Adventure Design in Short

Friday, February 14th, 2020

One of the methods I use to design and run adventures is by using organic situational development based on a pre-existing bare-bones infrastructure, fleshed out in play by both player character actions and by the addition of customized random event lists. Which totally sounds like some kind of crazy corporate jargon — localized variegated synergyzms?

But here is what that actually means and how one would, themselves, go about doing so.

The short version, anyways.

First, I begin with creating a broad regional overview of a small area (no larger than a few days crossing[1]), putting down the lay of the land and noting: any areas of civilization in the region, whether those are a monastery or city, a village or traveler’s inn; a few important groups (eg: factions) and individuals within each area; and an overview of a few specific locations in each area.[2]

The point is not to create exacting detail. A sentence or two, or a paragraph at most, for each.

Based on the needs of the current adventure, an interesting confluence of details, information from prior game play, or any combination of these, I briefly note a few on-going situations and recent events in the local area, decide which situations the area’s factions are active in, responsible for, or reacting to — as each faction must be tied to at least one situation — then tie each faction to at least one other faction as either allies or opponents.

Again, the point is not to create exacting detail. A sentence or two per situation and faction involvement at most.

Finally, I create at least three specific, named, slightly more detailed areas with specific and interesting features important to the adventure at hand, but without presuming the characters will visit these locations, and again without going into minute detail. A few broad strokes regarding the nature of the location, who or what can be found there, and what sorts of things can happen or be done there.

I should, at this point, have excellent notes to build from while in play, no matter who or what the characters encounter, no matter what they want to do, or no matter where they go.[3]

With these basics jotted down, I make a list of area-appropriate, interesting features that might be found in the area, and which give a real sense of its nature — things such as noises, sights, weather events, specific annoyances, common structures, and similar details. These are often fairly reusable across a given region, until we get into adventuring sites or odd areas. In any case, these form the basis for my Event table and my Feature table.

Next, I create a list of (potentially) hostile animals and creatures that are again area-appropriate and interesting, as well as of intelligent monsters and beings from the area’s factions noted above. To provide some variety, I might also include a few intelligent monsters who are not members of any local faction, then use a generalized Purpose table in play to get an idea of what they are up to and their general demeanor if encountered. These all form the basis for a couple different Encounter tables.

Using these notes, I populate a Travel encounters table — the typical “wandering monster” table, which includes rolls on an Encounter table, but also includes rolls on the Event table, with the likelihood of Events and Encounters balanced in a ratio as I feel is appropriate. In play, I will use the Travel table to determine randomly occurring encounters as the party moves from location to location, which could thus be either creatures, faction members, or simply mood-setting happenstances.

I also create an Exploration encounter table that consists of monsters, faction groups, useful items, or information that the characters may discover while searching any random area (basically, a table that relies on all the other tables above). Except that the Exploration tables are used only when the party stops to explore a specific area. Exploration always includes both one interesting feature and one mood-setting happenstance from the Feature and the Event tables, in addition to a potential encounter.

While characters explore an area, I also make rolls on the Travel table if the appropriate amount of time passes for a random encounter to occur. (These may add more detail or interaction to encounters or events previously rolled on the Exploration table.)

Finally, if and when characters visit the previously specific, named and detailed locations, I roll on the Exploration and Encounter tables as normal for any area to add detail and variety to any planned encounters for that specific area![4]

Here is a brief example of how this works, starting with the region overview, drilling down to the factions, events, and specific locations. Normally the named areas would have more detail and include a few set-piece locations, including write-ups of the important members of each faction, but this is meant to be a short example of the process.

The characters are passing through the Southern Reaches of the Forest of Ellevene. The forests were inhabited by elves ages ago, but — except for a few nomadic bands who eek out an existence as hunters — have been abandoned and left to grow wild. There are time-worn elven ruins of graying stone scattered and hidden among the trees, a few small elven or human villages (with between a dozen and two dozen inhabitants), and a prestige-hungry human baron maintains a small keep on the woodland border, intent on clearing and claiming the land. The forests are thick and deeply shadowed, full of ravines and cliffs in the east, turning to gentle, lightly forested hills in the west, where the woodlands meet the plainslands. The ravines and cliffs are inhabited by clans of goblins and orcs who rarely venture out from their dark caves, having a superstitious fear of the dark forests carried-over from the time when it was as yet elf-domain.

