-dungeons". The first part would be the upper city ruins, where the PCs had to deal with the residing giants and rival expedition forces, while trying to locate clues as to the Gem's whereabouts. I mapped a few notable locations as well as the general layout of the town. The 2nd part would be the grand chapel to an evil deity that the original occupants of Kolsagasburg had built. This was hidden below the city. The third and final part was a system of caves beneath the cathedral, where the Gem was ultimately kept, and the big boss encounter between the rival factions' leader would take place.

Adding lore always helps, and it gives the party bard an excuse to use bardic knowledge and feel special. Using unusual/novel monsters helps too. You can only kill so many orc/goblin/zombie/what-have-you before it gets stale. On top of that, varied enemy tactics helps too. Include art as well. Words are nice, but you need one thousand to make a picture. Images can really help the players with filling in the gaps in your descriptions. You don't need a picture for every room, but one of the overall area, or of certain NPC's helps.

As far as believable goes, follow the above advice. think of all the mundane things your location "would" have needed before it became a dungeon. More often than not, the new residents will alter the purpose of some areas. Which makes it even more believable.

In Kolsagasburg, I developed a fair amount of lore. Basically, It was once a city controlled by minotaurs. They stole the Gem of dragon's Might from a [dragon-kin race] centuries ago and brought it back. When their empire declined, giants stormed the city and took over, but the minotaurs were able to hide the Gem.

As far as enemies went, varying giants (which tactically were all the same), and humanoids. The humanoid came in squad complete with melee, ranged and casters. I threw in a few undead and a couple of weird magical beasts towards the end. Oh, and there was a dragon. Nice guy, as most silvers are.

This question is not specific to adventures and deserves it's own thread. But basically, raise the stakes of your quests. example, if they PC's don't kill the orcs then the whole kingdom will be over run. f they don't stop Azgorul the destroyer than he's going to destroy the world. Etc. etc.

In Kolsagasburg, if the PCs did not recover the Gem, then a nation would be wiped out.

Riddles, mostly. Puzzles are hard, to be honest, because by virtue of describing them you often times end up giving away the answer. Remember to include clues on how to solve it.There are a few good one's I've come up with though, and always remember to have an alternate method of bypassing the puzzle (if they HAVE to solve the puzzle to continue with the dungeon.)

In Kolsagasburg, in the cathedral, the main worship hall had a secret passage that could only be opened by player the write keys on the organ in the room (yay batman!). The alternate solution was to sacrifice a good aligned humanoid (of which there was one inside the cathedral) the to the archdevil that had a presence within the halls. The clues I dropped was a bookmarked passage in the "worship book" that read some along the lines of "...when the song of freedom rings d-e-a-d.

Music helps, definitely... I think I was listen to a lot of the Fairytail OST when I was desinging Kolsagasburg.

Hope this helps!

2016-03-17, 11:16 AM
Maybe it's because I grew up playing Legend of Zelda (I still fear that water temple in Ocarina of Time), but I like to give every dungeon a theme: something that affects the whole dungeon and helps make it memorable. I also like to use difficult terrain or the environment to add non-combat challenges.
For example:

A flooded dungeon: the players have to swim through some of the lower levels, and sometimes the water rises
A dungeon built by giants: the rooms are huge, hard to light completely, and the collapsed stairs have to be climbed
A floating ruin: a shattered castle in the air, filled with chasms and shaky floors
The classic ice dungeon: slippery floors, ice spikes, etc.

That way, puzzle solving and monsters can be related to the dungeon's environmental theme.

As far as out-of-game stuff goes, I like to find online art that represents locations/monsters that I can print out or send to the players.

2016-03-17, 12:22 PM
There have been some excellent posts so far, and I appreciate your input. Keep 'em comin'.

2016-03-17, 11:16 PM
I can definitely agree with "This dungeon had an ancient and perhaps forgotten purpose."

Probably my favorite dungeon I ever ran, and the one my players loved most, was the dungeon created by a long-dead sorceress named Agatha the Mad.

Agatha, of course, referred to herself as Agatha the Wise. She was truly a genius of the arcane arts, something akin to an epic-level wizard for the setting who had, instead of becoming a god, decided to settle down and just see what weird stuff she could make magic do.

Before she died, she created a dungeon as a sort of memorial to her life, with an open invitation for people to visit and look. Or try to raid it. Whichever.

Some of the rooms....

