Advanced Guide to Building a D&D Adventure

It’s time to build an adventure. This can be a single-session story, this can be months long. This isn’t a campaign though. Think of Harry Potter, a campaign is all 7 books, today we are focusing on one of those. It’s multiple chapters long, with recurring characters from the other books, but also a certain cast of characters we’ll only see here. It should feel attached to the overall story, but have it’s own goals.

I will say, there are adventures that naturally arise through sandbox play. That means that you give your players a world, and let them decide what to do, where to go, who to help, all based on what they find interesting. However, especially with newer players or Dungeon Masters (DMs), it’s a lot easier to have a specific conflict in mind, with specific major characters, that the players can interact with. Don’t assume you know HOW they will interact, your job is just to know the rest of the world.

There are several things to think about and decide before you really start writing out the story. These don’t have to be in order, but the list goes from a general idea, to more specifics.

Style

This is a very vague decision, that is more about how you want the whole thing to feel. There are more than five styles, but here are some ideas to start you off with.

  • A classic adventure, saving the princess from the dragon, to return to the kingdom with rewards of riches from the king himself!
  • Is this a funny adventure, where the situations are so ridiculous, you can’t help but laugh?
  • Is this adventure going to be deadly? Players should be more careful with their characters, and be prepared that not all of them aren’t going to make it out alive, especially if they aren’t careful.
  • Maybe we go political? There are various factions fighting each other, but not on the battlefield, but in the mind of the public or local government. Who will you side with, as you hear arguments for different schools of thought, all wanting to do what’s best.
  • Or do we go with horror? Things hidden in shadows, one wrong step allows something to attack, full of shadows and uneasiness.
Image result for d&d ravenloft art

Theme

This is what the conflict is about, on a more meta level. Take away all the names, locations, and MacGuffins, what are you left with? This is the theme of your adventure, and you’ll realize what other stories you can take inspiration from.

  • Good vs Evil? A classic story, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, this is the battle of the ages.
  • Law vs Chaos? Or it’s sister conflict, Security vs Freedom. Is it better to put a shell around the world, to keep everything uniform and safe, or allow people to be wild individuals, doing with their life whatever they choose.
  • Man vs Nature? You have to remove the homes and safety of the natural world to make things better for intelligent creatures. But do they not deserve it more, simply because they can? Is the life of a person worth more than an animal?
  • Big vs Small? This tends to be a sub-theme, as one of the sides of a conflict are inevitably bigger than the other. Of course, this becomes a lot more engaging if your party is on the side of Small, as then there becomes the challenge. However, so many fantasy stories are always a single villain who is gathering others to their cause, to destroy our way of life as we know it.
Image result for fantasy overgrown city art

Conflict

This is where we get much more specific details, as we learn what the two sides actually want. Usually it stands that the status quo is “good” and that there is an uprising situation of danger, but a civil war can also tell a great story, with neither side necessarily wrong, just in strong disagreement.

  • The villain wants to rule the world.
  • The villain wants everlasting life.
  • There is a question of who deserves to rule.
  • Laws regarding security or freedom, as a theme above.
  • Is there unfair treatment of a specific person or group happening, that favors those currently in power?
Image result for d&d lich art

Characters

This is often people’s favorite parts. DMs don’t get to make fun player characters, with tragic backstories that explains why they have the Cursed Bow of DemonsNameHere, so this is where we get to make those instead. Names, backstories, motivations, etc. You can go through this list with every character you can think of for your story.

  • What is my name?
  • How would a stranger describe me?
  • What do I sound like?
  • How powerful am I?
  • Who do I serve?
  • Who serves me?
  • What resources do I have?
  • What do I want?
  • What do I know?
  • What am I willing to say?
  • What secrets do I keep?
Image result for d&d npc creation

Locations

Maps! I love making maps! This is where you establish if there are cities involved, dungeons, ruins, forests, nations, etc. There are so many exciting places to take your players, and every piece of what you design says more about the world and the people in it.

