After DMing for many years, I started watching videos online about creating campaigns and adventures. Many talented people have put out interesting content in recent years. Having a bit of experience, I find some online personalities more helpful than others (Guy Sclanders from Great GM is my favorite). I’m now trying to internalize some of the new tips that I’ve gleaned, but this is easier said than done. Understanding what someone says in a video is not the same as knowing how to do it instinctively. Writing notes for myself usually helps me to grasp a concept better, but the best way for me to internalize something is to use it. Well, I found all of these videos just as I was planning to design my very first online adventure (which I want to be short). I want to incorporate these new tips while making this new adventure, recording my thoughts along the way. It will be a good reference for me afterwards.
At the moment, I have nothing done. I shall design this adventure as I work through the steps below. Talented DMs like Guy Sclanders can do this with amazing speed and with minimal notes. Alas, that is not my strength. I need to see things in writing, and I like to take my time. If you think the process below may be helpful to your own game in any way, read along with me. If you really want a challenge, join me by designing your own short adventure as you read through the steps below.
Step 1: Decide on a Genre/Setting
It makes sense to tackle this before worrying about small details. What sort of game do you want to play?
The members of our online group recently decided that we were pretty bored with the typical European High Middle Ages setting and atmosphere. We opted instead to lean towards more of a sword & sorcery, Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, Red Sonja, Dark Ages feel. In our online group, we are rotating DMs for various reasons. Not all of our DMs are purists when it comes to setting, so orcs and such may appear, but we shall lean in the direction of sword & sorcery when we can. With this adventure, I hope to lead the way for the group, capturing the feeling of the sword & sorcery genre.
Step 2. Consider Themes and Motifs
This is an advanced tip, but I think that it greatly enriches your work with only a little effort.
An adventure can contain all the obvious requirements of a fun game (interesting monsters, treasures, traps, puzzles, etc.) but still feel mediocre because it lacks atmosphere or flavor. Sometimes, the root problem is not blandness in the details, but randomness. Imagine a party encountering unicorns and pixies in one town and Lovecraftian horrors in a neighboring town. Alternatively, envision several encounters that feature slapstick comedy while other encounters in the same adventure focus on brutal oppression. This sort of jumble often produces an unsatisfying mood that confuses the players. Deciding beforehand on the rough feel that you want your adventure to have will solve this problem.
If you’ve forgotten what themes and motifs are, here’s the briefest refresher (I’m married to an English teacher so I’d better get this right). A theme is just a dominant idea that pervades the story. There can be more than one. A motif is just a repeating image or symbol that reinforces a story’s theme. Put differently, motifs are the things that we would expect to see in a story about a certain theme. For example, Prince Charming, a fairy godmother, spells, and a witch are all motifs that support a fairytale theme. Together, these literary elements should bring flavor and consistency to our work.
We’ll worry later about HOW to include themes and motifs. For now, just think of which ones you might want to include. In this adventure, I’m thinking of a theme of power and corruption. The idea that power corrupts, though fairly common, is always relevant. In this adventure, I’d like to depict the world as brutal and dark, with the few scattered towns being sinkholes of vice, brutality, and corruption. Against such a backdrop, PCs could really seem like heroes (though possibly short-lived ones). Motifs for a theme of power and corruption might include titles/honors, lions, dragons, crowns, rods, coins, and lightning bolts, as well as a serpent, an apple, bribery attempts, thirty silver coins, disease, decay, dead animals, rotting food, mold, moth eaten cloth, prostitutes, temptation, difficult choices, grumbling minions, and rebellion.
Step 3. Consider Expectations of Above
Honestly, I’ve never really taken this step before. The goal here is to think about what our choices thus far should mean. How will they manifest in our adventure, if we are successful? Players come to your game with certain expectations. You do not want to disappoint them. This does not mean that you cannot have surprises, but the surprises should not radically depart from the expectations, lest the players walk away disappointed. If they are yearning for sword & sorcery and you give them a space comedy, it probably won’t matter how good your space comedy is. They will likely feel disappointed.
What does the sword & sorcery genre mean for this adventure?
Civilization will be limited to a few scattered cities with large tracts of wilderness in between. Those cities or towns shall be ancient, corrupt, and weak by common standards. The home base of the PCs is a large port city, at least large by standards of the day (I’ll just call it ‘the city’ hereafter). As for the wilderness, I want it to have the feel of the Near East. There are beautiful mountains and stretches of forest, but many areas are dusty, dry, and rocky. There is no lush, green land like medieval England, France, or Germany.
Sidenote: I am not designing a world, for we are using a map that a friend drew up. Much of it is blank, so I’ll just need to choose a spot on the map for this adventure. The notes on civilization above will guide me when developing small locales, like villages and such.
Military technology will be limited, with only the greatest and wealthiest warriors clad in chainmail (including the PCs). Platemail is almost non-existent. Most warriors wear scale, studded leather, or ringmail. Though I will not limit PCs, most archers will use shortbows. I will avoid crossbows. If I make magic weapons, I’ll ensure that they fit this genre.
Polytheism is the norm, and no single church wields tremendous influence (there is nothing like the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages). There shall be clerics, but they may appear weaker than those in most standard fantasy games. The gods may exist, but they shall appear more distant. Again, I won’t limit the PCs (the current party only has one cleric, and she’s a bizarre cleric of Kord), but featured spells will place less emphasis on flashy magic and more on subtle aid.
As for monsters, the players likely expect savages, raiders, brigands, slavers, wizards, demons, man-apes, reptile men, limited undead, perhaps dinosaurs, etc. I’ll try to avoid the common monsters from Greek myth. I’ll also avoid many fay creatures (at least how they are commonly presented), as they usually give off a much lighter tone.
Last of all, the sword & sorcery genre features action. Our adventure should have plenty of combat. It need not be a slugfest, but it should not be a slow-paced mystery.
What do my theme and motifs mean for this adventure? These are all negative (corruption, vice, brutality, etc.). I want players to feel like they would be very uncomfortable living in this setting. Trustworthy friends are rare. Respectable institutions are almost non-existent. Lawful authorities are weak outside
the few cities, and justice is fleeting, which results in endless violence. Without a strong religion or philosophy to provide moral foundations, decadence is common. Wealth is tough to attain so people often lie, cheat, steal, and kill for it.
The theme of corruption will certainly influence the way that I write my NPCs! By the way, this doesn’t mean that I cannot feature a good NPC or a good NPC organization. I plan to do so, but they will be rare and will seem especially good compared to everyone else. Most NPCs will be self-serving. Many will be violent. This may change even basic encounters. Although I have no encounters planned yet, I can give a possible example here. I like to start my adventures with combat, just to get the excitement level up. The initial battle often has little to do with the main plot. If, for example, I had the PCs defending a caravan against brigands, my theme might actually change this simple encounter. Instead of a straight-forward battle, with PCs and other low-level caravan guards fighting off brigands, I may have the leader of the caravan guards join the brigands (perhaps he is even their leader). That actually sounds good, so I’ll put that on a shelf for now. You get the idea.
Perhaps the theme will also influence location descriptions. A city that is corrupt and decadent will look and feel very different than one that is well-run. Compare Ed Greenwood’s city of Waterdeep from The Forgotten Realms with the city of Sanctuary from Thieves’ World. The former seems like a nice place to live. The city is clean and orderly, its powerful Lords provide both justice and order, and multiple temples serve the city and the poor. In contrast, Sanctuary is a cesspit. The ruler is largely aloof, most officials are corrupt, and the Hellhounds (the ruler’s enforcers) brutally maintain order, caring little for justice. I would never wish to live there. Yet, given a choice of where to set an adventure, I’d pick Sanctuary over Waterdeep any day of the week. In this adventure, my theme means that any settlements will be seedy and unwholesome places, where PCs must be on their guard (not the best places to rest).
Even outcomes may become darker because of the theme. For example, if the PCs are seeking some missing NPCs, perhaps they will not find them alive and well. The PCs may find that some are dead and the rest have been sold into slavery.
Just from writing the above, I am definitely in a different frame of mind. This should help as I create the adventure. Even better, if my planning spans several days (very typical), I can re-read these notes each time to put myself back in the proper frame of mind.
Step 4. Consider Player Styles and Interests
To maximize player fun, a good DM should always consider the players’ preferred styles and interests. You can plan a great murder mystery, but if your players hate mysteries and love to kill everything in sight, the adventure will probably be a disaster. As a rule, larger groups are usually more difficult to satisfy because the chances are higher for players having very different styles and interests.
For this short adventure, I will have some difficulty because our online group is rather large (six to ten players), and the players have wildly different preferences. At least I know that at the start. Some of the players love combat to the point that they seem to get restless if they are not throwing dice after 20 minutes. Fortunately, the sword & sorcery genre calls for action, so this should not be a problem. I am unsure about three specific things–politics, puzzles/riddles, and traps. Players often love or hate them. I want to see if our group has any consensus on these features. If so, it will make design easier. I assume that there will be little consensus, but you never know. I shall poll my players (via text or email or Discord) with three quick questions.
Step 5. Choose a Game System
Game mechanics matter, for they generally influence player behavior (and thus PC behavior). The mechanics will directly affect how your game unfolds. Simply put, some game systems handle specific genres better than others. For example, Dungeons & Dragons does not do horror as well as The Call of Cthulhu. With enough tweaking, you can make anything work, but choosing the best system may save you lots of work. Of course, if you don’t have many game systems or if your players don’t want to experiment with various systems, then simply go with what you know.
In our case, the group already decided on Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 at the onset. This will work well enough for sword & sorcery, as that genre heavily influenced Gygax and Arneson when they created D&D. I will not limit the PCs in any way, but to create the mood that I’m seeking, I will be picky in what monsters and what spells I feature in the adventure (more on that below).
Step 6. Decide Between Sandbox and Plot
I usually associate this question with campaigns, but it applies to adventure design too. For any that are unfamiliar with the term, sandbox refers to a detailed setting that PCs are free to explore at their leisure. There is no specified plot, quest, or mission. DMs have had a longstanding debate on whether DMs should ever create a plot, and there is no correct stance. I find that my vocabulary has evolved, even if my stance has not. I used to argue that the DM should not write plots, arguing that this was the players’ collective job. I have since amended my terms. The DM should indeed write a rough plot, based on the universal template of ‘someone wants something badly and is having trouble getting it’. However, the DM must not script the story, as this is the job of the players. The story is HOW the PCs interact with the plot and the rest of the setting. The story is what eventually happens during the session. If a DM takes over that role, the players are relegated to audience members. In any case, a DM’s choice of sandbox or plot greatly affects adventure design.
I currently want to practice making my adventures more story-like, which requires creating clearer plots. It’s really a matter of pacing (more on that later). Thus, for this adventure, I shall prepare a rough plot. It will not be a sandbox (I want to play with that at another time).
Step 7. Brainstorm Components
In one of his online videos, Guy Sclanders suggested filling in a simple 5 x 5 table before you start making choices for your adventure. The headings of the table are basic elements that you’ll want during adventure design. He suggests brainstorming five options for each heading. Don’t worry too much about making them unique or perfect (you can tweak them later). When writing the options, try to remember your self-imposed limits, based on your chosen genre, theme, and player styles/interests. The purpose of making this table is to provide you with a bucket of possibilities during the design process. Later, when you find that you need a monster, you can look at this short list rather than poring through all the monster books again. Likewise, when you need a trap, magic item, or location, you can quickly reference these lists.
I sometimes ask my players what specific magic items they would eventually love for their PCs to obtain. I don’t give them everything they want (and certainly not in one adventure). Yet, having this wish list can improve your game. Your players may appreciate that you are customizing the adventure for them. Moreover, there may be times when you are just stuck, and their wish list will help. It may arise that you need to place a minor magic item in a treasure horde but have no strong feelings on what it should be. Check the PCs’ master wish list and grab anything that suits the adventure.
Likewise, I have occasionally asked players what monsters they would love to face. I will not insert a requested monster that does not fit the genre, but I can usually find a few requests that do, or I can tweak one of their requests until it does. In another adventure that I’m planning, I noticed that a player had earlier asked to encounter a satyr. The typical satyr didn’t fit what I was doing, but by tweaking his idea I unwittingly created my main monster for that adventure (a satyr-looking demon).
For this adventure, let’s try to fill in the five headings, as follows:
This does not require much explanation. Yet, I will add a suggestion here, based on the practice of George Lucas, who purposely featured three very different environments in each of his three original Star Wars films. Each environment gives off a very different feel, and variety is nice. Also, even in a two-hour movie, the drastic change in environment makes the saga seem longer, more far-reaching, and thus more epic.
In fantasy gaming, dungeons are fairly common. As a dungeon can exist beneath almost any environment (forest, tundra, jungle, farmland, etc.), it is very easy to get two very different environments for an adventure. Just try for a third type. If you are stuck, or if a radically different setting will not suit your adventure, realize that you can vary underground settings enough to make them feel like two very different environments. For example, wandering through the cavernous halls of a dwarven king would feel very different than the extremely tight, claustrophobic tunnels of a catacomb. Likewise, spacious natural caverns, perhaps magically lit or illuminated by phosphorescent lichen, will feel very different than the foul sewer system of a large city.
