Dungeons & Dragons Online

Adventure Writing Process using the Adventure Template – a list of the most important questions to answer when designing an adventure and preparing for the session, a tool that will guide you through creating an adventure from scratch, from start to finish.

For the past several months I have been running adventure brainstorming sessions – a group of GMs meet in the discord voice chat, and we challenge ourselves to improvise a one-shot adventure in 2 hours. We have brainstormed dozens of stories, and published a few. We have established a process that works very well, makes the adventure writing easy and fun – usually, by the end of a 2-3 hour brainstorming session we have a draft of an adventure that we can run for our players. In this post I want to share with you our process. It works best when you're doing it together with other people (with a friend or an online group), but you can definitely use it to create adventures on your own.

Collaborative Adventure Writing Process

  • We create adventures by filling in the brainstorming template together. This template contains a list of questions that will guide us through the brainstorming process. We copy the template into a new google doc editable by everyone in the group, and fill it with our ideas.
  • We go through the process of creating an adventure step by step, one part of adventure at a time – idea, antagonist, setting, challenges, etc. For every step, we make a list of ideas. We briefly discuss them, and pick our favorite ones.
  • Then we try to combine these ideas together into a story that makes sense. After a while the process becomes less structured and more freeform – we’re trying to fill in the gaps, enhance the ideas we have, find answers to the remaining questions, and turn it all into a complete outline of an adventure. To get a better sense of how this works, watch Brandon Sanderson doing something similar in his fantasy writing class.
  • At the end of the session we have a draft/outline of an adventure that gives us all the information we need to run it for our players, or playtest it between ourselves.
  • If we really like the adventure we brainstormed, we summarize our ideas and clean up our draft using the One-Page Adventure Template. We start with a one-page adventure because the small scope makes it much easier to actually complete the adventure, and it's usually enough to express all the important story-related information necessary to run an adventure. It requires less writing work, and it's easier for other people to read and to prep. But often we get excited and expand those into longer stories, using the same template and the same structure.

Some collaborative writing advice:

  • Do your best to “Yes And” people’s ideas. Don’t shut down ideas – build on top of them, add something new, find a way to make them work, make them better. See if you can combine multiple ideas on the list into something new and exciting.
  • Take inspiration. If you’re struggling to come up with an idea – use one from your favorite Movie, Game, or a TV show.
  • Mix and match tropes. Combine two different ideas (movies/characters/settings/plots). Try to add an unusual/unexpected twist to the idea. Change a key element of the idea, switch the genre, setting, goal, important character traits, swap protagonists and antagonists, etc. What makes it different from what we’ve seen before?
  • Try to contribute at least one idea to every step of the writing process. Doesn't have to be the most brilliant one, even the simple/obvious ideas can be very helpful and lead to something interesting.
  • Try to keep the discussion focused, try to keep every step of brainstorming under 10-20 minutes. It's better to pick a random idea and roll with it than to get stuck trying to make a decision. If we find it difficult to choose the idea we want to focus on – we vote on it or roll the dice to pick a random one. If you notice that people are getting distracted, stuck, or too caught up in the details – try to steer the conversation back on track, encourage everyone to make a decision and move on to the next step of the writing process.
  • Avoid discussing mechanics until the very end – getting caught up in mechanics distracts people from the most challenging and interesting part – creating a story. Once you have a good story, it's very easy to figure out the stats, rules, and combat encounters.
  • Brainstorm what’s difficult to improvise. During brainstorming/writing/prepping make sure that all the most essential questions have been answered, but it is safe to omit anything that the GM can improvise on the spot during the game. Prep what matters, don't prep what doesn't. Spend your energy only on things that enhance the game.
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Solo Adventure Writing Process

You can use a similar process to write adventures on your own. Use the template as a "living document" you incrementally fill in as you come up with new ideas and build your adventure. I recommend to set deadlines and aim to complete one stage per day (feel free to go faster, but try not to go slower). Here's how a 10-day adventure writing process might look like:

  • Day 1: List the adventure ideas and pick one.
  • Day 2: Decide which goal the players will need to pursue.
  • Day 3: Come up with a cool setting and a list of locations.
  • Day 4: Figure out who the Main Antagonist will be, and the other important characters.
  • Day 5: Decide on the key plot points. Adventure hook, midpoint, climax.
  • Day 6: Brainstorm a list of challenges the players will encounter.
  • Day 7: Put it all together into an outline, answer the remaining open questions, if there are any.
  • Day 8: Use the One-Page Adventure Template to summarize everything you have brainstormed, clean up your draft, turn it into something that other people can easily read and understand.
  • Day 9: Playtest the adventure, compile a list of new ideas you had during the playtest, things to improve, issues to fix.
  • Day 10: Use these ideas to improve and clean up the final draft, publish it.