-A room containing a bed, a desk, and a chest with a +1 Longsword in it. Followed by a room with the same, except now suited for a Small humanoid. Then a Tiny one. Then a Diminutive. (Probably Fine, too, but they couldn't fit through that last door to find out)

-A room with no gravity, walls that appeared to be space, and a car-sized planet being orbited by a small sun and moon. The planet appeared to be populated.

-a room containing a gold coin that infinitely reproduced. And did so very, very rapidly. And every copy did likewise. It seemed like a great boon. It turned out not to be when they couldn't figure out how to get any of them out without destroying their bags (and holding it in their hands just produced a fountain of coins centered on their hands that would soon flood any space they were in.)

-a room with a single chest resting upon a voluminous pile of keys. (The chest had 4 keys, which were located elsewhere) the chest contained an Enchanted Crown that caused the keys to fly around behind the wearer like a swarm of metal bees (but less harmful or useful), Bracelet that filled the user's mind with constant warnings about every possible danger (no really. Every. Possible. Danger. Even the really unlikely ones. Especially those. "Don't trip over that rock and split your skull open! That tree may have ants on it! Are you sure this ration isn't poisoned? Look out! That crow might attack! There's a manticore living 28 miles from here, he might be nearby! Be careful!") And two others that I forget. They ended up with the bracelet. The halfling lost his mind. It was a good time.

-what looked like a normal room, but really huge. A gargantuan monstrous centipede was living in it. When it saw the PCs, it screamed and tried to squish them. It ended up being murdered by the bugs it was scared of.

-A room with a bunch of giant hornets milking cows and making butter. The hornets were very hostile. The PCs decided not to even deal with it. It was called "The Room of Milk and Honey." Agatha liked puns.

-a room with a chained up Ogre. The chains were actually Chain Golems. Had a witicism about whether the monster or its captors were worse written on the door.

-a room with a greased up floor and a deck of cards on a table. When someone entered the room, the door slammed shut and the floor began to spin. Rapidly. This was another fun one.

Basically, Agatha was a huge troll and made her entire dungeon just to screw with adventurers. And weirdly, my adventurers loved it.

2016-03-18, 11:17 AM
The A. No. 1 thing to do is definitely get a map drawn. Doesn't have to be fancy, as long as you have an outline. This is especially true if your group uses minis for combat. At the very least decide what kind of dungeon this is. Natural cave? Chambers of dressed stone? Will the doors be carved stone, iron, wood...? Once you get the materials down be sure to note the stats for the environment (for example, iron has hardness 8 and 10 hp/inch or something; the break/unjam DC on an iron portcullis is etc. etc.; if you include a ramp/stairs be sure to note its impact on movement, +DC to tumble checks, what-have you) .

Second is get some stats ready. Traps and monsters----you need that stuff handy and easy to reference. I just copy whatever I expect to use out of the Monster Manual onto a sheet of paper (knowing how to make a truncated statblock is v. helpful for this) and keep that for reference so I don't have to flip to pg xxx in one of the Monster Manuals.

Now I'd say as long as you have a map and some raw stats you have the bare essentials to run a dungeon (or wilderness exploration, or town adventure or what-have-you). You can fly by the seat of your pants on all the rest if necessary, but ideally you should write up some description ahead of time for every setpiece you expect the party to encounter. Doesn't have to be anything elaborate, especially not if you include the possibility for your players to bypass/avoid said setpiece. A couple sentences of description per chamber of your dungeon, for ex., is more than enough.

I find that a common mistake DMs make is to actually overdo the description part. Few players IME enjoy listening to the DM read a canned description from his own purple prose, so I try not to make them endure that for longer than a few seconds. Especially don't try to work in any canned dialogue beforehand because, again IME, that always goes over like a lead balloon. Play it loose and improvise and respond actively to your players; don't let them feel like the tavern keeper was always going to tell them to go to the Cave of Forgotten Dreams in Twilight Wood regardless of what they said to him, even if he totally was.

2016-03-18, 10:06 PM
How do you plan an adventure?

Well it is a mix of things. To begin with I create a bundle of concepts. As many as i can think of - things that are fun, exciting, dramatic or different. NPCs factions, alternate classes, locations, spells... anything i think it would be cool to have in the world. I then try and form connections between them: NPC X in part of Faction Y who hate Faction Z etc.. Some won't fit and I put those aside. For an example, I wondered what it would be like if mummies were preserved through salt water rather than the usual method (which i think still did involve salt) so there were undersea tombs of a flooded empire in the world.

