In our first year together, we've devised campaign hooks, governments, and religions. We've drawn stronghold maps and wilderness maps. We've created NPCs and sprinkled a few secrets across our fledgling game worlds. With this behind us, we're finally ready to turn our attention to the meat that lies at the heart of any compelling AD&D campaign-adventures!
In this installment and the next, we'll examine some general guidelines that should help you create the sort of fun, engrossing adventures that your players will recount to bemused Gen Con Game Fair acquaintances for many years to come. In the installments that follow, we'll put these guidelines to work and create an actual adventure, paying particular attention to how the most important decisions are made.
Good, compelling adventures are so important to the AD&D game that they demand a Fourth Rule of Dungeoncraft: Always challenge both the players and their characters.
This rule means that a good adventure works on two levels. On the first, it poses a challenge to the players-it makes them think carefully and causes them to wonder for just a brief moment whether they are truly up to the task of overcoming its many obstacles. Once complete, great adventures provide the players with the same satisfaction they might receive upon finally completing a challenging level of a video game. This sense of satisfaction arises from the players' perception that it was their own skillful maneuvering and decision-making that led to success, not mere random luck or charity on your part. Balancing adventures so they challenge the players without overcomplicating the situation or causing confusion is one of the trickiest parts of adventure design.
On the second level, good adventures always provide a challenge for the players' characters. In general, this means that you give the heroes opportunities to use their powers, proficiencies, and abilities. After all, it's no fun owning a vorpal blade if you never get to use it. For many players, part of the attraction of the AD&D game is that it allows them to play the roles of brave adventurers who can accomplish almost superhuman feats. To satisfy these players, you must give them a chance to flex their characters' muscles. In much the same way that you strive to balance the adventures to the players' capabilities, you must also balance the adventures to the capabilities of their characters. If the feats of derring-do you ask them to attempt are too easy-say, a high-level party pitted against an inconsequential goblin tribe-they'll soon become bored. On the other hand, if the obstacles you place in their path are obviously well beyond the PCs' capabilities, the players will soon become frustrated. Fortunately, this part isn't as hard as it might sound. While balancing an adventure to challenge the characters isn't as simple as falling off a log, it's usually much easier to accomplish than properly testing the players.
Since it's the more difficult task, let's first consider some specific tactics to challenge the players.
Make the Players Make Decisions
The best way to make sure the players remain involved in your adventure is to offer them the opportunity to make plenty of decisions. Decision-making gives the players a sense of empowerment and reinforces the idea that their destinies lie in their own hands. In a typical AD&D adventure, decisions can take on many forms. Is it best to enter the dungeon via the cave mouth or through the large oaken door? Should we accept the elves' offer of assistance? Is it wise to venture down to the next level of the dungeon? Or should we return to town and heal our wounds? In many ways, the heart of every good adventure is a series of options. As you create your dungeon maps and individual encounters, you should definitely keep this in mind. Strive to offer the players a number of approaches to all the most important situations likely to arise during the adventure.
Suppose a band of evil cultists has captured the elven queen and taken her back to their mountain stronghold, where they hope to offer her as a sacrifice to their dark god. (And yes, I know this is an appalling cliché. Remember, this is just a simple example!) This situation leads to several ways you can cause the players to make important decisions.
The Road Less Traveled: It's probably a good idea to present the players with two possible routes to reach the stronghold. The first is short but very dangerous; the second is much longer but relatively safe. During play, these two alternatives force the players to make an interesting choice. The queen might be sacrificed at any moment, so time is of the essence. But the dangers of the shorter route threaten to damage the party before they reach the stronghold, possibly ruining their chances of defeating the cultists once the PCs arrive. This conundrum is likely to provoke an interesting and lively debate among the players.
Strength or Stealth: Once the PCs arrive at the stronghold, you might confront them with several possible entrances. The first is a well-guarded main gate, where small mobs of hooded cultists regularly arrive and depart. The second is a doorway located just off a parapet that lies at the top of a steep cliff. Although the main gate is quite secure, the constant traffic might give the player heroes an opportunity to waylay some passing cultists, disguise themselves in the cultists' robes, and attempt to enter the stronghold using trickery. The parapet entrance is probably the easier to negotiate. To reach it, however, the thief must pass a series of Climb Walls rolls to scale the cliff and drop a rope down to her comrades.
The Enemy of My Enemy: Finally, once inside the stronghold, the party might discover an imprisoned evil sorcerer who is also being held captive by the cultists. If the party frees him, the sorcerer promises to help them rescue the queen and defeat the cultists once and for all. Whether the sorcerer can be trusted is hard to determine. While he might prove quite an asset, it's also possible that he'll betray the party to pursue his own agenda. Freeing him might even endanger the party's mission.
