D&D General What's on your adventure writing checklist?

Quickleaf

Legend
I've begun writing adventures again, and I was curious about what goes on your personal adventure writing checklist?

This could be something that's just on the forefront of your mind while writing, internalized knowledge, or it can be something more formulaic and structured. Whatever you feel like sharing.

Here's my current list of consolidated advice, assembled from a variety of sources including my own experiences, with thanks to Christopher Perkins, David Hartlage, Goodman Games, Jennell Jacquays, Justin Alexander, Kelsey Dionne, Mike Shea, Scott Rehm, Will Doyle, and Wolfgang Baur.

Adventure Writing Checklist
  • Write it to be fun for the DM to read.
  • What motivates the characters to go on the adventure? Does this hook actually appeal to a large number of players?
  • What is the fantastic location?
  • Who is the villain?
  • Put a spin on a classic trope.
  • Have a kickass map.
  • Present a strong start.
  • Include meaningful decisions.
  • Focus on here and now – avoid verbose backstories.
  • Present exploration, combat, and roleplaying challenges – think about multiple solutions to any given challenge.
  • Do the hard work that home DMs don’t have time for.
  • Read it aloud.
  • “Trim the fat.” (edit, edit, edit)

Combat
  • Present a strong goal besides “kill all monsters.”
  • Likewise, include interesting goals that suit the nature of your monsters (i.e. avoid the evil wolves trope).
  • Include ~1 twist or complication per tier of play in more significant combats.
  • Avoid static combats – have something change or develop during the fight, whether dramatic or scenic.
  • Encourage PC movement via goals, hazards, or favorable positioning.
  • Avoid using > 3 monster stat blocks in a scene.
  • Foreshadow monsters that circumvent HP (e.g. medusa, shadow, intellect devourer, bodak, sea hag).
  • Succinctly describe monster tactics.

Dungeons
  • Incrementally show the dungeon’s story as PCs explore.
  • Give players goals that encourage exploration.
  • Include multiple entrance points.
  • Use loops and hidden paths.
  • Use verticality.
  • Provide glimpses to deeper points in dungeon which may not be immediately accessible (i.e. foreshadowing).
  • Include hidden rooms with cool treasure.
  • Give each level or zone a distinctive theme.
  • Present a dungeon ecology with interacting denizens.
  • Make the dungeon a puzzle or mystery to figure out.
  • Break through linear dungeon with feature that cuts through the whole thing (e.g. chasm or river).
  • Why can’t the PCs take unlimited rests? (e.g. deadline)

NPCs
  • Focus on the NPC’s motivation.
  • Include a “dramatis personae” for NPCs that includes pronounciation, brief description, and page number.
  • Avoid too many important named NPCs.
  • Present NPCs as intended to be used – no more, no less.

Puzzles
  • Make it optional with benefits/consequences.
  • Last no more than 30 minutes.
  • Present more than one solution and/or pair with another type of challenge.

Traps
  • “Limited palette” avoiding “gotchas” in favor of a pattern of trapping the players can deduce. Present deviations on a theme rather than “kitchen sink” of traps.
  • Reflect the trap-maker.
  • Ways for every PCs to contribute.
  • Traps that open new areas, provide a clue, reveal lore, or reveal a treasure. Or can be turned against enemies.
 

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South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
One I have for the Adventure-Writing Checklist is to make the world into which I throw them enchanting--strange, alien, but also engrossing and filled with beauty. I've learned it's hard to do especially in the week-to-week narration improv, but I'm committed to it. It's what I loved most about George MacDonald and even J.R.R. Tolkien, so I'm trying to bring it into my campaign.

Wherever you learned it, that point about avoiding too much backstory is right on. I started off with a big one and eventually realized little of it would matter throughout the campaign, so I chopped it down to just a few pages in all.
 

Great list! (y)

Very little to add:

Adventure Writing Checklist
  • Flow. Whether linear or open, make sure it flows to feel continuous and not chunked.
  • With "present a strong start": Make sure the objectives are clear or foreshadowed. Nothing is worse as a player than playing an entire adventure and not understanding who, what, when, where and why until the end, because by then, it's just a fight scene.
Combat
  • Give examples of how creatures sound or move so the DM can use them
Dungeons
  • If used as a home/den have safe areas void of traps and barriers
  • If it fits, have a safe passage for NPCs that travel through often (ex. the goblin messenger always going to the lowest level to deliver news to the king might have a portal ring or knows how to hang glide across the chasm to reach the lower levels safely)
NPCs
  • Hints on roleplaying
  • And because I love it, I am repeating it: "Avoid too many important named NPCs"
Puzzles & Traps
  • Creates a hinderance, not absolute roadblocks to areas, information, or success
 


Quickleaf

Legend
Flow. Whether linear or open, make sure it flows to feel continuous and not chunked.
Thanks for sharing your tips! I was curious if you could say more about this one?

I've definitely made an effort to write down tips that are pretty clearly actionable. "Feel" however it a bit more ephemeral. What I think you're saying is create scenes which either organically flow between exploration, combat, and roleplay, or blur those lines so that players don't realize which mode of play is happening until they're already deeply in it. Am I hearing you right?
 