I know that sword & sorcery adventures are set in almost every type of environment. Yet, for this adventure, I do want to emphasize a dusty, rocky, hot environment, reminiscent of the Near East, as this rarely features in our games. I want at least one scene set on a rocky plain. An underground crypt or temple would contrast well with that. What else? Looking for books for my young daughter, I recently skimmed a ‘choose your own adventure’ book by James Ward called Conan the Undaunted, and part of the story featured haunted ruins. Ruins fit perfectly with the genre, so we’ll include them here. To contrast with dry and dusty, let’s also feature water. Perhaps the PCs must cross a lake, perhaps on a boat. Last of all, let’s get some height. Let’s use an old crumbling tower. Thus, for this adventure, we’ll start with:
(1) Rocky and parched plains (outdoors)
(2) Underground crypt/temple (indoors)
(3) Haunted ruins of an ancient city (outdoors)
(4) Tropical island on a mist-shrouded lake (outdoors)
(5) Crumbling stone tower (indoors)
Potential PC Deaths
Guy Scalanders explained that these are not ways that you plan to kill the PCs. Instead, these are exciting dangers that you can add to the adventure. So, after seeing an entry entitled ‘falling off a cliff’, you can set a battle on the edge of some very high cliffs. This at least allows for several exciting possibilities, such as a PC wrestling with a monster on the edge of the cliff, a PC throwing or knocking a monster off the cliff, a PC falling over the side and clinging to a dead tree root, etc. For this adventure, we’ll start with:
(1) Falling off a 1000’-high cliff
(2) Eaten by a monster
(3) Crushed by a large inanimate object
(4) Killed in a cave-in
(5) Burned alive in a conflagration
I do think that most adventures should have some dangerous challenges that cannot be overcome with a sword or by negotiation. Yet, my short survey (given since I wrote Step 4) showed that few of the players love traditional traps. Thus, I’ll brainstorm more hazards than traps. If any idea seems like a traditional trap, I’ll ensure that it does not produce immediate death or damage (a reason why many players dislike spiked pits, poisoned needles, etc.).
Thinking back on various sword & sorcery films, water came to mind first. Perhaps the PCs must dive beneath some water to get somewhere or to escape something. Water threatens PCs with drowning and also hides potential monsters. How about a room or area that fills with water? Having included water, let’s use fire for contrast. Perhaps a wall of fire (magical or otherwise) prevents access to something. My mind then jumped to the lava pit inside the Thuggee temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t really want lava here, but perhaps hot coals will do. Perhaps there are braziers filled with coals, or perhaps there is a pit filled with them. What else? Falling is always scary, and we mentioned cliffs above. Perhaps the PCs will need to scale some steep cliffs. Ok, we need one more. My mind went to Conan the Destroyer (1984), when Conan had to lift a solid stone door. Perhaps we can use something like that. Thus, for this adventure, we’ll start with:
(1) Room filling with water (or a water barrier)
(2) Wall of fire
(3) Pit filled with hot coals
(4) Steep rocky cliff
(5) Stone wall or door descending
Personally, I find monsters to be a key part of the design process. I tend to prefer my adventures (and campaign worlds) to be a bit more homogenous than most. I dislike having dozens of different fantasy races mingling together. It simply doesn’t appeal to me, probably because it’s so fantastic that I cannot relate it to any literary works that inspired me to play in the first place. Given my finicky tastes, I will be a touch more careful here than you might be when creating your own adventure. If orcs, githyanki, pixies, mummies, and mermen all fit perfectly in your campaign, then go for it.
I will be a touch stereotypical with monsters, looking to capture the flavor of a sword & sorcery adventure. At some point, Conan always cuts down a dozen human warriors in crappy armor. We need some of them. Ok, what else? A novel on my night table, entitled Conan the Swordsman, has a cool cover with some sort of flying dinosaur. That’s unusual and gives me a flying monster. Since I mentioned haunted ruins above, perhaps we can use some ghouls skulking around the ruins at night. I like that, and it gives me some undead. This will be especially interesting since the party has only one very non-traditional cleric. My eyes then fell upon the cover of the original Players Handbook. I’ve wanted to use a temple setting like that for a long time. Perhaps we’ll throw in some lizardmen or serpentmen. They’re interesting and different. I need one more option. I am tempted to throw in a wizard or sorcerer, but it takes time to do them any justice. Another adventure that I’m planning for the same group focuses on a wizard, so I’ll avoid one here. Maybe I’ll add an incorporeal monster, something that they cannot pummel or shoot to death. Perhaps a ghost, wraith, or specter would fit well with haunted ruins. Thus, for this adventure, we’ll start with:
(1) Human brigands or guards
(2) Flying dinosaur lizards (giant pteranodons?)
(4) Lizardmen or snakemen
(5) Incorporeal undead
Potential Magic Items
I approach this from different angles. Most important to me is ‘What magic items are important to the story?’. If the heroes will need a special dagger to defeat the
monster, then that special dagger needs to be on this list. If there is an item that you wish to introduce for future adventures, it should be on the list. Next, I consider whether there are items that I really like and want to include, perhaps because they work well with the adventure’s genre. Last, I look to see if any item on the PC’s master wish list would fit with the adventure.
For this adventure, the only item that I knew from the start that I wanted to introduce was a sunsword, kept by a high priestess that I developed for another adventure (set in the same campaign world). I have no idea what role my priestesses of Palladine Mithrallas may play in this adventure, but I would like to unveil that blade somehow. What else? I envision sword & sorcery magic to be subtle, so perhaps a gem that allows the possessor to have some form of clairvoyance (much like a crystal ball). Perhaps a wizard’s or priest’s enchanted skullcap helps him to focus, providing him with bonuses to spells. Somewhere above, I mentioned snakemen. Perhaps an amulet provides some bonus against venom or simply prevents attacks by serpents. Somewhere above, I mentioned slaves. Perhaps an enchanted iron slave collar makes the wearer submissive (unable to attack). That last one is sort of strange, so perhaps I should come up with a backup item, just in case. Perhaps a magical scroll contains a unique wizard spell that allows the caster to attack an enemy with unseen forces, much like Galdalf and Saruman used as they fought each other in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). They were using their staves to do this, so it could also be a staff with this power. Thus, in this adventure, we’ll start with:
(1) Sunsword of Mithrallas
(2) Gem of clairvoyance
(3) Skullcap of focus
(4) Amulet against venom
(5) Collar of submission
(6) Scroll/staff of unseen forces (unique spell?)
Step 8. Consider Master Plot/Adventure Type
The master plot of a campaign is the overarching plot to which most other plotlines should connect. The villain wants something badly and is having trouble getting it (the PCs becoming the main source of trouble). Having a clear master plot makes creating adventures terribly easy. They almost write themselves. As events unfold over the course of several sessions, the villain often sets new plans in motion, creating adventure hooks. The DM trick here is to pay attention to the developments, thinking like the villain.
In any case, my current online group has no unifying master plot. This makes it somewhat lacking compared to other campaigns. I’m not sure if this makes my life easier or more difficult during adventure design. I need not worry about connecting the adventure to a master plot. Yet, a master plot usually makes it easier to come up with the adventure plot. Oh well. There is no master plot.
We should now stop to consider the general type of adventure that we want to run. In the past, I often thought of possibilities like ‘save the princess’, ‘kill the monster’, and ‘get the treasure’. These classification can work, but they are also limited. Guy Sclanders suggested four adventure types that subsume mine:
Thwarting Adventures, which can include ‘kill the monster’, require PCs to stop something or someone, perhaps by killing it/him, perhaps by destroying it, or perhaps by ruining its/his plans.
Collecting Adventures, which can include ‘get the treasure’, require the PCs to journey somewhere to obtain something that is ostensibly difficult to get. The journey home can be exciting or unimportant.
Delivering Adventures require the PCs to take something that they already have and bring it somewhere safely. The journey is key in such adventures.
Discovery Adventures require the PCs to explore an area or investigate a problem. The journey to the area may be significant, but the journey home is often not.
For this adventure, I have no strong preference. I think I may want to have the PCs try to retrieve that magical sunsword for the priestesses. This would be a collecting adventure. We’ll go with that for now.
Step 9. Create a Working Title
A good name is not terribly important, but I do find it useful. It focuses my thoughts and efforts. I usually end up changing the name several times. Just come up with something to start. My first thought here was simply ‘Into the Parched Hills’, for I thought I would set the small adventure there. I came to dislike that because it was too broad, saying nothing of the adventure itself. I changed it to ‘Light in the Darkness’, thinking that perhaps my sunsword would play a big part, perhaps hidden in dark, haunted ruins. That was better, but I still thought it too generic. ‘Light in the Darkness’ can refer to so many things. I wanted something that hinted at the setting’s flavor. I came to think I was closer with ‘Into the Parched Hills’, but I wanted to focus more on the haunted ruins. I needed a good name.
This derailed me for a bit. I looked online, skimming names of cities in ancient Canaan (Phoenician cities, Philistine cities, Hebrew cities, Moabite cities, etc.). Nothing jumped out at me. I looked at Hittite cities in Anatolia. Nothing. I then moved to Babylonian, Assyrian, and Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia. Frustrated, I then changed tack and looked at cities in Hyboria (the world of Conan). I still had nothing, though Conan’s archenemy, Thoth Ammon, kept popping into my head. At some point, I combined the city of Ur in Mesopotamia with Thoth Ammon, yielding the city of Ur-Ammon. Some scholars maintain that the Sumerian word ‘uru’ meant city, while the Hebrew word ‘ur’ means light or flame. I like the ancient images that these conjure. The name certainly doesn’t suggest Medieval Europe, and equally important, it doesn’t strongly suggest any popular earthly culture. I wanted to avoid names as suggestive as Hamunaptra (the fictional Egyptian city in the 1999 Mummy movie) or Zakhara (the pseudo Arabian land in Forgotten Realms). Thus, I recently settled on ‘The Ruins of Ur-Ammon’. I like it, but if I need to change it later, I will.
Step 10. Envision the End
To this point, I have only a jumble of cool components and the vague idea that the PCs will eventually try to get something. Before I worry about even the beginnings of a plot, I want to envision the climax of the adventure. It should be exciting, dramatic, and cinematic. It will likely be the best part. If you don’t love it, your players probably won’t, and they’ll likely care even less for the rest. The climax is worth some serious thought.
So how do we envision that climax? Guy Sclanders has an interesting method. With his 5 x 5 table, he writes out many combinations and does some free association to see what possibilities jump out. This may work for you. I have issues, however, and would feel compelled to look at all 120 combinations (did I do the math correctly?). For me, it is far easier to focus on the monster.
How can I narrow this down further? For what it’s worth, I imagine the dinosaurs as obstacles along the way, not the final challenge. I’m not sure why. My first reason has to do with lack of intelligence, and this sent me down an hour-long rabbit hole. I pondered whether I should first nail down the villain’s goal/plan (see Step 11 below) before trying to envision the ending. I’ll spare you the details of my exhausting mental debate and simply write that I think we can envision the end first. Quite simply, what do we want the end to look like? We don’t need to know the how and the why yet. Getting back to the dinosaurs, it doesn’t matter if they are smart enough to be my final villains/monsters. The question is ‘Will they make for the coolest final battle?’ I say no. What about the specter or incorporeal undead? I have no logical objection. The snakemen simply appeal to me more for a final battle. Ok. Done! The PCs will fight snakemen. For now, forget about why or how.
Next let’s nail down the battle’s setting. I now look at the list of locations that we made earlier. The PCs could fight the snakemen amidst ancient ruins, but for some reason I imagine this final battle to be underground. Our crypt or temple would work well. Ok. So the PCs are fighting snakemen in an underground temple (maybe I’ll finally get a scene like that on the cover of the Players Handbook!). Well, this is interesting, but it’s still not exciting. Let’s make it dynamic by adding some danger.
Next, turn to the list of potential PC deaths. If the PCs are underground, they cannot fall off a cliff, unless there is a bottomless chasm in the temple. As for the danger of being eaten, I don’t think the roughly human-sized snakemen can swallow the PCs, but what if they have a giant serpent as a pet? That could be picturesque, with a tremendous serpent wrapping a PC in its tail while trying to swallow another. That has potential. Alternatively, if the temple roof is unstable (it is old, after all), a cave-in might be a real possibility. Perhaps the ceiling starts to crumble during the battle, and giant chunks of rock start falling randomly during the battle, crushing those that they strike. That seems to cover two options at once (cave-in and being crushed). What’s left? Perhaps the PCs are fighting the snakemen in the underground temple while it goes up in flames. Perhaps someone upends a large brazier during the battle, spilling hot coals that start a fire. This too has potential, though I cannot imagine too many flammables in a long-abandoned, ancient, underground temple. Maybe we’ll scratch that one. Of the above options, I like the fissure, the giant snake, and the collapsing ceiling. Having too many cool options is a good problem to have.
Can I use more than one in a given encounter? I believe that the purpose of the lists (or Guy’s original 5 x 5 table) is to provide each combat encounter in the adventure with a cool monster, a cool location, and a dynamic feature that makes it dangerous and exciting. Having five of each item suggests that you use only one dynamic feature (a collapsing ceiling, an inferno, etc.) for each encounter. However, there may be a battle that does not need an over-the-top danger, especially the first battle, which I typically use as a warm up. Perhaps I could afford to assign two dynamic features to the final battle. Well, if I can have a steep cliff somewhere else (for PCs to potentially fall off), I can eliminate the option from the final battle. That leaves my finale with the PCs fighting snakemen and a giant snake (which threatens to swallow them) in an underground temple with a collapsing ceiling. Do I like that? Yes! I do.
Step 11. Develop the Sentence
We now have the vision of a final battle scene, but we also have a dozen questions. How did the PCs get to that underground temple? Why did they go to the temple? Since this is a collection adventure (for the sunsword), how did that item get in the temple? Did the PCs know that the snakemen were there? Why are the snakemen in the temple? Is this a new temple or an ancient one? Where is this temple located?
There is no correct way to answer all these, and whatever your method, it will take some time. Do not be deterred. I find that it helps to have a guiding sentence that drives the whole adventure. Good campaigns certainly have these, but I think adventures can too.
To develop the sentence, start with the universal template of ‘someone wants something badly and is having trouble getting it’. I’ll admit I always envisioned the PCs as the ones that badly want something. It makes sense, for they are the protagonists of the story (and the adventure). Yet, Guy Sclanders suggests a different approach that seems to work better. He develops his sentence by focusing on the antagonist (the villain). Why? To paraphrase, many PCs do not have clear or interesting goals, whereas most good villains do. In addition, PCs (and players) do not always like DM-imposed plots as much as we hope that they will. When this occurs, they either half-heartedly follow the plot hook or ignore the hook altogether and strike off on their own. PCs tend to enjoy adventures more when they are pursuing their own interests or desires. If you tell a party that the king orders them to kill a monster, they may comply, that is if they like the king, if they think they will get a sufficient reward, or if they find the cause worthy. Alternatively, if you have the same monster destroy half of the PC’s village, kill their friends, and melt some of their magic items, they will hunt the monster to the ends of the earth. With this in mind, we can design an adventure by giving the villain a clear goal and having the PCs somehow get in the villain’s way. The adventure may even begin with the PCs pursuing their own goals (which has nothing to do with the villain or the main plot). Somehow, we’ll arrange to have the PCs collide with the villain’s plans, which is how they’ll learn of a plot hook. If they voluntarily take the bait, then we’ll have happy players, enthusiastically following the course that we suggested. If they don’t take the bait, we’ll simply arrange for a second encounter. PCs are generally formidable, and if they vanquish the villain or his minions once or twice, he will likely begin to pay great attention to them. If we play the villain well and strike the PCs hard, it’ll only be a matter of time before the PCs enthusiastically pursue the villain via one of our plot hooks. The plan usually works. Thus, I want to make our guiding sentence about the antagonist.
