Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writing an Adventure

I wanted to share some new resources I found for adventure writing. If you're in my gaming group, you shouldn't read this until next week, since I'm running this adventure on Sunday.

I've been consistently running D&D games since the mid 90's. It's what eventually led me to owning a game store. With 4th edition, I found that the pre-published adventures were not inspiring. Part of the problem, which is also their strengths, is that everything is done for you. There's very little time investment needed to run one. In fact, after the initial reading, there's almost zero prep time. I spent a lot of time on world development and then when it came time to run an adventure, it fell flat. I had no investment in it and it wasn't fun. The solution was to write my own.

When I say "write my own," I don't need a scratch built adventure. I need something I can put my stamp on, something at the very least I'm psychologically invested in. For some people it's as little as changing the main monster from hobgoblins to orcs. For me it's coming up with an idea and finding whatever resources are at hand to create or adapt it. Luckily there are enough tools now for 4th Edition D&D to make this happen. Just a few months ago it seemed rather hopeless.

For this first adventure, I'm a guest DM, so I'm borrowing someone else's world. This means I can't stomp on it too hard, burn it down, or change too much. That's a good restriction. The second restriction, which helped tremendously in the scope of my little project, was time. I have one evening to complete the adventure and get the party back in order roughly where they started.

Any more than three encounters and it will run over, which is a fail. While writing it, I constantly had to pull myself back from adding new elements, which I think is a very good design method. I tend to let my mind go a little wild, and this requirement reels it back in. For example, I spent an hour researching arrow fletching rather than just banging out an encounter. I needed a touch point for a tribe of marauders.

My first step was to find a set of encounters to modify. This came in the excellent book, Dungeon Delve. It gave me a couple of options, a 5th level encounter with a necromancer or a 4th level encounter in a desert with some gnolls. The party includes 6 players of 4th level, so it could go either way. The gnolls were more appealing (and I have a ton of gnoll miniatures), so I went with them. Dungeon Delve tells you which tile set to buy, so there is no mapping required for this adventure, something that might take me as long as the writing. The Dungeon Delve set of three encounters provided the backbone for my adventure. The Dire Tombs tile set provided the maps.

Next was to figure out where to put this. It's a desert adventure in the middle of a lush, green land. I decided to go planar. It gets me where I want to go and it avoids stepping on the world. A portal opens to an alternate world during an eclipse, in this case the Shadowfell. Manual of the Planes kept me consistent with D&D cosmology. I dumped my standing stones idea, since it seemed like a better portal to the Feywild, and went with the entrance to a burial caern as the gateway. The party would find a village in distress, almost the same as the one they started from, except it's in the middle of a desert and the people are shadar-kai. Manual of the Planes provided ready elements, such as the lake of necromantic seepage, the Zamar-Sha desert raiders that act as a foil against both their enemies and the party, and a general discussion of how the Shadowfell works as a parallel world.

Modifying the adventure was next. The villagers were being enslaved by these gnolls, their young virgins taken for ritual sacrifices, or so they're told. It's a rescue mission, almost identical to Allen's (our DM's) initial mission when we first arrived in the "real" village. The pyramid where the bad guys are located is in the same position as the ruined tower that we explored in his adventure. It seemed fun to parallel his world for this one shot. So now I've added elements to the Dungeon Delve adventure to make it more my own. Next I needed to modify the encounters.

DDI membership provides a Monster Builder tool. It's not perfect, but it's useful. I wanted a gnoll shaman to be behind the gnoll invasion plan. Their secret plan is to use the portal to invade the material plane after finding an artifact in the pyramid that allowed them to view the plane. They're using slave labor to dig out the artifact they need, but until then, they need the use of the viewing chamber and have come to an alliance with a grell that nests there, feeding them the flesh of the hostages. I found the shaman using the Compendium search tool. It was from a Dungeon Magazine article, but it was 11th level. The Monster Builder allowed me to "reverse engineer" it down to the 8th level monster I needed. It took a little time, but it was exactly what I wanted.

The next step was to scale up the encounters. We have six players, and I've learned that encounters are far, far too easy with six compared to five. Using the Encounter Builder tool, I checked out what the current adventure called for, a standard, standard, hard encounter arrangement, and made sure I added monsters that kept the adventure in that range. The easiest thing was to add one more of the more basic gnolls to each encounter, but I could have added a demon or hyenas, monsters that the Monster Manual recommends goes well with gnolls. Adventurer's Vault provided the one cool magic item for this adventure, a Jar of Steam, which the shaman would use to escape, if cornered. Maybe if I'm guest DM again, she'll find her way to the material plane to call on the adventurers.

I'm the kind of person that has to write out everything for the adventure, like an old school module. You can download it here along with more adventure details. You just need Dungeon Delve with the associated tiles to run it. My point of this post is the tools are what made this adventure possible. The work on my end is what was needed to make it mine.


  1. I like your style, though you are much more process oriented than I can be.

    -The Griffin

  2. It would serve me well to break that habit. I could do a lot more with my time if I did, but I'm not comfortable unless everything is spelled out.

  3. Hello,
    I thought I might point you at a new(ish) resource for dungeons. from Monte cook.
    it is apparently a subscription service, however.

  4. Yes, it looks fantastic. I'm a big Monte Cook fan boy. I'm hoping he comes out with a compilation of these later in book format.

    My only concern is it's not 4E specific, which means they're likely excellent concepts that need adaptation. Adaptation in 4E is three quarters of the battle.