Adventure Development in Little Time

This column is about expediting your time in adventure development. Adventure development, NOT adventure writing. I call it this because writing, I feel, carries with it a certain unnecessary weight you donít need unless you are trying to get published. No, adventure development is simply ensuring your friends have something to occupy them the next game session youíre responsible for.


Recently Iíve begun to do requests, covering down-to-earth topics gamers can really use as opposed to rehashing the same old issues. I have many people who think I must be insane to run five or six game sessions a month, at 5 hours a pop or more. I know DMís who have a horrible time preparing for a session three times, twice or even once a month! Admittedly I throw a lot of myself into my hobby. I also have an understanding wife (who directly benefits from the work I do, actually), and no other hobby interests to placate. The answer then, is making sure you have time to develop adventures; it isnít to get a new spouse and forgo all other hobbies. My secret is I cheat, steal, and cut corners like a hardened criminalÖall in the name of gaming fun for my friends, of course.


You live in a real world. Kids donít always cooperate and let you sit looking through sourcebooks and draw maps. Sometimes friends and family need to see you. Sometimes you just want to read a good book, see a movie, or go dancing, and so you give yourself only a few hours a week to develop an adventure. Your first step is to change your stanceÖstop writing adventures, develop them instead. Just stop doing so much work! Itís like when you learned about measurements in school. A quart of water isnít going to fit into an ounce-sized cup. You designate maybe 1 hour each weeknight, sometimes less, to prepping for the coming weekís session. It doesnít add up. If you insist on writing all your adventures from scratch you are always going to be behind. But thereís a way around this too:


Start investing wisely into adventure material. I donít mean buy every adventure that comes out; I mean invest in adventure collections, ideas and springboards. As example: Dungeon Magazine by Paizo. Instead of $10 or $15 or more for one slightly long adventure this provides you with a handful, all well done and waiting development to fit into your game, making them your own. Think thatís still too much? If you have a connection to the Internet (which you do, or else try explaining how youíre reading this) there are currently dozens and dozens of free D&D adventures from third party publishers, not to mention loads from the WotC web site itself.


Letís say you simply donít have time to cruise the net for adventures, and even a subscription to Dungeon or an occasional store purchase simply isnít an option, for whatever reason. Perhaps youíre old school and remember when TSR would give us one adventure about every 6-8 months and in between we all wrote our own stuff. Thatís cool too, youíre a classicalist. Hereís how to put one together without spending hours and hours on it:


YOUR MAP: You need a map, both for you and the players. For you, steal one. Just steal it. For starters, go to and get their free viewer. Then browse the hundreds of maps thereÖdungeons, keeps, cities, towns, ALL FREE. Or go to the WotC web site and search for ďmap of the weekĒ and youíll find dozens more. Or sit down with a piece of graph paper and draw out a dozen rooms and corridors or a forest or town. Donít make it pretty! Youíre not getting published; you just need a general layout! As long as you can read it, who cares? Even if its just room or encounter shapes connected by lines representing corridors or trails thatís fine.


THE HOOK: Just print it out and scribble, right ON it whatís in the room. Even if that means ďkitchen, 3 ghoulsĒ or ďbalcony, troll and 2 goblin archersĒ thatís all you need to know, and it doesnít take lots of time. In fact, once youíre done, if you keep it around a dozen rooms, you donít even need to write a key!! Just put the roomís name, the monster, and where you got it (abbreviate the source name and page number).

PLAYERíS MAP: Very rarely will you need two versions of a map, rather what this means is the all-important one-inch-square floorplan tiles for miniatures or counters so necessary for proper D&D play. I got you covered. Many folks like to get that Chessex Battlemat and draw on corridors. Itís a good idea, and good for outdoor encounters. Itís a bloody snoozefest when it comes to drawing corridors and rooms! Itís a time sucker and itís dull to sit through. You need tiles you can whip out and plop down fast. Many of them are free sample tiles. FREE. Go here: and get all the tiles you need. Print them all off, then go back and print the ones that have corridor sections again and again. Cut off just the corridors. If you have even basic desktop publishing skills, grab some empty 10x10 sections and fill an entire page with them all connected to make an 8x11-inch room. Print off a dozen and you can cut them into small, medium and large square, circular and hexagonal rooms. This takes time, but then you never have to do it again!


THE HOOK: Donít be a perfectionist! You wonít have in your arsenal the exact shaped room from a purchased adventure. Guess what, your players wonít care one bit. If thereís a strange corner or an oddball angle here or there, forget it! They donít know any better and you donít have enough time to prepare one, so live with what you got.


MONSTERS & NPCs. Itís neat to be able to put together custom-designed villains and NPCís. You donít have the time, so stop doing it! Just steal them from other sources. Invest in Citizen Games 1,000 Faces series of NPC books, The Skreynís Register NPC books from Malhavoc Press: Bonds of Magic volumes 1 and 2, and never forget the Monsternomicon from Privateer Press and Minions: Fearsome Foes from Bastion Press. What, these cost money you say? Fine. Go to and click on products or downloads. There are dozens of free PDF add-on products, like E-Designs, that are filled to overflowing with well-designed NPCís for all levels. The WotC web page, and are also loaded with free monsters, NPCs and the like. Print them all off and start a collection. You need a 6th level bard? Go find one!


