The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!

Cheers!

The Chamber Of Red Fang

“Birthed in the belly of a demon, an ancient and terrible blade awakens. Across Alfheim heroes are drawn to the depths of Dur Moro, their Doom to seek amongst those ruins of old…”

001

1) The Pool of Lost Heroes, and the Tree of Death.

A dark pool fills most of the cavern. The water is stagnant, but shows no sign of the life associated with that state. Totally opaque, it reflects the scene like a mirror, giving no clue as to what lies beneath the surface. A tall willow tree rises from the centre of the water, it’s drooping branches terminating beneath the glassy surface. It’s leaves are grey, but show no sign of loss or decay. The stench of undeath is cloying…

As the party look into the pool, one of them makes eye contact with their reflection. The eyes begin to dim, becoming glassy. The flesh around the sockets shrinks and turns to grey. A dead face breaks the surface, staring idiotically into oblivion. Above, the willow begins to move, it’s branches rising from the deep. With them come the bodies of lost heroes, terrible unlife given them by powers beyond comprehension…

2) Hidden Depths and Terrible Sigils.

Darkness. Complete darkness is all the party can see in the depths. Like an axe wound dealt by a vengeful god, the crevasse goes on forever. A single, sturdy looking but ancient bridge crosses from one side to the other. Beyond that a huge sigil sits in the cavern floor. The angles are deeply wrong, and seem to shift and change, subtly, before the eyes. The whole circle is carved of red stone, the deep channels running downhill to the centre, each one of them stained a deeper red. The circle demands blood, drawn by the giver’s own hand, and it will have it’s red toll.

3) Tunnel of Cracks and Circle of Stones.

A narrow ledge leads to a broken corridor. The rocks hold tentatively, and any wrong move could cause a devastating cave in…

Beyond, a circle of stones ring the figure of a dwarf. He breathes not, but he lives. As his eyes open, he sees you. He knows you. He cannot let you leave. Doom and Ruin are his weapons, Fate wielded as a blade. The future is his gift, and his burden.

4) The Chamber of Red Fang.

You look on, unsure, as your friend and companion walks certainly towards the sigil. Standing at it’s apex, directly in front of the wall behind it, he lifts his head. “Devour me, Lord; for your queen, She Who Seeks Ruin, I shall be your Fang, and you strong arm!” From nowhere a red, ethereal blade flashes into existence, as your friend raises his arm. As you cry out in anguish, he drives the blade deep into his own neck, tearing it out with gurgle of horror and awe. He falls, his life blood leaking out and filling the channels of the sigil around him. As the life finally fades from his eyes, the wall before him shifts and dissolves to nothing.

A clear pool of water, deep enough to submerge the tallest Hillman sits in front of the entrance to this new cavern. Behind it, on a tall plinth, is an altar. A body, wrapped in a black cloak and holding a res-bladed greatsword lies in state atop it. As you enter, the body shifts, then turns and sits up. Rising, it descends the stairs, stopping at the pool. Your watch as the friend you just watched die removes the cloak, flinging it into the pool, and raises the greatsword in a patronising salute to you. The cloak begins to sink, the water around it turning a deep crimson.

As your friend stalks towards you, you see a shape rise from the pool, now filled entirely with blood. Soon, a tall, lithe figure stands before you in a black robe. No body is visible beneath the hood, except for a trail of blood dribbling sickly from where the creature’s maw would be. One decrepit, decaying hand holds a jet black obelisk that seems to absorb the light around it. A red aura links this thing and your friend. Together they attack, and desperate battle is joined.

The Hall of the Tarrasque

“You enter the dank cave entrance, damp dripping down the walls. The passageway seems to go on forever, extending away into the darkness, your steps echoing into oblivion. Finally, after what seems like hours, you see a dim light reflected against the tunnel wall. You reach the opening, and look out into the vast cavern…”

The Map

Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The hall consists of six areas, each designed to test the party in some way. I’ll give a brief description of each room, but for more details on how I ran the mechanics, check out my Patreon page; the full run down will be up there by the end of the week.

