Ingredients to a great adventure

Dungeon Magazine General Discussion


I am wondering what kind of adventures gamers dig the most. I am a big fan of intrigue and political machinations over dungeon delve and I like bad guys you can't just bash but have to outwit first (maybe that's just George R. R. Martin mania gripping my brain). I also dig wilderness jaunts over harsh terrain (especially with a chase element, kudos John Simcoe for RtS). What about everybody else? Tundra? Deserts? Dungeons? Ancient Temples? Airships? I find the setting to be sooooo very important to an adventure. Almost as important as the villian (awesome editorial in #111, James). Just want to know what kinds of things make adventures exciting for players and DMs.

I've always been a fan of adventures with a good setup. Not just the, "your sitting in the tavern sucking down an ale when a mysterious man offers you X amount of gold to get something from somewhere," old tired line. Beyond that, I like dungeon crawls disguised as something else (basically, site-based adventures with a heavy theme and lots of atmosphere).

I don't want just another delve into an ancient crypt of some unnamed king for no other reason but looting the place. I want to send the heroes into the Necropolis of King Zarkos the Wretched to find his famed scepter of undead command before the hordes of the great mummy lord storm the city. It's all about the mood and the goals to me.

Ingredients: interesting NPCs, good background information, credible motives for all involved, and consequences (good and bad) for players' actions.

As a DM I enjoy running an adventure the players can interact with. I'm a fan of maintaining NPCs and having a detailed pub for the players to frequent. I like adventures that briefly describe a few NPCs, giving a short account of their motives and personality.

I like adventures that adapt to the players' achievements, or failures. Sure, everyone loves them if they kill the kobolds. But what if they let loose the kobolds' riding dogs that end up killing all of the horses in all the farms in the area? A poor farmer's not going to be able to afford new horses... even if there were any available to buy. Seems like everyone's been buying up horses before they even reach the auction block!

A bit of an epiphany I've had lately regarding running RPGs is that /everything/ is problem/puzzle solving... or, if it isn't, it should be. Standing toe-to-toe with an enemy, trading damage, can be fun, but not for long. I've started taking the approach with my players that every scene is a puzzle waiting to be solved, even if it's solved by good tactical combat maneuvers rather than cunning and intellect.

Traps are described to the players in real terms, rather than just "make a roll to see if you can beat the DC", so that they can describe how they think such a trap might be bypassed. Good thinking on the part of the player eventually leads to bonuses to their rolls. Conversely, if they try to disarm a trap in a way that would obviously set it off, negative modifiers might be applied.

Remember: it's the DM's job to make sure that the players have enough description to turn a D&D game into a session of interactive storytelling, rather than an exercise in rolling dice.

Ahhh, intrigue!
colorful/shady npc's.
traps that can't always be disarmed!
recurring bad guys.
mostly, a story that will get every player involved.

As a DM, it hit me awhile back that I'm the only one with all the information, and that I can make a lot of use out of that. I'd spent time trying to scare my players with how much damage my bad guys were doing, or what high-level spell they could cast... and I realized that with good description, I could scare them just as much with something a lot less powerful.

For example, the PCs encounter a knight in soot-covered full plate whose armor spikes glow a dull and angry red, with smoke pouring out of the cracks between the armor with such intensity that the dark knight is just a dim silhouette, primarily visible by the glowing hot armor spikes. The knight wields a flail whose head is fashioned from a human skull scorched by some great heat, with glowing red spikes driven through it at odd angles to form the spikes of the flail.

My players could be nervous at this point. Maybe he's undead. Maybe he's an outsider. Whatever he is, he's got a flail with a skull for a head, and that's almost never good. What they don't know is that this seemingly deadly guy is a Fighter2/Cleric3, and all he's done is cast Obscuring Mist (which made the smoke, with different flavor text) and Magic Weapon (which made the flail turn from a masterwork funny-looking flail into a magic weapon). For my players, this guy is a pushover -- but they won't initially know that.

So for me, the good adventures are the ones that aren't afraid to use stuff like this. With a good DM, you can be terrified without actually being anywhere near that unfortunate total party kill. The evil bad guy can have some neat tricks without being overpowering.

Also, on a completely different note, I like adventures that are hard to break. Maybe I've just got psycho creative players, but they will ALWAYS find some way to break the adventure. "What, walk into that place, the whole group, right in the open? I don't think so. We know it's full of bad guys. All the good people in town stay away from it. We're grabbing torches and lighting the building on fire. That'll get those pesky bad guys to come to us!"