THE HOOK: Use them again and again. Change their name, swap out a weapon or two occasionally and alter the coins in their belt pouch and throw them at your players over and over in various forms if you have to. Case in point: WotCís Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is a virtual DMís grab-bag of monsters and NPCís of nearly every sort imaginable. Iíve never run the adventure, but my players have run into practically all 80 or so creatures and NPCs in the back, sometimes more then once over the last year alone. How many different types of a 4th level ogre barbarian do you need? Hereís a list of whatís in there: RttToEE (16k PDF).


YOUR MEMORY. I know, I know, itís not what it used to be. Thatís cool. You remember those times when youíre telling a friend about a great TV show or movie you watched, or a great book you read, or a funny coworker you know? Keep these people, places, scenes and moods in your head ready to pull them out when needed. I mean, change the names to protect the innocent, but my players have had the pleasure of running into Al Pacino, my Uncle Phil, and the Bouldershoulder Brothers as NPCs. Iíve stolen visual scenes from Hercules and Xena (shot in New Zealand) and images from the cross-country drive to GenCon among others.


THE HOOK: You already have these things. Just whip Ďem out, best of all itíll still be original if you make them your own.


Avoid the 3 biggest time-wasters.


1) Concentrating on useless details that wonít make a hell of a difference during the session (like a room out of shape or an NPCís Diplomacy score 1 number off).

2) Writing out NPC dialog. Give the NPC a motivation, voice or personality hook, and jot down what he knows or believes and then improv as that character when the PCs ask him or her questions.

3) Writing out lengthy room descriptions or plot contingencies. All a room needs is a few lines to jog your memory, nothing more. Plot contingencies? You can write out 340 of them and the players will choose #341. It canít be done.


Putting it all together.


You are about to return to your childhood and play with blocks, literally creating a Ďmoduleí (remember that term?). You are going to create a story and then take your collection of game elements above, fit them together. Sit down with your map of the dungeon, wilderness location or town of this weekís adventure. Write on the map itself, using code if you have to, to show you what is where.


Example:Cursed Swan lake.

†††††††††††††††† 3 dire slugs (Blasphemy Press PDF, page 21)

†††††††††††††††† Treasure: Crown of Acarra (AEGís Mercenaries page 203)


Youíre done with that section...DONE. What the hell else more do you need? If you canít just conjure up an original image in your head, jot down a note or two:


Example: Claw-like tree hangings

††††††††††††††† Darkly sky

††††††††††††††† Lack of natural noises


And there you have something to jog your memory. The rest you just make up as you go along. I know some of you arenít too keen on improvisation, but a DMís key skill IS improvisation so you better practice your skills at this!


Example:Bun-Bunís Tavern

††††††††††††††† Owner: Dara the White (commoner, Return 2 Temple/Elemental Evil page 187)

††††††††††††††† Treasure: Sells rare herbs (Bastion Press Alchemy & Herbalists PFD add-on)

††††††††††††††† 2-stories, vaulted ceiling, iron jack-o-lanterns, smells of jasmine


You donít need a paragraph or two of description; you just need basic notes during play! Iím telling you if youíre used to long-winded descriptions and notes try using the shorthand ďmemory-joggingĒ style once and youíll see how easy and creatively rewarding it is! Keep the books you reference handy at your side, donít worry about transcribing the stats or anything, just use Ďem straight out of the book. If you need to, get some of those little yellow stickees to mark pages. As the players show up in each location plop down some tiles. Keep a box of other tile props near your DM station in case theyíre not indoors. Keep brown, blue, gray and green construction paper with you at all games. Youíre in the wilderness? Keep your Battlemat out, rip some circular green parts (trees) an odd blue piece (a lake) and some small brown or gray pieces (logs or rocks) and toss them out and youíre all done!


You want to know how I created an entire nightís adventure in under an hour? I laid out the tiles first. I took a picture of the table with my digital camera. I enlarged the photo and printed it. I wrote the types of room notes as described above while keeping four or five sourcebooks out to fill up the rooms. I custom-designed a single creature with a template as the big bad guy. I stole trap stat blocks and changed a thing here or there. It took me about 40 minutes. And the adventure spanned an entire five hours of play and the crew swore it was a published adventure. Here it is, take a look:


Under the Ruined Keep (181k PDF)


Note there are no story elements. I already had the story in my head. All I needed was the hard data and a visual cue and I was ready. The crevasse in the room of the same name had magical darkness on it, and it was 20 feet deep filled with fresh soil and maggots. I didnít need to jot down a visual like that, it was too vivid!


If youíre independently wealthy or have all the time in the world to prep, good for you, write a full adventure every session. But if you are like most of us, and you donít have the time, donít let that get you down. These shortcuts wonít get you a writers contract but they will serve you well as a tool. Donít get bogged down in details, always reference books and page numbers. Donít waste time copying stuff, and have tiles and props on hand. Practise your improvisational skills, have some confidence. Now, go write an adventure this way and let me know how it turns out! Heck, send it in and Iíll post it here on DMís Haven. Have fun!


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