Area 1

Area one consists of a narrow ledge, overlooking a terrifying drop, and a large, but empty, room containing two levers. Each of these levers open one of the secret doors which block areas 3 and 4.

Area 2

Area 2 is simply a circular, stone room. When the levers in area 1 are pulled, however, two large stones ascend into the ceiling, revealing areas 3 and 4.

Area 3

Area 3’s major feature is a deep, wide pool, riddled with semi-sentient vines. Deep in the pool is a melon-sized sphere, which glows blue. If a party member enters the pool, the vines attack and hold the player beneath the water…

Area 4

Area 4 is the scene from Temple of Doom; an altar stands on a plinth, with a melon-sized yellow sphere sat on top of it. The altar is trapped, and releases a rolling boulder which will hit players in its way, finally blocking the exit from the room as it begins to fill with sand…

Area 5

Area 5 is the ‘bridge’. The bridge consists of two posts with a small dent in each, extends a few feet over the abyss, then ends. The abyss itself contains an antimagic field. The field is dissipated, and the bridge completed, when the two orbs from areas 3 and 4 are placed on the two posts.

Area 6

As the antimagic field dissipates, the monster hidden high in the cavern awakes. The party must flee to across the broken masonry and rubble of the procession, and make it down the stairs, into the dungeon proper, all while the Tarrasque brings parts of the ceiling down on them, eventually stepping into the cavern and seeking the party out…

Further Thoughts

This cavern acts well as the entrance to a larger dungeon, and is based entirely around skill challenges, and thinking outside the box. I increased the difficulty, not by increasing the DC of the challenges (this would render the map subject to luck, which can be frustrating), but by utilising timers to give a feeling of suspense, and to focus the players’ thinking. Encourage the players’ creativity, and reward it.

I hope this gives you some ideas for running this map, or similar encounters, yourself, and hit me up with how it went! Until then, cheers!

Draft Cartography: Lair of the Xanathar

The final arc of the game I ran in the Forgotten Realms involved the party (11 people in total, at that point) returning to Waterdeep for Midsummer. In the midst of the festivities, Dexter Halebrakt, the renowned illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, displayed his incredible skills. As the show ended, the screaming started. The children of the Sea Ward were gone…

A series of investigations, fights and Skullport-related shenanigans the party fought Dexter, in the illusory guise of a two-headed, golden dragon, and the Ulitharid controlling him. After a brutal fight that the party won, they found the children, only to be approached by a Beholder, representing the Xanathar organisation of Skullport…

The Premise of the Dungeon.

This dungeon was designed to cap off an adventure through the middle layers of the Undermountain, specifically Wyllowood. The Beholder (known as Altas Verdax) is looking to overthrow the leadership of the Xanathar, and needs to clear house in order to do it. Fights, danger and moral quandaries ensue, but that’s not why we’re here. The Xanathar’s Lair is a dungeon level designed to test and kill characters, as befits one of the most powerful Beholders in Faerûn. It had trick doors, a sea hag, and a blinded Beholder.

The Dungeon.

The Lair of the Xanathar

My original notes and sketches of the dungeon.

Rather than brush over every aspect of the dungeon, I’d like to focus on three encounters within the dungeon:

The Sea Hag’s Lair

Immediately after one of my favourite traps (regular readers may recognise the ‘one-player-trips-the-plate-then-the-next-player-gets-trapped-between-two-walls’ concept…this is the dungeon I designed it for!) is a flooded cavern, in almost complete darkness. Broken stone stairs lead into the water, too deep to wade through, too high to keep your head above water. This is the Sea Hag’s lair. Now, of course, for eleven level 5/6 players, a CR 2 sea hag isn’t much of a challenge. In obscured conditions, underwater, with very few air pockets, however…

The intention here is to have the players approach the hag secretly, in very small numbers, taking out the hag, then leading the other party members through the flooded cavern. I designed the encounter to test the tactical aptitude of the party, and involved a creepy, evocative monster with enough magical ability to flounder magical attempts to remove the water. It’s about as simple as that, really.

