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D&D General The Dragon's Hoard: how I create Character-Centered Adventures

BookTenTiger

He / Him
This post is about a system I use to plan character-centered adventures.

I’ve noticed that my players are much more engaged when their characters have a stake in the storyline beyond “I want gold” or “I don’t want to die.” The kinds of stakes that drive characters can be anything from including NPCs from their past to giving them challenges that match their class or abilities.

I call my own system of planning adventures The Dragon’s Hoard. I use backwards planning to sketch out my adventures, starting at the ultimate goal, then working backwards all the way to the launch of the adventure. I often fill in elements with dungeons, maps, or other resources I’ve found on DMsGuild or published adventures.

This template is based off of what I think of as a really basic adventure: an old man in a tavern tells the characters of a hoard guarded by a dragon in a nearby cave. He advises them to first find a legendary sword that can cut through the dragon’s thick scales.

I take each element of that adventure and list it like this:

Dragon’s Hoard: __________
Dragon: __________
Cave: __________
Sword: __________
Map: __________
Old Man in the Tavern: __________

Then I fill in each element with ideas for an adventure. Here’s a little description of each element:

Dragon’s Hoard: The goal of the adventure; the win condition. (Examples: a treasure hoard; a legendary magic item; an NPC in need; or a fearsome foe.)
Dragon: What is preventing the characters from achieving their goal. (Examples: a fearsome foe; a dangerous dungeon; a long journey; or political intrigue.)
Cave: Where the characters need to be in order to achieve their goal. (Examples: a dangerous dungeon; a bustling city; high up a mountain, deep in a jungle, far underground; or an ancient ruin.)
Sword: A key object or piece of information that will help the characters access the cave, defeats the dragon, or find the hoard. (Examples: the key to a magical locked door; a powerful weapon; a helpful NPC; or a legend with important information.)
Old Man in the Tavern: The source of information for the adventure; how the adventure launches. (Examples: an old man in a tavern with a story to tell; a quickly scrawled note- torn, burned, or bloodied; an escaped prisoner; or, an ancient song or legend recently rediscovered.)

I often add in other elements to build larger, more complex adventures, such as:

Map: Information that can be used to find the Sword. (Examples: a map; a guide; a riddle; or an ancient road.)
Encampment: A place outside or within the Cave, where NPCs or other resources can be found. (Examples: a mining camp; a hunter’s lodge; a borderland keep; or a magic academy.)
Lost Villagers: A secondary quest, often introduced in an Encampment, that can be completed within the Cave. (Examples: villagers lost or kidnapped; a legendary magic item; criminals with a bounty; or valuable resources that can be gathered or hunted.)

But the real fun comes when I fill in each element with something pulled from a character’s class, background, traits, abilities, or interests. If I can make each element of the adventure zing for a different character, then everyone will feel like they have a stake in the story.

Here’s how that might look.

Let’s say I have a standard four-party adventuring group:

The Heartwood Warriors
Agatha Hearthheart, a dwarf fighter with the soldier background.
Bravannan, a human wizard with the scholar background.
Clovis Coppertrout, a halfling rogue with the criminal background.
Dunzen of Dunwood, an elf cleric with the acolyte background.

Let’s say I want to use a premade dungeon that’s a slime temple. Keeping that in mind, I fill in the Dragon’s Hoard template like this:

Dragon’s Hoard: I know that Agatha Hearthheart’s background involves her fighting in the Goblin Wars. I decide that the goal of this adventure will be to find a legendary axe that was stolen from the dwarves during the war, and has been lost ever since.

Dragon: What’s preventing the characters from getting the axe? Bravannan is a wizard… how about a rival wizard? There could be a learned but cruel-hearted wizard who is the most recent owner of the axe.

Cave: As I said, I’ve got a premade slime dungeon that I want to use. So let’s say it’s the wizard’s laboratory, where is is hoarding magic items and experimenting with creating and controlling slimes.

Sword: Now that I’ve gotten to this point, I’ve got elements for Agatha the Fighter and Bravannan the Wizard. I still need some elements for the Rogue and Cleric. The Sword is the key to the adventure. Let’s say the wizard’s laboratory can be accessed through an abandoned and profaned temple of Dunzen’s god.

Old Man in the Tavern: Finally, I want to include the Rogue. So something about the launch of this adventure should get Clovis Coppertrout involved. Clovis is always looking for a big score, so what if one of his contacts tells him about a wizard who has been hoarding magic items… including a legendary axe that strikes Agatha’s interest?

