Adventures in Design

The reasons myself and Paddy chose the name “The Crafty Players” may be obvious: we enjoy craft beer and like playing board games. But part of the reason behind the name was  to reflect that both myself and Paddy like to make things. He’s mentioned before in blog posts and podcasts that he enjoys making board games and that he has a few prototypes in the works (one of which almost made one of our friends cry, so it’s gotta be good!), and while I also have notes for my board game opus scrawled across dozens of pages, at the moment the “crafty” side of me is focused on creating and writing adventures for Dungeons & Dragons. The first of these, titled The Graveyard Shift, is free on DriveThruRPG now! With that in mind, this week I’d like to talk about how I approach writing adventures and I’m going to use my current work-in-progress adventure as an example. So strap in because we’re venturing deep into the depths of my DM-Brain!

Roll Your Inspiration

“A former smugglers nest turned trading port is being attacked by an undead shark being controlled by a coven of sea hags.”

Now that is the type of sentence you only get with D&D.

The adventure I’m currently writing sees the players tasked with hunting down and killing a giant shark that has been attacking ships heading into the port town of Bastion Bay. Along the way they’ll discover that killing the shark isn’t as easy as just stabbing it to death and will learn the truth about what is going on in the area. It’s a pretty fun set up (I think anyway) and I’m really enjoying writing it, so much so that I put another adventure I was writing on hold so that I could focus on this one.

textI can’t pinpoint exactly where the inspiration for this one came from (I’m a fan of Jaws but haven’t seen it in years, so I don’t think it’s that!), I think it was just the coming together of a few disparate thoughts. Firstly, I am making a conscious effort to write this series of adventures in different locales: the first was a city and graveyard, I have another planned in a desert, another is set in frozen tundra, one in volcanic lands, and yet another that will take place in a genies lamp. To counteract what I perceived to be the “dark” nature of The Graveyard Shift I decided to set this adventure somewhere bright, so tropical islands seemed like a good choice. I’m also pushing myself to use locations and scenarios I rarely utilise, so at-sea or in a Tortuga-esque port town seemed apt.

My previous adventure was heavy on roleplaying and intrigue so for this one I thought a monster hunt scenario would be a lot of fun. I’d been looking up exactly what our Druid character in our Curse of Strahd game can and can’t turn into, so flicking through the back of the Monster Manual obviously stuck “giant shark” in my head. Likewise our group had just encountered a hag coven in Curse of Strahd and I really like the lore around them so I knew they were something I wanted to bring into my adventure, so I decided to add a sea-hag coven to the mix.

So there are the disparate elements that came together to create the wonderfully odd sentence above and give me the premise for my adventure. Do it yourself: think of a location, a monster, and an odd twist and see what you come up with. Got something? Great! So what next?

Acting Out

I’ve mentioned before that I like to roughly plan my sessions with a three act structure, not unlike a TV show. This ensures a feeling of a “complete” experience for everyone at the table once the game is over because the story had a beginning, and middle, and an end. It doesn’t always work out of course, since you can’t predict what your players will do, but it helps for building a framework.

I handle writing adventures in the same way, but on a larger scale. I tend to break the whole adventure into three acts, and try to have three distinct encounters within each act. I’m a sucker for the rule of threes and the hero’s journey, but only consciously became aware that I was doing this recently. I don’t follow this pattern religiously but 9 encounters feels like a nice number for the size of the adventures I write and publish.


My notes for a time-travel themed adventure. My head hurts thinking about it.

When building these encounters I almost always start with combat. Combat isn’t the be all and end all of D&D but it is the part you need to balance the most when creating adventures for a party of a specific level. I might be able to throw a difficult puzzle or an intense negotiation at a party but unless things go horribly wrong those things aren’t going to result in the party dying… probably. Combat is different however. Unbalanced combat encounters can potentially completely ruin your adventure and result in no-one having fun. So I start with coming up with some cool and fun combat scenarios and work my way out from there.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of building combat encounters or even list out the encounters I created (if you’re looking for tips on the mechanics of building encounters just flip to page 81 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). What I will do is list the steps I take when making an encounter:

  • Know the party level: In this case, I’m building a level 5 adventure.
  • Get XP totals: My adventures are aimed at groups of 4-6 players, so I get the XP totals for an Easy, Medium, Hard, and Deadly encounter for a group of 5 players of my chosen level. This gives me a rough idea of my XP budget for building encounters.
  • Recruit Monsters: I probably already have an idea of some of the monsters I want (a giant shark and a sea hag coven at least!) so now I start flicking through the Monster Manual for inspiration. As well as this there’s also a great table on page 302 of the DMG that has monsters arranged by environment (so I can look for coastal and underwater monsters), as well as a Monsters by Type PDF and Monsters by Challenge Rating PDF from Wizards of the Coast.
  • Add Some Spice: I like to try to add something a little unique to each of the combat encounters I create. In the Graveyard Shift this was the “Grasping Hands” hazard in the graveyard but it could be anything from moving and unsteady terrain, to weather effects, to a monster with different “stages”. Anything to make combat more than just a slog between multiple bags of hit points.

Top level notes for my current adventure. Way simpler than time travel.

This might look like I let the combat inform the adventure, but that’s not the case. I already have a loose narrative in my head and I create combat encounters that might fit within that narrative. If I create a combat encounter that really doesn’t make sense with the current story I either leave it out or I drop it in as a “side quest” that the party can pursue but that is separate from the story of the main adventure.

It’s So Fluffy!

Usually as I’m mapping out my combat encounters a lot of the story and “fluff” of the adventure is spilling out at the same time. I make sure to always keep notes and then once I have the combat encounters roughly planned out I figure out what else the party is going to do and how they’ll get from one scenario to the next.

This part also involves creating the backstory of the town or location the adventure is set in and it is where the guts of the writing happens. I like to provide DMs with as much information as possible so that, if they wish, they have to do very little work. I also like to keep things open ended enough that the adventure can easily be transferred to any setting so I tend to steer clear of “macro” elements of a setting, like the political climate, race interactions, world shaping events etc. Though the way I structure the adventures might seem very linear, I provide places and people of interest in the appendices of each adventure to ensure that should a party go wandering that the DM has material there that they can use. The trouble with this is knowing when to stop!


With all the writing done I get down to the final details and the fiddly little bits. I sketch out the maps, make up the encounter boxes, add notes and advice for DMs running the adventure, and get multiple people to proofread it (seriously though, no matter how many times you proofread, you’ll always miss something).

Wait for the Money to Roll In…

That’s my process, to date, for writing adventures. I’ve only started to formalise this structure recently but it has worked well for the adventure I published and for the few I have in the works. I’m certain it’s going to morph and change as I continue to write and learn but so far it has really helped to focus me and give me steps I can take when I’m staring down the most terrifying monster of all: a blank page.

I hope this has helped or been informative in some way. I’d love to hear from you if you have your own processes that you use when writing adventures or if you just wing it. Drop us a line in the comments or find us on Twitter or Facebook.

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