Monday, October 5, 2020

Building an Adventure: Endgame, Style, & Structure


Image by DariuszSankowski from Pixabay
I got a lot of good response from articles by discuss about of thought processes of going through DMing tasks like using a one page dungeon. So, I'm going to go over my thought processes for planning a short adventure.

NOTE: After writing  this series, I published an an adventure based on the examples, which is now available on DrivethruRPG.

Starting at the end

My adventures are rarely linear. Although, when I set out to write them I try my best to think of at least one scenario at the end of the adventure where the players have a good reason to cheer, and their characters to smile as they bandage their wound because of their great victory.

This isn't always the end of the adventure, but it should be the climactic encounter. Depending on the type of adventure you decide to run, this could be a singular tentpole monster, or the point when the adventure's objective is in the greatest peril of failure, or it could be a big boss monster at the end of the legion of minions. In a game of social encounters and combat, it is likely when arrival gets laughed out of court or taken away in irons.

For the purposes of this adventure, I want to recycle an encounter that I wrote for my playtest party, as a bridge between my modules (the one I planned out loud on Twitter last month.)

The climactic encounter is one in which the player characters have to rescue captives from several different locations as a gigantic boiler begins flooding the entire dungeon with scalding water and steam. The rooms are several rounds of running apart, and each has its own time baffle. A particularly noble character can attempt to vent some of the steam and slow down the flood, but only by taking increasing amounts of damage every round while they work the boiler

When I ran this encounter last time, my players said that it was the most fun and stressful encounter they played in the entire campaign I wasn't happy with the rest of the dungeon, however.

Knowing that this is what I want, means I know about a lot of moving parts: I know that the mission involves rescuing people. I know that it requires several rooms at different elevations. I also know that steam or machinery themed enemies and traps would be ideal. This gives me plenty to work with.

Deciding on Your Adventure Type

There are quite a few different types of adventure. Each one has particular challenges and it's design, and particular foils to look out for. I'm sure that's an exhaustive list of categories is nearly impossible to achieve. I am going to cover a few here in brief.

Exploration/ Wilderness Survival

These adventures allowed characters to crawl Texas where do I point crawl to uncover a mystery, or simply reach point a to point b.. that particular dangers we're here just have to keep in mind, are getting lost, running out of resources, exposure, and dealing with predators or enemies who know the terrain far better than they do. This is a challenging type of game to run well. it can easily get boring in the pacing collapse if you don't find ways to keep up the pressure. I have an article in the works about this.

Sabotaging an Advancing Threat

This is a scenario that I have enjoyed numerous times, including in Red Hand of Doom, the full-length version of Into the Demon Idol, and parts of a Mystara-based campaign that I ran how about the battle for Aegos after the Wrath of the Immortals

This type of adventure is heroic, and there are plenty of Westerns to provide great templates. These adventures are built on a ticking clock, where ground is lost and the enemy builds up steam on a daily basis, unless the player characters take actions that slow or stop the advance. This is a game that is suited to an OSR style of play far more than a modern one: players characters have to be cagey, direct engagement should be lethal. The PCs will always be outnumbered and outgunned if they try in a direct assault. For players who prefer a hack and/style adventure this will be tedious.

Treasure Hunt

This is the quintessential Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Players get a lead on some grand treasure buried in a tomb or dangerous ruin and try to retrieve it. This is the type of game that OSR engines handle that. there's a reason why they are classics: they are fun if played right. However there's a number of pitfalls in dungeon design that you have to be aware of, where it becomes a frustrating and unfair exercise and PC murder. 


My players thoroughly enjoyed vent reset require complex social nuance and playing politics overcome dangers. It is, however, a style that is not well supported in the majority of role-playing games, and it's definitely not the osr for the most part. I know of at least two role playing game set in 17th century France, however, based on older editions of d&d that do it reasonably well. I have my own social combat system that is used heavily for this purpose. Before you do these, however, be sure that your players are into it.a player who prefers combatant action can find sessions oriented around intrigued to be boring

Rescue and Defend Missions

I love adventures that require keeping NPCs safe and alive. Like in a good superhero story, it's pretty hard to kill a well-played D&D character after a few levels of advancement. Death of the hero is not the cost of failure in a rescue mission, however. Instead, it is the death of characters who are relying on the PCs that occurs if the player characters fail temissionh.  This offers some pretty high stakes play even for powerful characters.

