Over the past two months, we've discussed some general tips for effective adventure building. Now let's put those tips to work and generate a complete concept for a first adventure.
Creating the Concept
Every great adventure begins with a great concept. Before you pull out the graph paper or start thumbing through the Monstrous Manual book, take some time to stop and think about the adventure you're creating. Although other approaches can be equally effective, many of the most memorable AD&D scenarios are location based.
This means that the heart of the adventure consists of a series of maps and a key that describes the important locations on them; the heroes' mission is to explore the maps and overcome the challenges they meet along the way. As a consequence, you should begin planning your adventures by thinking about exotic, interesting locales. Ideally, you're looking for an environment that is relatively self-contained and can accommodate plenty of rooms, chambers, and nooks capable of housing monsters, tricks, and traps. To keeps things fresh, you should expend some effort trying to dream up a location that is as different as possible from the dungeons your players have tackled in the past. An important part of devising a suitable adventure location is considering how and why that location was built, and how it came into its present state. Failing to answer these important questions is a mistake that derails an awful lot of first-timers. A random nondescript hole in the ground isn't nearly as interesting as the "long abandoned stronghold of Zelligar and Rogan that is said to have been deserted ever since a strange curse claimed the lives of all its inhabitants more than a hundred years ago."
Always keep in mind that the potential to uncover the secrets created by the DM is one of the major attractions of the AD&D game. Without a coherent rationale underpinning your dungeon, it's going to be awfully tough to create meaningful secrets. And while you're giving some thought to the history of the adventure locale, be sure that you don't make a related mistake that befuddles an equal number of beginners-make sure the players have an adequate opportunity to uncover and understand the background you create. Although the players needn't necessarily know that they are exploring the lost stronghold of Zelligar and Rogan when they first set foot in the dungeon, you should try to make sure that they'll uncover this secret by the time they leave. All too many novice DMs spend a lot of time creating elaborate backgrounds for their creations without giving the players a good chance to understand what is happening.
Of course, whenever the subject of background arises, you should be thinking about the First Rule: to create only those details that are absolutely necessary for play.
After you've thought up a couple of possible locations, but before you go any further, consider your goals for this first adventure. An adventure that is perfectly suited to begin a new campaign has four special requirements. Although it's not really necessary to build all four of these characteristics into your scenario, each of them you manage to include will make it easier for the players to become interested in your game.
It Explains How the PCs Meet
The AD&D game gives players a tremendous amount of flexibility when creating their characters. Chances are good that your players will create characters drawn from a wide variety of races, classes, and alignments. An ideal first adventure provides your players with a ready rationale that explains how their characters meet and decide to adventure together.
Imagine, for instance, an adventure that opens with each of the player characters receiving a summons to visit a remote temple. Once they arrive, they all recognize the temple's high priest-over the years, in a variety of different guises, the priest provided some favor or service to each and every one of them in exchange for a promise one day to return his generosity. In fact, across the span of his career, the priest aided thousands of individuals under similar circumstances. The priest then reminds the adventurers of their promises to repay his kindness and explains that he needs them to join forces and track down an important relic that was recently stolen from his church by a gang of bandits.
Similarly, you might plan an adventure that begins when the PCs each show up at the local temple seeking the cure for a strange fever that has recently gripped a friend or loved one. The priest of the temple explains that the only cure is a draught sipped from a magic chalice stolen from the temple by goblin raiders a few years ago. This news should provoke the player characters to join forces in search of the goblins and the stolen chalice.
Of course, elaborate rationales such as these aren't strictly necessary. If you can't think of anything else, you can always begin your adventure with the old classic, "One evening, you're all sitting around the inn enjoying yourselves, when you overhear an old man telling a fantastic tale...." But the more you can do to make the player heroes' first meeting a more organic piece of your adventure, the easier it is to get the adventure off the ground and get the players interested.
