Hamhock’s Lazy-Ass Guide to Site-Based Adventure Design

I’m pretty sure the worst thing that has ever happened to young GMs was the birth of the modern adventure module. Have you ever sat down and looked at any of the garbage that WotC has published for the last few editions of Dungeons & Dragons? Not only is most of it sad, derivative tripe, but also massively, unbelievably over-written. And the poor assholes like me who grew up reading it? We were taught that this is how adventures were made. That every dungeon needed to have an intricate and carefully keyed map. That every room of the dungeon needed three paragraphs of description and an appropriately leveled encounter. That every minute detail of the adventure’s setting, plot, and characters needed to be spelled out in advance, so that we could be prepared for whatever our players decided to do.

And that’s all horseshit. Sorry to be blunt, kids, but we were lied to. Sure, if you really want to, by all means draw a complex, detailed dungeon map. Populate it with interesting and thematically consistent encounters. Write up a few NPCs with believable goals and relationships who are interested in the site. But please, please do not write a plot. Presuming to know what your players are going to do is the worst kind of hubris. Instead, create an interesting place and let your players write their own story within it. For an example of how to do this well, check out the original Ravenloft module by Laura and Tracy Hickman or The Caverns of Thracia by Jannell (formerly, Paul) Jaquays.*

I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way. So, let’s go on a little adventure into site-based adventure design…

As I mentioned last time, I never prep for my games any more than I have to. This is mostly because I’m really fucking lazy, but also because I’m an adult and have a job and responsibilities and crap like that. So, how do I prepare for a traditional site-based adventure like a dungeoncrawl?

As usual, this is stuff that works well for me, but your mileage may vary. And, of course, if you give any of this a shot, please drop me a line and let me know how it went for you. With the boilerplate language out of the way, let’s get started with my favorite part…

Step 1: The Concept

What’s the core concept behind your dungeon? Come up with something that you think is fun, exiting, and totally bad-ass (if you need help with that, check out the Angry GM’s awesome article on creating without ideas – it’s long, but 100% worth the read), then write it down as a single sentence. For example, “the evil necromancer’s vile laboratory built into the corpse of a dead god.” This simple description is immediately evocative of the design, theme, and contents of the dungeon. Everything about your dungeon adventure will be informed by and build off of this core concept, so if your concept statement doesn’t immediately get your creative juices flowing, set it aside** and try another one. Rinse and repeat until you have a dungeon concept you can really sink your teeth into.

Which brings us to…

Step 2: The Hook

Now that you’re excited about your dungeon, how are you going to get your players pumped about the adventure? You need a hook. In literature, music, and film, the hook is what grabs the audience’s attention and gets them interested in whatever’s going on. In your game it shouldn’t be any different. The hook can be anything that’s cool and exciting and gets your players’ attention. Maybe a dragon attacks suddenly and the players are called on to fight for their very lives. Or something a bit more gradual, like mysterious disappearances in town that grow in frequency until the nameless horror snatches someone the players really care about.

For example, Ravenloft begins with a formal invitation from the burgomaster of Barovia, beseeching the players for aid in combating some form of supernatural evil and offering all the wealth at their disposal in reward. Definitely a nice intro, but the hook comes when the players discover the corpse of the real messenger on the road into Barovia, that the real message was a warning to stay away, and realize that they’ve been led into a trap from which they cannot escape. Now, that is a hook.

Also, remember how I talked about ending each session on a cliffhanger? Same idea. By ending on a consequence or revelation, you’ve promised action to come, so your players are hooked for next session. With your dungeon, a good hook can work the same. In fact, you could even combine the two. End the session with the next adventure’s hook. To use the Ravenloft example, the first session could begin with the players receiving the invitation and making the perilous journey to Barovia, then end with the discovery of the messenger’s ravaged corpse and the reading of the letter.

Now that you’ve hooked your players, it’s time to have a look at…

Step 3: The Design

Keep it simple.

Seriously. You’re not Jannell Jaquays.*** Even though she’s made a career out of designing incredibly well thought-out, non-linear dungeons that make excellent use of three-dimensional space, you haven’t yet. So, chill. It’s cool. Keep it simple.

Working from your concept, come up with a bunch of rooms that tell the story of your dungeon. Write down each room with a one sentence description on an index card. Each room needs to have a purpose to your dungeon inhabitants, some kind of cool feature, and serve the concept and themes of your dungeons. A room without purpose is, best case scenario, going to stick out like a sore thumb and completely break the mood of the adventure. Worst case, it’s going to be boring. So skip it. If you can’t figure out why a given room is in your dungeon, how the inhabitants make use of it, or how it plays with the concept or themes of your dungeon, set it aside.

Next, arrange those index cards into a compelling layout. Figure out which rooms connect to which other rooms. Do you need explicitly described hallways? If so, why? Do those hallways have interesting features? If not, you probably don’t need them! Instead, just describe the journey to the next room. For extra credit, build out your dungeon into the vertical dimension. This could be as simple as having a pit trap lead into a lower level of the dungeon or as complex as having several “rooms” actually be cross-crossing walkways through the middle of a much larger space. Another great way to spice up your dungeon is to add one or two additional ways into/out of the dungeon, especially if it’s particularly large. As long as you know (and can document for your own notes) how the rooms interconnect, it’s all gravy.

Lastly, populate your dungeon. Usually, I start by figuring out who the primary dungeon residents are (orcs, undead, space pirates, whatever). If you rocked the shit out of Steps 1 and 2 like you should have, this should pretty easy. Then, write a couple of center-piece characters into this group (the orc warlord, the vile necromancer, Ridley, whatever). These will be at the heart of the big, nasty set-piece encounters in your dungeon. Finally, build encounters around your room designs. Everyone handles encounter balance differently (it’s almost unnecessary in D&D 5e), so build encounters that look fun and exciting, then tweak them to whatever rubric you prefer.

With all of this, remember, unlike filmmakers, you have an unlimited budget for special effects, so go nuts. And lastly, we get to…

Step 4: The Boring Part

Write yourself some notes. Not only is this the most boring part, but it’s also the part that’s really hard to give advice about. Every GM keeps notes differently and what works well for one will be utterly unconscionable to another. Usually, I’ll do steps 1-3 on paper, writing out ideas in both long- and short-form as time and whimsy allow. For actual play, I need concise, well-organized, and searchable notes, so I type everything into Evernote. This allows me to easily access, organize, and edit my notes from every device I own.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a kickin’ adventure for this week’s session and have spent less than two episodes of The West Wing preparing. Time for a beer…

M. Hamhock out.

*These are two of my favorite adventure modules and the why is particularly interesting, so I’ll almost certainly be writing another post about them sometime soon.

**Note the word choice, “set it aside.” Never throw ideas away. There’s no telling when you’ll bump into something that makes that reject idea click into place or come up with something else that you can run into it at high speed to create something really juicy.

***I mean, unless you are, in which case, holy crap, I’m insanely flattered that you’re reading my blog.

Hamhock’s Lazy-Ass Guide to Site-Based Adventure Design

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