In this adventure, we have snakemen and a giant snake in an underground temple, perhaps led by a magic-using snakeman. What do they want, and how will the PCs come to stand in their way? I want to set the temple beneath the haunted ruins of an ancient city. Have the snakemen just uncovered the temple, or have they been worshipping there for years, undisturbed? I don’t want a large temple complex, as this is supposed to be a short adventure. Let’s say that their snake cult, which is spreading across cities to the east, discovered that they once had a temple in the now-ruined, ancient city. Perhaps a year or two ago, they found an entrance and refurbished a few rooms. Most importantly, they found that a giant serpent had made its lair there (which they see as divine intervention). What do they want now? Let’s keep it simple. Every week or so, they feed the snake, which they believe to be a demi-god. Thus, here is our guiding sentence: The snake cultists want to feed their big snake, but they are running short on food. That’s simple enough. A few minor tweaks (naming the snake and specifying the food) yields the following:
Sentence: Snake cultists want to feed the Serpent of Ur-Ammon, which they worship beneath the ruins of an ancient city, but they are running short on human captives.
Step 12. Choose a Story Template
At this point, we have a bucket of interesting options, waiting to be used. We also have snakemen looking for more food for their snake-god. We also have the PCs looking to collect a high priestess’ sunsword. Somehow, the PCs’ actions must interfere with the plans of the cultists, giving us conflict and fun.
Before we get into any more detail, we should consider templates. In the past, I seldom used a template. I created locations, NPCs, monsters, treasures, some events that would occur no matter what, and some events that would occur if the PCs triggered them. That was it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet, I want this adventure to unfold more like a classic, epic adventure, even though it’ll be short. Therefore, I will use a template to produce a crude plot outline. I wrote ‘crude’ because it’s important to recall that this plot outline is just a guide.
Sidenote on Using a Plot Outline (feel free to skip):
A good DM must adapt to PC actions as the game progresses. There are purists that believe that certain NPCs and monsters are in specific places on the map, and likewise certain clues to the evil villain’s plans are in certain places, and that’s that. If the players fail to find the clues or unluckily wander into the lairs of the three strongest monsters in your world, then it’s too bad for them. That’s certainly one way to play. With the right crowd, that style can be interesting and fun. Yet, too often, when players hit dead ends, they do not find it fun, and listening to them whine and complain is certainly not fun for a DM. If players are spinning their wheels, I would rather keep the game moving smoothly by slightly shuffling the components in my plot outline. The overall plot, or crude plot, can remain intact, but things may not play out in the exact order that I originally wrote them. I’m fine with that. Remember that the players do not see your outline, so only you’ll know that you made changes.
By the way, this approach does not mean that players will always succeed because the DM will simply shift things to help them. The PCs in my groups have failed on several occasions, and I believe in consequences. The middle path between coddling and ‘survival of the fittest’ lies in keeping the story moving, even if it is not ideal for the PCs. What does this mean in practice? An example may help. In my monthly campaign, an evil cult is doing bad things to inhabitants of the small village of Lakesend. I planned to have the local baron ask the PCs to investigate the disappearance of his provost. A quick investigation (asking around the village) would lead PCs to the realization that several less-important people were also missing. In addition, rumors would point to strangers roaming the village at night and possible kidnappings. Given the two rangers in the party, I figured that they would track the kidnappers or even pose as victims to discover their lair. This would lead them to a sunken manor house, where the cult was converting the prisoners into cultists and then releasing them. In that manor house, the PCs would learn two things: (1) a nearby temple contains dangerous ‘weapons of light’ that can destroy the cult, which is why cultists there chase away the curious, and (2) the cult’s headquarters is in the nearby swamp. Well, the PCs started off well, quickly discovering that others were missing and even that many villagers seemed changed. For various reasons they hit the wall in trying to find the cultists’ lair (part of the fault was mine, for I let them spin their wheels for too long). Eventually, I made some adjustments. I cut out that sunken manor house as a needless complication. Since the PCs are about to finish clearing the abandoned temple, I’ll allow them to learn of the two items above at the temple itself. Thus, the overall plan remains intact (PCs learning X and Y and then progressing toward the cult lair), but the details have changed slightly. There are consequences too. Instead of the PCs receiving the baron’s praise for swiftly unmasking a hidden threat, their rivals at court humiliated them by pointing out their lack of progress. Interestingly, the nasty exchange in the baron’s court made the perfect segue to a trial by combat that I had planned. That next session turned out to be fantastic. The point is that you need to keep the story moving and to keep it interesting, even if the PCs suffer setbacks. In good stories, heroes always suffer setbacks.
Considering Different Templates
So what type of template is best to guide the story structure? I have no answer here. I know of three kinds that all do the same basic thing. There are nuances, of course. The first and simplest is the Five Room Dungeon, which I first heard from Johnn Four, who runs Roleplaying Tips. I have summarized his idea in a previous article. While I find this very useful for tiny adventures of just a few encounters, I’m not sure how it would work with larger ones. I know that John asserts that you can expand it to have 5RDs inside of 5RDs. I think this could ensure that your game contains a good balance of encounter types (role-playing and puzzles/riddles versus combat), as well as a mix of small and large encounters. It would even ensure that you give rewards with some regularity. Yet, I am not sure if it would help to create the flow of a classic story, which is what I’m after here.
Guy Sclanders describes the other two that I know, calling them the 121/122 Template and the Five-Step Template. Online, you can find several of his videos explaining these in detail. In short, the 121/122 is his version of a Three-Act Structure, which provides a beginning, a larger middle, and an end. Yet, it seems to require the DM to know what twists and turns to include in each part. In contrast, his Five-Step Template is clearer to me. The step titles explain the general course of the adventure, while each of the five steps contains one social encounter (role-playing, puzzle, riddle, etc.) and one combat encounter (actual combat or challenges like traps and hazards). This mix keeps play from stagnating. Both templates guide the story along a satisfying path.
For this adventure, I’ll adopt the more rigid Five-Step Template. Each step has combat and non-combat, but the order doesn’t matter. Here is a brief outline of the five steps (again Guy’s videos go into more detail):
Step 1. Introduction to Plot
Role-Playing, Exploration, Riddle/Puzzle:
Step 2. Journey to Plot
Role-Playing, Exploration, Riddle/Puzzle:
Step 3. Discover New Plot
Role-Playing, Exploration, Riddle/Puzzle:
Step 4. Journey to New Plot
Role-Playing, Exploration, Riddle/Puzzle:
Step 5. Defeat Plot / Get Rewards
Role-Playing, Exploration, Riddle/Puzzle:
Step 13. Develop a Plot Outline
At this point, my brainstorming becomes somewhat circular or less structured. I’ll record some thoughts here so you can see the chaos that is normal during this design step (at least for me). Do not be deterred. It really helps me to write down (or type) many of my thoughts. I can always throw out or delete my notes if they stink. Sometimes it helps to jump around, but I try to work backwards. As I find ideas that I like, I’ll fill in the above template on paper or in a separate computer document. What follows in this section is a slightly summarized version of my more useful thoughts as I had them. If you just want a checklist of steps to follow as a guide, you can skip to the next step. Yet, I think this is the most difficult step so perhaps seeing how another DM fights his way through this process may be of value.
We already envisioned our finale, so we can fill in the combat encounter in Step 5. This will be our battle against the snakemen, led by a magic-using snakeman. The giant snake will also be there to try to swallow the PCs. At some point, something will cause the temple roof to start collapsing, bringing down huge chunks of rock (I have no clue what that will be yet, but that’s ok).
We can also fill in the role-playing encounter of Part 5, which occurs after the battle. In this final encounter, the PCs will speak with the priestesses. If the PCs were successful in retrieving the sunsword, the women would reward them, and there may be varying degrees of success and reward. In collection adventures, the return trip could be important, but in this adventure, the climax will be at the temple. Throwing in several other encounters on the way home would be anti-climactic, so we’ll dispense with those. I’ll briefly narrate the journey home and quickly get to the final encounter with the priestesses. Ok, so one-fifth of the outline is done.
At this point, I’m wondering why the sunsword is in the snake cult’s temple. Hmmm. I already know that snakemen are looking for human captives to feed to their snake. Are they raiding towns and villages? I don’t imagine them to be that numerous or strong. Perhaps they are simply ambushing travelers. I also know that the PCs will be trying to retrieve the sunsword for the priestesses of Palladine Mithrallas. Let’s start very simply and make these two ideas collide. What if the sunsword is missing because the snakemen, looking for captives, ambushed the high-priestess and her retinue, taking them back to their underground temple? For the PCs to get involved (assuming that they weren’t with the high-priestess), someone has to bring word of what happened. Perhaps a maimed survivor escaped to tell the tale. The priestesses could then commission the PCs to get the sword for them. The PCs could journey to the temple, find their way in, kill the snakemen and their giant serpent, and retrieve the sunsword. Ok. That’s simple and logical. It’s also boring, but it’s a start.
I’m unsure what to do next, so let’s jump to the beginning. I like to start adventures with combat, preferably in media res (meaning in the middle of things, possibly action). It’s fun to sit down at the table, ask if the players are ready to start the adventure, and then say, “Roll initiative.” Borrowing from many Hollywood movies, I often have this first combat unrelated to the rest of the adventure. It gives the players the sense that their PCs are busy doing other things when they are not on one of my crazy adventures. This also allows you to feature a monster that has no relation to your villain or current plot, giving you more variety. The 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark provides a simple and well-known example, with Indy facing half-naked South American tribesmen in the initial encounter, while most of the film has him battling Nazi soldiers and their minions. Well, looking at my list of monsters, I see human brigands and guards. They seem to be the most mundane, so why not start with them? Back in Step 3, I pondered an encounter with the PCs escorting a merchant caravan. Let’s develop that. Looking at my list of locations, I’ll pick the rocky plains. I imagine that the merchants, guards, and brigands will all have horses, so the plains will fit well here. This may yield a fast-moving battle with lots of movement, arrow fire, and weak opponents. In my earlier musing, I had the guard captain betraying the merchants and siding with the brigands (corruption theme), leaving the PCs to fight them all. Perhaps this battle does not need a life threatening dynamic from our list of potential PC deaths. Alternatively, the caravan route could run alongside some steep cliffs. In any case, perhaps sometime after the battle, the lone priestess that survived the snakeman ambush stumbles upon the merchant caravan, which is how the PCs learn of her plight. I like this better than having the PCs make it back to the city before the priestesses ask for their help. Ok. Now our adventure contains an opening battle, a role-playing encounter with the maimed priestess, a journey to the temple, and a final battle (40% done). It’s getting better, but we’re far from done.
The next part that I want to tackle is the ‘new plot’, indicated by the template. In many classic stories, the heroes discover a plot hook near the beginning of the story. They then begin to tackle that plot, whatever it may be. However, sometime afterwards, the heroes usually hit a wrinkle by discovering a new plot. For example, a detective trying to solve a murder (initial plot) might find that terrorists commited the murder to distract the police while they blow up the entire city. The new plot would be stopping the terrorists. Alternatively, heroes that are trying to rescue a princess might discover that her father-in-law is behind her kidnapping for political reasons. The new plot would be to unmask the father’s treachery. You get the idea. The new plot must be significant enough that the heroes can not simply walk away. To use the original Star Wars film as a classic example, the initial plot for Luke was to bring the droids to Alderaan, but he later finds the planet destroyed. After being sucked into the Death Star, the heroes must find a way to disable the tractor beam to allow for their escape. Yet, they also discover that the Princess is there, so they set out to free her. This is the new plot. So far, my adventure is missing a new plot. Since I want my snakemen to be the finale, I need some other people, not the snakemen, to ambush the priestesses. Later, as the PCs try to locate and to retrieve the sunsword (or perhaps to rescue surviving priestesses), they can somehow stumble upon the snakemen’s trail. I played with a few ideas here, but I’m still having difficulty.
I’m a very visual person, so to help myself, I just drew the roughest sketch map, including my five locations. I have no set plan, save that I want the road through the rocky plains to be where the PCs start and an underground temple to be on the far side of the map, where the PCs will finish. I also took a few tiny bits of paper and wrote one of my five monsters on each one. I’m now moving the chits around to different locations to see if I can make sense of why the PCs might proceed from one location to the next. After some thought, I’ve come up with a few scenarios that make sense and use three or four of the options. Here is one example: The PCs start the adventure with a battle against brigands. Soon afterwards, they meet the maimed priestess, who tells how she and her fellow priestesses were ambushed by brigands ahead (not snakemen), perhaps a few days ago. The PCs follow the brigands’ trail and come to a lake. They find a recently abandoned brigand camp by the lake. There are signs of battle there, but no corpses, for the snakemen have ambushed the brigands and carried them off, along with the priestesses (looking to feed their snake). The PCs can then track the snakemen up to the ruins on the cliffs above, where they would meet ghouls (ruins seem like a fitting place for ghouls). Finally, the PCs find the entrance to the temple, enter, and defeat the snakemen. That’s not bad! It’s shaping up, but I missed the specter, crumbling tower, island, and flying dinosaurs. If this happens, don’t give up. Keep at it.
To be frank, the island with the tower is giving me fits. The PCs have no reason to venture there if a clear trail or path leads right into the ruins (as the sketch here shows). I toyed with different ideas about what might be in that tower. Perhaps it contains the location to the hidden temple entrance. Perhaps it contains a secret about the haunted ruins. Perhaps it has a secret to bypassing the ghouls. Everything comes up short upon close inspection.