It Provides a Portal for New PCs
Beginning AD&D characters are fragile. Just one or two mistakes is often all it takes to send a 1st-level character to the afterlife. As a consequence, it's entirely possible that one or two of the PCs will not survive your first few adventures. Over time, as the adventurers become more durable, character deaths should become increasingly less frequent as the party gains more power and more flexibility. To account for this phenomenon, you should try to design your first few adventures in a way that allows newly generated replacement PCs to be introduced into play as smoothly as possible. If you've selected an evil temple in the swamp as your locale, for instance, you might want to place a prison dungeon somewhere on the temple map. If one of the PCs dies, then it's not too hard to explain how the remaining adventurers suddenly stumble across his replacement in one of the temple's halls-the new character just escaped from the dungeon prison and is hoping to avenge himself on his captors!
The Location is Reusable
Most of the earliest and most notable AD&D adventures were vast complexes that called upon the players to make many return visits to penetrate all their secrets. If you can get away with it, it's not a bad idea to mimic this approach when creating the adventure you'll use to kick off your campaign. The advantages are obvious-not only do you present your players with a wide variety of possibilities for exploration, you also save yourself a lot of effort. A well-designed environment of this type might fill several weeks of play (or more!), giving you plenty of time you can use to begin crafting your next challenge. Note that an adventuring environment doesn't have to be huge to be reusable. You might set your adventure in a relatively small iron mine overrun by orcs, for instance. After a few evenings' worth of adventure, the heroes finally manage to rout the orcs from the mine, earning the eternal gratitude of a band of dwarves who are the rightful owners of the mine. A couple weeks later, though, the orcs return to the mine in greater numbers and reclaim their prize, prompting the player heroes to clear out the complex once again and overcome an entirely new set of challenges the orcs have placed in their path. Later still, the players might uncover a secret explaining why the orcs were so intent on capturing the mine in the first place, encouraging them to return to the mine for a third time in search of a hidden chamber or two they overlooked during their first two visits.
This last example illustrates an important point. Always save the maps and notes that make up your adventures. You never know when you'll find an opportunity to pull out an old location and use it as the setting for an entirely new adventure.
It Foreshadows Bigger Events
Finally, an ideal first adventure should give the players a taste of bigger things to come. One of your most important responsibilities as Dungeon Master is to keep the players interested in the campaign. As noted in earlier columns, one of the easiest methods of maintaining interest is to construct interlocking "onion layers" of secrets that the players can peel back one by one. Ideally, your first adventure should introduce the players to these onion layers and hook them from the very beginning. If your campaign world partially revolves around an age-old conflict between a tribe of fire giants and a secret society of wizards, for example, you might try to foreshadow this conflict in your first adventure. Perhaps the adventure consists of exploring an abandoned wizard's tower. As they explore the tower, the player heroes discover that a powerful band of creatures obviously attacked and ransacked the tower, killing all the inhabitants and somehow smashing through formidable defensive barriers. Particularly observant players might realize that the marauders made a systematic effort to destroy every book in the tower and that the marauders were obviously looking for something. Even after the adventure is complete, this set up gives the players a lot to think about. Who killed the tower's inhabitants? Why? What were they looking for? Why did they destroy the books? The fact that you incorporated these mysteries into the adventure suggests to the players that you'll eventually provide them with answers, probably piquing their interest.
If you're having a hard time deciding what to foreshadow in your adventure or how to go about it, don't sweat it for now-just carry on with the design. Later, after you've fleshed out the adventure's basic parameters, randomly pull a card or two from your "deck of secrets" (you have been maintaining your deck, haven't you?) and take a crack at figuring out how you might link the secret you've drawn to your basic scenario. Don't be afraid to invent new details to make the secret fit; this is exactly how your campaign world will grow to take on a life of its own.
