All gamemasters have struggled from time to time with writing adventures their players will tell tale of on those long winter nights sitting around the hearth fire with their grandchildren. There’s no shame in it. I was 14 years old, captivated by the complicated maps and lengthy descriptions in the original Ravenloft adventure my friend Greg had purchased. My attempts at creating an adventure up to that point stayed around the inn, an old man begging for help, a nearby tunnel of monsters, and the subsequent killing, maiming, and collecting. It seemed like a great formula and served me well. I refer to these types of adventures as Fight and Fetch. In fact I thought it was a pretty advanced form of storytelling seeing that my only other exposure to written adventures were the ones published in the D&D bluebook box set which was really a dungeon of random encounters (oh! good title!) and Keep on the Borderland.
Writers of fiction will sometimes wax poetic about how their characters demanded certain things of them. I’ve always had firm control over my characters in my stories. Perhaps I’m not as good of a writer and my characters don’t dance to life from the pages. What I do know is adventure writers truly have little direct control over the player characters which presents challenges. It means world building. They need to create as much of a viable setting to cover all the possible actions the player characters may take. It is easy to see why so many adventures take place in dungeons with limited options. Turn right, go straight, jump the fire pit, kill the minotaur, save the princess, go back to the inn, have a nice cold pint, and wait for everything fame and glory.
In two installments I will walk through how to write an adventure for a fantasy roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons. Will it be a Ravenloft level adventure? No. This is a free lesson which means you get what you pay for. Yes, I’m supposed to promise fame and fortune, but you do know one of the reasons why we play roleplaying games is because life sucks and we need to escape it. Reality is harsh.
Start with a logline.
What is a logline? It is a quick summary of the story being told. There are many resources to help find adventure ideas. The end of part two of this article will show how one adventure can feed into another. Finding a starting idea is the key.
For the purpose of the example adventure, I’m sticking with the tried and true adventure logline my 14-year-old self would have understood. “While the PCs rest at an Inn, they are contacted by a local powerful wizard to journey to ruins to chase away a band of goblins and find the Orb of Chaos – an ancient artifact.”
THE INN AND THE WIZARD
Here is what I know about the setting so far from the logline. There is an Inn. There is a Wizard. There are ruins. There are goblins. There is a potentially magical thing called the Orb of Chaos. Based on this information I have some questions that need to be answered which helps add significant and useful detail to the setting. Where is the Inn? Is it in a city, town, village, or at a crossroads? Who runs the Inn? Does the Inn have a large staff or a small staff? Who is the Wizard? Does the wizard have minions or does the wizard do her own errands? Are the ruins of an ancient civilization, an abandoned stronghold, or something else? Are goblins a known threat in the area or are they a recent arrival? Have travelers and others in the area reported problems with goblins? What is the Orb of Chaos? Who might have more information regarding it? Does it have a history?
The Inn needs a name. It will be referenced often in this adventure and maybe in later adventures. I think a simple name is best. How about the Nymph and Satyr? No, that feels too lighthearted. The Dungeon and the Dragon? Clever, but no. The Hidden Jest? Yes! The Hidden Jest – it sort of implies there is a joke to be had. It will drive some players nuts trying to figure it out, especially if the GM just smirks and nods sagely when asked about it. I know the Inn has to have an Innkeeper, so I’ll add him to the list and name him Baris. Is the Innkeeper married? Sure, why not, so let’s add a wife, Nelva, to the mix and several children of various names. There are regulars at the Inn. One guy, I’ll call Norm, seems to be known by everyone due to his persistent presence. There is a courier who delivers messages between towns. We’ll call him Cliff. Norm knows everyone so he always has juicy gossip. Cliff travels along the roads so is aware of what is going on beyond the area around the Inn.
The Innkeeper Baris will be jovial and funny. He can fit multiple roles – from comic relief to wise advisor.. I’m making him a chef of renown sought after by the rich and powerful. I’ll hint at a wonderful history by having him drop references to his time in the kitchens of this powerful official or another. Maybe a story or two about his time serving the armies of the great imperium. Add in a traveling merchant, a bard looking to make a few coins telling stories, and maybe a woman of worldly ways to round out the cast of the Inn to make things interesting.
The Inn is set in a crossroads village, a small collection of peasantry and tradesmen who settled between three cities. The Inn is a waystation for everyone traveling between these cities and does a brisk business. The farms in the area support the Inn and the tradesmen repair the equipment, tend to horses, and take care of the essentials for travelers. All of those people are potential NPCs. I will draw up some simple templates to reference in case the PCs need to talk to a smith, chandler, or herbalist. The Inn and surrounding buildings need protection from bandits and other riff-raff. I’m going to put the area under the protection of a Sheriff. She enjoys the ceremony of the office and does well enough stopping criminals she directly sees but doesn’t investigate much. She has three or four deputies one whom is more of her operative doing most of the legwork. She travels her territory in a slow circuit visiting the Inn about twice a month. She was appointed to the job by the Prince of the nearest city that claims the area around the Inn. This sometimes causes friction with the other cities, especially when tax collectors make a round.
Before going down the path of detailing the political structure of a city the PCs won’t be visiting, let’s explore the Wizard side of things. The Wizard Yillindra lives near the Inn in a small tower. She lived there long before there was an Inn and begrudgingly accepted her new neighbors . Most people warn about getting too close to the lands near her tower as stray magic may have turned nearby woodland creatures into ferocious monsters. Essentially, little is known of her but even a hermit Wizard needs a support system. Where does she get her magical supplies? Her history is also probably pretty interesting. What is she doing in her tower? Do other magic users know of her and do they visit?
I need to flesh out the Wizard a bit to figure out her motivations. I assume on a basic level , since she is a Wizard she has interest in all things magical, so something like the Orb of Chaos would be something she’d want to know more about. Yet, how does she know about it? What are these ruins and why haven’t they been explored already? I will set aside the ruins until later.
I’m going to say the Wizard has a servant, a man who does basic maintenance on the tower and the grounds as well as doing her basic errands. His name will be Bennis. He’s a bit older but a man of vigor.
Over the years he’s visited the Inn many times, fell in love, and has a wife and son. His wife and son live in the village but are treated with suspect by the others. Bennis is an honorable man and loyal to the Wizard. Getting him to reveal any information regarding the Wizard will require an amazing amount of charm or coercion. His wife and son won’t have much to say regarding the Wizard. Bennis tries hard to keep them separate from his daily work.
This concludes the first part of the adventure building article. I will continue the creation, detailing the goblins, the ruins, and the Orb of Chaos, in the second part. The Orb of Chaos will pose a few problems, but I will hopefully find a convenient solution or a way to procrastinate a solution.