At this stage I have the beginnings of a world - from there I draw a map. This is mainly to visualise the space, see borders etc. but it can provide inspiration. Some countries may become naval powers, some may become desert cultures based on geography. With a map of the world I then start to fill it out.

I have an idea of what levels the campaign will go between so i will need encounters that naturally follow their leveling up through the world. This means I need a variety of hazard levels - not an issue if you allow extra-plan encounters etc. but it gives a more natural progression the the map can be labelled "here be dragons/hydras/giants/vampires (delete as appropriate)".

Next I generate a set of antagonists. As a rule of thumb I like 3 major and 5 minor antagonists in the world. Some of these I will have generated with my random set of ideas at the start. I try and create a distinct behavioural personality or style for each one. So one may be an assassin working alone, one may use minions to do his work, one may be subtle, another obvious. I give each an objective and how they will try and achieve it, how it will mean they cross the paths of a party.

Next step is to roll up the PCs and get a sense of who they are - they get a brief introduction to the world, to give ideas for a backstory and in turn their backstories modify the world so they fit. Additional NPCs, history etc. are added to try and give each player a way to progress their own ambitions.

From there the adventure is pretty much ready. The players gather clues about what is going on, make decisions about which factions to ally with and against whom as well as those they want to ignore (and the ones they ignore do sometimes get recycled with a new face).

Do you use any formulas for laying out a dungeon?

The first step I try and do in a decent sized dungeon is to see if i can get something for everyone in it. A quick look through character sheets is usually enough. Pick out underused spells or abilities, identify strengths that havent been tested yet and try and design an encounter for everyone that really challenges some of them but makes others shine. So playing 5th edition for example I may have a rogue who has never used "thieves cant", so there is a fence on parole at the entrance supervised by a warden but willing to negotiate a deal on some supplies that will help or I may find some enemies vulnerable to acid damage if i have a sorcerer specialising in that element and so on.

The layout then put as many of these as make sense on the areas where players will have difficulty bypassing.

Otherwise I like different layouts - some symmetrical, some breaking symmetry and some natural. Some an intersection of all of them - A wrecked ship built into a burrow or carved tombs at the back of a cave and so on.

One thing I do like, if possible is to try and have a layout that captures three dimensions. Multiple levels in rooms - balconies overlooking other areas, bridges across hallways and similar. Even a steep slope on tunnels as they go down into the earth appeals to me. To be honest I don't think my players care, but it makes me happy.

Another rule I do have is the players need to have a sense of progress. A huge sprawling bungalow dungeon of similar room after similar room doesnt feel like progress is being made. Going deeper down or higher up gives one mark of progress. On the level, changing scenery a little may also help (as you get closer to the infernal forge the air gets hotter and hotter till you have to start taking saves vs heat exhaustion - let the players feel the environment itself is capturing and recording their progress)

How do you make a place interesting/believable?

Consistency and inconsistency. Consistency in purpose and a logical layout for a building of that purpose. Try and ensure that the functions that should be able to be performed in a building can be performed there. Then a few inconsistancies that raise question (but then may actually be consistent with answers). Why does a tomb filled with undead have a kitchen with fresh food in (a clue to search for the secret room where the prisoners are held)? Why is there a library in the castle of the evil general that is thought to be illiterate (because there is a wizard manipulating him, and it acts as a warning).

How do you create intrigue in your campaign?

In a sufficiently complex world intreague happens. I can find the most decietful NPCs in the world, get them to request the PCs help so they get an inside view of at least some plots and start to interpret other events in the world in a similarly cynical manner. Sometimes a struggle depending on the values and styles of the characters playing but even a rejected quest carries some information about the world.

How do you make puzzles for your dungeons?

I don't. I have tried in the past and it hasn't always worked. Playing "guess what the DM was thinking" isn't really a very fun game and I think that if people want to solve logic puzzles there are other outlets. The exception comes when there is roleplay involved. A puzzle about diplomacy or the strategic approach to a problem is more common. I have become very careful about making sure that it is something the players will find fun (I say careful, I still often get it wrong).

Do you do anything extra besides write? Coffee? Fantasy Music?

So sometimes we meet online and we use roll20. I find i use this rather than writing. Dropping in icons, furniture, rooms, npcs into a scene helps me to imagine how it will play out and how I can tweak it. If I am honest I find writing can be a bit prescriptive if i am not careful - it goes from describing the scene to notes on what I expect to happen but the PCs should be free to surprise me. My notes are usually about position, what people are doing, what spells the enemy has prepared etc..

If I am honest I find music a distraction (but sometimes good to take a break to)