Creating the Situation
After selecting a suitable locale for your adventure and contemplating your goals, turn your attention to devising the basic situation. What sort of creatures live in the adventure area? What are they doing there? How did they get there? Do they hope to accomplish anything? How might the adventurers discover the adventure locale? What might the adventurers hope to accomplish? The key word here is "situation." Many beginners (and even a few professionals) mistakenly devise a "plot" at this point instead of a situation. Plot implies that you know exactly what is going to happen once play begins. Situation, on the other hand, implies that you know enough of the details to figure out what will happen during play, after you see what the players decide to do. It's important to realize that creating an AD&D adventure is not the same thing as writing or planning a story. Instead, it's more akin to filling up a toy box with a collection of puzzle pieces you'll use to assemble stories later. In general, if you can't look back on what you're developing and imagine four or five different ways in which the adventure might unfold, you're probably concentrating too much on plot and not enough on situation. If you fail to achieve the proper balance, you'll find yourself pulling the players through the adventure rather than letting them tackle the scenario their own way.
Suppose that your adventure calls upon the PCs to recover a stolen magical potion from the stronghold of a local wizard. In this case, you shouldn't worry about how you expect the players to obtain the potion. Instead, concentrate on figuring out where the potion is kept within the stronghold and how it is guarded, why the wizard stole the potion, and what he plans to do with it. Armed with this information, you'll be prepared to deal with any approach the players might attempt. If they decide to sneak into the stronghold and pilfer the potion, you know what obstacles stand in their way. If they make an attempt to bargain with the wizard, you know exactly how important he considers the potion and can therefore decide what he might be willing to accept in trade. If the PCs take too long to fulfill their quest, you know exactly what the wizard plans to do with the potion and can easily decide what happens next. Perhaps after a week, the powerful noble who hired the wizard to steal the potion arrives to claim it, giving the players one last chance to obtain the draught before it is gone forever.
Putting the Pieces Together
The easiest way to illustrate good adventure-building technique is by example. These concepts should become a great deal clearer as we walk through the process of devising a specific adventure.
First, I thought about location and decided upon a ruined, underground temple. While a temple isn't terribly interesting, I was looking for something with a classic D&D "dungeon" flavor. To spruce up the locale, I've decided that this particular temple sits at the bottom of a deep, barren ravine located in the Black Wood, a few days' travel southwest of Ironoak. This ravine, known to locals as "The Scar," is one of the few patches of land on the entire continent that is not blanketed beneath Aris's lush forests. No one knows exactly why the Scar is so desolate. All available evidence seems to indicate that the surrounding lands were once fertile, but they were somehow devastated by a mysterious natural catastrophe.
At this point, I turned my attention to crafting a situation that might fit the four criteria outlined above. Eventually, I hit upon an interesting idea: The temple is functioning as a makeshift prison camp under the control of an orc tribe that lives in the Black Wood. The orcs have overrun the temple ruins and are using their prisoners to dig through the rubble so they can retrieve some sort of item lost in the temple several hundred years ago. I've decided that the PCs begin the campaign as unarmed prisoners. Their obvious goal is to escape.
I like this concept for several reasons:
1. It explains how the player heroes met and decided to adventure together. With the adventurers all imprisoned together, they are well-motivated to get to know each other and cooperate.
2. It should be easy to introduce new PCs into play. Presumably, the PCs aren't the orcs' only prisoners. If one or more of the PCs dies, it should be relatively easy to introduce a new prisoner who can take his or her place.
3. Designed properly, the temple should be a highly reusable environment. I imagine a vast underground complex, many areas of which have been sealed off by fallen rubble and debris. As the campaign progresses, I can gradually give the adventurers access to the capabilities needed to clear out more rubble, periodically opening up new areas of the complex and allowing the players to discover new secrets.
