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!

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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!

The Past, The Present, And The Future…

Sunday Night DM began life as somewhere for me to fire my thoughts on DMing, and to talk about Talomire. Since then it has expanded to cover system reviews, maps, adventures, and houserules. I’ve opened up a Patreon account, a YouTube channel, kicked off a podcast, joined Drunkens & Dragons for a couple of livestreams. And I have plans…oh, do I have plans…

The Blog That Was…

When I first started the blog, my main focus was writing about the things that interested me, or that I thought would be interesting to readers. My Instagram account was a flood of Dyson-inspired maps, pictures from my DMs Journal, and any other fun stuff I committed to digital image. The real aim was to chronicle the development of Talomire, my original campaign setting, and to host at least one game in that setting, to put out as a regular podcast.

The blog featured some good, if irregular, content, broaching a number of topics ranging from my first horror adventure to my first experience killing a player character. The podcast had some technical hiccups, with weird sound and difficulty discerning who was playing which character. The content, however, I was happy with. The adventure went in directions I never expected, and the players really seemed to own the world as their own, straight from character creation, then into the game itself. Talomire itself has appeared only sparingly in my blog (excluding the Preparing For Talomire posts), with none of the nation’s lore, or the players’ document I have lying around.

The Blog That Is…

The blog, as it stands at the moment, is a little directionless. I set up my Patreon account, but never really (in hind sight) put enough thought into it. My rewards are lacklustre, the pricing out of whack, and the general layout is underwhelming. Around the same time I recorded my first YouTube video, and streamed my first live ICRPG game. These did spectacularly well, netting me 42 subscribers, and over 12,000 minutes of watch time over around 900 views, all in around a month. I never, due to lack of time and tiredness, capitalised on that, though. I have another livestream to run, and another campaign diary, but have yet to have the time to do them. The blog has suffered as well, with blog coming in few and far between.

All of which leads us to the meat of this post…

The Blog That Is To Come…

Looking at my work over the last five months critically, I can begin to focus in on what I want to be doing, and what (in my opinion) my readers and viewers want to see.

  1. The Blog. I’m hoping to have at least two blog posts out per week. These are likely to be about anything and everything, but will contain a new map twice monthly. The map will be tied in with my Patreon rewards, but I’ll talk more about that further down. The blog will be, for the most part, system agnostic, although I do plan on posting either 5e, ICRPG, or Low Fantasy Gaming specific content from time to time.
  2. YouTube. I want to really begin to capitalise on my gains in YouTube. My initial thoughts (although I need to run this past my players) is to run two livestreams a week. The podcast game, set in Talomire, will run on Fridays, though this may change from time to time, depending on players availability. The second is going to be an Index Card RPG game, set in Warp Shell, continuing off the back of The Last Flight Of The Red Sword. No details, as yet, on the livestreams; they’ll come with time.

    Videos, however, I hope to begin doing fortnightly. Depending on how well that goes I might increase that to once per week. They’ll range from campaign diary-style videos, when I run physical games with my occasional-ICRPG group, to group discussions on topics with other DMs I know.

  3. Patreon. Patreon has been a constant source of inspiration to me ever since my first two Patrons decided I was worth paying money to. In future I want to use this far more. Firstly, all my posts on this blog will be published over on Patreon as well, to have everything in one place. In addition, I will be restructuring my reward tiers, as well as my goals, to better reflect what I want to be doing with the Sunday Night DM…brand seems a strong word, but let’s go with it. I’ll post more about that over on Patreon soon.
  4. Collaborations. Collabs are something I’ve always shied away from, through my own worry and introversion. Having worked with great people I’ve met online (Dank DM and Hankerin Ferinale to mention just two of the awesome guys I’ve had the pleasure of working with), I want to expand that group, and collaborate with anybody I can convince to let me work with them. Again, no details on this, but I’ll make sure to let you all know when I organise something.

I hope all of this sounds as exciting to you as it does to me. Coming away to Italy has given me time to really think about what it is I’m doing here, and given me a real focus for the future. Thank you for bearing with me.

Cheers,

Chris.

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.

The Halls of the Archmage Aesolyn – Part 2

I my last post I began my run down of the Halls of Aesolyn. To go check that out, click here! But now, on with the rooms!

Area G

Behind a secret door (a stone wall which can be pushed backwards and moved aside), which can be discovered on a DC15 Intelligence (Investigation) check. The room is diamond shaped, with an alcove directly across from the door. In the alcove stands a leering demon statue, 6 feet tall and standing on a large, high dais. In it’s hand is a scimitar made of blackened steel, with a crossguard of bleached bone, and a human leather grip etched with golden script too ancient to understand. The scimitar is a +2 weapon with the following special rules:

  • Bloody Wound:When you hit a living creature with this weapon, you can choose to make a superficial but bloody wound. The attack deals no damage, but the target suffers 1d8 slashing damage, minus their Constitution modifier (to a minimum of 1), at the beginning of each of it’s turns until it or an ally makes a DC10 Wisdom (Medicine) check as an action, or until it receives magical healing.
  • The Devil’s Curse: You gain the ability to speak Abyssal and Infernal. Each time you speak one of these languages, all neutral and good creatures around you must make a Wisdom saving throw (DC = 10 + Charisma (Intimidation) modifier), or be frightened of you for 1 minute. (Recommended: DM only should be aware of this until it becomes apparent).
  • Emnity of Halsh: Halsh, a Chain Devil in the service of a Lord of the Hells, becomes aware of the character attuned to this weapon. He will seek to take the weapon from the wielder, and kill them. He will then take the weapon back to The Hells, and there torture the devil that resides within, eventually destroying the weapon. (Recommended: DM only should be aware of this until it becomes apparent).