After much thought, I now wonder whether the island location could instead be the lake itself. After all, my initial intention had been to set up the PCs for a battle while on a boat. The PCs don’t actually need to set foot on an island to get this experience. They just need a reason to be on a boat on this lake (Alas, I don’t have that reason yet). Perhaps the flying dinosaurs might work well here too. Perhaps they have a perch on the cliffs overlooking the lake, and perhaps they swoop down to attack living creatures. This would give the PCs a battle on a boat against flying creatures. That’s dangerous and exciting. I like that, but I don’t have a reason for them to be on a boat in the first place–not as long as that path runs conveniently up the slopes to the cliffs above. Hmmm. Somehow, that lake needs to obstruct the path. How would this come to be? Well, what if the rocky earthen ramp, which once ran along the edge of the lake and rose to the cliffs above, crumbled many centuries ago? Perhaps an earthquake caused a collapse or erosion wore down the edge. In any case, perhaps the PCs will now come to the lake shore and find a dead end nearby. Perhaps they will be able to spot, on the far side of the lake, the old path continuing up to the cliffs. They would have to cross the lake to continue tracking the priestesses and their captors (or go far out of their way). Of course, players are always apt to derail our best laid plans, so I need a way to discourage them from taking the very long way around. Well, if the PCs are looking to rescue captives, time might be crucial. Perhaps the sunsword, while important, can be secondary. Ok. We’ll change things so that the PCs are initially trying to save the captive priestesses. Yes, I think that will work.
My last lake-related problem is the lack of a way across. Where would they get a boat? I want the city to have been dead for more than a thousand years, so no ancient boats would remain. Then again, the brigands may have had a boat or two at their camp for whatever reason. That makes sense.
Well, in the last few paragraphs, we incorporated the lake (instead of an island) and the flying dinosaurs. We’re now just missing the tower and the specter.
Regarding our last two missing pieces, several crappy ideas have come and gone, but I just realized that I have been operating on an early assumption (that the tower was on an island in the lake). What if I move the tower? I still have no idea what’s in it or why PCs would need to go there, but I could move it. It seems like it would go well inside the haunted ruins of the ancient city, especially if there may be a specter within. That makes sense. Yet, that would put my ghouls and specter in very close proximity. That may be ok. Maybe they are working together. Yet, that seems to reduce the combat encounters from five to four. I could spread them out (the ruins are expansive), but would the PCs run into them both? I guess I could lay the breadcrumb trail right past them both. I have several thoughts, but all are too complex. I want this to be simple. I just had an idea. If I want to make it seem necessary to go into the tower, why not change it slightly into a gatehouse? Perhaps that gatehouse sits on the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the lake. Thus, when the PCs get to the brigands’ camp, find it empty, and find the path ending, perhaps the first thing that they notice is the ruined gatehouse on the bluffs across the lake. Then they can notice that the path continues on the other side, rising up toward the gatehouse. Once they get up there, they must pass through the gatehouse to enter the ruins. That works, but what of the specter? Perhaps it is a spirit from the ancient city. I could come up with a dozen reasons for its existence, but I think that monsters are creepier when you don’t know much about them or how they think. Who knows why it haunts that place? It really doesn’t matter. Ok, I think we’re done stringing together the basic plot (wow, that was a lot of work).
Before we plug items into the template, let’s see if the basic plot sequence makes sense. Our crude outline suggests a story that could unfold as follows:
(1) Combat: PCs start with a fast-paced, outdoor battle (maybe on horseback) against brigands and traitorous caravan guards. This occurs along the edge of a deep ravine, so combatants risk falling 1000’ to their deaths.
(2) Non-Combat: Not long afterwards, the PCs meet a maimed priestess that tells of how her sisters were ambushed and were taken captive by brigands. What if they don’t offer/agree to rescue them? Perhaps the ambush site is still ahead so the same brigands could attack the PCs directly. That would probably do it.
(3) Non-Combat: The PCs find the ambush site (but no bodies) and follow tracks to the edge of a lake, where they find a brigand camp. Strangely, it’s empty. Signs of battle are there, but no bodies. Tracks lead to the lake’s shore. The ancient path that leads along the edge of the lake ends abruptly. The PCs spot a ruined gatehouse on the cliffs on the far side of the lake. They find a boat or two at the camp.
(4) Combat: Flying dinosaurs attack the PCs while they are near the lake (preferably in a boat). These could eat the PCs (maybe tearing them apart if not swallowing them). Drowning is also a possibility, if PCs fall into the water. The dinosaurs may also grab PCs and fly away with them, and PCs wriggling free could fall into the lake.
(5) Non-Combat: On the far shore, the PCs ascend the slope and come to the ruined gatehouse. Perhaps the entrance is now completely blocked with tons of rubble.
PCs could scale the wall to climb through an arrow slit or upper window. They may also find a hidden sally port (the snakeman trail leads there) and a narrow, crumbling, spiral stairway (hazard). The stairwell (or any arrow slit or upper window) leads to an upper room.
(6) Combat: A specter of some kind manifests and attacks the PCs for disturbing it. The floor here may be very weak, risking collapse during combat. If the PCs get past the specter, they would find a door leading outside to the ruined city beyond.
(7) Non-Combat: The PCs then enter sprawling ruins. They must track the captives. Though they don’t know it, the tracks will lead to the entrance of the underground temple. Yet, perhaps that entrance is closed somehow, requiring the PCs to figure out how to open it.
(8) Combat: Either before the PCs figure out how to get into the temple or as soon as they figure it out, ghouls appear and attack them amidst the ruins. I cannot yet think of a way to make this battle dynamic. I also worry what would happen if the PCs arrived here during the day. Perhaps I can time their arrival at the camp for twilight, and the need to save the wounded captives should hopefully keep them from passing the night.
(9) Combat: The PCs enter the small, underground, temple complex and come face to face with snakemen and their giant serpent. Perhaps some captives are in the room, forcing the PCs to worry about them while fighting the snakemen. The sunsword could be here too. Something also causes the ceiling to start collapsing during the battle. Hopefully the PCs win.
(10) Non-Combat: The PCs leave the ruins (hopefully with captives and sunsword), recross the lake, get back to the road, and make it back to civilization, where the grateful priestesses reward them.
Well, that took a long time and a lot of effort, but it’s done. We have five non-combat encounters and five combat encounters. The PCs have a logical goal (rescue captives/get sunsword). The antagonists caused this whole plot because they too have a logical goal (feed the giant snake with captives). The story has a creepy twist (brigands are not holding the captives; snakemen are). The snakemen also obtained the captives in a logical way (raiding the brigand camp). I used four of my five options for PC deaths to make three of my combat encounters dynamic (I’m counting a collapsing floor as a cave-in). This last part, how to use your lists of components, deserves additional attention.
Realize that your lists are guides, not handcuffs. This is important. An example may illustrate how this plays out in practice. My initial list of PC deaths from Step 7 includes a conflagration, which sounds exciting. Yet, I could not think of a reasonable way for a fire to start amidst ancient ruins (ghoul combat) or in the crumbling tower (specter combat). I could have been creative to force a round peg into a square hole. For example, the brigands’ boats could contain barrels of oil that could leak out during the battle. Alternatively, there could be some foul oil on the surface of the lake for some unknown reason. I could also give the flying dinosaurs flaming breath. Since the sky’s the limit, the flying dinosaurs could also have the magical power to cause materials to ignite. Since I found many of these ideas to be stretches (except the flaming breath, which I plan to use in another adventure), I opted not to force the fire idea. Sometimes, more is less. Instead, I changed my list, replacing a fire with the obvious risk of drowning. Thus, four of my five battles now have a dynamic feature. As for the ghoul battle, I’ve run out of my initial five options and nothing extravagant comes to mind. Perhaps, the risk of fantastic death is unnecessary here, especially if I give the battlefield terrain some interesting features. Perhaps the ground is very uneven, featuring several trenches, slopes, or pits (three dimensions always make play more interesting). While pits and trenches do not threaten PC death, they should make the battle more than a slugfest.
Before moving on to the next step, I started to fill out that template, but in doing so I noticed a problem. After the introduction, the PCs are supposed to ‘journey to plot’ (in this case meaning that they’d look for the brigands). During that phase of the adventure, they are supposed to have combat. I have none. As I currently have it, they reach the empty camp and learn of the new plot (that snakemen took the captives). In short, my encounters, though logical, are not really aligning with the template. The problem here seems to be that the PCs shall discover the new plot too quickly. Hmmm. What if they don’t know exactly what happened at the camp? They could find a trail, but perhaps the ground is too rocky to allow for tell-tale, sidewinding, snake tracks. This makes me wonder how the PCs would follow, but the answer is simple. They could follow a blood trail left by the captives (and the snakemen are making no effort at stealth). So where might the PCs finally learn of the snakemen? Well, part of me would like to keep that secret until the PCs enter the temple, but that doesn’t fit the template either. They need the wrinkle sometime after the combat with the dinosaurs. Aahh. Perhaps it’s inside the ruined gatehouse, in the thick dust of the upper room, that the PCs notice that the blood trail from the captives is accompanied by non-human marks, like that of a large snake. That should work.
Five-Step Template for This Adventure
Step 1. Introduction to Plot
Combat: Brigands/traitorous guards
Extra Threat: ravine (falling)
Non-Combat: Maimed priestess asks for help
Step 2. Journey to Plot
Non-Combat: Discover/search brigand camp
Combat: Flying dinosaurs on/near lake
Extra Threat: drowning/falling into water
Step 3. Discover New Plot
Non-Combat: Gatehouse entry (hazard: stairs/climb)
Extra Threat: crumbling floor
Step 4. Journey to New Plot
Non-Combat: Figure out how to enter temple
Extra Threat: pits, slopes, trenches, etc.
Step 5. Defeat Plot/Get Rewards
Combat: Snakemen/giant snake
Extra Threat: being eaten / collapsing ceiling
Non-Combat: Receive rewards from priestesses
Step 14. Revisit Potential Traps/Hazards
I realize now that I haven’t made use of my traps and hazards from Step 7. I think I’ll insert a few of these wherever they seem to fit.
The water barrier or water filling a room stumped me for a bit. I’m imagining a trap or obstacle so I don’t count the lake here. My problem is that I envision the ruins as rocky and dead. There must be a stream or river that flows down into the lake, but I don’t want it running through the ruins. I want that area to seem dead. The ruins are also high up on cliffs, whereas I imagine water collecting in low spots. The only possibility that makes any sense to me is a low spot inside the temple, which is already underground. In fact, most of the traps make the most sense inside the temple (a wall of fire, pit or braziers filled with hot coals, and the stone wall/door descending). Only the cliffs stand out. I have two thoughts on using those. The essence of their danger is climbing and potentially falling. If the PCs do not find the sally port at the gatehouse (or if they opt against using it), they can climb the side of the gatehouse and try to enter through an arrow slit or window. Also, if PCs opt not to cross the lake for some reason, they may attempt to scale the cliffs to reach the gatehouse. As for the others, when it comes time for temple design, I’ll try to incorporate the water, fire, coals, and stone door. At present, the temple can be as simple or as complex as I want it to be. It may be two or three rooms or it may be ten or twelve. I am very tempted to make it larger, but I remind myself that this is supposed to be a practice run on Roll20. Thus, I may force myself to keep it simple.
Step 15. Plunder PC Backstories
So far, this is a neat little adventure upon which the PCs may stumble. However, they have no real connection to anything. I’ll now look at what I know of the PCs to see if I can personalize the adventure a bit. The ad-hoc nature of our current online campaign will make this rougher than usual. The group has little glue holding it together, and few players fleshed out their characters much. I‘ll work with what little I have.
No one has any particular animosity to snakes, snake cults, or brigands. No one has yet met the priestesses of Palladine Mithrallas. The half-elf in the party may have the most in common with these priestesses of light and truth. It’s a stretch though. The party’s only cleric is a half-orc that worships Kord. I may be able to work with this, for part of the cleric’s backstory is her confusion as to why Kord chose her. I don’t think she’s answered that yet. Perhaps I can give her recurring dreams about smashing the head of a serpent with a club or even crushing its head with her own two hands. If I go with this, I would send the player this tidbit before we start the adventure. This information would mean nothing until the PCs discover that snakemen took the captives. Thereafter, it should give her incentive to continue on. It may even distract her from the immediate goals of saving the captives and retrieving the sunsword, as she is likely to try to kill every snake in the temple. That might be interesting. It may also give the party a reason to fight the snake cult again in the future (I’d like to develop that group more).
One of the PCs specializes in fighting undead, so the ghouls and specter should make him happy. I need to make sure that he cannot turn them or destroy them with ease. He’s using some unfamiliar class variant, so I’ll need to find out exactly what he can do. Likewise, another PC specializes in fighting spell-casters. He too is using some class variant that I’ll need to ask him about (the tendency for every player to use a strange variant class is one reason why I dislike 3.5). In any case, he should appreciate the magic-using snakeman leader.
Well, that’s not much, but the players didn’t give me much backstory to plunder. The cleric’s dreams seem like they have the most potential. I try to avoid dreams, visions, and prophecies these days, as I tend to overuse them. However, these seem fitting for a cleric. They are also subtle, which fits with the sword & sorcery genre. In addition, the cleric has not had much of the limelight in recent adventures. Maybe the player will appreciate the attention.
Step 16. Customize Monsters
I try to avoid stock monsters like the plague. This game is all about exploring the unknown, and few things are as scary as the unknown. Thus, I shall make sure that each monster has some twist to keep the players on their toes. Let’s go through them in turn.
The brigands and traitorous caravan guards may be the most difficult to tweak, for they are just plain humans.