Some writing tips:

  • Do the best you can within the time-frame that you have. Try to complete the first draft as quickly as possible, create the simplest playable adventure. Then if you have more time – list the most important things you'd like to improve, and focus on them.
  • Avoid perfectionism. Answer questions, make creative choices, commit to them, and move on to the next task. Don't try to complete each task perfectly, that slows you down and gets you stuck.
  • Go through the steps in order. Each part of the template asks you a question, and writing an adventure is the matter of answering them one by one. This gives you clear, attainable goals – you always have a concrete, specific task to accomplish (answering the next question). This removes the confusion and ambiguity about what to do next, which is the main cause of the "writer's block".
  • Make lists. To answer a question, quickly list 5 possible answers you can think of, and pick your favorite one. Don't try to come up with the best answers right away – aim for "good enough". If it's not great – that's okay, use it as a placeholder, improve it later, after the first draft is complete.
  • Blank Page vs Lego Blocks. Don't try to invent everything from scratch. Instead of staring at the blank page and trying to make something up – take parts from your favorite movies, TV shows, books, or games, and assemble the adventure out of them, using them as lego blocks. If you're struggling with a question (a story idea, a character, a location, etc) – don't hesitate to take an answer from a book or a movie. You can use it as a placeholder to tweak and replace later, you can combine multiple ideas to make something new, or you can use one with minimal changes. You can even just take a TV episode or a published adventure, mine it for ideas and answers, and use this process to adapt it to your game.
  • Use the Reddit's hivemind. If you get stuck – make a post on DMAcademy or DnDAdventureWriter and ask for help with brainstorming ideas or answering questions.

Story Games and Playtesting

We have also been experimenting with improvising an adventure from scratch and playing it right away, without doing any of the prep work in advance. We use the brainstorming process to establish the key elements of the adventure, and then take turns GMing scenes for each other, trying to make up a fun story as we go. Think of it as a combination of freeform roleplay, brainstorming, and improvisation.

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Some benefits of this process:

  • It's more fun, you get to play the adventure you've brainstormed right away. And if you're a forever-GM, it's an awesome opportunity to be a player for once.
  • You can see the adventure from the perspective of players, instantly see any issues that arise, any improvements you can make.
  • You get to practice GMing your adventure and gain confidence before running it for your players.
  • You get better at improvised GMing and storytelling.
  • You get to watch other players GMing the same story and learn from them.
  • Running through the adventure makes it much easier to write, after the game all you need to do is summarize what happened.

For story games we're using Story Template, it is optimized for being able to play the brainstormed adventure right away (as opposed to creating a draft/outline and then doing a bit of prep to run it for the players). You can learn more about how the story games work here.

You can use the same process for playtesting your collaboratively-brainstormed adventures – after the brainstorming template is complete, just use the story games rules to play through the adventure together with the other authors.

Adventure Writing Example

Here's an example of a filled-in brainstorming template we have completed in 2 hours, and here's an adventure we have made out of it. After the 2-hour brainstorming session we took the completed template, turned it into a one-page adventure using the One-Page Adventure template, playtested it, and then got a bit carried away and added more images and descriptions and made it a bit longer. The whole process took 2-3 days, from start to finish.