Area H

This room is the home of a Spirit Naga. As the party walk in they see a lush, but over grown room with a floor carpeted with various sizes of writhing snakes. The snakes are a clever illusion, which will be noticed by any character with a passive Intelligence or passive Wisdom of 15 or higher, or any character who rolls higher than DC15 on an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Lavish couches line the walls, paintings of lascivious men and women, intertwined with massive snakes with human faces. Snakes carpet the floors, and even seem to be used as keys by the individuals in the paintings. The party can make Intelligence (Religion) checks to recognise the bizarre, snake-like creatures:

  • DC 20: Nagas are the legendary, immortal guardians of Stycian myth, that protect knowledge, rituals, magic items, and magical locations.
  • DC 25: Neither starvation nor old age will ever claim a naga, but it can be destroyed. Some nagas abandon their roles as guardians to achieve personal power, setting themselves up as the rulers of primitive tribes of reptilian humanoids.
  • DC 30: Different nagas guard different types of knowledge. Guardian nagas usually guard arcane secrets, rituals, and powerful items. Bone nagas guard necromantic secrets or the places of the dead—particularly tombs, sepulchers, and catacombs
    where the remains of powerful evil creatures reside. They also guard portals to the Shadowfell. Dark nagas guard prophecies and oracles, along with relics and rituals related to the same. They also protect magical locations in the Underdark.

A Spirit Naga, old long before the elves took Talomire from the orcs and dragons of ages past, lurks in the deep shadows of the rafters, hidden from all sight. It will wait for an advantageous moment to strike.

There are two doors leading from this room. Both are locked, and require keys to open. The keys are, in fact, enchanted snakes. The door to Area I is opened with a small, green and black adder, and the door to Area J is unlocked with an evil looking King Cobra. When a character finds one, and picks it up, it stiffens, and twitches itself into the shape of a small, intricate key. These two snakes are the only real snakes in the room, aside from the Naga. They can be found with a DC20 Intelligence (Investigation) check, although other options (such as, for example, dispelling the illusion spell) will make this far easier.

Area I

This room is made up of a small, round room with a very high, domed ceiling, and three, hidden, rooms. Each of these rooms contains a spell scroll. Either decide which spells are in each room, or randomly decide on the spell scroll levels using the table on page 200 of the 5e DMG.

As the party enter, the notice a new, lithe, female figure amongst them. She walks ahead of them, and stops, looking at them. She speaks, and each character hears her words in their own native tongue. She tells them that there are three spell scrolls in this room, hidden behind the walls, and she tells them what those spells scrolls are, but not which door they are behind. She then points to each of the hidden doors and asks the players to choose one. When they have chosen, she picks one at random. The door she chooses opens, the scroll levitates towards her, and she informs the players which scroll she is holding. It bursts into flames, and is destroyed. Finally, she asks the players if they are happy with their decision, or if they would like to change their choice. The door the finally decide to choose opens, and the spell scroll levitates towards them, and is theirs to take. The scroll they do not take is destroyed at this point.

If the party attempt to cheat the process through magic or sleight of hand, the woman will warn them. If they try a second time, she flies into a rage and attacks the party, becoming a Ghost. She will attempt to use her Horrifying Visage on her first turn, and then will simply attack the party. She can also, as an action, summon one of the spell scrolls to herself, and can then attempt to cast it later, as an action.

Area J

The room is incredibly dark. In the centre stands a Yuan-Ti male, with a cobra head. He gives the party a choice; in one hand he holds a small, wooden owl. In the other he holds a golden apple.

The owl represents wisdom. In Aesolyn’s mind, the wise thing to do is to turn around and leave. These halls are not for the meek. Only the reckless and the ambitious can truly attain greatness in magic…

The apple represents knowledge, and a desire for power.

If any member of the party chooses the owl, they are instantly teleported to the entrance. The door closes, and the Halls vanish, reappearing in 1d6 months, within 3d12 miles. If a party member takes the apple, however, the Yuan-Ti smiles, then slowly vanishes, his gleaming grin disappearing last, like the Cheshire Cat. The secret door leading to Area K opens, light streaming into the room down the passageway.

Area K

Area K is a simple corridor, ending in a long, spiral staircase down into the next layer of the Halls, where Aesolyn’s true powers, and dangers, lie…

Closing Comments

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas to run with. It is by no means a complete dungeon, but that’s kinda the point. Take what you like, get rid of what you don’t, and make the dungeon your own. If you use this map, or any part of this dungeon in commercial work, then please do include credit, and a link to this blog (my name is Chris Hately, by the way!), and feel free to fire me your content, and I’ll happily review it on the blog!

Anyway, thank you as always, and I’ll speak to you soon.