I think there are just as many approaches to writing an adventure as there are DMs in the world. I’ve started and re-started mine several times, mostly getting overwhelmed with where and how to start. While a lot of it is due to having no experience, I also had to discover the best way for me to approach the assignment, not simply taking the advice of others or modeling after pre-existing publications.
As a primarily visual/kinetic learner, I do better with pen in hand and physically working through ideas, watching them come to life on the page (math and poetry were my favorite in school). In this way, I could identify complications, fill in gaps, and spur new ideas.
Unfortunately, it also means I can’t just type things up using an outline or a list. Oh, it’d be cleaner and quicker, but it just doesn’t make sense to my brain that way. I tried it once or twice, to be fair. I even tried free-writing: just letting things flow out, but that was a bust, too. My brain knew how episode 1 tracked to the campaign arc, but I couldn’t force it to make sense in my writing. Instead, I had to break it down, write it out, and conceptualize my thoughts in a more dynamic way.
This is also probably why I struggle so much at work and have to redesign the layouts of things… double edged sword, I guess.
I will forever be drawing maps and flow charts first now that I’ve discovered how my brain works for creative writing. Rule Number One: Know how your brain works!
These are the step I took in order to write my way through episode 1 of “The Daleland Ashes” (to be posted shortly):
Step One: create a flow chart to set the goal of the episode.
Step Two: determine the monsters involved in each major plot point, usually throwing them into the flow chart from step one.
Step Three: build map(s) for the episode and plot the monsters logically from step two into the map(s).
Step Four: flesh out the details and tie the rooms together according to the flow chart. Add NPCs.
Step One: Create a Flow Chart for the Episode Arc
Look, I’m a big dreamer, okay. D&D offers a literally infinite world of magic in which one can do the impossible. But you gotta whittle down (I told myself several times). Even if the great big adventure stays great and big, the teeny tiny details have to be answered for from the beginning. The only way I could answer all the whys and tie them together was to create a flow chart. It’s messy and ugly, but it got me to think in details while holding on to my bigger project. It allowed me to think of foreshadowing elements, sneaky characters to include, and how to merge my ideas with the established cannon.
I have a main campaign flow chart and one for each episode. The former keeps me true to my story and the second keeps me true to the developments made by the PCs (at least this is the theory).
Step Two: Determine the Monsters Involved
To drive the arc, I then selected the potential adversaries. But I didn’t select them willy-nilly. I wanted them to be logical choices. What type of monsters would be in a dungeon/forest/desert? Wrote all the possibilities down. Wherever monsters teamed up, I had to decide why they were working together. Would it make sense to the PCs or would it confuse them and thus confuse their mission?
The flow charts allowed me to zoom in and out of the story’s scope. While xyz monsters make sense for this location, would the big-bad use them or would it confuse the plot? If xyz monsters are used in this cave, would they team up with such-and-such over here in this other cave? Thank you, The DM Lair for helping me make sense of monster selection.
I took CR into consideration and studied all the tables from MM, PH, DMG, and XGtE. It’s a lot of work when you’ve never seen it play out before, but I think that’s half the battle (and a good portion of the fun).
Step Three: Build Maps
I found it so much easier to lay out the story of a place once I knew what the place looked like. I tried several times to create space via storytelling, but got frustrated. I lost track of where wall items were located, which room was the armory – all that detail sitting in my brain, garbled on the way to the page. Lists, for the first time in my life, were useless.
After the third or fourth rage-quit, I took out some graph paper and started doodling. I was amazed to see how easily I filled out each room, each hallway, the possible traps or monsters therein. It was much easier to give life to the dungeon once I had context. I was also able to keep everything in the proper place, using a key to denote monsters, traps, water, etc. Numbering the rooms, I could plan even further and keep my notes organized (thank you, pre-published campaigns and DnDTomb).
As I started on step four, I could easily go back to my drawing and add a room if I thought of something neat at the spur of the moment or subtract a room if the story was done (I see no reason to have frivolous, empty rooms without “labyrinth” being the goal).
Step Four: Flesh Out the Details
Once I have the episode arc laid out and the map on which the episode unfolds in hand, I begin to write up the details: what’s in each room, what’re the traps and how do they work/are dismantled, what does the party find if they search, what monsters are there waiting for them, what’s the DC of an action, what are the consequences of a failed action? All the juicy things that make the place real and drive the story.
Again, one cannot prepare for everything, as the PCs aim to surprise. But I’m one to over-prepare because that’s how my anxiety works. As an added bonus, the material they skip in episode 1 can always be recycled – they’ll never know, and they’ll think I’m a flippin genius having it tie into the story off the dome.
This is also where I’ve come up with random side-quests, some of which have absolutely no bearing on the main arc, but could turn out to be nifty stories in their own right. I would include some PC-specific details here, too, but I don’t currently have PCs to work with. I can always return to the maps and flow charts when the group finally gets going.
Remember, I’m doing all this real-time. As I’m learning the lore, reading more source material, and bulking up my personal D&D library, I’m altering my arc, the monsters, the episodic details, the NPCs, all of it. I’m learning as I go, man, so please feel free to drop some comments and help a sister out! In truth, the only thing that’s stayed more or less constant is the main arc flow chart. I’m manipulating some of the established Forgotten Realms to fit my story, as much as I’m relying on already-established cannon.
Every episode I write finds me farther and farther down that rabbit hole… and I love it…