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Adventure Builder’s Workshop

Gen Con Seminars

How do you build the adventure your players will be talking about for years? Bruce Cordell and Greg Bilsland from RPG R&D joined forces with one of Wizards’ all-star freelancers, Rob Schwalb, to give the audience a few pointers in this practical seminar. Thankfully, Greg’s influence stopped Bruce and Schwalb from forming an unholy alliance that would mean the death of many PCs… or did it?

DM Knowledge

Bruce guided the workshop, starting by questioning the audience on several key points. We here at Wizards of the Coast know, which the audience's answers supported, that a lot of our DMs design their own adventures—though of course, they pillage freely from published adventures and Dungeon content. Furthermore, most DMs who use our published adventures customize them in some way; after all, each DM knows his or her players best, which is something we can’t duplicate inside Wizards.
But that’s the reason this seminar was put together for Gen Con 2009.

Adventure Structure

From the audience survey, Bruce transitioned to questioning panelists on subjects relevant to design. These are questions you might ask yourself as you undertake the task of adventure design:
Q: What’s your preferred genre or mood? Mystery, horror, magical wonder, warfare, intrigue, or a mix of these?
Bruce likes adventures that inspire wonder and a sense of the fantastic, with a touch of eldritch horror. Greg prefers intrigue and a bit of mystery. Rob enjoys horror, building tension and dread, interspersed with shocking moments.
Q: What tier of play do you prefer--heroic, paragon, or epic? Which do you find daunting?
Bruce prefers epic, because it’s easier to set such adventures in truly otherworldly locations and add world-shaking fantasy elements. Greg wants to see his PCs have an effect on the world, so paragon tier is his thing. Rob is into the old-school feel of crawling through dark dungeons and killing vicious goblins—distinctly heroic tier.
Q: How do you create villains?
All the panelists like to derive villains from PC backgrounds (often more than one combined) and player focus. In fact, some of the best villains come into being when the players distrust an NPC you never intended to be a villain, and yet they focus on him nonetheless. Villains come into focus as they’re needed, and deserve only as much work as called for. For instance, as Rob points out, you might have an idea who the campaign villain is from the beginning, but you’re better off letting that character develop with the campaign than creating his stats from day one. Another key: no matter who the villain is, make sure the players have the emotional response you desire for them by the endgame, whether the end of an adventure or the end of a campaign.

