View Full Version : How Does One Design A Good Adventure?

2018-09-29, 08:50 PM
Specifically for D&D 5E, but honestly, I figure a lot of advice would be system agnostic, or at least edition agnostic.

I'm really not sure where to begin, where to go once I begin, how to complete, etc. etc.

Anyone got advice?

2018-09-30, 12:13 AM
I like to start by establishing a few key points. Everything else is just details.

What gets the characters into the adventure. The old man in the tavern, the secret map they found in the previous dungeon, the ambush on the road, etc. This can be as simple as starting the session by saying "After weeks of travel you arrive at the tomb, last known resting place of the Glorious Treasure..."
Figure out what the goal of the adventure is and how the players learn about it. Depending on your group and your chosen game system you might need to think about why the players/characters care about the hook. In D&D for example, the players are adventurers and therefore should be interested in any given adventure, but you could tie it into their characters' backstories or to a previous adventure to get them more interested.

The players accumulate whatever resources they need to pursue The Hook. Exploring a dungeon, gathering information from NPCs, or even just the players talking to each other to establish a plan.
This is all the stuff that leads up to the Climax (and therefore it might be best to establish what the Climax is first). For D&D this could include combat, traps, NPC interaction, puzzle solving, or pretty much anything else you can think of. Parts of the Exploration phase can be adventures unto themselves if you're running a multi-session campaign, but the key is that it all leads up to something bigger.

The final boss! Solving the mystery! Saving the day!
This is the final thing the players need to do in order to complete the adventure. D&D almost always turns this into a combat scenario, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a classic Indiana Jones style escape from the crumbling structure. Or in a mystery adventure, the players might only need to correctly identify their villain and expose their plan rather than fighting them. Stuff they did in the Exploration phase pays off here; the new weapons they gathered, the clues they found, etc.

The players were fooled!
Optionally, something in the adventure turns out differently than expected. A Twist can be a lot of fun but if every adventure has one the players will spend so much time trying to prepare for it they might never even get there. This is where the villain turns out to be someone or something else than what they were told, or the treasure they were seeking ends up being a trap instead. The Twist generally gets revealed during the Climax but in some cases might only be realized after the players think the adventure is over.

500 XP and a +1 sword.
At the end of the adventure the players should get some kind of reward. In D&D this means XP and treasure but it could also be something more vague, like an NPC owing them a favour. Depending on the sort of game you're running, the end of one adventure might provide the Hook for the next one.

If you want to get fancy you can mess with the formula every now and then, such as having the villain ambush the players when they think they're still in phase 2, but for the most part following this layout will give you a fun adventure.

2018-10-02, 07:55 PM
"Good" is always subjective. While I agree with above post in that that is a great way to structure the plot of an adventure. But that alone only makes up about half of what should go into designing an adventure.

When designing an adventure, before I construct the plot using more or less the steps provided by LoneStarNorth, I to consider the following:

Step 0: Know your target audience. Often times an adventure is only as good as you can sell it. So it helps to bare in mind exactly who is going to be enjoying your freshly minted adventure. Your audience could be a bunch of strangers that would vaguely be interested in the theme (see step 1). Or it could be the group you DM for.

Example) I typically describe combat in my current group as two sides smashing action figures together. They are also quite forgetful of details and don't write things down, which is compounded by the fact that we don't meet up regularly. Consequently, I don't design adventures for this group that include scenarios requiring mastery of tactical positioning and synergy between group members. I also don't make plots convoluted, and often times there is one, clear objective that they need to accomplish.

Step 1: Consider the theme of the adventure. This step is the first, and probably most important which is why I start with it. Start with "broad stroke" kind of themes, then from there, narrow the theme down to something that inspires you. You could even change the theme up mid adventure with the twist, or gradually as the adventure plugs along. But as long as you stay true to the current theme, you'll have a much easier time of planning events, designing the environment, and creating enemies and obstacles.

For example. I wanted one adventure to feel heroic. The party had to acquire a lost relic and return in order to save the kingdom from a rival nation. Since I wanted the heroic feeling, i went with the majestic image of lofty mountain peak to place the site of my adventure (an ancient city). The creatures the party fought were strange beasts and mighty giants and temple guardians. And a dragon showed up too. It was also quite a way away from the lands they were meant to protect, so the added element of "the epic journey" assisted with the theme.