On one hand, I want these to be the most ‘normal’ monsters in the adventure, for they represent the rather ordinary dangers of the PCs’ everyday lives. I shall avoid spells and other supernatural powers here. For an effective tweak, I just need to exceed the players’ expectations. They probably expect several weak brigands of poor skill. For the most part, I want this to be true, but I also need a twist. Perhaps their riding skills will prove to be enough. On light horses, they can move 24”. Perhaps I’ll give some of them a few bonuses that cavaliers normally enjoy. They may attack as one level higher when mounted. They may have a much lower chance of being knocked from the saddle when hit. Perhaps a few also have bows and can loose arrows without much penalty while riding. I’ll be careful not to make them too skilled–just enough to be noticeable and challenging. Of course, my players tend to approach every situation with a ‘scorched earth’ policy. Faced with nimble, mounted brigands, they are apt to circle the wagons, to hunker down, and to shoot the brigands’ horses. I will not allow them this luxury because many of the caravan guards are traitors. The caravan will be strung out in a long line, and calls to circle the wagons will go unanswered (perhaps traitorous guards already killed some of the drovers). If the PCs simply stay put and shoot at the horses, the brigands will go to where they are not and plunder. Also, the brigands could fight fire with fire, shooting the PCs’ horses, thereby stranding them in the middle of a sun-baked, rocky landscape.
As for the flying dinosaurs, the players will not expect them, for we never see these in our games. Yet, these creatures need to be more than flying stat blocks. I’d like to give each an eagle’s ability to swoop down and snatch its prey, lifting it into the sky. The claws would do damage, of course, but the serious risk after being snatched is actually wriggling free and falling. To give the PCs fair warning, I’ll probably try to snatch an NPC first. I also want to make a mechanic by which the PCs might fall into the lake (the PCs may be on a boat). Perhaps if the dinosaur hits its prey, there is a chance of carrying it away. If that fails, it deals claw damage and knocks the prey down as it swoops past. Perhaps I’ll allow a strength check here (or not, as the boat takes away your ability to ground yourself). Perhaps a dexterity check would make more sense. In any case, failure means that the struck PC will fall into the lake. Of course, others can try to rescue the PC from drowning, but they’ll do this in the midst of battle. That should be fun.
For the incorporeal spirit (not necessarily a specter), I need to decide what its touch will do. I loathe the idea of draining levels. The shadow’s strength-draining touch is a nice alternative, but it must be significant to be scary. Yet, if you drain people too low and if restoration takes too long, the party will likely sit around for a while before continuing. This would kill the game’s momentum. Actually, I don’t think this group ever encountered a ghost, which ages its victims ten years per touch. That could be interesting. The effect is permanent and will affect most characters, but not in the short-term. Let’s go with that.
As for ghouls, we need a twist because the players have faced ghouls many times. Temporary paralysis is fun, but it’s not new. It’s also a potential game-changer if unlucky rolls drop several PCs early in the battle. Hmmm. Perhaps I can kill two birds with one stone. What if the ghouls keep their paralyzing touch (lasting 1d4 rounds), but upon paralyzing a victim, a ghoul immediately sits down and tries to start eating that victim? Perhaps he deals 1d4 in damage per round, plus paralysis (again). That adds the fear of being eaten alive (a horrifying twist), but it also prevents ghouls from concentrating their attacks on the few PCs that remain standing. PCs that don’t succumb should have a chance to rescue others.
For the giant serpent, I’ll give it a constrictor’s ability to crush a PC in its tail. I’ll also add a chance for it to swallow creatures that are smaller than a man (the party has two dwarves and a halfling). For the snakemen, I envision hybrid yuan-ti, with a human torso but snake head and tail (as depicted in Monster Manual II). Each can strike with a sword and bite for 1d8 damage. For a reasonable twist, I’ll add some weak venom to the bite. Perhaps the venom deals 1d4 in damage for three rounds (half if the victim saves). Since I shall not give them each spell-like abilities, perhaps each can fight with two swords, getting three attacks in total.
Finally we need to look at the magic-using snakeman. In keeping with the sword & sorcery genre, I don’t want over-the-top evocation magic (fireballs, lightning bolts, etc.), but I should give him something creepy and dangerous. I was tempted to give him paralysis venom, but this is too similar to the touch of the ghouls. I could give him a few standard spells that seem to go with snakes, like charm person and cause fear. Yet, I dislike both of these because they essentially tell players to stop playing their characters as they wish. Then again, those do seem fitting, and I may be able to use them on NPCs, like the captives that the PCs are trying to save. Perhaps a freed captive walks back towards the snakemen just as the PCs are fleeing the chamber. Perhaps two captives run in fear down a dark corridor that leads back into the heart of the temple. Both of these could be fun and memorable scenes. Perhaps I don’t need to make this leader the main threat in our finale. Perhaps he’ll serve only a support role, like most clerics. I want to avoid spells that simply provide a mathematical modifier (bless, bane, etc.), for though they’re helpful to the caster, they have no flavor. Perhaps the snakeman can summon dozens of regular snakes, which emerge from small holes in the stone wall. That would provide flavor, even if it’s just window dressing. This may be enough.
Step 17. Customize Spells
I do like to include at least one custom spell in each adventure that I write. How would the PCs encounter this spell though? Would it be on a magical scroll or would it be something cast against them? I’d rather not leave a scroll lying around as random treasure. The snakeman seems to be the most logical choice for the possessor of a unique spell. Hmmm. I want it to be something memorable. What would creep out PCs and players? What if the snakeman has a spell that transforms a victim into a snake? Then again, I guess that’s just a polymorph other spell (4th-level magic-user spell). Perhaps the snakeman has a variation of this spell. Perhaps it changes part of the victim’s body to become serpentine (1-2 = legs become a snake’s tail, 3-4 = head becomes that of a snake, 5-6 = both head and legs become snake-like). A successful saving throw against polymorph negates the spell. If it takes effect, however, the change is permanent (though dispel magic will negate the effect). If the change occurs, the victim must also make a system shock survival roll to see if he survives. We’ll also add that the change does not immediately change the victim’s personality, but each passing day brings a 10% cumulative chance that he will shift toward chaotic evil and lose his original identity. Now we just need a name for this. How about ‘transformation of Set’? I like it.
Step 18. Customize Magic Items
It’s time to revisit my list of potential magic items. Remember what I wrote about these lists being guides? Well, now that the adventure is taking shape, I don’t find some of my initial magic items suitable. I’ll simply change whatever doesn’t fit.
Let’s nail down the Sunsword of Palladine Mithrallas first. I want the weapon in this adventure to be a bit different than the five variations on the ‘sword of light’ concept that I’ve seen before. A quick review may help. In 1977, Luke Skywalker wielded his iconic lightsaber, which needs no explanation. In the 1980 animated cartoon called Thundarr the Barbarian, the hero wields a unique and powerful Sunsword, which was effectively a lightsaber. In 1982, in Tracy Hickman’s landmark adventure module, I6: Ravenloft, the PCs can find a powerful Sunsword to fight a vampire. This weapon cannot effortlessly cut through objects like Thundarr’s weapon of light. Instead, this physical blade strikes with a +2 bonus, but when undead are within 30’, the blade glows bright blue and gives the wielder a +3 bonus. Better yet, against vampires it deals an added 10 points of damage per hit. Then, in 1985, Unearthed Arcana introduced a type of magical sword called a Sun Blade. It gives a +2 bonus against most creatures but +4 against evil creatures. When used against undead and other creatures from a Negative Material Plane, it deals double damage. Moreover, once per day, the wielder can use it to create a sphere of brilliant light with a radius as large as 60’. Finally, Unearthed Arcana also introduced a Wand of Force, which was AD&D’s adaptation of a lightsaber. So how can we borrow some of these and still make our Sunsword unique?
I want our sunsword to be especially attuned to our priestesses of Palladine Mithrallas, lest the PCs be too tempted to take the blade for themselves (I don’t mind if they use it briefly during the adventure though). Perhaps our blade has +2 bonus, which rises to +3 against undead. In the hands of a priestess of Palladine Mithrallas, however, it deals double damage to undead and allows the wielder to create the sphere of sunlight (60’ radius). Finally, in the hands of the high priestess, it has a +4 bonus, which rises to +5 against undead. The priestesses will obviously be very grateful if the PCs retrieve this sword for them. If the PCs take the sword for themselves, however, the priestesses will stop at nothing to get it back. I like this item, though I realize that the PCs will probably not keep it. I now need to make some items that they can keep.
Inspired by Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian (1982), I want one of the snakemen to have a bow instead of swords, and he’ll fire at least one serpentine arrow. If it hits, it deals arrow damage plus poison, transforming into a real 3’-long snake after penetrating. We may need a limitation on this frightening item, so perhaps it can penetrate only leather armor, padded armor, and normal clothing. Perhaps the snakeman archer will carry 1d4 of these, and those that miss are destroyed (the snake’s head being crushed).
My initial list of potential magic items included an amulet of protection against snake venom or against attacks by serpents. My thinking had been to include a few human cultists, perhaps as guards or servants, and this amulet would protect them. This is still possible, but I am now leaning against this, thinking that evil snakemen that feed humans to their snake god could probably care less for the lives of human servants. Yet, I like the idea of PCs carrying away an ornament or holy symbol of the cult. This could be a nice seed for the future (I did mention that I wanted to explore this snake cult more in a separate adventure). Hmmm. Perhaps the purpose of the symbol is not to protect human cultists. Maybe it has another purpose, but, as a side benefit, no serpent will attack the one holding it. Sure. Why not? What is the original purpose though? Let’s make this item memorable or valuable. Perhaps anyone wearing the symbol casts magic-user spells as if two levels higher. This will entice the two magic-users in the party to keep it, while the cult may want it back and may come after it. In addition, perhaps the symbol has some negative effect on the wearer after a time. I’ll leave that detail open for now. It would be a nice loose end for a DM to use later.
I think my initial idea of a magical gem still works. Perhaps it should be the eye of a sacred statue. Hmmm. What if the temple contains an Ouroboros statue (this depicts a snake eating its own tail) like that seen briefly in Conan the Barbarian (1982), save that our statue’s eye is a magical gem that allows one looking into it to produce the effects of a clairvoyance spell, as if an 8th-level magic-user? I like that too. I need one more.
I don’t care for my earlier ideas of a skullcap, collar of submission, or magical staff. I did briefly consider a snake staff for the magic-using snakeman, but this seems like overkill. We’ll already have snakemen, a giant snake, dozens of normal snakes coming out of the walls, and snake arrows. All this is entirely fitting, but it’s enough already. I took a moment to wonder where the PCs would logically find treasure, and only two spots seem probable–the temple and the brigands’ camp. All of the above items shall be in the temple. Perhaps this last item should be lying in the camp OR perhaps this last item, while also in the temple, belonged to a previous victim and not to the snakemen. Perhaps this is a small item that fell off a victim, like a broach, clasp, amulet, or ring. Several PCs have little to no armor, so perhaps they would welcome a simple ring of protection. Yet, I dislike stock items, so let’s tweak it a bit. Perhaps this ring bears a pentagram and a curious distinctive mark. If the PCs consult a sage, they will find that the ring once belonged to a wizard named Kallax. The ring provides +2 to the wearer’s AC, but it also allows the wearer to produce the effects of a protection from evil spell once per day (as if he were an 8th-level caster). We’ll call this the Ring of Kallax. Instead of fleshing out the wizard now, I‘ll leave this as a loose thread for a future adventure. I’ll note only that the protection against evil is not due to the inherent goodness of either the ring or its former owner. Indeed, he was in the habit of summoning evil creatures, so he made the ring to gain some protection from them.
Step 19. Create Multiple Paths to Victory
In general, players enjoy choices. They use the term railroading when an adventure has a noticeable lack of choice. The simple takeaway is that we should build choices into our adventures. A sandbox adventure is the ultimate expression of choice, for there is no specific plot. In all other adventures, there is some degree of plot and some degree of expected progression. I usually try to ensure that my rough plot outline has several possible paths to victory.
This adventure has almost no choice. To reduce the railroading, I could add a natural divide in the cliffs, located a few miles down the road, where an ancient road once led up to the ruins. This would allow the PCs to bypass the gatehouse, but I would put another hazard or monster along that route. I might also create a second entrance to the underground temple (a back door of sorts), allowing PCs to gain an element of surprise. You get the idea. Yet, since the primary purpose of this adventure is to give myself a short trial run on Roll20, I will grudgingly refrain from adding alternative paths. I can always do so later.
Step 20. Add Rumors
I usually try to give PCs some starting rumors–bits of legend and lore that they’ve heard before the adventure begins. Now that I have a clear idea of what the PCs will see and where they will go, I can shape my rumors. Some are true, others false, and still others partially true. As I make my list of rumors, I make DM notes on the truth of each. Below, I’ll share some thoughts on rumors, but for the sake of space, I’ll not actually write them out here (this article is about the process, not the finished result).
First, I’ll need some rumors about the ancient city of Ur-Ammon. What people lived there? What caused its downfall? How long ago was that? Why do people now consider the ruins to be haunted? Since I have ghouls there, perhaps I should add some rumors about them, though I don’t want to reveal too much. I’ll keep rumors vague, like ‘The dead still walk the ruins at night’ or ‘Any corpse buried in that accursed place will rise again to feast on the flesh of the living’. That gives the PCs a rough idea of what to expect without spoiling anything. Perhaps there’s a reason why that gatehouse is still relatively intact compared to the other ruins. Was it cursed? What was once housed there? I don’t like giving away too much, but hints of some curse or some slaughter there may later spur the players to wonder about the origins of the specter within.
Of course, I need to add some rumors about the snakemen and their ancient temple. Were they the rulers of this ancient city? Did they take it over at some point? I may want an ancient rumor that a sacred serpent would always dwell in that place. Perhaps a rumor claims that the ancient serpent is a demi-god or that it’s immortal, which would explain how it was the only living thing in the otherwise dead city, before the snakemen arrived to worship it. Indeed, perhaps they only refurbished the temple after they learned of the ancient serpent’s rebirth.
Perhaps travelers tell rumors about dragons (or one dragon) that flies above the ruins. Of course, this refers to the flying dinosaur(s).
Most of my true rumors contain some misdirection or ambiguity. I think that makes play more interesting and satisfying because players feel a sense of progress as they discover more accurate information.
Step 21. Add Names
I don’t always wait so long to determine names, but I sometimes find that they send me down a rabbit-hole. With this adventure’s limited cast of characters, names were rather unimportant before this point.
