How do you create a fantasy roleplaying game adventure? It can be daunting, and you need to prepare smart to get the best results. This post shows one way to organize your ideas for excellent results with minimal effort.
I assume the adventure is a one-shot or part of a series of self-contained adventures. Keeping things simple is a great way to start for beginners, or if your group includes busy people with low attendance, and you want everyone to feel welcome.
Creating an adventure is not the same as writing one unless you plan to publish. “Creating” an adventure means – to me anyway – putting down a list of possible scenes, matched with lists of monsters and loot, a couple of red herrings, and usually a map of the area the characters explore.
The adventure’s objective is always to get a satisfying climax, so you start with the end. How can you put the biggest grin possible on your friends’ faces before they leave your gaming table?
The rest is just dressing once you realize this. So let’s do that. First consider possible out-of-game objectives, where the objective of the adventure that fits your ulterior motive:
- Let’s say the characters start in a remote village and you, who are running the game, have an awesome orc chieftain miniature in your collection you’re itching to use.
- You want a cloak-and-dagger game with backstabbing and intrigue in a dangerous city.
- The characters are veteran heroes with countless adventures behind them, and you have a mint 80’s Demogorgon figure you want to finally want to take out your bank deposit box and eventually want someone to able to take him.
Let’s translate your ulterior motive into something that resembles a handful of story hooks:
- Defending the village from an orc raid and track down the orc chieftain.
- Survive an ambush in the dark city of intrigue and danger, and track down the thieves’ guild captain that ordered the assassination.
- Survive the assassination attempt on a seemingly innocent third party.
- Defend the royal court from a demon attack, thus saving the fawning prince, and crashing through the gate to the Abyss and slay Demogorgon.
Notice that all four begin with a short description and everybody rolls for initiative? You are ready to prepare the setup.
The setup is the jumpstart of the adventure after everyone has settled down and is up to date with real-life current events and is ready to play.
Starting with the action that involves everybody is a good rule of thumb, and always do this if you know exactly where the characters are as the game begins. Keep exposition and recaps to a minimum of you can. Both can easily drag on forever without improving your game.
This fight is to get everybody’s attention and wet their appetites. It should be short and brutal, but not overwhelmingly so. Your timing is off if you spend half the evening on the setup.
- A band of orcs straight from the rulebooks and throw in an ogre for massive damage to wake everybody up.
- A gang of thugs and assassins. Remember to give some thought to the neighborhood as such assailants are likely to prefer hit-and-run tactics. You should also consider running a chase across the rooftops, which always is fun. Thugs and assassins fit both the damsel and tavern setups.
- A cadre of demons, including someone with a mouth to do the cackling speech. Vulture demons, frog demons or demonic ogres will do fine. Consider doubling their damage and cutting their hit points in half if you suspect this will be slow.
“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
— Raymond Chandler
Following the setup, we get to the meat of the adventure. Maximizing the climax is all about the timing, so now you should consider how many scenes you are likely can fit into a single session.
It may be just a handful when you think about it. My group usually only have about three hours after everybody is brought up to speed and finishing the week’s chit-chat. I know a big fight easily pushes 90 minutes, the setup should take no more than 30 minutes, so that leaves me with only three more scenes.
A scene can be any interaction you imagine, but usually, it is a fight, a puzzle, or investigation (skill checks or actual roleplaying). The scenes can also merely be areas of a dungeon if you want to run a simple dungeon crawl. For instance, if the last session ended with “you arrive at the dungeon.”
You need to prepare encounters with monsters and NPCs suitable for your characters’ levels as you set up your scenes. Make sure you have an encounter with a few thugs with crossbows ready to burst through the door for whenever you are stuck. You should also consider a couple of alternatives for each scene to allow the players real choices.
Possible Adventure Scenes
The real fun begins after the initial fight as it is time to give players the freedom to choose their course of action. Player agency is critical to a successful game. The players are NOT there to bask in your brilliance. They want to decide their path. Embrace this, and they will surprise you.
The enemies push back, and the tension heightens. This counter-attack is where the villains (usually) of the story take another shot at the heroes and whatever they attempted in the first place. This scene can often be another fight, but you should have everybody’s attention by now, so this is your moment if you want to attempt to be clever.
The characters should now have learned something and realize the path to the climax. The final pieces can be evidence found of dead enemies, the stories of rescued damsels (or fawning princes), exposed identities, tracks in the woods or anything else suitable according to the situation.
Random Events and Red Herrings
The structure so far will become predictably quickly, unless you throw a few red herrings or random events to shake the story.
Not everything in your story will revolve around the characters, in fact very little if you want to invoke “realism.”
The red herrings can be great to foreshadow a future plot or adventure, or a blatant lie to throw the players off course and see what they do. Sometimes improvising and letting the players go nuts is the most fun you can have while running a game.