Conversely, another adventure I designed happened to start on Halloween (or close enough). I wanted to do something a bit darker, more "spooky". So I set my adventure on a misty moor in an isolated manor. the party soon found out that, come nightfall, the house and the surrounding lands became besieged by a horde of dark shadows and spirits, with the manor grounds seemingly the only safe place. Party members were also plagued by nightmares when resting inside the house and all of the NPC inside the mansion were "off" in one way or another. The resulting adventure became the party trying to lift the curse on the house and the surrounding fields. The creatures they fought were [incorporeal] type monsters and other various spooky creatures. Like a swarm of undead crows...

Another role that the theme provides is to inform your players about the adventure. Anything that seems to be "out of place" in your current theme will cause the players to question why that is. Done badly, this could mean you just threw in a random monster that didn't at all jive with the environment, which can break immersion. But done well this can lead to a satisfying payoff for the players when they finally unravel the mystery, or even direct them to ask the right question to propel their investigation (if its that kind of adventure).

Like if the party comes across a Gelatinous Cube in a slimy sewer they won't bat an eye. But a Displacer Beast causes them to raise a few eyebrows. Likewise, if they find an alter dedicated to some demon in a goblin warren they might not think twice about it, but put one in the basement of some noble's house and you've got a different story.

Step 2: Determine the type of adventure. As always, this will depend on your theme. But classifying your adventure as something like "hack N' Slash", "Intrigue", "hexcrawl", provides a nice buzzword to keep in mind that will narrow your focus so you don't get distracted. It helps you ask questions like "what makes a good hack n' slash?", and not "Well, so far I've got a lot of hack n' slash, maybe I should through in some intrigue as well?". There's nothing wrong with blending genres, but you should have a clear idea of what elements you want to focus on rather than worrying about what genre's you aren't touching upon. It's also worth noting that you could theoretically have a horror themed adventure that is hack N' Slash, or a horror themed intrigue adventure. Both types of adventures have their own merits so it should not be said that only one type of adventure is suitable for any given theme.

I view adventures as either self contained stories or part of a larger campaign. Either way though, just because one adventure is a heroic hack n' slash doesn't mean the next isn't an intrigue adventure involving demonic cults.

Step 3, 4, 5... n: Follow the steps provided by LoneStarNorth. But always keep in mind your theme when doing so.

brian 333
2018-10-03, 11:24 AM
A good adventure is a good story. It's that simple. Anything that would make a good story would make a good adventure.

If you will note, the advice given so far discusses the question exactly as if you were in a creative writing class.

But there is one exception: you only write the antagonist's part of the story. Your players get to write their own parts.

Begin with an outline of what you want your story to be. This can be as vague or as specific as you like, but it forms a framework to hang the parts of your adventure on.


In a topic on the World-Building forum I proposed a method of building a world a small piece at a time, but you will note that I begin with a first level adventure about exploring a ruin.

You can begin anywhere you like, but I happened to begin with a setting, a ruined watchtower, and a plot, to explore the ruin and report back to a boss.

It is a simple story, but let's examine its elements:

Introduction: the players become aquainted with their characters and some secondary characters who might aid them.

Act I: The Challenge
The players are presented with a challenge in the form of an old ruin they must explore. It's an easy challenge because this is an introductory adventure for new DMs, but it gives the characters a clear indication of where to begin.

Act II: The Revealation
Things are not as they first appear to be. The upper ruin is only the entrance to the dungeon beneath the tower. At this point the characters must adapt to the new information.

Act III: The Opposition
The characters face foes which challenge them. In this case it is suits of armor which animate to defend their dungeon.

Act IV: The Setback or Twist
The characters cannot defeat 100 suits of armor so they must fall back, adjust their plans, or do whatever it takes to come up with a winning strategy.

Act V: The Final Push
The characters must commit to a course of action and undertake to achieve their new goal.

Denoument: Whether licking their wounds in defeat or counting the spoils of their success, the characters come to terms with the result, scarred, perhaps, but hopefully stronger.

Novels and short stories use this same approach. Let's take The Hobbit as an example.

int: Bilbo & Co. meet
I: They plan a burgulary
II: The trolls demonstrate that this is no ordinary stroll through The Shire.
III: Orcs, spiders, elves, and lakemen hinder their path
IV: The dragon, and the scale of the treasure trove, require that plans must change
V: Thorin must sacrifice everything to retain his honor, but in so doing saves everyone else, (more or less)
den: Bilbo goes home quite a different hobbit than he was before.