One important point that these examples illustrate is that whenever you build a decision point into your adventure, it's important to give the players some idea of the consequences that they can expect to accompany the choices they make. In other words, asking the players to enter a dungeon through one of two seemingly identical doors isn't really offering them a choice at all. Unless they have some information upon which to base their decision, you're asking them to perform the mental equivalent of flipping a coin. When setting up your decision points, try to associate some obvious possible advantages and drawbacks with each option. As they approach those two identical doors, for instance, suppose the players hear muffled screams beyond the first door and nothing beyond the second. Now their choice suddenly becomes quite interesting. If they choose the first door, they're bound to encounter some immediate danger, but they might have an opportunity to come to the immediate aid of the screamer. If they choose the second door, they might have an opportunity to enter the dungeon unnoticed, but they might reach the screamer too late to be of assistance.
Have Players Solve Puzzles
Another way to engage the players is to confront them with puzzles or riddles. While magical tricks and traps are obvious methods for injecting such obstacles into your adventures, there are much subtler ways to accomplish the same goal. It's possible to disguise puzzles so they're not so obvious as such.
Suppose that the PCs come to the end of a dungeon corridor to find an obvious door 20 feet up the wall, but no way to reach that door. The rope ladder that normally hangs down is missing, the wall is too smooth for climbing, and there is nothing up the wall that a grappling hook might catch. Although it might not seem like it, this is actually a puzzle. The solution is to realize that the lumber and tools the players found a few rooms earlier can be used to hammer together a makeshift ladder that allows them to reach the door. In fact, asking the players to figure out how to use the items they find in one part of the dungeon to overcome obstacles they find in another part of the same dungeon is a time-honored tactic.
Sometimes, this same technique is taken one step further, and the players are asked to take two items they found in disparate parts of the dungeon and combine them to make a third item they need to circumvent an obstacle. You could employ this variation on an earlier example by placing the lumber in one room and the tools in a second room. It's then up to the players to realize that these two items can be combined to build the ladder that will allow them to reach the elevated door.
In general, as you design an adventure, be on the lookout for opportunities to make the players draw logical conclusions or remember things they saw earlier to accomplish important goals. The entrance to the mad cultists' sacrifice chamber might be a secret door activated by touching a specific portion of a mural painted on the wall. If the players pay attention, they should notice that this mural is identical to several they saw earlier in the stronghold in every respect save one, and it is this single incongruous detail that marks the activation point. Similarly, to navigate the stronghold's dungeons to find the queen quickly (before she is sacrificed), the players might be required to deduce that she is being held prisoner on one of the dungeon's uppermost levels. They might do so by noticing that the stairway leading down to the lower levels is covered with a thick dust and obviously hasn't been used in several weeks.
In accordance with the first guideline, you might design your puzzles so they can be solved in several different ways. This is actually easier than it sounds, since the average party of adventurers has access to an impressive collection of skills, items, and abilities. The elevated doorway, for example, can be solved with a jump spell, a fly spell, or boots of striding and springing. If the players miss the lumber (depending upon the circumstances), they might opt to leave the dungeon to memorize the appropriate spell or hire someone capable of casting it for them.
In fact, many AD&D players are so resourceful that it is sometimes okay to build minor puzzles into your adventures that have no intended solution. Suppose, for instance, that somewhere within the first couple levels of your dungeon is a deep pool of clear water with a glowing magical sword at its bottom. The pool is too deep for any adventurer to hold his or her breath and reach the bottom. At the time you create this adventure, you don't have to have any idea how the players might retrieve the sword-maybe they'll think of something, and maybe they won't. Even if they fail, you'll at least give them something interesting to think about.
3) Give the Players Interesting Opportunities for Interaction
One of the biggest attractions of the AD&D game is the opportunity to roleplay a heroic, well-rounded character. Many players take pride in inventing interesting personalities and enjoy the opportunity to interact with colorful NPCs. Thus, another way to keep the players engaged is to provide them with particularly interesting opportunities for roleplaying. You might, for example, call upon a PC to console the young princess in the wake of her mother's death, or you might ask another to compose a ballad capable of settling down an inn full of rowdy patrons. Generally, those scenes that are the most melodramatic or the liveliest have the best roleplaying potential.
This third tactic is all too frequently overlooked when constructing dungeon adventures. Don't forget that your monsters should have personalities. You should strive to provide the players with opportunities to interact with your monsters, even within dungeon settings. Instead of the four fire giants pounding the heroes until they are dead, what if the giants merely subdue the heroes and then play a game of cards among themselves to decide which giant earns the right to kill the captives? Such a situation allows clever players an opportunity to talk themselves into the game somehow or convince three of the giants that the fourth is somehow cheating, possibly precipitating a timely escape. At the very least, you should give the players an opportunity to exchange words with the monsters while they are fighting. The mixture of threats and clever quips that tends to accompany most battles can be quite satisfying itself.
Join me here in 30 days, when we'll consider some specific tactics for engaging the player's characters, plus a brief list of dos and don'ts for adventure designers.