For me at least, adventures need a good, compelling, resonating story. Without a story all the monsters and traps and challenges are just so much dungeon dressing. A couple of things I find in a good adventure are:

Drama: Adventures that give the characters the chance to flex their muscles but also challenges them with there weaknesses are alway very dramatic. Making tough decisions in game play is also good for some drama especially if not all the characters in the group agree on the best course to take. Things can't be heavy all the time though. Drama needs to be mixed with humor and lighter moments or the story sinks under it's own weight. The Lord of the Rings is a good example of this sort balancing act done well.

Unique Monsters: Everyone and their mom has looked though a monster manual and seen the picture of the beholder. Even by typing 'beholder' in this setting nearly everyone here knows what I'm talking about be they player or DM. I love my vaious manuals and folios but I think they present a very narrow veiw of the monsters within. They are of course left that way for the individual DM to come up with the particulars of the monster in question, but I think too many folks take them as the end-all-be-all. What makes Monsters interesting are the particulars. Even little touches like the cultural differences between the gnoll henchmen of an evil wizard, those that live in a wide savanna and those gnolls that practice piracy along the coast makes the race as a whole more interesting. One of the great things about 3.5 is the template system. Now any monster can be quickly customized to a given adventure's specifications and made unique at the same time some of my personal favorites include: multi-headed giants, elemental vermin, and infernal humanoids.

And I think that's long enough.


Thanks for the great feedback guys!!! I am running and writing a lot so I like to get a grip on what me fellow gamers dig. Patrick, I feel your pain. My group is just plain vicious too. I will definately all your suggestions in mind when I am creating stuff for my players. Thanks again!

Hi, Pat!

With regards to Nick's question: I agree with slashdevnull that problem solving is key, though I take a more tactical and intrigue-focused approach. I like multi-level battlefields, lots of props for players to stunt with or use against their foes, and intelligent and tricky opponents. Outside of combat, I like players trying to figure out who they should support, and having to make their own value judgments based on limited information. Ambiguity makes me happy, which is part of why I like Eberron's take on alignment so much.

For me, if its unique and not your typical adventure setting or location, I like it. Nothing too alien, necessarily, just original. Also, if the scenario the adventure is about is unique, but the location if cliche', I like those as well. Any subterranean scenarios are my favorites, followed closely by wilderness adventures, and then urban adventures.

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber

If you're looking for what I consider a great adventure, try Devil Box. I don't have the details with me (author and Dungeon issue #) but my players are having an absolutely great time with it. To me that's the key. It doesn't matter what you like - it matters what your players like. If they're having a good time, then a DM can't help but have a good time as well. (Sort of like being married. When my wife is happy, I'm happy. When she isn't happy - look out.)

Devil Box has a great mix of mystery solving, humor, NPCs with a wide variety of backgrounds and intentions, a set time-line that is nonetheless affected by PC actions, and a wicked set of bad guys (did I mention it had imps that like to masquerade as cats and kill doggies for fun?). The players can help the pathetic kobalds - go Duke Chupo! - by putting the shrunken Devil back in his box, or just kill it outright before it grows back to full size and strength. But they have to deal with Max Muddletude, the aging, devil-worshipping were-rat and Horatio Quigley, proprietor of the Festal Freakshow. Perhaps the most difficult trap to escape is the terror-inducing "Shackling" festival of Muffin's Honor.

The adventure is action-packed and full of evocative ideas, and if the PCs don't think before they act, their last sight will be the ambush at the Grumpy Hogfish Inn.

Paizo Employee Creative Director

"Devil Box" is in issue #109, and it's by Richard Pett. I'm currently developing/editing his next adventure, "The Styes," which will be appearing in issue #121. This one's a LOT more creepy than "Devil Box," but it's got some great NPCs and mysteries and evocative locations. And some of the creepiest bad guys we've seen in the magazine yet!

#1. Setting that surrounds you with a unique atmosphere. I found most of the adventures I enjoyed in Dungeon, the creator was able to place you directly in the story so you felt the bitterness of the cold that made the trees crack and formed sparkling moisture crytals dancing in the night sky. After atmosphere is set, everything else is gravy.

#2. Great enemies with a few unique twists are always fun but I agree with another article that says Dungeon is gone too far in creating enemies with too many unique characteristics. Taking 3/4 of a page to write the stats of an NPC is using valuable space that could be used for plot, setting and atmosphere.

#3. Plot has to be unique as well. An adventure starts off: "You are in the local pub and the mayor requests to meet you at so and so and offers you so much gold to investigate the ruins of..." I mean, c'mon. We are above that now in 30 years of D&D. Let's here more about castles caught in time space continuums, arriving in town where the head honchos' thugs are harassing townfolk or an earthquake that reveals long lost tombs. Some inventiveness please. It doesn't take much to put a different twist on it. And please no more meteors falling to the world with strange beings aboard and a metal that has to be harvested.

Adventures need a life to them.