Thanks for sharing your tips! I was curious if you could say more about this one?

I've definitely made an effort to write down tips that are pretty clearly actionable. "Feel" however it a bit more ephemeral. What I think you're saying is create scenes which either organically flow between exploration, combat, and roleplay, or blur those lines so that players don't realize which mode of play is happening until they're already deeply in it. Am I hearing you right?
You are correct. It is vague, and sorry about that, but I couldn't think of any other way to say it. I liken it to the old plot diagram or Disney animated movie equation: you need to have your inciting incident and overall setting in the exposition, rising action climax, blah, blah... But in that, just like a Disney film, you need your transitions from RP to exploration to combat, to flow naturally. I think really pondering a setting, theme, mood; understanding party motive, resources, and identifying sticking points before they happen can help that transition immensely. Like you said, if a party is in an RP session and that RP session suddenly turns into combat, it helps to "blur those lines." And, at least in my opinion, the best way to blur the line is to foreshadow that it could or might happen or lay the mood down correctly to indicate that this might not just be an RP session.

Sorry for the long-windedness. Hope this helps.
 

Jeremy E Grenemyer

Feisty
Supporter
  • Break through linear dungeon with feature that cuts through the whole thing (e.g. chasm or river).

This checklist item is one that not enough published adventures utilize, IMO. The concept hearkens back to adventures like Lashan's Fall, by Ed Greenwood, with its gaping chasm and underground water flows.
 

aia_2

Custom title
Great work! I have never considered to create and use a check list!
Just one question not related to the list itself... I am considering since year to buy and read the Goodman games "how to write adventures that doesn't suck"... Is more or less this what i do expect to find in there? (In terms of contents)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
  • Present exploration, combat, and roleplaying challenges – think about multiple solutions to any given challenge.
  • Do the hard work that home DMs don’t have time for.
In tandem with these I'd add something like "Account for some basic or obvious "what-ifs". What if the PCs approach from the other direction. What if the PCs have flight ability. What if the PCs don't do what you-the-writer expects them to do. (corollary here: are you-as-writer expecting a certain outcome; if yes, allow for other possibilities) Etc. Here is one case where it can be best to err on the side of overkill; where writing too much is better than not writing enough, such that a DM isn't left floundering should the PCs not follow the script.

A few other general notes that I didn't see:

--- Write in brief and practical terms. Remember a DM often has to be able to reference and parse this stuff on the fly quickly and easily. Point form is always better than flowery prose.
--- In any area or encounter write-up, write the descriptions in the sequence most likely to be encountered by the PCs, i.e. in the sequence the DM is going to need them. For example, if there's monsters waiting in ambush behind the door write up the monsters and combat first, then the room description and treasure etc.; but if the monsters are hidden e.g. the chest of drawers is a Mimic, write up the room descriptions etc. first and then the monster/combat stuff. Don't tie yourself to always using the same sequence.
--- proofread to ensure the map and room write-ups agree on things like directions, dimensions etc. (so many times I've seen the map say it's in 5' squares and the dimensions given in the write-ups assume 10' squares; or worse, bear little or no relation to the map at all...)
--- on the maps, always show which way doors open* and always show which way is up and down on stairs, preferably by actually using the words "up" and "down" or "top" and "bottom" somewhere.

* - one module I have here (I forget which one right now) has in it "Unless stated otherwise, door handles and hinges are on the left". Think this through for a moment... :)
 
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Quickleaf

Legend
Great work! I have never considered to create and use a check list!
Just one question not related to the list itself... I am considering since year to buy and read the Goodman games "how to write adventures that doesn't suck"... Is more or less this what i do expect to find in there? (In terms of contents)
A little different. You can see a preview of some of "How to write adventures that don't suck" by clicking Full-size Preview over here. For example, the first chapter by Joseph Goodman IS a list of things he looks for in a DCC adventure, including things like good pacing, group involvement, and cutting to the chase. The rest are more targeted chapters about specific topics like villains or how to go from concept to outline.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I don't have my own list. But I like a lot of Bryce Lynch's thoughts. The below is copied from Jon Miller's Into the Dark blog:

Bryce Lynch's Adventure Design Tips Summarized and Explained (Mark 2)

What follows is a second attempt to briefly encapsulate the tips and principles for designing adventures presented by the inestimable Bryce Lynch in his singularly fantastic adventure review blog, Ten Foot Pole. This is basically the same as my previous post summarizing the principles from Bryce's reviews of The Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, but with some minor edits to improve the felicity of expression (ahem).

