Writing a Dungeons and Dragons Adventure – Design

Over the next few weeks I’ll start from scratch and design a D&D adventure for Fifth Edition.  I’ve never even looked at Fifth, and haven’t written anything since I did some Living Greyhawk adventures for 3.5, so this should be a good way to learn about the newest version of D&D as well.

I would like to write an introductory adventure that can be played by new players, incorporating pieces and parts of the rules as the adventure goes along.  Rather than using any existing setting, I want to also build a small village to use as a central area the adventurers are based in.  Ideally I would end up with an adventure that would run in about 3-4 hours, with an easy way to extend a campaign to include multiple adventures from the village.  Players would bring or build their own new characters, but I’ll also create a set of adventurers that could be used to both play test the adventure and allow new players to pick up existing characters and start playing as quickly as possible.

I’ll have to develop the following:

[1] A big bad that’s behind the problems the players face; this might not be the final encounter, but should initially be someone that they don’t even know they are struggling against.

[2] A MacGuffin.  Alfred Hitchcock was responsible for making audiences aware of the term and how a MacGuffin is used to advance the plot of a movie (although it can also be applied to any form of storytelling).   Wikipedia relates the story Hitchcock seems to have told multiple times about what a MacGuffin is:

‘It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.’

[3] A total of six to ten encounters for the major adventure.  These encounters should include both combat-oriented and non-combat encounters.  The players should be able to  deal with some of these encounters in any order while making progress to a final goal.

[4] At least one new monster that isn’t in the Monster Manual.  Always a good idea to confront players with the unexpected.

[6] A final encounter of sorts that ties up a number of the encounters and resolves the adventure.

[7] Enough buildings, townspeople, and shops that the players can spend a great deal of time simply wandering and meeting people.  This will also make it easier to expand the campaign after the initial adventure ends.

[8] A map of the village as well as some information about the area that surrounds the village.  I don’t anticipate the players travelling too far from the village until after they gain a few levels (D&D usually is the most fun to play at levels 4-6 since it typically takes that long for all the players to build up the ability to survive more complex situations).

From time to time (until I’m finished!) I should be able to flesh out pieces of this plan, giving you a chance to follow the process.  Readers are welcome to post comments, questions and suggestions (we’ll see how well that process works).

To find the pieces that make up the story, simply page up a search on Design

Here’s the Fortunes singing about places you might find a good MacGuffin: Books and Films:

Writing D&D Modules, Part Four

At Gen Con in 1985 they ran Gary Gygax’s Isel of the Ape, an event that I had playtested before GenCon.  I became familiar enough with the event that for the eventual module release I, um, insisted that a connecting encounter be added to get the players to the final event.  I also wrote a parody event, “Loot the Castle IV: Isle of the Monkees” that was a lot of fun.  That Fall at Contact we ran Misfits and Terrible Trouble at Trigador which was written by a talented GM who had helped out at a few conventions (Jean Rabe!)

In 1986 I write a few more tournaments; I had finally gotten a better feel for how that was done, and turned out another Masters event, Goon Squad, as well as a few one round AD&D events. In the next few years I started pushing the boundaries of what could be done with an AD&D event.  I had been playing the original Ultima games (not the online version), and got Richard Garriott to tell me how an upcoming adventure (Ultima VI) was going to start out.  I created a prequel to the computer game that was set in the Ultima world, using the Ultima characters, and had a multi-round adventure that ended where the computer game started.  That went so well that I followed it up with Star Trek V: The Quest For Power, an adventure where six Star Trek characters were forced to search for “twin crystals” (Dilithium Crystals) after adapting to be a cleric, a bard, a rogue, etc.  My favorite line of all the adventures I ever ran came when one of the players asked Bones to heal him and that player responded, “Damn it, I’m a cleric, not a doctor!”

Based on a campaign I had written and run in Texas I produced an adventure named Charleston Academy; that was well-received enough that it was published in Polyhedron in 1988.

In 1989 a new type of RPGA event was introduced that (sadly) would kick the Classic events to the side of the road, leaving them in the dust with all the other forgotten toys.  The Living City campaign allowed players to create their own first level character and then play them in various events literally all over the world, building up experience, going up levels, and obtaining rewards (certificates, or certs, that gave their character armor, weapons, or other useful items).  Instead of writing adventures that were fitted with characters, players were expected to role play the character they were building over time.  This could result in interesting tables…or boring tables where players simply ran through the encounters as rapidly as possible to get the goodies at the end.  The events were often written to encourage role-playing, and the RPGA encouraged authors to include non-combat encounters try to keep the events from becoming too much combat.  I wrote Rats, an introductory adventure that introduced players to parts of Raven’s Bluff and got included in one of the early modules for the city.