The Blinded Beholder

Of the three encounters, this is my favourite, and the one I want to focus on the most. The concept is to introduce the party to the mechanics of the Beholder, a creature with the ability to annihilate them if they go about things badly, in a way that allows them some degree of leeway.

The room is large, round, and dimly lit. In the centre, chained to a plinth, is a large, scaled Beholder with a milky white eye, rocking fitfully in it’s sleep. Hiding in the shadows are tiny Beholders, dreamt into existence by their larger kin. This is the central mechanic of the room; the central Beholder creates enemies for the party in reaction to various stimuli.

The room contains a number of Gazers, and a new Gazer comes into existence beside the Beholder randomly, assuming nothing else has happened. The Gazers watch the party, and only attack if they see an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage. As the party make their way through the room, they roll stealth checks against the Beholder’s passive perception. If they fail, the Beholder lashes out in it’s sleep. Randomly choose an eye ray, then make an attack roll at disadvantage. If the attack hits, then the ray has hit its target; resolve the ability as usual, focussed on the relevant character. If it misses, then ignore the rays effect. If the party attack the Beholder, there is a 50/50 chance that it spawns a Death Kiss. The end goal is to reach the doorway leading to a riddle, then take the item disgorged from the riddle area to a second doorway in order to escape (PS; I’m a big fan of not letting my players know if they got the riddle right. Hand them a magic item either way, just make it cursed, or otherwise bad, if they get the riddle wrong).

The trick here is to be stealthy, but escort the characters who can solve the riddle, all while trying to avoid tiny Beholder-kin and eye rays. It’s also a good way to beat out murder hobos –  a blinded Beholder is one thing. Multiple CR 10 Death Kisses, on the other hand, with no real way to escape? Nah thanks.

Xanathar – The Death Tyrant

The idea of Beholders dreaming kinda caught me. Any individual so afraid of their enemies that they build the ridiculous, convoluted dungeon we’re looking at must be terrified of their own demise. It makes sense, then, that they would limit visitors, or cut them out entirely. It turns out that Beholders who are obsessed with their own death become Death Tyrants. That’s kind’ve it, really. The big reveal – the Xanathar is not the entity they were expecting, but something else entirely.

Conclusions

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas for yourself. The dungeon is by no means complete. The story arc was abandoned when I split my D&D group and handed both parts off to other DMs who were in the group, but it was a very formative dungeon for me, one that has bled into several things I’ve written and developed since. If you’ve got questions about anything else in the dungeon (like the ziggurat with the 50ft drop where you have to save against broken bones – something I flipping love), feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line. If there’s enough support for it I might even do up a proper map and PDF, if I get the time.

Anyway, cheers guys!

A Quick Word About Patreon

I recently launched my Patreon page, and I felt it was important to a) let you know that it exists, b) tell you my thinking behind it, and where I’d like to go with it, and c) ask you to give towards it while making sure you know that I don’t expect anything from you guys at all. Anything you give is absolutely appreciated, is a complete surprise, and motivates me to work harder and harder to be worth the money you pledge. But more on that later.

Why Patreon?

I love writing for D&D. It gets me up in the morning, keeps me alive during work, and relaxes me when I get home. I am constantly running ideas through my head for new campaigns, new regions, new characters, new monsters. I want to do so much; I’m already running one online game on a weekly basis, and am recording it to put up as a podcast; I try my best to write for the blog at least once a week (something I’m failing at due to pressures from work and other projects); I will soon be running a Patreon supporters’ game on a monthly basis; I’m building a campaign world, and campaign arcs for other DMs to use, for eventual sale through private channels (since I want to be able to provide PDFs to Patreon supporters, DMs Guild is out of the question).

