Adventure Building: Part 4 – Creating an Adventure

Part 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


After looking at Creating a Threat and developing Backstory, Setting and Hooks, its time to write an adventure outline. There are two excellent tools for creating adventure outlines that I found: the 5 x 5 Method and the 3 Act Structure, but I have a blended method that might work for you. I’ll be using the ‘Lich Weathermaster’ that I randomly rolled in Creating a Threat as my villain and a typical points of light type default D&D setting.

The 5×5 Method

  • The Chatty DM takes Dave’s 5 x 5 method for outlining a campaign to outline an adventure.
  • What if, instead of having 5 long-term campaign plots, you would start with 5 quests/adventure hooks?
  • The 5 x 5 Method is an excellent way to provide an open ended adventure with lots of choices for your players, without pointlessly wandering around.
  • This works really well for a campaign set-up where your PCs go on quests and then return home.

3 Act Structure

  • NewbieDM shows us how to create a cinematic outline using a similar method as screenplay writers.
  • The adventure (and encounters too) go through 3 acts:
    • Act 1 (Beginning): The Setup, and Plot Point 1
    • Act 2 (Middle): The Confrontation, and Plot Point 2
    • Act 3 (End): The Resolution
  • A drawback of this method is that the adventure can feel a little on rails, since the plot is more linear, but it can be minimized by providing choices and branches along that path to ensure player agency.

Blended Method

  • A blended method can allow for the drama of big set piece encounters tied to an ongoing narrative, without pushing your players down a completely linear path.
  • If you outline your adventure with flexibility in mind your won’t be worried about your players going off the rails, since you’re always ready for them to follow a few different paths to get from the start to the end.
  • Establish 3-5 hooks that will get your players interested in the adventure or side quests. The longer the adventure, the more hooks you need.
  • Create starting and ending points for your adventure
  • Create 3-5 plot points that the players should pass through on their way to the ending of the adventure. The less dependency you have on the order of the plot points, the more flexible you adventure will be.
  • Create even more plot points for a longer adventure.
  • Create exploration, social and/or combat encounters for each of the plot points.
  • Create a random encounter to have ready if you need to kick the door down.

Backstory

I’ll quickly write up a short backstory for myself to run the adventure. Nothing special, but it will get the job done for this example…

Long ago in Hahill, a young and promising wizard apprentice named Briffin Frost fell in love with a merchant’s daughter Bruda Nordlund. As their love blossomed, Briffin proposed with a ring he created himself from silver coins he found while adventuring in the surrounding wilderness. Bruda accepted the ring and agreed to be his fiance. Bruda quickly became ill and the town’s healers couldn’t find the cause of her ailment. The silver contained an ancient curse, unleashed by a betrayal in a business transaction by one of Bruda’s ancestors. This curse was beyond the abilities of the healers or Briffin to detect.

The young wizard fell into despair and decided to save Bruda himself. Briffin moved his love to the underground lair where he had found the coins, but he was unable to make any progress against the curse. Briffin’s methods became more and more desperate and his studies and experiments led him down a dark path. Day and night, the wizard tried to use his growing magical powers to save her. While he learned that the ring was the source of the curse, he was still unable to defeat it. Frustrated, Briffin decided to magically freeze Bruda to stop the illness from killing her while he looked for a cure. Briffin cast a powerful spell, freezing his fiance and unleashing a terrible ice storm that buried Hahill in ice and nearly killing him. Dying, Briffin made an unspeakable deal to become a lich, hiding his soul in a bracelet given to him by Bruda. Now the lord of a land frozen in time, the lich had forever to save Bruda while his newly created minions were sent out to search for powerful magical items. The lich also broke the bracelet (phylactery) into 3 pieces and hid them in three locations around Hahill.

Introduction & Hooks

If this was a movie, the audience would see portions of the backstory above as an introduction, but the players need to discover the cause themselves and we need the hooks to bring them to Hahill. The adventure begins in the farm town of Pine Prairie. The players should be introduced to the hooks and we will assume the PCs all have ties to Hahill or Pine Prairie.

Your party is staying in the town of Pine Prairie where you are preparing to begin your life as adventurers. You are in a tavern (of course!)

If you find a way to get them to go on the adventure…

  • The Pine Prairie town guard has posted that they are looking for skilled fighters and rangers to patrol the outskirts of Pine Prairie. If they get hired, have them patrol towards the village of Hahill and encounter a group of Briffin Frost’s minions (Ice Goblins). The minions should have a list of magical items they are searching for and can be interrogated to find out who sent them (with a decent challenge level). A way to get the players involved with this hook is to have one PC know a town guard or already have completed patrols in the past.
  • The mayor of Pine Prairie is concerned about no travel south on the north road for days. He is looking for a group of adventurers to travel north to Hahill and report back with the finding of their investigation.
  • If they stick around town, have a young farm boy (Norris Coyle), has stumbled into town and collapses at the feet of the adventurers.  He is in bad shape from the cold and only able to whisper “it’s all frozen” and points north, before collapsing unconscious to 0 HP. If the adventurers can stabilize the farm boy, one chance at DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine), he stabilizes – otherwise he dies. You can choose to have the adventurers cure the stabilized Norris and have him act as a guide, but it may be better for him to remain behind. Norris Coyle (or any name) could be related to one of the PCs and the PC has relatives in Hahill.
  • If they are still sticking around town, have the ice storm come to them as it increases in size. If they don’t travel towards the storm, offer them a huge reward from the mayor. If any PCs are from town their friends and family are in jeopardy and need to be saved.
  • Side Quest 1: There is a rumor floating around the taverns of the town for decades that a dragon and adventurers killed each other in a fierce battle in the hills south of town. The dragon hoard was never found. The rumor is untrue, the hoard was recently found by a large tribe of goblins who are at war with two leaders battling to be chief and king of the treasure.