  • What is the name of this place?
  • Who named it?
  • Was that the original name?
  • Who created this place?
  • What was it made for?
  • Are those same people still here?
  • If not, how have the new occupants changed it?
  • What are it’s greatest strengths?
  • What are it’s most dangerous weaknesses?
  • What kind of support does this place get from nearby cities or landmarks?
  • What kind of threats are posed from nearby cities or landmarks?
  • What is the reputation of this place?
  • Is that reputation based in facts, or not?
  • If not, where did that reputation come from?
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Acts

All stories are told in a three act structure: Idea, Growth, Resolution. This is how you can build your story out. Again, you don’t want to plan out a story, because that removes free will from your players. Instead, you want to know what would happen if the player characters never got involved, because then you can have the world realistically react to your players. Just because the player characters get involved, doesn’t mean that the BBEGs plan stops, they modify it to adjust to the PCs and their actions. For more help, go check out my Story Structure, Deconstructed article.

  • What happened before the party arrived/got involved? (Prologue)
  • Why did the party get involved? (Act I)
  • What information was not immediately available, and why? (Act II)
  • If the party never got involved, how would it end? (Act III)
  • What are the most likely consequences? (Epilogue)
Image result for 3 act structure

Extras

There are a couple more ideas to think about with your adventure. These aren’t necessary, but helpful if you have time.

Motif

This is far from necessary, but great for reinforcing styles and themes. Essentially, if there is a physical representation of the ideas that are prevalent from locations, characters, or more, then use the natural design of that real representation to design your locations or characters.

  • Was the city founded by famous dragon slayers? Maybe the roads are designed in the shape of a Draconic letter.
  • Is a character a silk seamstress, perhaps the designs in their clothing look like a spider web.
  • Is the city set on a “Turtle Island” where turtles roam free as the dominant species? Perhaps the city guards shields are made of turtle shells, and their arrows have turtle claw tips.
Image result for solstheim raven rock art
In the Skyrim DLC: Dragonborn, in the city of Raven Rock, the guards outfits, as well as the city’s architecture, was based on Horseshoe Crabs.

Mysteries

No matter what style of adventure you are running, you always want some level of mystery. If the party knows everything by the first act, then there’s nothing to grow on, and you don’t have a reason for the second act. If you’re running a one-shot, or other short story, then the second act isn’t necessary, but anytime there are at least three sessions, you should have secrets and surprises on some level. It doesn’t have to be anything big.

Image result for d&d mystery art

B Plot

Sometimes called “sidequests”, this only works in long games, multiple months or more. The idea is just like any show or movie you watch. There is the primary story that pushes forward the conflict, and then a secondary story that gives you a break, and allows events to occur “off-screen.” A common practice with B Plots is to make it something that seems unrelated, but then at the end the party realizes they can use something from the B Plot to help them in the final climactic showdown.

“Ger’off my bridge” growled the troll…

There is so much to plan in an adventure, and it will never get close to what the final story will look like. The reason we still take this time and think about it so much, is because the more you plan, the less stress and questioning and second guessing yourself there will be, and the party will think you’re a genius who created this amazing story. Just know, the more prepared you are, the more your players will never notice you don’t know what you’re doing.

What was your favorite adventure? Let us know in the comments below!

3 comments

  1. I love a lot of adventures. A lesser-known favorite of mine is Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982) by Gary Gygax.

    The adventure opens with a titanic brawl vs humanoids. Gygax goes against the dungeon-zoo trope with a chart showing when the lower levels of the dungeon will empty out in response to the players attacking on the first level. The reinforcements coming up the stairs get tougher and tougher; PCs will be pushed to their limits, and perhaps beyond.

    If party emerges victorious, the lower levels await, and then a Cthulhu-like atmosphere sets in…

    Like

    1. That seems intense! Makes sense though, if the lower levels can hear the commotion. I can only imagine the stress if the DM decides you have X amount of time, regardless of how far into the encounter you are, so you are racing against the clock.

      Like

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