Tobold's Blog
Saturday, March 18, 2023
D&D Adventure Creation

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that varies a lot between one group of players and another group, even if they are nominally playing the same adventure. So once you get into the realm of creating D&D adventures, there aren't really any fixed rules. You might find tips on the internet, but those tips could very well be specific to one group, and not really work well for your group. What I would like to talk about in this post is the dichotomy between adventure creation/preparation and player agency.

The basic question here is whether your adventure should have a plot. Both possible answers to that question are bad. If you have a plot, you could be accused of railroading your players along that plot. If you don't have a plot, then probably no amount of improvisation talent is going to make the adventure really interesting. Some people suggest to create adventures based on a villain having a certain plan, with that plan being open to disruption by the players. Which still leaves you with a problem if the players either don't disrupt the plan, and the "plan" becomes the "plot" of the adventure, or the players aren't interested in the villain and just wander off, ignoring that villain and his plan.

Now your mileage may vary, but my group of players has a tendency to go into whatever direction the events point at, happily following every plot. Which is good, because if they decided to go elsewhere, I would have a purely technical problem: We don't play theater of the mind style, but rather play D&D like a tactical combat game with battlemaps and figurines. These days the maps and figurines are virtual, on the Roll20 virtual table top. But the problem is the same as back when I was printing the battlemaps and used 3D-printed monsters to fight on them. The problem is that you can't have an endless supply of maps and figurines. So if your plot is about exploring a pyramid in the desert, you prepare maps of the pyramid, and some outside maps of desert and maybe an oasis. And you populate those with monsters appropriate for that environment and the level of the party. If your party then decides that they aren't interested in the pyramid, and tell you that they'll go diving for a shipwreck near the coast that was somehow mentioned in the story, you have a problem: You don't have any underwater maps with underwater monsters prepared. You can improvise, quickly draw a battlemap on graph paper and use meeples for monsters. But the contrast between that and your regular battles would be glaring. And the same would be true on Roll20. The alternative to that would be announcing to your players that if they want to go exploring a shipwreck instead of a pyramid, today's session is over and you'll prepare the shipwreck for the next session. But that solution isn't going to make anybody happy.

So, unless you play D&D with a completely improvised style and no maps, a D&D adventure often ends up with a structure similar to an adventure in a RPG videogame. You may be given dialogue options and other choices, but whatever you do, you end up in the same dungeon with the same encounters. I am preparing an adventure which contains exploration of a shipwreck, and the players will have all the freedom and player agency in the world in the part where they gather information and localize the shipwreck. But I do have a map for the underwater location and monsters prepared, so in all likelihood that combat encounter will take place.


I don't really see the dilemma here.

You don't need to run a sandbox to give the players' agency. If they decide how to resolve the adventure you've presented and their actions determine which adventures you prepare in the future, then I think that's plenty of agency.

And if you want to run a sandbox, then yeah, you'll need to tailor your preparation to that style. But I don't think reasonable adults are going to have a problem if you say, "Sure, you can do that next week, but this is what I have for this week." On the rare occasion I'm a player, I'm happy enough to have something to play.
@Tobold I ran sandbox for my entire gaming career until around 2003 when D&D 3.5 tried to make minis and maps as non-optional as possible. In recent years I have gotten back to theater of the mind, and my players are generally more accepting; this doesn't work in VTT environments, so I was very happy to ditch VTT recently and get back to a game table and a purely descriptive process for running the game. That takes two to tango, and while I as GM have a lush world with decades of history and I am ready to be challenged by where the players go, the truth is, they are old players well and truly conditioned to try and figure out where I (or the plot) want them to go, which is considerably less interesting for me as a GM.

@Pamplemouser the dilemma is as much with what sort of players you have as GM prep issues. If you have a group that is actively engaged with going off the beaten trail and forging their own path, they will be understanding when the GM works with what he has (and woe to the GM who doesn't like improv then). If you are playing with a group that wants to follow the plot points and gets nervous when the GM doesn't have a glorious full color map and pre-picked minis ready to go, then that can be a bone of contention for a GM who'd like, just once in their lives, to see the players engage with the world in a proactive and unpredictable manner.
Twenty and thirty years ago I found groups who appreciated and riffed off of a GM ready to improv to be common. The last fifteen or so years have changed a lot, though, and it seems like most players these days want to be spoon fed directions to the next battle.
Post a Comment

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

  Powered by Blogger   Free Page Rank Tool