Now all along the way this same structure is used within the sub-plots. The trolls, the goblins, Gollum, the worg-riders, Beorn, the spiders, the elves, the lake men, Smaug, the refugees of Laketown at the gate, and The Battle Of Five Armies each contain these elements as well. Cumulatively, each chapter adds to the overall plot.

Adventures are stories. They can be episodic and unrelated to what comes before and after, (Star Trek TOS,) or they can be part of a story arc, (Star Trek Voyager.) They can be a bit of each, (Star Trek Deep Space 9.)

As DM you establish the goals and obstacles, and in case the players succeed, you establish the rewards. Then you get together with friends and tell a story.

2018-10-03, 03:17 PM
I'm really not sure where to begin, where to go once I begin, how to complete, etc. etc.

Just thought I'd pop back in with an addendum to my original post, and also try to succinctly answer this.

Where to begin: Start with the theme, as I described above. Or whatever other method works for you.

Where to go: Construct the plot, following the other posters' guidelines. Start with an end goal. Basically determine what the best possible outcome for the player characters after the adventure is complete. Then fill all the stuff in between, I usually start from the beginning and work my way towards the end. You're almost done once you've set up a reasonable method the player characters can achieve the intended end goal, (or multiple methods by which they can reach the end goal).

Next, prepare contingencies. You're not writing a story, you're setting one up. It won't go the way you plan. That doesn't mean the party won't get to the desired end result though. Example, if the boss monster reveals himself early for dramatic effect, what happens if a lucky critical hit kills him? What happens if they uncover something earlier than anticipated. What happens if they go left instead of right? What happens if they completely ignore your hook? This is where you can also write down some of the less than ideal endings for your adventure.

Not 5e, but some examples can be found in the first module of Pathfinder's Carrion Crown Adventure Path --

The adventure could end with the PC's saving the town and lifting the curse on the prison. Or the ghosts could break free and destroy the town. Or the the PC's could be run out of town by an angry mob.

Prepare a modest amount of backup plans to keep the adventure running smoothly. Note I say "running smoothly", not "keep the party on track". The adventure should always feel as if it unfolds organically.

When you're done: When you're satisfied that your players, (after considering what might go wrong for them), can reasonably reach the end goal of your adventure. As well that every element you have written down fits with the adventure's motif and provides a fun experience.

So note that most advice about story elements. Designing the actual mechanical aspects (it's still a game after all) is a lot more challenging in my opinion. You could have the most intriguing plot line in the world, but if your encounters are room after room of "monster sees PCs, roll initiative and duke it out", your adventure is going to fall flat. Getting this right takes a lot of practice.

Whenever I write down an encounter, whether it be combat, exploration hazard or social interaction, I start by asking "what is at stake here". For hazards and combat, the answer is usually the PC's lives. But this could also be an item of value, or a hostage. However, social encounters are a little trickier. Anything from the reputation of the PCs to the fact that they might not get the information they need could be at stake in a social context. Then I ask, "how can I make this encounter more 'cinematic'". As previous mentioned. A 10x10 room with a monster inside, no matter how cool the monster or plot, typically falls flat as an encounter. Likewise, if plying information out of the duke is a simply diplomacy roll, it can feel anticlimactic.

In essence, you can approach each encounter as a mini-adventure. Following the guidelines above.

Hope that helps.

2018-10-03, 11:27 PM
So... primarily it depends on your scope and your playgroup, but as an alternative to the big planned out stories suggested above.....

Think of three to four big devastating disasters that could be incoming. A plauge. A warlord. Unstable magic. Political intrigue. Whatever.

Give your players one or two early missions that are fairly random ("Deliver this letter", "Help find the missing Caravan" etc).

In the early missions, leave hints and plot hooks associated with ALL the incoming disasters lying around. Plan two or three for each.

Once your players grab on to a particular plot hook THEN flesh that out. Let them start chasing whichever "Chapter two" they like, and while they are doing that throw out hooks for multiple possible chapter 3s.
Never plan more than two episodes ahead (Probably don't plan less either, sometimes PCs are faster than expected).

And if the main plot looks like its rolling to an end... start dropping hints that one of the OTHER disasters you hinted at at the start of the story is coming to a head... so that the moment the players save the town from evil enchanted armour, they must turn around and rush off to some other disaster which has been boiling away while their backs were turned.