Names provide a great deal of atmosphere to the adventure, whether you intend it or not. If you play fast and loose with naming conventions, your players are bound to take your game less seriously than you wish. In this adventure, I’m looking to evoke a sword & sorcery feel, one for a story set in a very foreign land or perhaps in a land that clearly predates any known Earthly civilization. I don’t want Egyptian-sounding names, Arab-sounding names, etc. Of course, most names do have roots somewhere, but I’ll settle for names that are not commonly associated with a certain culture.
I avoid naming most of my monsters because it humanizes them, making them inherently less scary. If you question that, consider a few popular movies that are meant to be frightening. Would Ridley Scott’s 1986 film Aliens be as scary if many of the xenomorph monsters had personal names, even interesting and fantastic ones? Perhaps you think that’s unfair because they more closely resemble insects than intelligent beings. Would the 1990 film Predator be as creepy if you learned the alien’s personal name? I think not. If you want very strange creatures (strange being a relative term) to evoke fear and wonder, leave them nameless. The unknown is powerful. It fuels the imagination, and this is good.
In this adventure, there are few NPCs that require names. First, I need some names for the priestesses. I’m inspired here by the film Red Sonja. The heroine and her sister in that film had very simple, yet elegant, names (Varna and Sonja). After some brainstorming, I quickly assembled a few simple names that seem suitable: Arya, Breya, Mara, Mina, Parisa, Sonja, Vana, Varna, and Zara. As for the merchants and guards, I need at least one merchant (the PCs’ employer at the start of the adventure) and at least one guard (the traitorous guard captain). Looking to avoid common names (or at least ones that I often use), I looked up Kurdish, Turkish, and
Armenian names. Yet, these and other cultures were heavily influenced by Islam, so many of the names are recognizably Arabic. I then looked for older and rarer names from those cultures, but the names did not inspire me. Finally, I decided to go back to some of those classic sword & sorcery movies, which had some simple, fictitious names. The Beastmaster (1982) featured names like Dar, Zed, and Maax, while Red Sonja (1985) featured names like Tal and Kalidor. These inspired me to keep things simple. Perhaps local male names in my setting include Aramak, Baraz, Dax, Kallax (we already used this for our wizard in Step 18), Malek, Targus, Vorax, and Zerran. These sound simple and rather unfamiliar, so they’ll do.
Step 22. Consider Maps
So far, I have only a small, updated, sketch map. Normally I would draw out the two or three maps that I think I’ll need. I’m not sure how Roll20 might change this. I’ll probably draw some of them on paper first and later upload them to Roll20 (or find equivalent digital maps).
For this adventure, the players do NOT need a nice version of my sketch map, which shows all the adventure locations at once. Giving them such a map would reveal too much. The DM should have that sketch though. For play, I think I’ll only need the various battlefield maps.
First, I’ll want a simple map for the brigand encounter on the rocky plains, showing the cliff/ravine and the many wagons of the merchant caravan.
Second, I’ll want a map of the lake so we’ll have some frame of reference for the battle with the flying dinosaur. I always find flying encounters to be difficult. It seems silly to draw this so I’ll probably just make this on Roll20. I’ll need a water background and a boat.
Third, I may want a simple map for the haunted gatehouse, including the sallyport, stairwell, upper room, and gate leading into the ruined city. Yet, the battle will only occur in that upper room so perhaps I need only a battle map of that room for Roll20. A simple sketch of the gatehouse will probably suffice, just to help the players envision how these features fit together.
Fourth, I’ll want a map of the ruins around the temple entrance, complete with slopes, pits, and/or trenches. There’s no reason to map much of the ruins.
Fifth, I’ll want a map of the temple interior or perhaps a separate map for each area or cluster of rooms. The temple may be small (only a few rooms), or it may have a dozen. I will definitely keep the workload down by limiting the number of refurbished rooms that require description. However, there is an advantage to inserting many empty rooms or corridors. These ‘dead’ areas allow PCs to fight monsters without rousing the entire temple complex. It also allows for exploration and skulking around, which builds tension. These temple maps will require the most thought, for they contain most of my hazards/traps. Of course, the finale will also occur here.
Step 23. Develolp Stats
It may seem strange to wait so long to record stats, but I really haven’t needed them yet. To be transparent, there are times when I like to develop stats early in the process, at least for some creatures, usually to give myself a better feel for the monsters or NPCs in question (especially the primary villain). In this adventure though, I started with fairly standard creatures. Though I tweaked them a bit in Step 16, I have a good grasp of how to run them. It’s now time to develop stats for monsters and NPCs, as well as game mechanics for hazards and traps. I won’t record the states here, but how to determine the strength of each monster, and therefore the deadliness of each encounter, is probably worthy of mention.
I’ll admit that I pay no attention to templates or formulas. I loathe the idea that all encounters must be balanced. In some cases, a game system itself pushes this idea, while in other cases, DMs misinterpret the game rules and always create balanced encounters. Though I strongly prefer old-school role-playing games, even AD&D had hints of this silliness, for the upper levels of a dungeon were supposed to feature easier monsters, while the lower levels featured tougher ones. It’s ridiculous in any era or game. So what guidelines do I use when making encounters?
Vary the Difficulty Level
I think that combat encounters should vary in difficulty level. From time to time, the PCs should have an easy time of it, for this allows them to feel powerful and important, like they are making progress. You also need difficult challenges to keep things exciting, so most of mine fall into this category. Last of all, I like to throw in at least one possible encounter (it’s often avoidable) that should make the PCs run the other way. This gives the impression that your setting is a real world for the PCs, not some mere gaming arena. Due to the intentional brevity of this adventure, I may omit the really deadly encounter. If I were to lengthen this adventure someday, I would probably plop a very difficult creature along one of the many added plot options (that I mentioned in Step 19). Rumors would hint at the terrible dangers there, but those foolish enough to venture along that path would find death staring them in the face.
Sometimes it helps to see how much damage the party can inflict in one round of combat. Of course, not every PC will hit, but what if most do? Your grand spectacle will fizzle if the PCs crush your giant monster in two rounds. I try to ensure that a large monster or villain has enough hit points to survive at least one round of massive damage from the party. Yet, jacking up hit points too much can produce its own problems. One common tip is to add a few lesser creatures, which will prevent the PCs from focusing fire on the large monster. Do this too often and the players will get annoyed, but from time to time it works. Another tip is to have the battlefield environment or the situation itself distract the PCs. If part of the party is separated by a barrier or if someone (PC or NPC) is in need of rescue, the PCs may choose not to focus fire on the big monster. You get the idea. Check each encounter to ensure that it won’t fizzle.
Now that we have a clear idea of the hazards and traps that PCs will encounter (including the damage that they deal, the penalties imposed, and possible ways to avoid/overcome them), let’s consider the party. Have we unintentionally created eight height-related challenges while only one PC has any reasonable chance to climb or to fly? Have we created six challenges that require great strength to bypass or to survive, while only two PCs have the sufficient strength? Take a few moments to see if the party can handle your plans. This doesn’t mean that they should be able to handle everything easily. Just give them a chance. Try to avoid situations in which the ONLY path to success requires them to overcome one specific type of challenge. At this point, if we notice a problem, we can still tweak the mechanics so that penalties are lower, damage is slightly less, the risk of death is slightly less, etc. If we’ve unwittingly thrown an impossible obstacle in the party’s path, we can now insert a possible solution or two.
In this adventure, I don’t see any scenario that absolutely requires the PCs to climb, to swim, to lift heavy weights, or to jump, though there are several places in which PCs may wish to do so. Of course there’s nothing wrong with featuring these challenges. We just don’t want the story to grind to a halt if the PCs cannot do something (or cannot figure out what they should do). Setbacks are fine. Poor play should not be rewarded with success. We just don’t want the story to stop. Ensure that there are always options (they need not be good).
Step 24. Maximize Combat Encounters
We already have a lot going for our combat encounters. However, one of Guy Sclanders’ videos, entitled 3 Ultimate Cheats for Any GM, provides a solid tip that I’d like to consider here. I think his goal is to help DMs to improve their skill at altering combat on the fly (an excellent goal), but if improvisation does not come easily to you, then a little planning may help. In short, his advice is to keep three things in mind when running any combat: Pain, Problems, and Pressure. Each is like a screw that you can tighten or loosen during combat to ensure that there’s plenty of excitement. We’ll briefly consider each below. Yet, realize that the purpose of using these is not to give each combat the same level of intensity. These techniques simply help to prevent a battle from spiraling out of control (at least in a way that is decidedly unfun).
How to Adjust the Pain
Pain refers to the damage that monsters can deal to PCs. Too little and the encounter becomes boring. Too much and you’ll have a TPK (total party kill). Adjust damage as needed to influence the emotions of the players. If they are floundering to the point that it is almost unfun, dial back the pain. If they are defeating foes without much effort, ratchet up the pain. In our adventure, if the pain level needs adjustment, how might we do it?
In the brigand encounter, certain brigand archers could fire more arrows per round than normal. One brigand leader might deal double damage with a sword, either because he’s an excellent swordsman or because he has rippling muscles hidden beneath his desert robes. If the PCs find themselves in trouble, the brigands’ morale might break more quickly than initially planned or some archers may prove less skilled than others, loosing fewer arrows per round or hitting less.
In the flying dinosaur encounter, a creature’s claws might catch a PC just right as it swoops in for the kill, dealing twice as much damage as initially planned. Alternatively, a creature that already has a PC in its claws might get a free strike at the PC with its bony, sharp beak. If the PCs find themselves in trouble, the creature’s leathery bat-like wings could prove more vulnerable than they realized, meaning that any damage to the wings will cause the creature to flee or to plummet into the lake.
I doubt that PCs will find the specter encounter too easy, if only because many might find the monster tough to hit. If the PCs find themselves in trouble, perhaps the specter could simply walk through a wall and disappear. In many classic horror stories (and even real-life tales), evil spirits attack and then vanish. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of an example where an evil spirit fought until destroyed. It need not explain itself. Besides, if it suddenly vanishes without explanation, the PCs may strongly suspect that it will return (maybe they’re correct). Always keep them guessing. Keep the tension high.
In the ghoul encounter, if a ghoul strikes a PC, perhaps more than one ghoul rushes to take bites from the flesh of the paralyzed victim. Though this would free up the other PCs for the round, the ravenous ghouls could inflict significant damage before the others come to the rescue. If the PCs find themselves in trouble, perhaps many of the ghouls rush to chow down on a fallen PC (as mentioned above), but in the scuffle, most of the foul creatures miss, allowing other PCs (now free) to get several free shots.
In the finale, the PCs should be pretty busy, fighting snakemen with swords, one or more snakeman archers, a magic-using snakeman leader, and a giant serpent. If they somehow find things too easy, I can always throw a few human cultist guards at them. However, I’d be careful not to let this slow-down combat. In the heat of combat, I could decide that only one has a real chance of hitting a PC or that none will actually hit, but the players won’t know that. I might also decide that one hit would disable each cultist, eliminating a need to track their hit points. Alternatively, the snake could also deal more crushing damage with its tail than initially planned. You might also decide that on any sufficiently high roll, it partially swallows a PC (perhaps you allow a dexterity check to avoid this). Even if it deals minimal damage at first, the threat of a PC being swallowed will instantly jack up the pain. Alternatively, a snakeman archer might carry more than 1d4 of those serpentine arrows (especially if the first few missed). Finally, I remember the normal snakes emerging from holes in the walls in response to a spell. I can make as many of those appear as I wish. The PCs may not flinch at the first dozen, but they might balk when the floor starts to fill with them! If, on the other hand, the PCs find themselves in over their heads in this battle, we have several options. Some cultists might flee, if not in terror then to get help (that never arrives in time). Snakeman archers might have fewer than 1d4 of those serpentine arrows. The snakeman leader, in the tradition of many villains, might not engage in combat, deciding to sit back and watch until things start to go poorly. The giant snake could also focus on one victim at a time (with its jaws or with its tail), for players don’t know how often it can make both attacks. Lastly, the snakemen, though armed with two swords, might not strike with both each round, or perhaps they suffer a significant penalty when doing so.
How to Adjust the Problems
If pain allows you to play on the players’ emotions, problems allow you to increase the players’ engagement. Problems refer to factors that somehow complicate the situation, often by frustrating the party’s plan or its preferred way of doing things. The party probably prefers a stable environment that lacks dangers or even provides some protection. Thus, consider ways to make the battlefield unstable and to litter it with potential danger. The PCs might also desire a clear battlefield that allows them to see everything. Instead, consider obscuring their vision. They probably desire freedom of movement, so consider hindering it. All of these factors complicate matters and make for more interesting battles, even to those not actually fighting.
For our brigand battle, we already have the ravine as a natural hazard. We also have the surprise that most (or all) of the guards are traitors. We’re off to a good start. The stagnant line of wagons and draft animals might hamper PC movement, at least if they’re mounted. A wounded draft horse, pulling a wagon that holds most of the PCs’ gear, might panic and swerve away from the caravan. Do the PCs try to save the wagon and their gear? What else? The galloping horses might kick up enough dust to start limiting vision after a few rounds. Also, if the PCs gain the upper hand, a brigand could always take a prisoner or two, perhaps the wealthy merchant that hired the PCs (they’ll need to save him if they want to get paid their full wage) or perhaps his wife (or favorite concubine).
For the battle against the flying dinosaurs, PCs already have a chance of falling out of the boat if struck by a swooping creature. What else might we add? What if an armored PC loses his footing and falls inside the boat but lands so hard that the wooden hull cracks (will it begin to leak)? What if the PC archers pincushion a dinosaur with arrows, but it then crashes down onto the side of their boat, capsizing it?
For the battle with the specter, we already have a collapsing floor. We can complicate things further by ruling that the first collapse creates a gap between those PCs already in the upper room and those still on the winding staircase. This would split the party, leaving half to battle the specter while the other half tries to get into the room. This same situation might get hairier if the specter crosses that gap easily and attacks the other half of the party, the one least equipped to deal with it. We can also hide the specter by having it vanish into the walls or floor. The PCs should be rightfully nervous, as its attacks could come from any direction. Note too that this room would likely be dark, making the specter even harder to detect. If the PCs had a torch, perhaps there’s a chance of a PC dropping it when the floor beneath him collapses. The PC would probably feel lucky that he avoided the fall, that is until he realizes that the only light source fell through the gaping hole in the floor.