NPCs Behind the Screen

At Wizards, and among our panelists is an unspoken secret... unspoken that is, until now. We don’t use the NPC rules to create NPC villains. This “secret" might be obvious from statistics in Wizards’ published adventures. This is not to say you shouldn’t use the NPC rules if you find them easier.
However, we create NPC villains like we’d create any other unique monster. The final result might have powers that resemble PC powers, but such a character doesn’t explicitly follow the NPC rules. Instead, it’s created with its story, desired function in the game, and purpose in the adventure in mind.
It’s often simpler and results in a villain that seems unique and interesting to the PCs. Give it a try if you haven’t already.
Q: Do you use unique monsters and NPCs?
To a man, the panelists do. However, it’s important to use “stock” monsters to learn for yourself and show the players how a particular monster works, creating a space that adds contrast to your unique creations.
In 4E, Rob points out, each monster is an “idea” with multiple expressions, as shown by the differing monsters in most Monster Manual entries. It’s usually better if your monsters follow the existing unifying mechanic of a monster, such as the kobold's Shifty ability. Alternatively, you can create similar mechanical unity for your unique monsters. Greg calls this “faction mechanics” or “theme mechanics,” and it adds a good form of predictability to the game as the players learn how different monsters work.
Q: How do you choose and develop a location?
The panelists agree that a good site is a must for an adventure, but that only a few encounters deserve special treatment. Sure, every encounter should use elements to play up monster and PC powers, as well as to make movement interesting at least some of the time. But a small number of encounters need truly memorable environments. Choosing an interesting overall site, Bruce tells us, often makes it easier to create unusual and varied encounters in accord with that site’s theme. For instance, an adventure site on a floating earthmote might call for treacherous switchbacks on the underside of the mote, as well as unexpected elements that make the environment seem magical.
Location should also serve the DM’s aims. If the villain needs an escape route, the location should have one. A wise or cowardly villain surrounds himself with servants and rooms to house his lackeys. Retreat and rally points are always useful. Important items and locations are often found deeper within a lair.
Q: How do you use terrain and traps?
This is part of location. Fun traps and terrain add tension, excitement, and diversity to encounters that might even include some of the same monsters. They can also add a learning curve to the encounter, meaning the monsters start out with an advantage that they slowly lose as players master the environment. That mastery should consume PC actions, but Greg points out that he often prefers minor actions to other types, so players have lots of opportunities for interacting with encounter elements.
Q: What about skill challenges?
Skill challenges should advance the story, no matter what. They should have a strong connection to the flow of the story, as well. Greg prefers the players to know they’re in a skill challenge, while Bruce and Rob aren’t so transparent. All the panelists rely on a skill challenge’s write-up as a loose script, allowing the PCs to improvise outside the script’s suggestions. They prefer the players to describe the character’s actions in narrative terms, then assign a skill check to that description. Published skill challenges, the panelists concur, should be seen as a basic script to aid the DM, rather than a legal text that must be followed to the letter.
Q: How do you advance the action or story?
Make it easy on yourself, the panelists suggest: Let the players and their characters drive the action. A fluid story in which PC action or inaction matters most serves best. Rob develops a branching story for his adventures, preparing a few encounters for each branch in advance. Bruce points out that the PCs themselves, even down to player absences, can be used as vital adventure hooks or just the simple call to action on the part of the other PCs. And that’s the central point—even failure on the part of the PCs should move the action forward in some way. For instance, a failure when trying to disarm an active trap might change the environment. Plan enough to let the players make trouble, then throw in a twist if you wish. Just makes sure the players have clear choices.
Pacing is important. Some encounters should seem and be easy, while others are more difficult. Other encounters should get easier if the players figure out some key element or gain a key advantage. A long adventure should have action spikes, like mini-climaxes, and natural pauses to allow the PCs time to regroup.
Q: What is your (and your players’) preferred mix of roleplaying encounters versus combat encounters?
In their home campaigns, the panelists balance the two. However, they all point out that adventures written for publication purposefully favor combat. The writers of an adventure cannot anticipate the dynamics of your home game, so instead of trying to dictate certain elements of roleplaying, these products aim to give a DM tools he or she can infuse with story elements that are meaningful to his or her particular group. To an extent, published adventures are built for pillaging, so as writers, the panelists try to give the hard details and let you fill in the story.
Roleplaying should occur in combat, as well. Players can customize their powers cosmetically, describing character power use in varied ways. Villains and PCs can talk smack to each other, or otherwise have interesting dialog. Cleverly used, when appropriate, this can turn a combat encounter into a roleplaying one, or vice versa. Antagonizing the PCs based on a shared history with the villain works well to get the players excited. Use of skills to make the scene fun and cinematic is always appropriate.
Q: How do you distribute treasure?
All the panelists let player desires dictate treasure mix. Rob, who has a huge group of players, simply tells item level, and then lets the players choose the item. For spice, Bruce and Greg throw in a few interesting items or story items, usually outside the standard treasure structure. They aren’t afraid to go outside the guidelines to give items different from suggested levels, as long as the amount of treasure is fair to all PCs. Rob points out that it’s very important to make sure while distributing treasure that the PCs have expected enhancement bonuses for their level.
Q: What are the elements of a good final encounter?
The first element of a good final encounter is that the players know it’s coming, so they can be prepared. It needs to have the most drama, the best environment, and highest level of tension in the adventure. Rob mentions that the players should see echoes of other parts of the adventure in the finale, almost as an “Aha!” moment for the players and PCs. Thus, it might take into account other successes and failures during the adventure. The panelists agree that a memorable final encounter, and all should be memorable, has various methods of success arrayed before the PCs; it should rarely play out in a similar way twice.

Putting It All to Use

After talking over the elements of adventure design, the panelists and audience brainstormed to come up with an adventure concept. We have the notes, and an adventure based on these concepts will appear on in Dungeon Magazine soon, penned by none other than the infamous Robert J. Schwalb.