Writing adventures in different genres

  • For mystery adventures, focus on clues. Instead of giving information to the players right away, hide it behind the clues. Clues are pieces of information that encourage players to take action, give them tasks to accomplish, lead the players from scene to scene, guiding them through the plot of the adventure. From the initial question (who done it? what's going on here?) to the solution. Think of the scenes as the "rooms" in a dungeon, and clues as the keys unlocking the doors between them. Players complete the challenges inside the scenes/rooms, which allows them to find clues to unlock more scenes. Create 3 clues for each conclusion players need to reach (the "door" leading to the next scene).
  • For heist adventures, focus on creating interesting environmental and stealth challenges (use the list of challenge prompts for ideas). Think about the challenges as the plan stages the players need to go through to commit the heist, and figure out what can make them difficult, which complications may arise. Think about the environments as antagonists – they have "powers" that they can use to make the players' lives more difficult (lava river that must be crossed, a security system with an alarm that can be triggered, a room quickly filling with water), and "motivations" – a bad thing the environment wants to "do" to players (slow down their progress, reveal their position to the enemies, make it difficult to enter the guarded location.)
  • For intrigue adventures, focus on the NPCs/factions, their goals and relationships, and creating more social challenges. What do players want from the NPC? Why does the NPC refuse to give it? Why can't players get it through force? How can they get it through social/political means only? What does the NPC want? What secrets do they know? Can the players unravel a plot, solve a social mystery?
  • Antagonist-driven adventures – make the adventure more interactive and engaging by creating an active antagonist. What are the steps of their evil plan? How would it unfold if it was unopposed by the players? How will the players learn about the plan? What could the heroes do to disrupt it? How can the villain respond to these disruptions? What resources does the villain have, what "moves" will they make to make life more difficult for the players?
  • Mix multiple genres for variety. Instead of writing a convoluted mystery or an elaborate heist, create adventures combining simple challenges from mystery/investigation, stealth/heist, social/intrigue, exploration, and action/adventure genres. This provides more variety, and is easier to write as well (a big mystery/heist adventure can get complicated, but a small mystery/heist challenge or a scene is fun and easy to make).
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Our Discord Community

If you would like to participate in collaborative brainstorming with us – come join our community on discord.

Story Games are played on a separate community, you can join it here.



It's better to use the google doc version of the template (because of the neat formatting and collaborative editing), but to follow the rules of the subreddit, here's a text-only version of the template:


Adventure title

Idea

What will the adventure be about? Exciting premise. Prompt. High Concept. Fantastical “What if” question. Take ideas from movies/books. Mix and match tropes. Combine two ideas into something new. Add a twist.

Problem/Goal

What problem will the heroes need to solve, what goal will they strive to achieve? What Evil Plan must they prevent? The main conflict. Event that will determine whether we succeed or fail, and resolve the story.

Interesting Setting/Locations

Where does the story take place? What’s interesting or unusual about it? Where does the adventure begin? To what interesting or important areas might the adventure lead? Awesome set piece for the climax?

Important Characters

Who is the main antagonist? What do they want, why? Their appearance, personality, occupation, motivations. Who are some other characters our heroes will meet? (Quest Giver, Allies, Secret Keepers, Evil Minions).

Key Plot Points

  • Exciting Adventure Hook
    How do the players encounter the problem? How to make them care? Draws heroes into action, gives them the initial set of tasks to accomplish.
  • Surprising Midpoint
    Important milestone. Unexpected complication/twist/reveal changes the direction of the story, raises stakes and threat level, redefines the goal.
  • Awesome Climax
    Cool, exciting, dramatic, memorable ending to this adventure. Most important/dangerous challenge. Epic scene that resolves the main conflict.

Escalating Challenges

What steps will the heroes need to take to accomplish their goal? What problems/obstacles will they need to overcome? What complications will they encounter? How can they overcome them? What "moves" will the Villain make to make life more difficult for the players?

Clues/Secrets/Leads

What key pieces of information do the players need to make progress, figure out what's going on, and complete their quest? Hide the key information, reveal it through clues, use clues to lead players through the story. How can the players obtain the clue? To what scenes does it lead? What locations, encounters, or conversations does it unlock? What action does it encourage them to take?

Summary/Outline

Putting it all together, a list of scenes that flow into each other, add up to an interesting story that makes sense. Imagine playing through this adventure as players.
Intro, Hook, Challenges, Midpoint, Climax, Resolution.
For each scene: Location, Characters, Challenge, Leads.

Remaining Open Questions / ToDo

What’s left to figure out to complete a playable adventure? What are the missing parts that would be difficult to improvise during the game? What do we want to improve? Tweaks to make, ideas to add, issues to fix.

Source

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