Bryce Lynch’s Adventure Design Tips
Summarized and Explained

1. General Tips: The 5 C’s
1. Color: The referee should give brief but evocative descriptions of locations, monsters, NPCs, and treasures. Avoid the vague or generic.
2. Context: In order for their actions to be significant and purposeful, players must generally have some information about the likely consequences of their actions, such as likely reactions of monsters or NPCs.
3. Choice: There should be more than one course of action available to players in order for the adventure to continue. Avoid choke points—both literal choke points in the physical layouts of dungeons and other locations, and figurative choke points which require a unique decision or solution in order for the adventure to proceed.
4. Consequences: Player actions should be allowed to make a real difference in the adventure and in the campaign. Avoid a set storyline or sequence of events immune to player interference.
5. Creativity: Related to (3) and (4), reward player creativity by allowing them to pursue unanticipated courses of action or to produce unanticipated consequences, rather than restricting player action and player creativity by setting up arbitrary constraints in the location layout or course of events.

2. Hooks
6. Don’t rely on a single hook; use multiple kinds (treasure; reward; magic; glory; political power).
7. Create a rumor table with hooks and color.
8. Hooks should appeal to the players, not just to their characters.
9. Hooks can and should be complex or nuanced, such as working for an evil NPC or working for rival factions.
10. To support sandbox play, dungeon, town, and wilderness locations, monsters, and NPCs should all have hooks.

3. Locations (Dungeons, Towns, Wilderness, etc.)
11. Location descriptions should be terse (not verbose) but evocative (not boring, obvious, or generic).
12. Only include background info that affects gameplay; avoid long descriptions of irrelevant info.
13. Rooms should have features that players can interact with to produce meaningful consequences. Give concrete descriptions of secret doors, traps, etc.
14. Floor plan tips:
a. Multiple routes (vs. choke points or linear, one-way paths).​
b. Multiple entrances and exits.​
c. Multiple stairs per floor.​
d. Open spaces with balconies, galleries, and ledges at various elevations.​
e. Pools and rivers that connect different rooms or levels.​
f. Bridges and ladders.​

4. Monsters and NPCs
15. Create interesting, believable motivations for monsters and NPCs.
16. Create factions of monsters and NPCs, which leads to a dynamic, interconnected strategic situation.
17. Give players the choice of allying with, attacking, trading with, or having other relationships with monsters and NPCs.
18. Create schedules, routines, tactics, or orders of battle for monsters and NPCs.
19. Wandering monsters too should be given motives, goals, hooks, and tactics.
20. Avoid standard monsters. Failing that, describe standard monsters in a non-standard way (e.g., don’t just name the species).
21. Give evocative descriptions of monsters. Give concrete descriptions of their appearance and activities. Go for the telltale sensory detail, rather than the generic abstract trait. Show, don’t tell.
Example: Instead of stating “One of the guards in the camp is a cruel bully,” say “The burly Manfred takes a leak on Tobias’s bedroll, and then snatches Tobias’s roasted chicken from his hand and quickly gobbles it down.”
22. Use truly evil monsters to evoke a Sense of Terror.

5. Treasure
23. Treasure should be valuable enough to motivate players and to make the challenges worthwhile.
24. Non-magical treasure should relate to the setting and give clues or information about monsters, NPCs, locations, etc.
25. Avoid standard magic items.
26. Give evocative descriptions of magic items. Give concrete descriptions of their appearance and how they must be manipulated to produce their magical effects.
27. Use magic items to evoke a Sense of Wonder.

6. Format and Functionality
28. Include reference tables:
a. Rumor/hook table.​
b. Monster/NPC table that lists their main traits, motivations, location, etc.​
c. Room/building table that lists the rooms in a dungeon or other keyed location.​
29. In published modules, put maps and monster stats on separate sheets so they are easy to refer to in play.
30. On maps, use keyed symbols to indicate standard features (e.g., lit/unlit, locked/unlocked, secret, trapped, etc.), rather than a verbal description in the location key.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
DUNGEONS
- If you are making a largish dungeon that isn’t meant to be completed in one single foray, be sure to include a couple out-of-the-way empty side rooms where the PCs can use to rest and/or regroup before pressing on.

- Empty rooms are not a bad thing. It helps to create suspense if not every door you knock in has some encounter looming behind it. Also, “empty room” can still contain some color or foreshadowing of rooms to come, allowing for a chance for the party to intelligently select one or more branches to take.

- As others have stated, its important to consider how residents can get around, especially bypassing hazards or obstacles within the structure itself.

- Reward curiosity and player perceptiveness with hidden areas with interesting or rewarding sideshows.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Something that may be out-of-scope for this thread: I homebrew all of my adventures for my tables and since I am writing for specific groups that greatly informs my adventure building.

Some examples off the top of my head:
  1. I have a list of character skills and features and if some of them having come up in a while I try to work them in to give them some spotlight.
  2. I heavily customize around what the characters chose to do, so I often have more focus on the "why" and background so that I have the framework to hang my improvisation on.
  3. None of my current tables are interested in "classic" dungeon exploring, and I keep location-based adventure design low. When I do, I focus more on structures like Five Room Dungeons to make sure I have varied challenges.
  4. I try to weave clues, hooks, and NPCs from character arcs into other adventures. Including weaving one character's character arc into another character's arc.
P.S. I am loving this thread in general - all what's being put up helps with these types of adventures as well.
 

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