Furthermore, once the heroes manage to escape, there are many means that I can use to motivate them to return. While they are still imprisoned, for instance, the heroes might discover what the orcs are looking for. If the consequences of the orcs achieving this objective are sufficiently unpleasant, the heroes might be strongly tempted to return to the temple to foil the orcs, or to capture the prize for themselves. I might also introduce an NPC with a daughter imprisoned inside the temple. After the NPC discovers the players' escape, he might hire them to return to the temple to rescue his girl. Yet another possibility is to introduce various legends detailing items, spells, or knowledge said to be lost inside the temple, tempting the players to make even more return visits.
4. The "prison break" situation gives me a good opportunity to design an adventure that will adequately challenge both the players and their characters (the Fourth Rule of Dungeoncraft). Since the player heroes begin play unarmed and relatively defenseless, they'll have to use their wits as well as their character capabilities to succeed. I envision a Great Escape scenario, in which the players must make the most of the few items they manage to sneak out from under the noses of their orcish overseers. I might also ask the players to intelligently select their allies from among the other prisoners and overcome interesting physical obstacles. They might decide to dig secret tunnels, lead all the other prisoners in an uprising against the orcs, uncover some of the temple's secrets and use them to their advantage, or pursue any one of a number of other courses.
5. This setup lends itself to some interesting roleplaying possibilities. Not only can the PCs interact with their fellow prisoners and the orcs but each also will have an opportunity to figure out how he or she was captured before play began. This should encourage each player to invent a handful of interesting details about his or her character.
With all that out of the way, the only base I've yet to cover is to guarantee that this first adventure serves as an adequate introduction to my campaign and starts the players down the road to uncovering some of the interesting secrets I've prepared for them. To give me some ideas, I drew a card from my "Deck of Secrets" and came up with "Selene's Treachery." (See the sidebar if you need to refresh your memory about this secret.)
After some careful consideration, I created a backstory linking the ruined temple with the secret of Selene. (See the above sidebar.) First of all, I've decided that the Scar is actually the site where Selene was "born" several thousand years ago. Her separation from Aris is the terrible cataclysm that dug the ravine, shattered the temple, and killed the local vegetation. In fact, the temple itself served as a sort of "womb" in which the baby goddess was nurtured by Aris's high priests before she was born. I've decided that Aris originally planned to give birth to twin moons. For several generations, the priests of the temple watched over two large "eggs" (resembling enormous gems) and cared for them according to Aris's instructions. Just before the eggs "hatched," though, they were temporarily stolen by cultists from the Legion, the rival sect that worships Aris's dark and destructive side. The Legionnaires hoped to curse the eggs so the goddesses within them would be born as cruel and merciless beings who might help the Legion seize control of Aris herself. Eventually, one of the temple's most noble paladins rescued the eggs, but not before the Legionnaires successfully cursed one of them. Since Aris and her priests had no desire to birth a malevolent goddess, only the pure egg was returned to the womb; it's corrupted sister was locked in a deep dungeon to languish.
Curiously, just after the eggs were returned, the paladin awoke one night in the throes of a mysterious evil madness. Shortly thereafter, he secretly switched the positions of the two eggs, tricking the priests into birthing the cursed twin. This tale explains Selene's treachery.
I've decided that the orcs who are excavating the ruins of the temple at the base of the Scar are working under the direction of a mysterious stranger who is none other than the undead incarnation of the paladin who betrayed the temple priests several thousand years ago. Ever since his transgression, the paladin has been a dark servant of Selene and the Legion. To this day, he still doesn't understand what compelled him to forsake his duties. The paladin has returned to the temple ruins after all these years in search of the second egg. The mind flayers have recently discovered a spell that would allow Selene to absorb the essence of her unborn sister, greatly augmenting the moon goddess' power.
Of course, I don't intend to allow the players to uncover much of this story for many weeks to come. In this first adventure, they'll briefly encounter the mysterious paladin and uncover just enough of the story to whet their appetites. For now, I'll emphasize the orcs, their mysterious quest, and the idea of escape.
That wraps up another installment. Tune in again in thirty days, when we'll begin to design the temple and its inhabitants.