Eventually, I want to be running two physical D&D games, each fortnightly, alternating weeks, to help build out Talomire and playtest the setting. I want to start writing Talomire-based fiction to give the world flavour and texture. I want to hire people to write, draw, etc. I want to add YouTube videos to my content, complimenting my posts or discussing things I can’t fit into 1,500 words. Finally, I want to get some of my friends together for a irregular podcast chatting about the differing ways we prepare for games, build worlds and run adventures.

Patreon is a fantastic way for me to begin to build this venture. It allows me to reward patrons with exclusive PDFs, access to our Talomire Slack group, and even to the patrons-only game! I really want to expand this, allowing patrons to be included in adventures, help create storylines and NPCs, etc, etc. I love the concept of fans contributing to the development of the thing they love, and Patreon is the best way for me to do that.

Rewards and Goals.

At the moment I have three reward tiers:

$3+ – PDFs of every map I make, along with descriptions of the rooms, and how I plan to use them.

I plan on getting back into map-making proper, and release a new map every two weeks. Alongside this I want to include a Homebrewery-made PDF detailing each of the rooms in the same way I would for a published adventure. The idea is that DMs can use these maps and the room descriptions in their own personal campaigns as a ‘drag and drop’ feature, should they ever need them. Eventually I’d like to be able to move this to once a week (and way down the line hire someone to help with this), doubling the bang for your buck.

$5+ – PDFs of everything I release for Talomire, before they are released for general sale, as well as access to the Talomire Slack group.

This is the level I really think is going to be worth starting at in the next few months. There are a number of full length campaigns I want to detail, as well as regional supplements and homebrewed rules, all of which will be included in this deal. Previous tiers’ rewards are also included.

$10+ – Access to the patron-only, online game (limited to 5 patrons).

I’m really excited about this game, and already have two backers who want to play! It’s giving me a fantastic chance to explore new areas of the map, and begin to expand Talomire beyond the Northwilds, which is awesome.

Eventually, if I earn enough through Patreon to work on it full time, I’d love to open this up to more backers and run a second (or even a third!) game! At the moment things are fairly open, but I do plan on setting a firm time and rough length for the game, to help me plan my month out. When this happens, all patrons on this tier will be given plenty of warning, should they wish to either adjust or cancel their pledge if the game is no longer viable for them. Of course, I don’t want this to happen, so I’ll be working with you guys to make it work for everyone.

Goals.

At the moment, my goals are as follows:

  • $150/month – I plan on starting print runs of my PDFs, complete with commissioned artwork.
  • $500/month – I plan on spending more time running the blog as a business, reducing my work hours to give myself more time to develop content.
  • $1000/month – At this point I want to be working full time on the blog (subject to conversations with my wife, of course!). This would include the YouTube channel, podcasts, etc.
  • $1500/month – This is where I get really pie-in-the-sky. I would love to hire somebody to come onboard. At the moment I’m undecided on the role, but it’s a toss up between writer and DM, hopefully with an artistic streak. This is very likely to be a way off (should I be so lucky), but I feel it’s important to treat these goals seriously, and mark out the path I want to be walking down eventually.
  • $2000+/month – Here we enter the world of investing in people and products; the world of starting a business, publishing my work on scale. Again, this is in no way defined, it’s just an idea of where I want to go.

The Call To Action.

I can’t do this without you. It’s really that simple. The things I want to release and the content I want to write and record need investment of both time and money, and I want to be in a place to give both . If you enjoy my content, and want to see more of it, have a gander at my Patreon page and consider giving some money towards the dream! That said, please don’t feel that you need to. The map PDFs will still be summarised in much the same way that Aesolyn’s Halls were, and all the Talomire content will available for sale.

If you do give towards the blog, then you have my unreserved thanks and gratitude. Unless you’ve been given money by people to do what you love, you can’t know the humbling experience that it is. It makes me want to work harder, smarter and better to give you all the content you deserve. Hopefully I can do that.

My Patreon can be found here: www.patreon.com/sundaynightdm

Thank you,

Chris.