Investigation and Mystery Stories

Once your player characters hit fifth level, you have to work hard if you're even going to bother with these. Divination spells and clerical abilities can reveal information long before you might be ready to give them clues. Done badly, a mystery or intrigue story is a study and aggravation where the players feel like they're expected to read the Dungeon Master's mind. 

  • There's plenty of good advice out there and have to run them, but some of the best advice can be summarized very quickly:
  • Make sure you have motive, means and opportunity for your villain, and at least two of those for each suspect.
  • Make sure there are 3 clues to point to every fact. 
  • Do not hide information behind rules; players should never have to make a spot check to find a clue. 

Done well, solving mystery can be quite exciting. Especially if an action is added into scratch the combat pitch. Mystery adventures require an extremely dedicated amount of prep time to pull off. I recommend looking at a few games made for GUMSHOE or GUMSHOE ONE-2-ONE for inspiration.


Escaping from a dungeon, a jail, or a disaster can be a lot of fun. It invites the Dungeon Master to tell the story slightly out of order, allowing things like flashbacks to be applied. It also requires the players to be more resourceful, as they often start with less than their full complement of gear. However, one has to be careful: players in Dungeons & Dragons games hate being captured, and they hate losing their stuff. Especially in more modern editions of D&D, players would rather die than he dragged off or disarmed. These adventures work best introduced a campaign, and can even accelerate the process by obviating the need for players to shop for gear.

Determine Your Structure.

Again, here we have a wide variety of options. are lots of ways to structure an adventure and some work better for certain systems than others. Again, I will go over some of the basic options here.

Five Room Dungeon

By far my favourite format to work in, the five room dungeon is short, and built on 5 archetypal encounters. They are quick to write, and their structure tends to remind the Dungeon Master that this is his game to change as he sees fit. Five room dungeon are a suggestion of a dungeon, or suggestion that can be plugged into a larger dungeon. It's also an ideal for one shots or short game sessions when you know you're going to have to quit after two and a half hours.

Small Dungeon

A small dungeon has enough rooms to fill with somewhere between nine and thirteen encounters. It lets you pull up more advanced techniques like having factions within the dungeon. Much like a five room dungeon, this works best if you plan based on archetypal encounters. I highly recommend looking at this article by Wolfgang Baur on structuring a small dungeon. If well-designed, a small dungeon offers players a very satisfying experience over the course of two to three medium length sessions. It can feel less can try after then a five room dungeon.

Large Dungeon

A large dungeon is designed to be handled in multiple sessions. The secret of planting these, however is that very hard breast done in chunks using the same planning tools as small and five room dungeon then pay some attention on making sure they interconnect. A five room dungeon can be a faction's territory, or the lair of the particularly nasty creature. Interconnected by several hallways that are part of a larger 13 room dungeon structure. This takes a lot more work to do well. Random Encounters, ideas of how to repopulate the dungeon, and a home base will be required.


This is getting well beyond the scope of what I would plan as a part of this article. A megadungeon is planned in small bites. You don't need to know much more than what's going on one floor below where the players are currently exploring. Megadungeons don't only allow for more complexity, they demand it. And mega dungeon requires factions, puzzles, an accompanying home base, and NPC's in order to support it.


Hexcrawls have your character explorer a hex gridded map space by space, collecting clues, meeting factions, and exploring mysteries as they go.  They often contain a number of smaller dungeons hidden at various points on the map. Of all the possible adventure structures, hexcrawl stands to be the most boring if not well handled. 

I am currently working on a meta system for making hexcrawls feel more interesting. The short version is that you need to have a sense of urgency for your players in order to keep them engaged. This can be due to local factions, it can be do to a cunning enemy with home turf advantage, or it can be because someone is relying on them, but, one way or the other, you have to discourage the players from giving in to the temptation of hunkering down and waiting for trouble to pass.