Okay, now that my backwards planning is done, here’s what the adventure might look like:

Master of Slimes
The adventure begins when Clovis Coppertrout is contacted by Vingus, one of her criminal contacts. He offers to trade her information about some valuable magic items held by a mad wizard, including the legendary Wolfbiter, a dwarven axe lost during the Goblin Wars. Rumor has it that the mad wizard Skirovan has a laboratory hidden beneath an abandoned temple to Correlon Larethian. Dunzen of Dunwood will probably use his knowledge of elven temples, or contacts within the elven religious circle, to locate the temple. When the characters arrive, they find the temple ruined and profaned! Through a secret door, the characters enter Skirovan’s Laboratory, where they fight slimes and do other dungeony things. The adventure concludes with either combat or negotiation with the wizard Skirovan, and the retrieving of Wolfbiter!

It’s a pretty simple adventure, but each character has a reason to be engaged. I think the players would have a lot of fun with this!

Now I can add more elements to the adventure if I’d like:

Map: Dunzen finds a history text in the archives of his church that details the fall of the abandoned temple. However, it’s written with an archaic code that only Bravannan can crack!

Encampment: The characters will encounter a small camp of treasure-hunters who are raiding the abandoned temple. Obviously this will interest Corvis, but also anger Dunzen. Will they make friends with the treasure-hunters, or run them off?

Lost Villagers: The treasure-hunting camp tells the group that they’ve seen the ghost of an armored warrior stalking the temple at night. I’ll add a hidden tomb inside the Slime Dungeon where Agatha can face a ghost warrior and win some neat armor!

Using this template has been a real fun way for me to build character-centered adventures. Making sure each character has a stake in the story helps keep the players engaged. Having a flexible template helps me build interesting adventures easily.

And of course, one adventure can lead to another! The wizard Skirovan might be the Old Man in the Tavern for the next adventure. The Wolfbiter Axe might be a Sword or a Map. Those treasure-hunters might be Lost Villagers in the future. By building character-centered adventures, I know the players will build emotional ties to the elements, making future planning even easier!

Do you use a template to create your adventures? How do you add personal stakes into your stories? Would you find a template like this useful?
 

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ninjayeti

Adventurer
I agree that tying an adventure to your PC's is one of the most important, but overlooked, aspects of adventure creation.

I prefer to take a "spotlight episode" approach where an adventure focuses on one particular character's story/personality. To use your example the "old man in the tavern" would be a former comrade of the solider who has been trying to track the axe since the war ended; the dragon would turn out to be the soldiers' former commander (presumed dead) who turned traitor and defected with the axe. Players enjoy being the star of a particular adventure, and I find other players are happy playing the supporting roles occasionally if they know they will get their own turn in the sun.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I agree that tying an adventure to your PC's is one of the most important, but overlooked, aspects of adventure creation.

I prefer to take a "spotlight episode" approach where an adventure focuses on one particular character's story/personality. To use your example the "old man in the tavern" would be a former comrade of the solider who has been trying to track the axe since the war ended; the dragon would turn out to be the soldiers' former commander (presumed dead) who turned traitor and defected with the axe. Players enjoy being the star of a particular adventure, and I find other players are happy playing the supporting roles occasionally if they know they will get their own turn in the sun.
Absolutely!

One way I use this system is to plan out campaign arcs in which each adventure is focused on a single character. But I make sure to include elements based on the skills and abilities of other characters as well. This really reinforces the narrative theme of "I can solve my problems with help from my friends."
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
The next step in using the Dragon’s Hoard is to involve the players! After the first adventure, as the players get used to their characters, I usually have a Session 0 Part 2 and ask them to answer these questions:

The Dragon’s Hoard: What does your character want more than anything? What will make them feel like they have “won” and not need to adventure any more?

My Dragon’s Hoard: ___________________________

The Dragon: What is preventing your character from achieving their goal? What is actively or passively obstructing them?

My Dragon: ___________________________

The Cave: Where will this goal be achieved? What is special about this place?

My Cave: ___________________________

The Sword: What is something that will help your character achieve their goal? Is it a special object, an important NPC, or a piece of information?

My Sword: ___________________________

The Old Man in the Tavern: Where does your character go to get more information about their goal? Who do they seek for help or advice?

My Old Man in the Tavern: ___________________________

Now when I design adventures, I can pull elements from a Character’s Dragon Hoard. Let’s zoom in on one character as an example.

Agatha Hearthheart

Dragon’s Hoard:
Agatha’s ultimate goal is to help reclaim Amberhold, a dwarven fortress town taken during the Goblin Wars.

Dragon: Amberhold is currently held by goblins led by powerful Hobgoblin Warlock named Allfather Hexbloom.

Cave: Amberhold is a dwarven fortress town built in a wooded valley between tall mountains. Agatha grew up there, and was present in the battle when it fell.

Sword: There’s a secret entrance into the heart of Amberhold, which is known only by a few living dwarves.

Old Man in the Tavern: Agatha’s uncle Faldirk is a survivor of the Battle of Amberhold. He’s a heavily scarred veteran with a peg leg and an eye patch who now spends his life living in isolation and tending his garden.