When Unearthed Arcana came out it included bonuses for Comeliness that mostly affected interactions with NPCs, and the Living City campaign was based on players taking a fixed number of points and distributing them among the various characteristics.  Seriously, how many players were putting points into Charisma and Comeliness when those points could go someplace useful like Strength, Intelligence, or Agility?  Not many.  In fact, almost none.  I was so distressed by the cookie-cutter stats that players were using that I wrote Ugly Stick, a Living City adventure where players had to interact with people at a posh resort where they were hardly welcome (and the big bad was an anti-cleric with high Comeliness who used her bonuses against the party).  Ugly Stick was also published in Polyhedron, with some nice artwork and some kick butt maps.

All told I wrote over thirty rounds of events that were used in tournaments, a number that pales in comparison to the high numbers accumulated by some of the other authors, but both my event designs and writing grew much stronger through the years.  Coming up: some suggestions on what I’ve learned about designing a role-playing adventure.

Here’s a video where the Rolling Stones look like they may have spent some time dressed for AD&D:


Writing D&D Modules, Part Three

Changing the way players got experience for playing in RPGA events was a giant step forward, but what really kicked things into gear was the change in the events themselves.

A typical AD&D event not only had an adventure and character information for six players (a much better number than the ten that was used in the Open) but each character sheet had role playing information.  I’m fairly sure early events were based on home campaigns and the characters were based on player characters in those campaigns.  This gave players a chance to actually role play their characters instead of treating the events as miniatures events and simply plowing through a series of combats.  Even better, some of the character descriptions started to tell players what their character knew about the other characters at the table, so players could role-play about something other than smashing the evil villains of the adventure.

I wanted to get adventures to run at the local game day as well as Contact, and the easiest way to do that appeared to be going to GenCon and running rounds of the RPGA events.  The first time I remember doing that was at GenCon in the Summer of 1984 when there was a multi-round AD&D event named Needle.  I spent a ton of time getting ready to run the adventure  (many GMs didn’t even look at it before they sat down to run it), and possibly as a result I had a good time, my players had a good time, and at the very end I even got a “special” limited edition set of dice as a thank you for helping.  The adventure was very role-playing intensive thanks to the writing of Frank Mentzer, and it set the bar for future events.  I had played in some of Frank’s previous events, but as a result of the old experience basis and the non-interactive player characters they did not have the excitement at the table that Needle produced.

And from then on I was able to get RPGA AD&D events for the conventions in Evansville.

As more and more events were run at local conventions, players and judges built up enough experience points to advance to higher levels (player and judge points were separate).  The only  official recognition for gaining levels was a new membership card that showed the member’s new levels, but within a year the RPGA announced that at GenCon there would be a new first: master level events.  Players in the masters level events would have to be at least level three, and judges would have to have at least three judging levels.  There was a flurry of activity at smaller conventions in the Midwest as players struggled to get to the Masters level.

In hopes of getting more players to our conventions in Evansville I requested a Masters level event, and was told I could have one on one condition: I had to supply the event.  And that, of course, meant I had to write one.  By then I had written a few small one round events to use at the local conventions, but this was the first time I had to write something more important.  In the Fall of 1985 I struggled my way through writing Misfits, and at Contact that year we had one of the first original Masters events at our convention.

The event was probably unlike anything ever done before.  I had a plot, and then spent more time on the characters than the actual encounters.  The local city was under siege, and the King called in six adventurers that he felt could be spared for a very important mission: he needed some perfume from a nearby town.  Along the way the party that could be spared would run into and need to foil a special attack that would have doomed the city.  It was the characters that made the adventure unusual:

a rogue, all of whose magical items were (unknown to the rogue) cursed

a very tired, weary, 65 year-old woman who was a very high level (I think tenth)

a gung-ho paladin with perfect stats (all 18) but who was only level 1, and therefore totally vulnerable to even first level spells

a cleric who had gone adventuring instead of performing a wedding and whose god therefore would not grant him any normal adventuring spells

I don’t even remember the other two, but somewhere there are five inch floppy diskettes with copies of them.  The adventure was as much a voyage of discovery for the characters, but eventually most groups succeeded (it was a two round adventure).

