How-To Write a DnD Adventure
Writing a great adventure is one of the most daunting tasks in DnD. Whether you’re a DM looking to create a quick and dirty one-shot or trying to craft an entire campaign for your players, writing your adventure can be difficult and demanding.
But writing a DnD adventure doesn’t have to be hard.
The truth is that a lot of DMs and even professional adventure writers often get too focused on the parts of writing an adventure that are difficult, and that may not benefit players anyway.
Here’s what you need to know to start crafting epic adventures without the struggle. Save the difficulty for when your players throw a completely unexpected solution at your Big Bad Boss.
Crafting a DnD Adventure
Do What You Love
The first thing you need to know to write a fantastic DnD adventure is that you should embrace what you love. If you love playing in a campaign with the realm at stake and life or death consequences for everyone involved, write that. If you love introducing cool new takes on monsters or writing your own unique gear, do that.
Don’t be afraid to steal ideas from your favorite media and even other adventures either. Especially if you’re writing for your private game table no one is going to care if your campaign was clearly inspired by famous works of fantasy and science fiction.
Even if you're writing to publish you can still pull ideas and inspiration from other work you enjoy. Just make sure you're using your interpretation of those ideas and growing beyond the base material.
No idea is completely original. So, stop trying to be unique and focus on what made you decide to write a DnD adventure in the first place. Focus on doing what you love.
Choose A Pillar To Focus On
Adventures tend to shine when they are focused and don't try to do too much. For instance, a great dungeon-crawling adventure is probably going to spend more time on combat and combat variety than on learning about a particular NPC or the detailed backstory and lore of how this dungeon came to be.
Dungeon crawlers are focused on one of the three pillars of DnD, Combat. The other two pillars are Exploration and Social Interaction.
Usually, it’s best to focus on one pillar, with elements of the other two thrown in when appropriate.
Choosing a pillar will help guide the rest of the adventure, so it’s important to keep that in mind when you start conceptualizing.
For instance, if you’re really intrigued by the political undercurrents of Waterdeep you may want to focus more on social interactions with occasional combat and a little bit of exploration. Trying to write a political campaign that features more combat that social interaction would probably wind up more confusing than anything and won’t communicate the lore and tension you want to capture.
Once you’ve chosen your pillar you also know where to spend your creative time.
For combat, it's important to spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of combat enemies your players will encounter and how to make each encounter fresh and interesting.
For Social Interaction you’ll want to spend a little more time on NPCs, local community, and lore building, and thinking about how your player characters will interact with the local situation.
If you want to write an adventure focused on Exploration, atmosphere, and setting details and lore are incredibly important.
Get Inspired, Motivated, and Determined
Once you know what pillar you're focused on and what kind of adventure you're going to write about, it's time to think about how you're going to motivate player characters to go on this adventure in the first place.
This part is pretty simple if you already know what characters your players are bringing to the table. It’s a lot more difficult if you’re trying to design an adventure for unknown players and characters.
This is where big motivations come into play. If you have a Big Bad Boss, what are they doing that’s causing distress in local communities. Is a group of adventurers likely to be attracted to signs of trouble? Are the locals upset enough to consider hiring an adventurer to check it out?
Try to include appeals for a range of different alignments. A Lawful Good Cleric might be interested in helping a village simply because it’s the right thing to do, but how will you hook a Neutral or Evil character into tagging along?
Usually, motivation comes from a combination of conflict + villain (known or unknown) + and incentives.
Incentives may be a reward from villagers, a piece of legendary equipment or anything else you think will get the ball rolling. Convince your player characters that your adventure is worth their time and effort.
This is often the hardest part of writing an adventure. It’s also the most rewarding if you get it right.
Outline Your Adventure
DnD Adventures can be as detailed, or as minimal, as you'd like, but they all need an outline. At a minimum, for a one-shot adventure, you'll need a couple of planned encounters, a climactic battle or interaction, and some cleanup (assuming your player characters survive that is!).
That’s the bare minimum, but it leaves a lot of room for play and improvisation along the way.
More detailed adventures might need several more encounters, more NPCs, more setting and lore, and more than one climactic moment. Your outline may just be a starting point, or it may be everything you prepare for the adventure. Plan accordingly.
Focus On Atmosphere
TTRPG is all about the magic of imagination, and if we’re being honest a good atmosphere can make up for a lot of flaws in an adventure’s arc or plot. If your players love the story you’re telling they’ll be willing to forgive a lot of technical flaws, pacing issues, or other problems.
Focusing on atmosphere, the nitty-gritty desperation of the streets, the majesty, and awe of a long-forgotten ruin, the absolute terror of knowing death waits behind the next door, these things will carry your adventure and make it memorable.
Leave Room For Improv
No adventure is 100% set in stone. Players will always throw unexpected challenges at you, find surprising ways out of encounters, they may even change the whole tone of your adventure.
Prepare the key assets of an adventure, its most important creatures, NPCs, and locations, but leave some room for improvisation during gameplay.
If you have your pillar, your atmosphere, and a few encounters to pull out of your pocket, you can improv a lot of the rest on the spot. Plus, your adventure may actually be better if you improv large sections since it will be tailored to your players and their characters.
Don’t Forget The Props
Want to take your adventure to the next level? A few well-chosen miniatures and tilesets from Dirt Cheap Dungeons will really help you set the scene.