One of the finest examples I have se upen of a hexcrawl done well is it The Dark of Hot Springs Island by Swordfish Islands. The Isles of Purple Haunted Putresnce by Venger Satanis is another excellent example. 


Pointcrawls are handled by distributing a number of important points along the map, and allowing the players to move from point to point along abstract routes between those points. The map can be reflective of the landscape, or can be representational, but, in the case of representational maps, some idea has to be knows it about what happens if the player characters decide to go off of the obvious path. Some great examples of situations that work as pointcrawls include space travel, posing on a river system, for moving along the valleys between dunes. The most ambitious hexcrawl I have ever seen is the Ultraviolet Grasslands and Black City by Luca Rejec. Another classic OSR example is the Slumbering Ursine Dunes by Chris Kutalik. Almost all Urban adventures fall into the category of points crawls.

The One Page Dungeon

Not a structure in and of itself, but a method of planning and presenting the adventure. I love one page dungeons: they start off as a visual exercise, you create the map, then you find extremely brief annotated ways of explaining what is in it, using visual as well as written notes. Like the pive page dungeon, they require brevity. The one page dungeon also requires the Creator to liberate themselves from mechanics during the writing process.

The Tent-pole Adventure

This is a structure that can be placed on top of most adventure designs. The idea here is that adventure should contain only one or two monsters. This monster should know their terrain well, plan ambushes, and have complex, well-defended territories. like in a horror movie, the tent-pole monster is all the dungeon requires, because player characters engage with it over and over again, often unseen. This works great for hexcrawls and smaller dungeons, in particular. it demands that each monster is unique, or at least be played up for uniqueness. James Edward Raggi IV's Esoteric Creature Generator is a popular tool for designing a tent-pole adventure. His module The God that Crawls is a prime example of one. The Pcs are stalked by a slithering ooze like monster that cannot be killed which lurks in a catacomb beneath the church. As the players attempt to escape the catacombs, they face pools of toxic secretions, eggs that may hatch into smaller versions of the creature, the spirits of previous victims, and a hellish portal from whence it escaped.

Your structure will come with its own unique demands, requirements, and encounter design principles. For example, a wilderness point crawl or hex crawl works best if enemies use hit-and-run tactics, stealth, and if conflicts happen over a number of smaller encounters. A good dungeon adventure must take into account the ecology of the dungeon, at least to the point where the creatures being there make a basic level of sense; If the halls are kept clean by a gelatinous cube, the goblins in nearby rooms had better have a good strategy for avoiding it.

I personally make heavy use of the five room dungeon. It is an easy structure to start off with, it makes planning simple, and can be played in one or two super short sessions. All of my players are busy people, and have high stress jobs. I want to make sure that every session offers stress relief and has a beginning middle and end they can be experienced in the art 2 and 1/2 hour sessions. 

Develop a Backstory

Here's the thing about adventure histories: the players don't really care. They aren't likely to read them, and only want enough information to get hints at what they might come up against. You don't need an elaborate story, and if you do have one, make sure it can be doled out in dribs and drabs in response to player characters questions. This reduces the amount of necessary boredom included in your session.

That said, you need to have one in order to be able to answer those questions, and in order to understand the motivations and function of the adventure site.

In part 2 of this series I will apply these ideas to build an adventure outline. In part 3, I will discuss translating your ideas into an adventure that is exciting, tightly timed, and that has memorable encounters. In part 4 we will talk about the process of plugging this all in to the game engine,


  1. Why the tent-pole adventure is called this way? English is not my natural language so there must be somehting I don't get.

    1. Older style camping tents sold by Sears in North America in the 1970s were held up by a single central pole and a few smaller gonna ting rods. A tent-pole adventure is held up by a single big encounter with several small connecting adventure.

      A good example is The God that Crawls. The core of the adventure involves the player characters dealing with a nearly indestructible ooze monster. But, they also can run into traps with pools of it's acidic secretions, Chambers full of eggs, and a portal to the hellish around that came from. The Usos is the central tentpole, everything else provides Clues to its nature.