As you travel on the half day journey to the small pastoral village of Hahill you notice the temperature quickly cooling, even though it is midsummer. As you travel along the main road to town you start to see patches of snow on the ground and quickly the landscape becomes a frozen wasteland. You see farmers frozen solid like statues working in their fields and merchants and their horses frozen in place with their wagons. You see a large swirling storm cloud that appears to be centered on some hills north of the town.

Outline

This outline is my first draft and very rough. I’m just throwing ideas out there to create an outline for the details that will be added later. This is a shorter adventure and is geared towards being completed in a few sessions. It is investigation heavy with lots of mystery elements. By design it is geared towards players who enjoy a mix of exploration, social and combat.

  • Start: The PCs grab a hook and travel from Pine Prairie to the frozen wilderness surrounding Hahill
  • Plot Point 1: The PCs investigate the freezing source of the storm and follow it to its center
    • They might be unprepared and will need to return to Pine Prairie for more equipment/magic items. Have them roll survival checks and hit them hard.
    • Exploration: If they can get to the center of the storm and find the entrance – they can enter the hideout and travel through a couple of rooms, but will hit a roadblock/guardian they can’t get past yet until they complete more plot points.
    • Social: Create a collection of NPCs for the PCs to unfreeze. They can be used for local flavor of to provide clues.
    • Combat: They could face magical ice beasts that have been created by the storm spell on the way and monsters in the dungeon.
  • Plot Point 2: The PCs investigate the frozen town and see blasts of fire down a nearby street
    • Exploration: They find the lich’s former master who has just recently freed himself from the waist up.
    • Combat: The wizard’s escape with blasts of fire has drawn a large patrol and the PCs need to fight the patrol and prevent them from killing the wizard.
    • Social: A conversation with the master wizard reveals that his student is now a lich who is trying to save his fiance. The wizard could also provide a secret to getting past the guardian – which he designed.
  • Plot Point 3: The PCs search for the pieces of the lich’s broken the bracelet (phylactery)
    • Pretty dependent on Plot Point 2.
    • The lich has broken the bracelet (phylactery) into 3 pieces which he unites to feed souls into it
    • Exploration:
      • The PCs learn search places in town that were important to the lich, revealed to them by the wizard.
      • Maybe they are led to the first location and that location provide clues to the next location, and so on.
      • The PCs can learn about Bruda’s
    • Combat: The town is being patrolled by minions who have been ordered to defend the hiding places. Provide opportunities for stealth and alternatives to combat.
    • Social: Interrogation of the patrols have no idea what they are guarding or the exact location.
  • Plot Point 4: The PCs return to Pine Prarie

    • When they return to Pine Prarie it has started to snow there. The town is freaking out and worried about failing crops and famine.
    • Social: Talk to Mayor and provide report, have the mayor provide aid of some sort (magic items to combat cold) or a reward promise
    • Exploration:
      • Visit stores to get equipment and magical items to combat cold
      • Visit library to learn more about the lich and his phylactery
    • Combat: Ice minions have spread out looking for magic items and attack Pine Prairie. Kill the minions and get magical loot and status as heroes.
  • Plot Point 5: The PCs explore the hideout, now with the “key” to get past the guardian.

    • Dungeon Crawl – 5 Room Dungeon: start with guardian, end in lich’s lair
    • Social: Conversation with the lich
    • Exploration: Perception checks and anything else they can sneak in
    • Combat: Fight the lich.
  • Ending:
    • Resolutions:
      • The PCs face the lich for a final showdown and defeat it, ending the spell causing the ice maelstrom.
      • The PCs discover the curse of the silver and save Bruda, the lich ends the spell causing the storm.
      • The PCs have found all 3 pieces of the bracelet and destroy them, destroying the lich. You could have the storm raging on and require the PCs to travel through the dungeon still to turn off a magical device that is keeping Bruda frozen and causing the storm.
  • Random Encounter: The PCs encounter snow golems, which can easily be defeated with fire – but are otherwise very, very, very powerful.

Next we’ll look at how to fill in the details for this adventure and how to run the adventure as I finish up this series.

If you are looking to create your own world for a new campaign, check out my World Building series.

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Shawn Ellsworth

Shawn is an author and co-founder of Tribality.com. He first got into tabletop RPGs through ninjas and then by playing a Kender in Dragonlance. Years later, he can be found running games in the Nentir Vale and his own Seas of Vodari campaign setting.