Coming next: Living Cities

The Hollies stumbled after Graham Nash left the group, but they still managed a few hit records every two or three years afterwards.  At one point after the hits were all gone they covered a song by Bruce Springsteen, but it wasn’t enough to get them back on the top of the charts.  It was still a great song:

Writing D&D Modules, Part Two

The RPGA was trying to encourage play at conventions by giving players experience points for their performance at events the RPGA sponsored, but the initial idea for tracking experience points did not fare well – there were too many variables to keep up with, available points would vary significantly from tournament to tournament (especially when the tournaments were not designed to promote or track these points), and tracking the myriad points was truly a nightmare.  At GenCon in 1984 a new system was tried, and it was much more successful.

Players who participated in an event would get experience points for playing, and with any luck extra points for doing well (placing first, second, or third).  To figure out how players placed, the players and the judge (gm) would fill out forms where they answered questions about which players showed admirable qualities and then ranked the players from first to last.  The players votes were counted up (4, 3, 2, and 1 for first, second, third, and fourth respectively) and judge’s votes counted double (8, 6, 4, and 2).  Scores were added up and winners were identified.  If the event had multiple rounds, the top two or three players would advance while the next player in line became an alternate.  The players and the judge also had places for feedback about the module, giving the powers that be at RPGA headquarters a basis for trying to improve modules.

Perhaps nearly as important (at least to me) the players also ranked the judge from 1 to 5 in each of six categories:

(1) how well they* organized play

(2) how well they knew the adventure

(3) how well they handled the unexpected

(4) how good they were at role playing the NPCs

(5) how well they knew the game rules

(6) overall rating

With the typical six player table, a judge could score a maximum total of 180, a score that was very, very rare.  More importantly, HQ could identify good judges and bad judges and either help judges get better or spy on judges to find out just how they got to be so well-loved by the players.

While I had never actually run any role-playing event myself, I had played in multiple games a week back at the Yankee Peddler in Knoxville, so I was pretty focused on what I thought good judges were like and how a good event should play out, and the early AD&D style opens were a grave disappointment to me.  When I found myself in charge of a one day gaming event that existed solely to raise money for a science fiction convention in Evansville I was determined to bring the style of gaming I had left behind in Tennessee with me.  Of course, I didn’t know any of the game masters that were available to me, didn’t have any good adventures for them to use, and didn’t have player counts or preregistration ahead of time, but that wasn’t going to stop us!

To be continued!

*I don’t find “s/he” or “he or she” to be acceptable pronouns, so using “they” in a singular form seems perfectly acceptable.  More on my battle with TSR over “they” is a topic for another time.  Meanwhile, according to Wikipedia,

       “The singular they had emerged by the 14th century and is common in everyday spoken English, but its use has been the target of criticism since the late 19th century. Its use in formal English has increased with the trend toward gender-inclusive language.”

So “Nyah-Nyah” to TSR.  Oh, wait, they don’t exist anymore…

And since we’re ending with a grammar problem, here’s Weird Al’s attempt to stomp out Word Crimes:

Writing D&D Modules, Part One

In 1982 I moved from Knoxville to Evansville (Indiana) and somehow found myself in charge of running two conventions each year, one Science Fiction convention (Contact) and one gaming convention (which was initially unnamed and used to raise money to put on the Science Fiction convention six months later … I eventually named it Glathricon).

I had played in the AD&D open at GenCon and at similar events at GenCon East and other small local gaming conventions, and had become not impressed by how they were run.  Players in groups that were way too large (up to ten players) would go through a series of rounds where they played for less than four hours and had unspecified goals that resulted in points that eliminated some of the teams and let others move on to the next round.

After seeing how the Open ran, it became clear to me that the most efficient way to run it was to have one and only one player at the table talking to the GM while the rest of the party would make suggestions on what the party should do (thus eliminating the problems that could arise from splitting up the party or taking conflicting actions).  This might have made for efficient rounds, but was nothing like playing at home in your own campaign.

I reached my limit with the Open when an event asked players to travel through the desert to another town or Oasis.  Along the way there was a tent off to the side of the road, and following the second rule of dungeons (“Never lose sight of your objective”) a smart party would simply ignore it and keep going.  And they would get no points at all and be done in ten minutes because the entire first round was waiting inside that tent.