For the battle with the ghouls, the uneven ground will already make things interesting, hindering movement and posing the risk of falling damage. PCs might also find themselves divided by the pits, slopes, and trenches, suddenly exposing PCs that prefer the safety of the rear. Darkness should be an issue too. Worse, falls in the dark could leave PCs vulnerable (like if one falls into a pit with a ghoul) or useless (like if a PC finds himself on the other side of a stone wall).
A battle inside the temple offers numerous problems for the DM to exploit. The simplest is the safety of those priestesses that the PCs are trying to rescue. The giant serpent might inadvertently block the path of a captive, preventing her escape. One or more snakemen might grab captives instead of attacking PCs. The descending stone door (trap) might split the party, leaving each half to face some combination of snakemen, cultists, or serpents. If a brazier is overtuned, hot coals on the ground could limit PC movement and threaten damage. A trap could trigger a magical wall of fire that divides the party or prevents an easy withdrawal. We also have the collapsing temple ceiling (though we still don’t know what causes this–the best I have at present is the wounded giant snake thrashing about and accidentally smashing into an old, cracked, stone column). Finally, if I feature more than one battle inside the temple, some of the smaller battles may occur in the dark, which would pose the usual problems. Perhaps one smaller battle also occurs in a giant cistern, half-filled with murky water (this brings to mind the trash compactor scene in Star Wars). During the chaos of battle, a snakeman could submerge and try to bite a PC. Alternatively, if we want tension, I could have them submerge as they close with the PCs.
How to Adjust the Pressure
Pressure in combat often relates to dwindling time, dwindling resources, and/or rising stakes. It makes an already difficult situation much tougher and much more exciting. In this adventure, how might we adjust pressure?
In our brigand battle, perhaps the supply wagon that is veering away from the caravan (a problem) now heads toward the ravine. Perhaps it also contains a small child. It will go over the edge in three rounds. Perhaps the traitorous guards manage to grab the caravan’s pay chest while the PCs are killing many of the brigands. After the PCs spot the retreating guards, they’ll have only a few rounds to stop them before they escape.
In the flying dinosaur battle, perhaps the PCs’ boat, which already had a cracked hull, finally springs a leak and will sink in 10 rounds. Perhaps one of the flying dinosaurs successfully snatches the halfling PC in its talons. It flies low over the water for two rounds before ascending toward its clifftop perch. If the PCs do not free the halfling before it ascends, he will likely die (from falling or from being eaten). More simply, if a PC cannot swim and falls into the lake somehow, he may have only a few rounds before he drowns.
In the specter encounter, perhaps the floor already collapsed, trapping one PC on a small fragment of stonework (a problem). Then, that PC sees and feels the stone beneath his feet begin to crack and crumble away. He will plummet 20’ or 30’ in just a few rounds, but he has no obvious way to cross the gap to safety. The PCs might want to help him, but the specter is attacking them.
In the ghoul encounter, if the ghouls paralyze the halfling, they might decide to carry him off rather than feast on his flesh right there. The other PCs might see the creatures pick him up and start to scurry toward the shadows. They have only a few rounds to get to him before the ghouls vanish into the darkness. Alternatively, if the PCs have an NPC with them (perhaps a priestess), she might fall prey to the ghoul’s paralysis. She might scream as she falls, and PCs would have just a few rounds to save her before the ghouls tear her apart.
In the temple encounters, a descending stone door could add pressure if it takes a few rounds to close. Also, the PCs might come upon the snakemen as they are lowering a captive into a pit for the giant snake, and they’d have only a few rounds to free her or to kill the serpent before it devours her. We already have the ceiling crumbling during the finale, dropping heavy chunks of rock, but after a few rounds of that, we might allow PCs to spot large cracks appearing in many of the remaining columns, hinting that the whole ceiling will collapse in just a minute. In addition, the snakes emerging from holes in the walls could increase pressure, especially if they eventually threaten the PCs’ escape.
Everything in Moderation
I must keep in mind that all of the above options, and any others that I imagine at game time, are just options. If I use them all to make every combat incredibly deadly, problematic, and tense, then that type of combat will become the norm and players will grow bored. Keep in mind the important precept: ‘Thou shalt not commit overkill’. Still, as I’m not as quick on my feet as I’d like to be, having the above should help. In fact, I think I’ll copy and paste them to a separate document, spacing them out and making the font large so I can read them easily at a glance. I’ll print it and use it as a menu of options.
Step 25. Consider Seeds
Many talented DMs use ‘seeds’ so I’d like to briefly consider them here. I would roughly define a seed as any person, place, or thing that you have not yet fleshed out but which might later develop into something interesting. The key is to insert them into the story before you need to use them. This will make your game seem even more carefully planned than it is. More importantly, it will give you options in the future. An example might illustrate the idea:
When fleshing out a small treasure pile, the DM could add a high-quality longsword, the blade engraved with a battle cry and the pommel encrusted with distinctive gems. To keep it as a seed, the DM would NOT flesh out its history and hidden magical powers. Just leave it mysterious. Several sessions later, if the DM finds himself looking for a way to introduce a new NPC, he might connect the NPC with the sword. The NPC might be a member of the family that owned the sword. He might be a bounty-hunter looking for the former possessor of the sword. If the DM wishes to introduce a magical weapon with certain powers, he can use this item as that object. When the PCs try to sell the sword, they discover its hidden magical abilities. The point is that he can use it in several ways, and the discovery will seem organic because the PCs already had the sword for a time. This is preferable to “You stumble upon a sword, and later that afternoon someone comes looking for it” or “You stumble upon a sword, and immediately you sense that it’s magical”. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these ideas, they seem contrived. Seeds help you to avoid that.
I’ll now consider the adventure from start to finish to see what seeds I might include.
In the brigand encounter, perhaps the PCs find on a brigand’s body a distinctive golden ring. Who knows what this means? It may later prove to be magical, it may establish the owner’s real identity, it may help to identify his connections in the city, it may be cursed, etc.
When the PCs locate the site where the brigands ambushed the priestesses, or when they search the brigand’s abandoned camp, they might find a small, simple, golden pendant. Perhaps it belongs to one of the priestesses. Who knows what it may mean?
I don’t envision the dinosaurs connecting to anything in the future, so we’ll skip that encounter for seeds. I’m tempted to insert a seed into the specter encounter, something that relates to the ancient city, but I also want the city to have been dead and abandoned for centuries. The odds of something from that ancient city lying around for the PCs to find is virtually non-existent. Then again, perhaps the crumbling floor might reveal something that had been hidden away inside a wall for centuries. Perhaps they might find a sheet of rolled lead, crunched up. The inside might contain crude ancient writing, done with a chisel or dagger. Perhaps it’s cursed. Perhaps it tells of an ancient demon that the ancients once called upon for vengeance. Perhaps it’s a treasure map. It could be anything.
I doubt the ghouls would have anything. I was toying with the idea of a ghoul having some bit of clothing that might identify the man before his transformation into a ghoul. Yet, even I’m not clear about where the ghouls came from. Certainly the ancients are not still running around with flesh on their bones. Perhaps they are the restless corpses of adventurers that explored the ruins in recent years. I may just omit a seed here.
The temple could contain several seeds. I could drop in a few items that once belonged to victims (broach, necklace, bracelet, rare coin, etc.). I’ll just add some of these to a minor treasure pile, where they will not seem out of place. I might also add an item that belongs to the snakemen or to the human cultists. I already mentioned the holy symbol that will protect anyone holding it from serpent attacks. That item might have significance relating to the snake cult. I could easily add more, but remember the precept: “Thou shalt not commit overkill”.
To be clear, I’ll probably add all of the above ideas as seeds, but only one or two may later bear fruit. I see no drawback in having the PCs find a few items that turn out to have little to no value.
Step 26. Consider Politics
This adventure, designed to be short, occurs in the wilderness, where there are few NPCs to interact with the PCs. However, my players indicated on the brief survey from Step 4 that they do enjoy some politics. Thus, I shall insert just one or two political threads to this otherwise simple adventure. I see two or three groups of NPCs that might be involved in local politics: (1) the priestesses of Palladine Mithrallas, (2) the merchant that owns the caravan, and, at least in our Roll20 online campaign, (3) the adventuring Guild of Wayfarers to which the PCs belong.
Perhaps the priestesses currently have a low opinion of the Guild. Perhaps its members have a reputation as ruthless adventurers that care only for profit. Perhaps they are seen as untrustworthy or selfish, especially in contrast to the priestesses. Such a contrast could open up interesting dialogue, and perhaps over the course of the adventure, the PCs will have the opportunity to change the priestess’ opinions of the Guild. Keeping in mind our theme of corrupt power and all that it entails, such as decadence, greed, treachery, and brutality, perhaps the Guild’s poor reputation is well deserved. That does not prevent the PCs from being exceptions to the rule.
Perhaps the merchant that owns the caravan is a personal friend of the Guild steward in the city. Keeping in mind our theme, the merchant might also be a corrupt scoundrel. This could make for an interesting dilemma, for the PCs begin the adventure as caravan guards for this man. To uphold their own contractual obligations, they must defend the possessions of this sleazy merchant. Why would the Guild steward be friends with such a sleazy merchant in the first place? Who knows? Real life is seldom black and white. They might be childhood friends. They may be relatives. The Guild steward may be in debt to the merchant. You get the idea.
The above options invite interesting discussion, which is good. Even better, I’ll try to give the PCs choices that connect with this information. For example, if the PCs are tempted to set off to rescue the captive priestesses, I may have the frightened merchant, who lost most of his guards in the opening battle, try to entice the PCs to remain with the caravan instead. He might threaten to withhold pay or even threaten to go to their superiors to charge them with breach of contract if they abandon him to help the priestesses. Alternatively, he may promise them rich bonuses if they remain. Such decisions are interesting, for any choice they make has repercussions. Of course, I don’t want to derail my own adventure too much, so I need to think this through. If I kill off all the guards in the opening battle, the PCs may feel duty bound to see the caravan home, which could kill the adventure before it begins. Then again, I remind myself that a good DM simply adapts to unforeseen changes, and the easiest way to do this is to ask questions and to use logical consequences. For example, if the PCs accompany the caravan home (which might take several days) and then return to rescue the priestesses (which would take several days more), the captives may all be dead when found. However, the adventure remains intact, and the PCs can even retrieve the sunsword for the priestesses. The PCs won’t have the unbridled gratitude of the priestesses for saving the lives of their sisters, but the merchant may reward them. However, if we wish to filter everything through the theme of corruption, the sleazy merchant, once safe and sound in the city, could withhold the bonus coin that he promised the PCs on the road. They will have upheld their contract with little to no gain, while also angering the well-respected priestesses. Yet while the PCs would be no richer for their troubles, the story would be much richer. The PCs would likely loathe the merchant, and I would be inclined to use him in the future to fund another of the PCs’ adventures. That next adventure would have politics already baked in.
Step 27. Consider Role-Playing Opportunities
In Step 13, we tried to ensure that there would be a healthy mix of combat and non-combat encounters. The latter were either role-playing, exploration, or riddles/puzzles. Looking back now, I see that most involve exploration. Other than the maimed priestess asking for help and sixty seconds of the priestesses rewarding the PCs at the end (hopefully), we didn’t have many role-playing opportunities. Moreover, as I avoid humanizing my monsters, I wouldn’t have them talking to PCs either. By adopting the sleazy mechant employer idea from Step 26, we added at least one role-playing opportunity, but might we do more? Hmmm. Perhaps we should insert an additional NPC somewhere.
In Guy Sclanders’ video that explains his 121/122 templates, he mentions that many feature films introduce a love interest in Act II. Moreover, he suggests that when adapting this concept to RPGs, the ‘love interest’ need not be romantic at all. Indeed, it can be any NPCs that establishes an emotional connection to the PCs. It could be a best friend, a close companion, or even a relative. I could insert such a ‘love interest’ into this adventure.
Perhaps I could insert a captive priestess that escaped her brigand captors, when the snakemen attacked the brigand camp. Perhaps she dove into the water or otherwise hid during the chaos of battle. Perhaps the PCs find her when they are exploring the camp or right after the dinosaur battle. Better yet, perhaps they discover her during the dinosaur battle. Still better, what if the dinosaurs are paying no attention to the PCs because they are trying to get at this priestess? Now the dinosaur battle itself becomes a mini rescue mission. If the PCs save her (or simply find her, if you wish to dispense with the dinosaur drama), she can be the NPC that makes an emotional connection to the PCs. Though distrustful at first, she may be one of the few individuals that are not decadent, corrupt, greedy, treacherous, or brutal. She may also be attractive, though this is not necessary. She’ll provide a role-playing opportunity for the PCs and could explain what happened, from the initial ambush to the snakeman raid on the brigand camp. More importantly, she would then join the PCs on their journey (where else would she go?). The DM could give her just a bit of dialogue in each encounter, thereby showcasing her personality. Before long, if the DM has played her well, the PCs should care about her safety, and the DM could use her vulnerability to create problems and pressure in the remaining encounters. I like all this and will use it. However, be mindful that our ‘love interest’ need not be a helpless female, screaming at every hint of danger. For example, consider the deadly warrior-maiden named Valeria, who serves as the love interest in Conan the Barbarian. For a more modern twist on the same idea, consider the fearless and bold Princess Leia in Star Wars.
Step 28. Allow Each PC to Shine
Though the adventure is largely complete, I want to see if I’ve given each PC an opportunity or two to shine. This is especially important because this is a brief adventure. If one player grows bored because his PC has very little to do, I’ll not be able to make it up to him four sessions later. I’ll briefly consider each PC’s strengths and goals.
First we have the unique ranger that hunts undead. As such, (1) he can track, (2) he specializes in fighting undead, (3) and he desires to learn more about undead. His tracking ability will lead the party to the captives. I could simply allow him to succeed automatically. Alternatively, I could create chances for success, but the results have to be meaningful. Perhaps the captives will be eaten at certain times, so tracking failures will result in higher casualties. I like this pressure component, especially because it fits with the brutality aspect of the theme, the idea that the world is dangerous and harsh. His combat abilities will come into play in two separate combats (ghost and ghouls). I think the player will be satisfied.
