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Thread: Top down adventure building

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    Troll in the Playground
    Yakk's Avatar

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    Nov 2006

    Default Top down adventure building

    This is an attempt to build adventures from the top down. It has math, but the math is almost all simple addition.

    First, this assumes gritty rests. So short rests are overnight, and long rests require a week. That keeps the pace of plot on the range of days, not minutes, and gives time for players to respond to events (or not).

    The design is based off of a mixture of Dungeon World's fronts, cooperative board game auto-escalation, and 5e D&D encounter building rules.


    All adventures start with problems. Each problem has a Doom, what happens if the players just ignore it. The Doom should usually be something you, as a DM, are willing to let happen to the world. It should be world building related more than PC mechanical related.

    The Problems are the protagonists here. They are up to something, and the players may choose to stop it, or not.

    The problem itself has a Plot -- this isn't what the players do, but rather how the problem develops.

    Problems are broken down into Chapters. Each chapter has a Portent and Consequence. The Portent is the sign that the Chapter has started (dead bodies found in the church yard, a supply ship doesn't arrive, the princess has gone missing). They are basically hooks to let the players know there is something to be interacted with. Players are free to ignore Portents, but they should be engaging enough of them to generate adventures.

    Portents should be relatively obvious -- their goal is to let the players know about the potential adventure. They can be puzzling. They can even be in the background; if you follow this guide, the PCs will end up skipping over Portents, and the consequences will occur, but ideally this should be because they are busy with something else they consider more important!

    The Consequence is what happens if the chapter finishes and the PCs did not interfere. This isn't the same as a Doom; unless you are playing at epic levels, it shouldn't be "an entire city becomes an undead necropolis". Generally, blocking a consequence shouldn't derail the Plot of the Problem, but it should get in the way and slow it down.

    Players are free to ignore Chapters, and by design there are going to be more Chapters than the players have time to deal with! This permits players to win at the things they try (as regular TPKs make for short campaigns), but still feel like the forces of darkness (or whatever) are advancing.

    Each Chapter requires 2d10 days to complete after the portent. The next Chapter starts 1d10 days after the last one completed, +1d10 if the players managed to block the Consequence of the last Chapter.

    Your adventure should have about 3-6 problems going on. They should have 3-7 Chapters each, and some of the Chapters can overlap; the same event can be part of two Plots. In that case, the Chapter starts when both of its predecessors complete, +1d10 days (or +2d10 if both where defeated by the PCs).

    The more problems there are, the more consequences will occur without the PCs stopping them, and the harder things get.

    The "estimated level" of the PCs should go up by 1 for every Chapter further along the Plot is. So for a 7 Chapter Plot, starting at level 1, the PCs will be about level 7 (+/-1) by the time the last Chapter kicks off.

    If the PCs choose to engage with a problem, you'll need some stuff for them to do. A Chapter is basically a 5e "adventuring day" in budget, but because we have long rests taking a week, it is more like an adventuring week.

    The Danger is going to "win" the Chapter by default if the players don't interfere after 2d10 days. This means that the Players very rarely have time for a long rest between Chapter Portent and Consequence; sometimes they'll get lucky. By making it random, we avoid the players knowing "ok, we can take 5 short rests" or whatever. PCs are free to gather information about how much time they actually have, which could be accurate or not.

    Chapters can be easy, medium, hard or deadly. Easy chapters have 4 points, medium have 6, hard have 8 and deadly have 10 chapter points to spend on Scenes.


    Scenes are bundles of encounters that the players should be able to finish over one day (between short rests). A random encounter on the road, a Kobold warren, a Dragon's nest; those are all Scenes. Unlike standard 5e, I don't expect players to enter a dungeon, fight some monsters, then take an hour for tea; leaving a dungeon (or other Scene) for a short rest is an overnight thing, and unless they are doing a siege they have probably "lost" the Scene by doing that.

    Scenes get a budget based on how hard they are. Easy scenes cost 1, medium scenes cost 2, hard scenes cost 3, and deadly scenes cost 4. They in turn get a budget for encounters; they get 4 points for easy, 6 for medium, 8 for hard and 10 for deadly.

    The encounters in a scene are tied together in such a way that if you "engage" any of them, the rest of them are not going to sit around forever and let you come back to them usually. If you invade a goblin den and retreat, the situation changes completely.


    Encounters are good old 5e encounters -- often a bunch of monsters in a room or whatever, or maybe a chase over rooftops, or a deadly serious ball at the royal court.

    A combat encounter is easy, medium hard or deadly. You can use the standard 5e system for building encounters, or this alternative one:

    Add up (1+PC level) for each PC. If the PCs are above level 10, also add in (PC level-10) bonus. This is your (estimated) PC group power level.

    An easy encounter is 20% of this value. This costs 1 point from your Scene budget.
    A medium encounter is 30% of this value. This costs 2 points from your Scene budget.
    A hard encounter is 40% of this value. This costs 3 points from your Scene budget.
    A deadly encounter is 50% of this value. This costs 4 points from your Scene budget.
    A deadly+ encounter is 60% or more of this value. This costs an extra point for every 10% of your PC group power level it exceeds deadly.

    For monsters, use the same calculations as PC's level: take CR+1, add in (CR-10) if they are higher than 10. If they are fractional CR, do 2*CR instead (as CR 1/2 is closer to half a CR 1 than it is to 75%).

    If they are higher than 20, add in 2*(CR-20) on top of that.

    This is basically "add up CR" with some relatively minor tweaks. It generates encounters that are a touch harder than standard 5e building rules in order to keep the math simpler; so do treat deadly and deadly+ encounters with respect.


    I attempted to set this up so you can sketch out the high-level plots of your adventure, and fill in details as you need it.