  1. The human Baron Aele Toref maintains a small keep on the edge of the woodlands, sending his troops to scour the woods for ancient elven artifacts and magics, and to hunt and slay dangerous predators and beasts, all in service to increasing his family’s power and prestige. Meanwhile, peasants work the land, expanding ever deeper into the forest, slowly clearing the way for farming through logging (the wood of the trees here have become a prized commodity elsewhere). The farms are often raided, however, by a powerful and dangerous tribe of orcs from across the woodland, which the baron does not have the manpower to eradicate. His troops and those parties logging or clearing the forest are also often attacked by elves, though the elves do not have the numbers to drive the baron out, only slow his plans.
  2. The Mithril Orcs are a powerful tribe of goblinoids who are not afraid of the ancient superstitions about the forest. They are ruled by a council of elders led by a powerful orcish druid. The orcs make their home in a series of caves in a ravine near the surface mine where the ancient elves carefully drew mithril ore out of the earth. The earth’s treasures were not exhausted before the elves withdrew, and now the orcs work and refine the metal into black mithril arms and armor. They raid the farms for foodstuff and supplies to grow their numbers, and the baron’s men slaughter their raiding parties while the elves harass their mining efforts, but neither group can do more than slow the orcs’ plans. It is rumored their tribal council is looking to establish trade with a kingdom to the south in exchange for their black ores.
  3. Lord Dun Settere is the leader of a small, fanatically loyal, semi-nomadic band of elven hunters, and considers himself the last lord of the woodland, seeing its protection and oversight as his birthright and duty. They often make camp in or near ancient elven ruins, and have a few small platforms and tree-burrows in which they remain during the winter season. The band still has access to a handful of the ancient magics and artifacts left from the days of the elven kingdoms, and sometimes seek out more. From hiding, they harass and harry the baron’s men, wounding and killing where they can, but never engage in full-on assaults as there are too few of them. They leave the orcish raiders alone, feeling it serves their own purposes, but do seek to drive the orcs from the ancient mithril mine, feeling the orcs have no right to the elven metal and that their very presence on that land corrupts the deposits.

Next are the randomized encounter tables designed from the above for the area! Normally, the Events and Features tables are significantly longer and slightly more complex than those found below, so there are fewer repeat encounters and a bit more variety, but again, this is meant to be a short example.[5]

* Roll d6 every 6 hours; on 1-2, check the following, or
* Roll d6 every 3 turns while Exploring; on 1-2, check
1 Event
2 Encounter

* Roll a Feature and Event only once per area
* Roll d6; on 1-2, check the following
1 Encounter
2 Treasure

1 It Begins to Rain
2 You Hear Something Big Moving Around
3 The Wind Blows Through the Trees
4 Landslide!
5 You Hear a Distant Howling
6 You Trip and Sprawl in the Mud (Did the Roots Move?!)
7 A Thick Mist Suddenly Envelops You
8 A Sudden Stampede of Deer or Small Animals

1 A Ruined Shack (Most of It) Stands Here
2 A Shallow Cave in a Rocky Outcrop
3 A Large, Dead Tree of Immense Size
4 A Dry Stream Bed Runs Through the Area
5 A Shallow Crevice Breaks the Earth
6 A Small Field Profuse With Colorful Wildflowers
7 A Ridge Slopes Steeply Upwards
8 A Depression Holds a Small Marsh
9 A Circle of Standing Stones
10 A Rotting (Animal or Humanoid) Carcass

Encounter (roll below, then roll on the Purpose table)
1 Orcish Bandits
2 Pack of Wolves
3 An Ogre
4 The Baron’s Patrolmen
5 Giant Spider
6 A Dire Bear
7 Elven Hunters
8 Human Villagers