Second, we have the half-elf ranger variant that specializes in fighting spellcasters. He specializes in stealth, archery, and reconnaissance. For spell-casting foes, he’ll have the snakeman leader. That’s it though. His archery will come in handy while fighting brigands, dinosaurs, and snakemen. His stealth may come into play inside the temple, especially if I space things out just enough to allow the PCs to sneak around and fight in isolated battles. I’ll arrange the lighting to allow him plenty of chances to hide in shadows. Perhaps, when designing the temple, I’ll add a few elevated spots that he’ll likely want to reach for sniping purposes. Of course, to make it interesting, there will be dangers in getting to such places. That’s all I can muster for this PC.
Third, we have a magic-user that craves magical knowledge and new spells. It’s limited, but it’s all he gave me. Well, he might find the snakeman leader interesting. Up until now, the snakeman’s unique spell was an innate ability, but this doesn’t allow a PC to steal it or to learn it. I didn’t want to humanize the snakemen by giving them books to read, for it makes them a bit less mysterious. However, what if the human cultists have spell books? No, that makes no sense. The humans are the bottom of the food chain in this cult (sometimes literally), not leaders. It seems that I’m having trouble letting this PC shine.
Fourth, we have a halfling thief/magic-user, who has the stealth of both his race and his one level of thief, but his interests lie in magic. This PC’s size helps a bit, for I can create parts of the temple that are too small for anyone else to access. The many shadows will also give this PC plenty of opportunities for stealth. I can throw in a locked door or too as well. It’s the magical aspect that is weak at present.
Fifth, we have the female half-orc barbarian/cleric of Kord. I think she can turn undead, which will make her important in the two undead encounters. Beyond that, I may be able to play to her strength by adding several heavy doors in the temple. I already had the idea of a heavy stone door or wall that might trap the PCs. Perhaps her great strength might save the PCs from such a trap. She might also be able to use her strength to save someone from the coils of the giant serpent. Barbarians can also run and jump better than most, so perhaps I’ll add a pit that only she can jump.
Of all the above details, only those regarding the two magic-users are bothering me. Perhaps, I’ll relent and add some magical scrolls that the snakeman leader uses as a spellbook. One may contain the unique spell that I called transformation of Set. No, I don’t like this. The spells that the snakemen use, especially transformation of Set, seem evil. I don’t want the PCs using these. Ok, let’s go to Plan B. Perhaps the PCs can find treasure in the temple that belonged to past victims. Yes, this is better. I’ll throw in a few scrolls, some containing some interesting spells (perhaps unique) and another containing some secret lore on the snake cult. Perhaps the cultists have their own set of ancient hieroglyphs, and unlocking their secret would give the PCs very valuable information. Sages and kings, especially those threatened by the cult, might be willing to pay a small fortune for this information. Even better, perhaps the cultists use some of the ancient glyphs as glyphs of warding. Thus, learning the secrets can help PCs to avoid these in the future. Ok, this is getting better. Now I just want to create a unique spell or two for PCs to find.
In keeping with the sword & sorcery genre, I’ll try to make my two unique spells subtle and interesting. I think that the PCs can currently cast up to 3rd-level spells. Perhaps one spell summons a mist that fills a large area, and then the magic-user can walk on the mist as if it were solid ground (anyone remember Merlin helping Uther Pendragon in the film Excalibur?). Perhaps you can even walk up or down within the mists, as if climbing stairs. Of course, this spell would have the added benefits of an obscuring mist spell from 3rd Edition. Perhaps, at a higher level, the caster can also give the mist the properties of a stinking cloud spell. Given its flexibility, perhaps the spell is 4th-level. Alternatively, they could find not one magic spell but a hefty scroll of several related spells, all involving mists. Whatever form it takes, we need a unique and ancient-sounding name, like Breath of Nimah. (Ninmah was a Sumerian mountain goddess, and I associate mists with mountains). That should work.
Step 29. Revisit Stakes and Outcomes
Adventures are more exciting when the stakes are high. The PCs need not save the world in every adventure (that can get old very quickly), but I should ensure that their exploits will make a difference. I’ll quickly review the stakes as I currently have them.
The main goal is to rescue the captive priestesses, and a secondary goal is to recover the high-priestess’ lost sunsword. In keeping with my theme (especially the brutality aspect), I think the high priestess will already be dead by the time that the PCs arrive in the temple. They will have a chance to save a few priestesses though. If they fail, what will happen? Nothing. Hmmm. Failure to recover the sword might be more significant. Perhaps the newly chosen high priestess will suspend all other activities until they recover the sword. This could have ramifications in the PCs’ home city, where the priestesses perform important functions. That works. Yet, back in Step 13, I made rescuing the priestesses the goal (not recovering the sword) because it adds urgency. If the PCs linger, the captives will die. I like that, but the PCs’ success or failure seems to have no meaning.
How can we make the priestesses more valuable, while still allowing most of them to die (brutality again)? Perhaps they know something very important. Perhaps they only learned it in the temple. If just one of them survives, the PCs will return to the city with that important information. After thirty minutes of brainstorming, this makes little sense or is too contrived. I think I have something much simpler. Most of the priestesses come from distinguished families in the city. Certainly, all members of the high priestess’ retinue are noble-born. Thus, if the PCs rescue even one captive priestess, they will reap great rewards. If they rescue two or three, the rewards shall be that much larger. Furthermore, the reward can be more than monetary. A powerful noble might become the party’s patron, serving as a valuable source of information, supplies, and favors. I like this. It’s simple and the reward is considerable for such a short adventure.
Stakes can include more than rewards. Perhaps there are consequences of destroying this snake cult in the ruins of Ur-Ammon. Perhaps this cabal of snakemen has sent dispatches eastward to their other lairs, asking for reinforcements to refurbish the temple fully. Perhaps such a refurbished temple at Ur-Ammon shall act as a launching pad for the cult’s operations against the PC’s home city. Yes, that works. The PCs might find some scrolls that hint at this.
How would the villains view the stakes? Earlier, we established that the snakemen seek to feed their giant serpent, which they revere as a god. We add to this the notion that this temple, once refurbished, will become staging ground for operations against the city. How important is any of this to the villains? Let’s say that it’s very important. The cult will seek vengeance on any infidels that raid their lair, disrupt their plans, and kill their giant serpent. If the PCs succeed, the snake cult will mark them for death. How would they find the PCs? How would they know their identities? Well, the PCs might unintentionally provide a way if they steal that holy symbol from the temple. Cultist priests might use their magic to view the infidels holding their symbol. Another possible vehicle would be a seed that I plant in some random treasure pile. Borrowing an idea from the movie Beastmaster, a fancy gold ring could turn out to be a magical tool of the cult, allowing its priests to look through it to spy on the wearer. I found that ring in Beastmaster to be very creepy! I would make one change, though. The greenish-yellow eye that opens inside the ring would be slitted like that of a serpent.
Step 30. Consider an Alternative Ending
I think the adventure is pretty decent as it now stands, but I’m considering one more tweak. Many (some say most) exciting Hollywood movies adhere closely to a classic story pattern, often dubbed the Hero’s Journey. Though nothing requires a film (or roleplaying adventure) to use this pattern, it does have great advantages, including an exciting ending.
For any unfamiliar with the Hero’s Journey, the concept is simple. Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature, explored the idea that classic myths from all over the world tend to follow a similar pattern, the monomyth, now commonly called the Hero’s Journey. Campbell did not invent this idea, but he borrowed some of psychologist Carl Jung’s ideas on archetypes and popularized the monomyth idea in his tremendously influential 1949 book, called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell summarized the pattern as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In modern culture, perhaps the most popular example of this is the original 1977 movie classic, Star Wars. Director George Lucas purposefully used the Hero’s Journey as a template for his story, and the success of his franchise drove others to pay attention.
In many ways, the various templates that we considered in Step 12 reflect the Hero’s Journey, but I noticed that the ending diverged a bit. Most of the adventure templates that I’ve seen (including those in Step 12) finish with a climactic battle, and perhaps a short summary afterwards. The Hero’s Journey features something slightly different. There is a finale, but it usually involves some sort of chase or race. The hero does not simply go into the heart of the villain’s lair and defeat him in a big battle. He may win a victory in that dark place, but then there is often a need to escape. Typically, the villain or monster then comes after the hero, threatening him more than ever before and forcing a final confrontation (Campbell called this part of the Hero’s Journey ‘the Magic Flight’).
The original Star Wars provides a great illustration. Luke did not rescue Princess Leia and blow up the Death Star as he left. That would have been exciting, but the Hero’s Journey ramps it up a notch. After rescuing Leia and escaping from the Death Star, a chase begins. To a small degree, the Millenium Falcon racing away and fending off tie fighters represents that chase. Yet, it’s more than that. The Death Star itself tracks the rebels back to their base on the jungle-covered moon of Yavin. The stakes are much higher now. Besides killing Luke and Leia, the Empire now has the opportunity and the ability to wipe out the entire rebellion in one shot. Moreover, the Death Star seems unstoppable and impregnable. The rebels have only minutes before the Death Star destroys the entire moon. This is what makes the ending so fantastic. It’s a race against time and against all odds.
Ok, so can I borrow any of this to make this short adventure better? I’m not sure, but I’ll start by deciding that no change is necessary. An ending in which the PCs infiltrate an underground temple, rescue some priestesses, retrieve the sunsword, and defeat snake cultists with their giant snake is sufficiently cool. However, I do want to explore ideas on how I could make it more exciting. If possible, I want options that I could use on the fly, not a tightly written script that I will force on the PCs.
I initially envisioned a finale in which the PCs defeat the cultists and their giant serpent in a final confrontation, allowing them to rescue the priestesses and to retrieve the sunsword. What if the PCs enter the temple, bypass some traps, kill a few cultists, find the sunsword, and free the priestesses BEFORE a final battle? Having found what they sought, they would then need to escape the temple. I could make THAT the hard part. As the cultists sound the alarm, perhaps I can signal that the PCs will be in deep trouble if they stand and fight. Traps could also threaten to divide the party. I can insert a few doorways that would allow the PCs to flee from the cultists coming after them. I will not force them into any decision. They can stand their ground and fight, but if they do flee, they might find themselves in some terrible surroundings. If this occurs, this could be their lowest point, trapped in a cult’s underground lair, outnumbered, in a dark pit, perhaps fending off monsters in that pit. As they overcome obstacles and monsters, they might fight their way toward the exit. Perhaps the giant hall, in which I envisioned the finale, is actually near the exit, not near the heart of the temple. Perhaps the cultists lower a portcullis, preventing the PCs’ escape. There, within sight of the exit, they fight the snakeman leader, and the giant serpent. During that battle, the ceiling begins to collapse.
Sometimes, during ‘the Magic Flight’ the hero needs some assistance from an outside force. In Star Wars, we see this when Han Solo clears away the tie fighters that were chasing Luke down that trench on the surface of the Death Star. This is different from deux ex machina, however. That ancient storytelling technique features a god coming down from the heavens, quite unexpectedly, to save the day for the hero. In a roleplaying game, this is highly unsatisfying, taking agency from the PCs. DMs are wise to avoid it. However, Campbell’s ‘rescue from without’ simply allows the hero to continue. He must still save the day. In Star Wars, Han does not destroy the Death Star for Luke. He simply clears the way for Luke to do his thing. Moreover, this is completely in line with their existing relationship. Though it may come as a surprise, it is not entirely unexpected. Could I possibly use this idea to help the PCs if they find themselves in a seemingly hopeless situation?
What shape might ‘rescue from without’ take? I do not want to have other NPCs come into the temple to help the PCs. Perhaps the freed priestesses can lend a hand? Yet, I cannot know how many priestesses, if any, the PCs might have freed. Hmmm. Perhaps I could use the sunsword somehow. Our party has one female (the crazed barbarian/cleric of Kord). What if the sunsword can only be wielded by a female, and the only priestess that can use it is the high priestess? There’s a loophole there. Perhaps a priestess that the PCs are rescuing realizes the loophole and gives the sunsword to the female PC. The sword could come alive in her hands, giving her a superior weapon to use against the cultists. If no priestess is alive at that point, perhaps the sunsword gleams brilliantly, temporarily blinding everyone for one round. Yet, in that moment, the PC barbarian/cleric sees a radiant image of the former high priestess, who says to her, “Use my blade to make good your escape, and then return it to my sisters”. Alternatively, she could say, “Use my blade to slay the great serpent, and then return it to my sisters”. The importance here would be that the cultists would flee if the great serpent dies. Of course, if the PCs already killed the serpent by this point, I could change the target to the snakeman leader. The point is to make a seemingly impossible situation winnable by designating one foe as the lynchpin. Even more climactic, the giant serpent in its death throes could strike the already cracked column, bringing down the entire ceiling. The PCs may have to run to escape the collapse. This is more satisfying than cultists running away.
Well, that’s it for the creative process for this small adventure. I need to type up my notes, but all the heavy lifting is already done. I also need to finalize my maps.
Reading all of the steps and using the tips found therein seems like a LOT of work to design one short adventure, but I remind myself that such a long process is not necessary. One can always throw a few cool monsters in an interesting setting, sprinkle in some neat treasures, and have fun. Yet, I find it silly to waste good advice once I’ve become aware of it. I suppose many people would agree with that. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s often tough to remember all the good advice that we hear. Creating a structured system of steps is my answer to this dilemma. It allows me, during the design process, to consult all of the useful tips that I’ve seen in the past. I don’t need to heed them all, of course, but it does pay to consider them, at least. I know that my games have improved a bit since I first started incorporating a few tips many years ago. The list has grown a bit in time, and I’m sure it will continue to grow.
If you have come across tips that help you during the design process, consider writing them down. You need not write out many of your detailed thoughts, as I did here. At the very least, make a bulleted list. Customize that list so it serves your needs. Add to it as you pick up new ideas. Cross a few off if they do not prove useful. Running a game (which includes creating an adventure) can be difficult, so why not use every advantage that we can?