When I sit down to design an adventure, I can pull elements from Agatha’s Dragon’s Hoard into my template. As an example, I will redesign the Master of Slimes adventure with more elements from Agatha’s Hoard.

First, here’s the version we had before:

Master of Slimes (Variation 0)
Dragon’s Hoard:
Wolfbiter, legendary dwarven axe stolen during the Goblin Wars
Dragon: Skirovan, a mad wizard
Cave: The Wizard’s Laboratory
Sword: An abandoned and profaned temple leads to the laboratory
Old Man in the Tavern: A criminal contact looking to trade information on lost treasure

Now I’m going to replace one element with something from Agatha’s Hoard.

Master of Slimes (Variation 1)
Dragon’s Hoard:
Wolfbiter, legendary dwarven axe stolen during the Goblin Wars
Dragon: Skirovan, a Hobgoblin Wizard working for Allfather Hexbloom
Cave: The Wizard’s Laboratory
Sword: An abandoned and profaned temple leads to the laboratory
Old Man in the Tavern: A criminal contact looking to trade information on lost treasure

Just by changing the mad wizard to a hobgoblin, I’m now including elements from Agatha’s Hoard. This will help further Agatha’s story, and engage her player.

Alternately, I could do something like this:

Master of Slimes (Variation 2)
Dragon’s Hoard:
Wolfbiter, legendary dwarven axe stolen during the Goblin Wars
Dragon: Skirovan, a mad wizard
Cave: The Wizard’s Laboratory
Sword: Uncle Faldirk has been keeping track of dwarven items stolen during the Goblin Wars
Old Man in the Tavern: A criminal contact looking to trade information on lost treasure

Now we can have a scene in which Uncle Faldirk reveals his conspiracy wall, full of sketches of dwarven treasures, maps of dungeons, and a crazy web of twine connecting it all!

Or maybe it’ll be something like this:

Master of Slimes (Variation 3)
Dragon’s Hoard
: Map of the secret tunnel to the heart of Amberhold
Dragon: Skirovan, a mad wizard
Cave: The Wizard’s Laboratory
Sword: An abandoned and profaned temple leads to the laboratory
Old Man in the Tavern: A criminal contact looking to trade information on lost treasure

Retrieving this map would put Agatha a large step closer to retaking her hold and completing her story arc!

One of the great powers of the Dragon’s Hoard is that you can plan out character arcs through multiple adventures. For example, I might plan on Agatha Hearthheart taking back her hold after a three-adventure arc. Planning these adventures, I could set up something like this:

Adventure 1
Old Man in the Tavern:
Uncle Faldirk

Adventure 2
Lost Villagers:
A map of the secret tunnel to the heart of Amberhold

Adventure 3
Dragon
: Allfather Hexbloom
Cave: Amberspire, the tower at the center of Amberhold

Adventure 1 launches with an encounter with Uncle Faldirk, who can drop some exposition about retaking Amberhold. In Adventure 2, a side-quest rewards Agatha with a map of the secret tunnel that passes under the walls and defenses of Amberhold, straight to Amberspire, the tower at the center of the dwarven fortress town. In Adventure 3, the characters fight Allfather Hexbloom and his goblins, freeing Amberhold and completing Agatha’s story arc.

Personally, I love it when the players in my campaign get to act as collaborators. The Dragon’s Hoard is a great way to have your players build more of a stake in the game!
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
I had some fun creating two PDF's: a Basic Adventure Planning Sheet, and a Character Narrative Plan for players to fill out! I had a blast designing icons for all the elements.
 

Attachments

  • Adventure Planning Sheet 1.pdf
    153.9 KB · Views: 26
  • Character Hoard Plan (1).pdf
    116.7 KB · Views: 26


payn

Legend
Nice. I used to do something similar, but much less thought out as this for my adventure paths in PF. I found the players guides to be a great source to mine for both player and GM for this kind of thing. It can really spice up a published module or AP for your players.
 


BookTenTiger

He / Him
Nice. I used to do something similar, but much less thought out as this for my adventure paths in PF. I found the players guides to be a great source to mine for both player and GM for this kind of thing. It can really spice up a published module or AP for your players.
Yeah I love to adapt stuff too. Usually I like to use premade dungeons, but radically adapt them for the characters in my game.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I've got some time on my hands right now, so I'm thinking of typing this up as an Adventure Design Guide and including some adaptable dungeon maps and such. Maybe put it for cheap on DMsguild or something?
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Here are the icons I made for each element. I just used Google Drawing, since I've never really figured out Illustrator:

The Hoard
Hoard Icon (1).png


The Dragon
Dragon Icon.png


The Cave
Cave Icon.png


The Sword
Sword Icon.png


The Old Man in the Tavern
Old Man Icon.png
 


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