Fortunately another type of event started to show up at GenCon.  The Role Playing Gamers Association was formed in 1980, and I was an early member (number 223), but it initially didn’t do anything different with tournaments at conventions.  An early attempt at building up experience points for players was to give them points for playing, for not dying, for killing monsters, and possibly a zillion other things (I’ll have to pick through boxes of stuff to find the exact rules).  That was very complicated, there was no system for collecting and tracking data, and worst of all the system was based on playing in events like the AD&D Open.

Fortunately, a better idea came along.  So here are the early Bee Gees singing about an Idea in a 1968 video:

How Much Does No Cheese Cost?

This blog entry is now included as a part of Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century

As a kid, I used to love grilled cheese sandwiches. Nowadays, people can argue endlessly about the poor health that results from frying gobs of cheese in white bread covered with blobs of butter, and perhaps it was the heaping helping of fat that made them so attractive. Somewhere in my teens, however, dairy became a problem: if I ate butter, my tummy would start to hurt. I can still eat cheese, but as often as not, I will gag and possibly even throw up. Mercifully, eating ice cream was not too bad, but I rapidly developed a taste for Slurpees instead (a Slurpee was the 7-Eleven equivalent of the Icees that were common in the rest of the country). It was not long before even whole milk was a problem. If I eat cold cereal now, I tend to use 1% milk on it to minimize the misery that is probably coming later, but I tend to eat oatmeal and Cream of Wheat instead.

So it probably isn’t a real surprise that I do not eat cheeseburgers. Or pizza. Or a lot of other foods most people consider to be staples of their diets. I even used to fight with my mother over getting toast that didn’t have butter on it since she insisted that not putting butter on one of the pieces of toast that got cooked in the oven was a lot of extra work. It turns out my mother was not the only one who sees leaving something out as a problem; all my life, I have fought with fast food places over how I wanted my burger prepared.

Burger King made a big deal out of competing with McDonald’s with the jingle, “Have it your way” since their burgers were put together on demand rather than being mass produced to be identical, but even that was a problem. Burger King used to pre-assemble their burgers by broiling the burger and putting it inside a bun with pickles and dropping that into a steaming heating bin. Since I was also not a big fan of pickles, I used to have to order a Whopper with lettuce and tomato ONLY that never had pickles on it, after which I had to watch the staff like a hawk make sure my meal get assembled properly.

I could stand a mild taste of pickles even though I did not like it, but my stomach did not want anything to do with cheese on a burger. Ordering a Big Mac with onions only and no cheese was not an easy task, and I had to all but climb over the counter sometimes to get it done right (but I did get very good at adding “and no cheese” to all my orders).

Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to boost income, Wendy’s restaurants in our area made a nasty change: a single automatically became a single with cheese. After successfully getting singles with no cheese a few times, I noticed something evil: since a single without cheese was no longer on the menu, I had to pay for cheese I was not getting, adding what was, to me, a significant expense to an already expensive burger. Complaints did not help: the staff could not (or would not) argue with the computer that ran their registers, so I simply stopped eating at Wendy’s (although I do get spicy chicken sandwiches from time to time when I have a coupon for buy one, get one free).

But then I had a far worse experience at Rally’s. On the way to work, I noticed big posters outside the restaurant that proclaimed Rally burgers with cheese were only a dollar. I parked the car, walked up to the order window, and ordered two Rally burgers with lettuce and tomato only and no cheese. I was all set to pay when the bored employee asked me for over three dollars. In confusion, I looked around and asked if they were still on sale. The woman at the window told me that only the burgers with cheese were on sale—a Rally burger without cheese was $1.49. She even refused to hit the cheeseburger button on the register and simply turn to tell the other employee who was making the burgers to leave off the cheese.

For a moment, I was ready to channel Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. In the film, he tried to order toast in a restaurant, and the waitress insisted that it was not on the menu, so he could not order toast. Eventually, he ordered a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No butter, no lettuce, no mayo. Moreover, when the inflexible waitress started to walk away, Jack also told her to hold the chicken salad. Poof! Toast. It did not end well—you can watch the clip here.

I find it easy to believe that pieces and parts of that scene were based on multiple actual events. There was no table for me to clear, so I decided that I would leave before I got thrown out, and I probably won’t return to Rally’s in the near future. Taking them off my list of potential food sources is too bad because their store is located in the parking lot of the same strip center as our store. I really, really hate paying somebody for less work or fewer ingredients, so they now have one less potential customer.

Somehow, this poor level of customer service seems like a good place to bring in the Rolling Stones to bemoan the poor level of customer service we face almost daily.