Sunday, 23 May 2010

5 steps to writing a "first time DM" adventure

This article is more aimed at DMs who are new to D&D and may find writing an adventure pretty scary. It really isn't, this guide will help you write up a simple adventure to guide your friends through. Recommended for a first adventure for a first time DM with a party of 5 members. The steps are below:

1. Plan

A good plan means a good adventure. Firstly, you need to write down the main quest you want to send the characters on. Write down one line for your main quest. Such as defeating X person, or escorting Y person, or retrieving Z item. The Dungeon Master's guide provides a few good ideas.

Once you have your main quest, you're ready to expand out a bit now. You need to think about where the players are going to start, in a tavern? Woods? Wandering around a village? Don't panic too much about how the characters got together as you just want to give a story for now.

Next thing is to think about he setting around the main quest and to give it a location. For example, if your main quest is to defeat a powerful Warlock, is this Warlock in some caves? A castle? Deep in some woods? Inside a haunted crypt? If it's an escort quest, do you have to travel across the desert? Woods? Snowy mountains? Through a mountain?

Write a few sentences for all those areas. Yes it's shallow but we want to keep it simple. You technically have a beginning (where the players are starting), a middle (the context the main quest is in) and an end (the goal of the main quest)

Now you need to think about why there is a main quest going on. Write down quite a few sentences about this...does the magical item have healing powers and they need to cure the sick? Has the dragon in the nearby cave been terrorising the city? Does the merchant need to get his goods safely through the mountain? Write a good few sentences for this one, the more detail the better. But don't worry about too much detail as this is your first time and you want to keep it simple! need to write an adventure hook. This is quite simple as you have all the background you need now. An adventure hook is an event that happens that draws the player into the main quest. You could over hear a conversation of troubles in the pub, go to the mayor looking for work, or just talk to the towns people to find out about the local area.

Your plan is now done! Great, onto step two!

2. Encounters

So you now know what is going to happen in the quest, you now need to think about how it's going to break down into separate events. This is where the idea of encounters come in. Encounters are like scenes in a play or TV episode where important events are played out. Each encounter has an encounter level (or EL for short) assigned to it. EL is basically the level of the encounter, or how hard or easy an encounter would be to over come for a party.

For example, a level 1 encounter for a level 1 party would be a moderate difficulty encounter to overcome and a EL of 5 would be impossible to over come. If a level 5 party did the same level 1 encounter, they would find it easy and find a level 5 encounter standard.

Within each encounter make sure you have some lines about what you would say (The DM) to describe to the players what is happening. Describe briefly the town, what is in the area, population and describe the interior of a cave etc. You firstly need to set the scene.

Once the scene is set, you need something to happen, this would be in the case of a monster fight, travelling/exploring, or the players encountering another character (or NPC - Non-player class).

You would then need to scribble down how the encounter would end - this is usually when all the monsters are defeated, or the players have finished talking to the NPC or the players have finished exploring. Usually the player would declare they are finished, just say something like "Are you ready to move on?". The players could also say "I want to head to the castle now", which basically suggests you should move on.

If it's a combat encounter, you'll need to choose what creatures will appear. A good idea is to look in the monster manual as they already have templates for various EL. If you want level 1 monsters, look at kobolds or goblins as they are one of the weakest enemies.

You'll probably want about 5 encounters for a first time DM. First should be a role play encounter, this is where the players are hooked in, then you want 4 combat encounters. Regards to the combat encounters, you would want the first one to be equal to the party level (for a first time DM, it should be a level one encounter), then have the last encounter to be two level higher than the party (or a level 3 encounter for a level one first time party). The last encounter essentially would be a boss battle and the toughest of all encounters. The middle 2 combat encounters can be whatever difficulty you want. For a first level party, have one of the combat encounters EL 1, and the other one EL 2.

Finally you'll need to determine the experience earned from encounters. For the combat encounters, it's pretty easy, just add up all the experience that the creatures give and then divide it by the party members.

3. Maps

So you've done your outline and you've prepared the encounters and now you need to prepare the maps for the encounters to appear on. You can either buy tiles from amazon, on which to place your miniatures on top of. Or, if you like the cheaper version (like me!) you can buy graph paper and you can draw your map upon this. Within the dungeon master's guide there is an excellent method for randomising dungeons if you have a lack of imagination (like me, again!). For the first encounter (the role play one) you don't really need a map, unless you like drawing maps go ahead, it will act as a visual aid for the players. For the combat ones, you will need a map for the players to place their figurines on. Don't worry about placing traps as this can change the EL and you just need the experience of running an adventure first. However if you're feeling up to the challenge, read the traps and hazards section of the dungeon master's guide and give it a go. Make sure you have a few doors and chests to open which can be locked to be a barrier the party must over come together.

4. Treasure

Now to allocate treasure. Within the dungeon master's guide (again!) there are treasure parcels which need to be given out. You can do this how you want. Have a read through that section and start distributing treasure. If you want to hide some treasure under some rubble, for example, then do so, make it an easy or moderate search (vs DC 15 or DC 20 search check for a level 1 party) and give the member the treasure. Maybe place some treasure in some chests you've plopped down. Or you could put all the treasure at the end as a giant horde in a room after the boss has been defeated, something very exciting for players to uncover! Make sure you only use about 5 or 6 parcels of treasure, as there are only 5 encounters (assuming you have followed this guide). Make sure there is at least one magic item in there that is useful to one of the party members.

5. Play

Now all your hard work is done you are ready to play your adventure. You maybe nervous but that is natural, the players will be understanding of that. Just take your time and you'll be ok, after all this is a very simple adventure for the players! Take a look at my explanation of combat, it is 3.5 edition but there are similarities. The players will gain around 625XP each (around 1,000XP for a level 1 character to get to level 2). Once you feel happy that you played the adventure well, then start looking at the skills in the Player's guide and traps and hazards in the Dungeon Master's guide and incorporate them into your next adventure. Take it slowly, there's no rush to understand everything at once and you'll fine you'll come to enjoy D&D a lot more!

I hope this helps new players, please place your comments and criticisms below!

Anyone else want to add anything they think would be important for a first adventure?


  1. Good NPCs.

    I have just started my first campaign as a DM. I planned on having the characters being pushed through the first couple of sessions so they can build a relationship amongst themselves. This has been successful and they are about to take control of their own paths.

    However, if all they are saying is, "we go here and SMASH," then they don't have a chance to interact with the environment surround the smashing grounds.

    Good NPCs surrounding the characters (good or bad) can give them that chance to see some of the history and landscape, as well as a time to RP. They can make a city more feel more alive and provide insight as to what is going on.

    Be careful that you NPCs don't take the show. It can be easy for you to overuse them. Always keep in mind that the PCs are the heroes (or villains in my campaign). The spotlight should be on the players, not the DM's bag of NPCs. Let them save the day, let them get the praise, and let them have fun with their rewards.

  2. Yeah good NPCs are a must! To be honest, when I started DMing, I only used NPCs to communicate information. They didn't have any personality or any quirks to them. They were lifeless.

    To be honest, the players and myself was fine with this and I was still learning the rules. Over time making adventures didn't seem to take as long so then I started focusing on building up characters.

    Yeah it's true that NPCs shouldn't take the show, but sometimes an NPC that is following the party sometimes has to do something to poke the party in the right direction. Such as stumbling on a hidden switch and revealing a doorway.