1 Hunting/Foraging for Food
2 Looking to Trade
3 Engaged in Banditry
4 Traveling to a Specific Nearby Location

1 A Rusty, Discarded Shield
2 A Minor Magic Item (no potions or scrolls)
3 The Area or Fixed Structure Has a Magical Effect
4 A Pouch with 1d4 Small Gemstones (10gp ea)
5 A Cache of Dried, Salted Rations
6 An Exquisite, but Cracked, Wooden Flute

Now let’s see how the tables work together!

The characters have been traveling through the woodland for six hours (roll Travel: 1: Event: roll Event: 5) and hear a distant howling. Concerned, they stop to explore the area and tell the DM they’re going to take a few turns doing it. Since they stopped to explore (Explore table: roll Feature: 2, roll Event: 1, roll Encounter: 6 : roll Purpose: 2), and are taking their time (roll Explore again: 1 : Encounter : 5). They find a shallow cave under and outcrop when a sudden storm blows in and it begins to rain.

The characters decide to wait out the storm in the cave; unfortunately, as they are setting up camp, a dire bear with the same idea they have enters the cave…they might be able to convince it to leave them alone with an offer of (normal) rations while they make their escape? (Even if successful, they’ll have to get out quickly and leave some of their gear behind!) Of course they could also fight the bear, drive the bear off, or enspell the bear instead. At the same time, however, unnoticed by the characters, a giant spider has been crawling down from a crevice hidden in the shadows at the back of the cave…and lunges towards the rear-most party member! (Hope they notice it! Roll for surprise!)

Obviously I’ve cheated a bit and made sure every table that might result in a blank gave a result instead, but this was to show how the tables can work together to add interesting, immediate content to any area. Feel free to adjust probabilities as desired, particularly in accordance with the danger-level of an area, but keep in mind the random encounter tables are normally weighted such that such surprise encounters or a valuable treasure find are not a constant event, and that most exploration is meant instead to set the mood and provide mystery or create tension through uncertainty (does that howling denote a hungry wolf-pack on its way? Or does it have nothing to do with them? The players don’t know).

The example above is also fairly static. What the players do is going to alter how this situation unfolds. Perhaps they never encounter the spider? Maybe they decide to move on through the rain and they encounter a wet, disgruntled, hungry dire bear in the woods? The DM will need to stay on their toes to include the content — but never force it down the players’ throats! The players take the lead on how the adventure progresses, and sometimes that means they choose not to engage and make a hasty retreat before getting roped into a problem.

[1] If you have a larger world-map, this prevents the “large stretches of boring nothing” and “entirely-too homogeneous areas” situations from occurring. If you do have large areas of similar environment the characters are simply passing through on their way to a specific adventure, and wish to spice things up rather than cut directly to the action at the destination, you can always borrow a table from a similar area to roll on once or twice.

[2] The region to be prepped is usually one the characters are in, or one they plan to enter, if I am prepping for an upcoming game. Alternately, this method could be used to prepare multiple areas of the world, if the players have not yet chosen a destination, to have something prepared for whatever the players later choose (or even just to flesh out areas of the world for the GM’s own edification).

[3] Be aware that it is always OK for you as GM to say “Listen, I’m not prepped for that area. Can we come back to it in another game session? Would you like to stay in this area? Or do you want to put this away until next time and play a boardgame?” You may think prepping every surrounding area is the solution here, but it isn’t — you’re over-prepping at that point, and it doesn’t serve your players.

[4] Since this is old school D&D, encounter strength is not meant to be balanced against the party. They should know to take their time and be cautious, and when to flee. Remind them of this if they appear to have forgotten. If they choose to attempt it anyways, be true to the danger and be fair.

[5] Because of the potential complexity and size of the actual tables used, I have written nested, interdependent tables for Inspiration Pad Pro to determine the events and creatures the party may encounter while exploring or traveling. I highly recommend the program!

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