There are pros and cons to using red herring. The good is that it will add variety and open up the game to surprises. The bad its that they will bog down the action and almost certainly delay the climax. If that is what you want.
Throw in a red herring or random encounter if you want spice, yet be careful as you risk derailing your adventure.
Alternatively, you can present a red herring whenever the characters fail an investigation check as a penalty. Finally, throw in a red herring in every scene, if you want to go all Hercule Poirot on the players. I tend to do the latter, but my games are both slow and frustrating so your mileage may vary. In fact, I’m not sure why people show up at all.
The last hour or so of the adventure is the climax, where all the hard work pays off, often in an exciting fight where the characters face certain death, yet prevail against impossible odds (or possible odds as there is plenty of math involved).
You decided what this was supposed to be right at the beginning. While the setup was an easy fight, this should be a hard fight to test the characters mettle and the players’ tactical skills.
All you have to do is to adapt your initial plan for the fight to the characters’ decisions.
Set the climax in the villain’s lair or some other dramatic set-piece for added drama. If possible, keep the location fluid as you prepare the adventure, as this will allow adapting the timing to fit the last hour-or-so of the game session.
There you have it. A plot structure of a simple well-paced short adventure, ready to be fleshed out as your group play out the story together.
Let’s have some examples. The first three are actual campaign openers from my games. The last is a made-up high-level alternative just for a lark, and finally, there is no great adventure unless there are a few red herrings.
The Orc Raid
The objective of the adventure is to pit the characters against a band of orcs, get a couple of good fights and some loot at the end.
- The orcs charge down the main street towards you, and you see burning farms on the outskirts of the village.
- The characters have successfully protected the village and are the heroes of the day. They can choose to stay in the village to ensure its future safety until the villagers can take care of themselves. Let the players survey the village and prepare defenses if they desire. Alternatively, they can choose to track the escaping orcs into the woods and deal with their main lair. Lastly, the characters can decide they have had it with the village and the orcs, leave and seek more exciting adventures elsewhere.
- They orcs strike again, either on the village, on the path in the woods to the orc outpost, or on the road to elsewhere.
- The second attacks make the characters realize they must either attack the orcs’ lair to win or run faster if they decided to flee.
- The orc chief and his entourage attack the village again, but now like they mean it. The chief has brought his most dangerous lieutenants.
- The characters have reached the orcs’ lair and must overcome the fiendish defenses before they face down the orc chief in a battle to the death!
- The orc chief tracks down the brave characters on the road and ambushes them most fiendishly. Alternatively, you can go for the anti-climax and let the characters learn about the horrible fates of the villagers in the safe comforts of a tavern far, far away. Remember, an evil chuckle is also laughter.
The Fleeing Damsel
The objective of this adventure is to kick off the action with a surprise, get some investigation and fights, and perhaps introduce one of the criminal factions of the setting.
- A pregnant damsel in distress burst into one of character’s apartment with murderous thugs hot on her heels. The damsel escapes out the living room window as the characters are stuck with the thugs.
- The characters may choose to investigate this baffling event, or they may not. They can either try to identify the attackers or try to track down the damsel if they decide to investigate. Both involve investigating the neighborhood and possibly attracting the attention of the culprits.
- The culprits strike again! For whatever reason, they want this woman, possibly dead.
- The characters learn either the location of the attacker’s leader or patron or the hiding place of the woman. The information can come from live prisoners or helpful bystanders who recognized either the woman or the thugs. The characters are closing on the heart of this mystery!
- The characters should now have tracked down the thugs’ patron. They can either deal with it themselves or tip off the authorities. The patron may escape, or just be released for lack of evidence, If they choose the latter. The patron tracks them down, and the climax ensues.
- Alternatively, the characters have tracked down the woman and the thugs’ patron as they finally may learn what the heck this is all about.
The Assassins Strikes
The objective of this adventure is to get the action going and also remind the characters that they have enemies what wish them harm.
- Someone shoots a crossbow bolt square in the group necromancer’s chest through one of the tavern’s windows.
The characters, including the poor necromancer as it was in my game, have fended off the thugs and assassins and possibly chased them down alleys and across rooftops.
- Now they can choose to interrogate surviving attackers.
- They can also chose to investigate who the attackers are and why they hold a grudge.
The characters have shaken off the first attack and possibly done some investigations, and it is time for a second encounter. This scene can be a fight, or perhaps a roleplaying encounter where they face down the enemy.
- Whoever is behind the attack is resourceful and determined to see the characters go down.
- The characters have tracked down surviving attackers or identified their allies.
The characters make a breakthrough as they interview surviving attackers or they get information for people who know the seedy underbelly of the city.
- The characters learn about the hideout of the one who wants them dead!
- They may even learn their identities, or possibly why they attacked.