    It is top-down, so you know how hard things are going to be. It is perfectly ok to go and ignore that and say "the orc fort has 100 orcs in it", and let the chips fall where they may. It can give you an idea of how hard a frontal assault would be in that case (100-ish encounter points).

    You can tie advancement into completing chapters, which also has the benefit of being able to plan ahead how high level the PCs are when they stop the BBEG plot at the end.

    If you do the math, in baseline 5e you are supposed to gain a level every 1-2 adventuring days; it starts off at 1, it slows down to slightly slower than 2 from level 4-10, then speeds up to 1.5 days per level at 11+.

    We can smooth this down to 1 level per Chapter up to level 4, then Chapters per level at level 4 and above. Keep it simple.

    Plots advance at a rate of 16.5-22 days per Chapter. Completing a Chapter, and taking a rest, requires about 10 days.

    So if we have Chapters advance in level along the plot, PCs who are adventuring should roughly keep pace. Plots they interfere with will become relatively easier, ones they ignore become relatively tougher. The more plots are active, the more will advance without interference.

    A Plot the PCs don't engage with advances at an average rate of 16.5 days per Chapter; the PCs advance 1.2 levels. A Plot the PCs do engage with advances at a rate of 22 days per Chapter; the PCs advance 0.9 levels. The PCs have the bandwidth to interfere with 2 Plots.

    If there are more than 2 active Plots, after ~60 days and 6 Chapters of adventures the PCs will gain about +3 levels. Plots the PCs have ignored will be at an average of +3.6 chapters (and hence levels), Plots the PCs have constantly interfered with will be about +2.7, and those they have partly interfered with will be somewhere in the middle.

    The more Plots, the harder it gets for the players; the fewer, the easier. At 3 Plots active, the PCs who don't stretch themselves will tread water (3.6+2.7+2.7 averages out to 3). Add more plots, and the PCs will have to work harder or fall further behind.

    The difficulties of the Chapters themselves also have impact there; Deadly Chapters are less likely to leave room for the PC to solve the other problem that cropped up in the middle of their adventure.




    An adventure for 4 PCs of level 1-5.


    A Necromancer is worshiping a Titan. Doom is she sacrifices the town for dark power.
    Kobolds are blocking a trade route. Doom is a Dragon is reborn, shutting down the pass forever.
    The Knight Captain is planning a coup. Doom is the Baron is slain, and his ward become a prisoner.
    An Archeologist is unearthing secrets. Doom is the mines become cursed.

    Experiments: Graves are desecrated in a local tomb. Consequence: Undead become common at night both in and outside the city at night.
    A Stolen Cup: The chalice at the cathedral is stolen. Consequence: The Cathedral crumbles in an earthquake.
    Inquisition: The Bishop declares an inquisition. Consequence: Bishop found dead in bloody ritual.
    Tick tock: The strange artifact from Archeologist#3 is stolen. Consequence: Ghastly mists rise every night, leaving a home becomes fatal.
    All good things: Everyone in one Neighbourhood of the city dies. Consequence: Doom: town becomes a necropolis.

    This can mean only one thing: A trade caravan is missing; locals blame the hill folk. Consequence: The hill folk aren't payed tribute, take livestock and ban travel.
    Blood for Blood: The MacGaffee's son is killed, they blame the Smiths. Consequence: Fued extends to civil war.
    The Hatching: A nearby volcano becomes active. Consequence: Doom: Dragon is reborn.

    Knight Captain
    Deputize: The Baron declares martial law. Consequence: Unpopular curfew imposed, taxes raised to pay for it.
    Kidnapped!: The heir is kidnapped! Consequence: The heir is found, dead.
    Mo Money, Mo Problems: The merchant council rebukes the Baron. Consequence: The merchants are put in prison.
    Regretfully: The Baron is challenged to a duel. Consequence: Doom: Baron dies, the Knight Captain become acting Baron.

    LFG?: An archeologist hires help. Consequence: Archeologist goes missing
    Miner problems: Section of local mine collapses, trapping miners. Consequence: Miners are never found.
    Ain't that an arty looking fact: A strange object is found in a nearby mine. Consequence: Everyone who held the artifact dies.
    Plague: Miners become sick. Consequence: Doom: mine is cursed.

    We can now drill down into one of these Chapters.

    Kidnapped!: Level 2, Medium. 6 chapter building points.

    Estimated player power level is (3*4)=12. So Easy is 2.4, Medium 3.6, Hard 4.8 and Deadly 6 encounter points.

    Witnesses (easy, 1 CBP)
    4 Scene building point budget
    * Interrogation (medium, non-combat)
    (figuring out what happened will take time and resources)
    * Inside Job (medium; 3.6 points. CR 3 Knight)
    (If you don't lose, you figure out that this NPC was in on it. Can bypass this fight if you are smart)


    Travel (random encounter to where the hostage is, medium, 2 CBP)
    6 Scene building points budget.
    * Wolves (hard, 4.8 pts. 1 Dire Wolf (2) "alpha" + 6 Wolves (0.5 each))
    (Aggressively defending their territory; where attacked by the kidnappers)
    * Rear guard (medium, 3.6 pts. Captain (3) + 2 Bandits (0.25 each))
    (There where more, but they lost a bunch to the wolves)
    * Wilderness (easy, non-combat)

    Jailbreak (fight to free heir without them dying, hard, 3 CBP)
    8 Scene building points budget.
    * Patrol (easy, 2.4; 8 bandits, +two off by themselves)
    * Guards (hard, 4.8; Captain (3) + 7 Bandits (0.25 each))
    * Boss (deadly, 6.0; Veteran (4) + 8 Guards (0.25 each))

    Pulling this off without the Heir dying is going to be hard.
    Last edited by Yakk; 2021-03-01 at 01:18 PM.