First idea:
The Adventure Path was so successful not because Dungeons and Dinosaurs is a great setting for a adventure. Its not bad, but its not original either.

The great part about the AP was that there was a continuity, and a life to the setting. I mean, I could really see a party setting up shop in Jazirune or getting involved in a love triangle with that Assasin girl. That other band of adventurers could be long-time foes or like-minded competitors, but they had a role in adventure after adventure(even if it was only a nod to some bit of backstory).

Second idea:
Most adventures tend to play out like a X vs Y fight scenario on a forum. "yeh, a monk would get totally get schooled by a fighter because of X and Y feat, ha ha ha!" Of course, that evaluation doesn't take into account dozens of situations where the monk might have an advantage. The Dinner-party where the Fighter can wear his plate and carry a great ax is one situation where the monk rules, as is the "We've been captured by slavers" adventure.

In truth, an adventure (or an encounter) can be difficult for a variety of reasons. If the Ice Subtype adventure with Frostburn material gets played by a Fire Wizard, he's going to rock. If it gets played by a Frost Sorcerer, chances are he's going to have some trouble with it.

So I'm advocating a little reactivity. Just saying "this is only a CR X encounter if the party has Flying" for example, is pretty good.

Third idea:
Random crap. Life has a lot of things that don't fit into a story. Sometimes a random guy gives you a muffin from a delivery truck(something that has happened to me in real life), and other times a seemingly random action is part of a greater plot.

Good adventures should have a "life-like feel." Some stuff should happen that advances the story, and other stuff should just happen. Once, in an adventure, we found a survivor to an undead attack. His village was destroyed, so we found a job for him working in the government of the nearest city.

It wasn't part of the plot or anything, and it wasn't some long-term plan or anything. We didn't get any GP or magic items or future favors. It was just a little memory about the vampire attack adventure we played that just sticks in my mind.

Good adventures should have lots of neat little subplots that weave in and out of the main plot(think Sidebars guys). They don't need obvious rewards. I mean, I killed demons and the restless dead in that campaign, but I never felt more like a hero than when I got that guy a job.

Funny, eh?

Sovereign Court

The environment of your campaign world should play into an adventure also. Entering a dungeon, no problem. Entering a dungeon thats set up high on the three thousand foot cliff of a dormant volcano during a blinding snowstorm, major problem.
It gives the players a choice between adventuring in the summer where the jobs they take might pay less or in the winter where it offers more wealth but is even more dangerous than usual.

K wrote:

Third idea:

Random crap. Life has a lot of things that don't fit into a story. Sometimes a random guy gives you a muffin from a delivery truck(something that has happened to me in real life), and other times a seemingly random action is part of a greater plot.

A friend of mine spent a couple hours downtown with a notebook writing down all the strange things that happened. For example, at one point a van screeched to a halt at the side of the road, waited for a couple minutes, then drove off. He started throwing things like that into his Vampire and D&D games on an occasional basis so that it got to the point where his characters were in an inn where a werewolf convention was going on downstairs, and the players' response was, "Damn innkeeper, he should keep his dogs under control."

You have to be careful not to overdo it, but throwing in one or two random things every session can really help the world come alive. It definitely helps throw off metagame thinking, which is the real reason to do it. If you don't believe me, next time you're DMing a game and the characters are walking through a forest, roll a couple D20s and inform the players that they hear birds chirping. :-)

The Exchange

As a Player, I like being told a good story in an athmospheric setting. Dungeon delving is fine, but I have to be given a reason other than treasure to enter it. I like it when my character´s actions affect the development of the story AND the development of the world he lives in. I like to be given the opportunity to develop my characters personality; I do not care for level development; a level 1 novice can be exactly as interesting as a level 20 super hero. I like character flaws and if the system does not give me this opportunity my character will have a flaw nonetheless. And I like to make decisions; at least i must have the impression that it´s me who plays my character, not the DM.

As a DM, I like creating a good story in a well-developed, athmospheric and consistent-shaped world. I like to encourage role-playing and in the interest of the game´s flow I try to minimize the necessity to use the dice. And I like diversity; dungeon delving is fine, but to get to the dungeon you first have to travel to it and this travel may prove just as interesting as its goal.
I try to be flexible with the rules; I don´t like fudging but if a rule goes against my story, I´ll skip it.
I try to be adaptive; if one of my players has a good idea concerning his character (good meaning creative but balanced) and a rule goes against this idea, I´ll skip it.
But I will not allow players to change the rules in their favor. I will tell them possible rule-changes before the game starts and if a player acts stupid thereafter his character has a good chance to die for it. I won´t change the rules (or the outcome of a dice throw) one more time only to save his character´s miserable life and allow him to make other mistakes. And I will think twice before I allow this character to be resurrected, the gods in my campaigns being very busy all the time :)

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