The adventure, or chapter of a larger story, draws to an end, and the characters are ready to confront their enemy.
- The characters have tracked down the thugs and assassins’ patron and face the worst the dark city can throw at them, whatever that is. Thieves, slayers, snake cultists, diabolists, nobles, city guards, were rats, things-from-the-deep, anything you can imagine.
- Alternatively, the characters may choose to make a deal and possibly learn more, or they may decide to revenge at any cost.
- A third option is to get allies against the enemy. Anyone making a bid for power in a dark city surely has other enemies, and enemies of my enemies may be tomorrow’s friends. Switching sides and new options can be as rewarding as taking down another glorified thug.
The Demons Attacks!
The objective of this adventure is to ramp up an ongoing conflict with demon forces as the demons hit as close to home as they possibly can: the royal court of their home kingdom.
- The cackling Emissary of Demogorgon mocks the characters as the castle walls collapse and the fawning prince, eh, fawns.
- The characters probably want to know why the demons invaded the royal throne room, as they probably have some clout if they even are there. Power craves more power and will do anything to keep it. Right? The thing is that characters with this kind of power are very resourceful and there is no way you can prepare for any outcome. Remember this is not a problem. Your players have worked long and hard for this, and they have (should!) have earned this. That does not mean it should be easy. On the contrary, it must be exceptionally hard, acknowledge the characters’ power.
- Demons would be demons if they let one defeat stop them. They attack again!
- The characters have exceptional skills and spell and eventually figure how to strike back at Demogorgon. They may have to call in a favor or two, but they should get there.
- The character accomplishes the impossible and enters the palace of the Prince of Demons. This is it. This is the big one. Spending the resources gathered over a long and exceptional career the characters face the ultimate battle: Demogorgon. They are likely to die, but hey, sometimes heroics is all about not going out like a punk.
Red Herrings and Random Events
A great adventure needs a fair share of red herrings and random events. These events should be completely unrelated, unless, of course, you decide otherwise.
- A renowned demon hunter has arrived in town, but claim to pass through if confronted.
- The servant of a noble house was murdered in the castle courtyard last night.
- A band of sellswords has set up camp outside town, and skulking shadows have been seen entering and leaving the camp at night.
- A doomsayer is acting up following recent events, prophesizing doom, and despair.
- Someone dug up a grave last night.
- A noble family offers a reward to anyone who provides information about a stole piece of jewelry. A band of thieves broke into the manor and got away with several valuable pieces. Local hearsay claims the most valuable part has a checkered history.
After Running the Adventure
There is a couple of things to do once you have completed the adventure.
- Keep a journal helps you remember past events to make sure future adventures builds on old ones.
- Recycle everything. You can refit unused plots, monsters, maps, and whatnot in new adventures in the future. You can also reskin everything you have used.
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The Reading List
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You need to have tools when you create your adventure. Here are some ideas.
Have a look at Dyson Logos’ blog if you need a map quickly.
Look for “one-page dungeon” and see if you find anything interesting. Geek and Sundry has an article on the topic.
Rich Baker is, in my opinion, one of the best adventure writers out there. His craftsmanship is top notch. His best-known adventure today is perhaps Lost Mines of Phandelver in the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set and Forge of Fury, now found in the Tales of Yawning Portal. Unfortunately, Baker is busy, so most of his adventures are hard to find, and he wrote only a few. Check out Baker’s old blog for a survey of his published adventures and buy everything you can find.
You should have a look at Rodney Thompson’s prep notes on the WotC web page for preparing a game session. This is pure gold.
What is the worst adventure of all time? Here are John Wick’s thoughts on the matter: the Worst Adventure of All Time. The Tales of the Yawning Portal reprints this adventure for the current edition of the game. Wick also has opinions about the best adventure of all times, and both posts are enjoyable reads.
Prepared! A Dozen Adventures for Fifth Edition and its sequel from Kobold Press provides – you guessed it – twelve short scenarios designed for a single evening on short notice. The publisher also has an excellent patreon where short adventures, as of writing this, are part of the deal.
Paizo has a considerable number of Pathfinder Society scenarios. I have only read a couple of the early ones so your mileage may vary.
The Tome of Adventure Design from Frog God Games is a much-used tool in my toolbox. The idea of designing RPG settings and adventures is randomly probably as old as the games themselves. The standout example is the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and the Tome of Adventure Design (2011) builds on that tradition and provides about 300 pages of random tables. Whenever you are stuck, a vast collection random tables can help you back on track.
On the topic of Demogorgon, who is the Prince of Demons anyway? The Prince of Demons appears in the Savage Tide Adventure Path (starting in Dungeon 139 for D&D 3e) and the Out of the Abyss (for the current edition of D&D). The former is brilliant, and the latter is alright and much easier to track down. The Bastion of Broken Souls (2002) is another excellent adventure featuring Demogorgon.