This was originally posted back in 2017. It lost the images during my site migration, so I’ve updated it to replace them. This is the first post in a series:
- Part One: Using Random Tables to Write An Adventure
- Publishing An Adventure: Art & Layout on a Budget
- Publishing An Adventure: Pricing, Promotion, & Pre-Release
- Laying Out Your Adventure on a Budget
- Publishing your Work on the DMs Guild
So this post is a little late. I had it ‘finished’ when I posted the first part, and then completely forgot to schedule it. Since it was already late I decided to take a bit more time to flesh it out a bit more, because I felt it was a little sparse. Then, of course, Saturday rolled around and I was too exhausted to actually type up any of the extra work I’d done, so I decided to push it back another day.
To recap: last time we rolled up a random dungeon using the tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, then used Deadly Dungeon Doors and the Random Dungeon Room Generator to create some of the internal elements of the dungeon. When we left off I had an adventure hook, a list of doors to be used in the dungeon, a list of potential room names, and the vague idea that I wanted to include a Chain Devil and the themes of iron, rust, and bone.
That’s about as far as I feel you need to go when designing a dungeon with random tables. If I was building this adventure for my own game, I probably wouldn’t go much further than that. That’s enough information for me to run the dungeon at the table, in all honesty. I might plan a couple of encounters, but I’m pretty good at winging things at the table and these days that’s about all the prep I do for games.
But, as with every project I touch, the scope of this little post on using random tables to build adventures has grown as I’ve been working on it, to the extent where I’m now planning to take this adventure all the way through to publication on DMs Guild. That means that I have to do some more work on it. It means I have to take those elements I generated randomly and put them together into a coherent adventure that people are going to want to a) run for their players and b) pay money for.
In this article we’ll look at how I take those bits of detail that I’ve generated and flesh them out. The next couple of posts – tomorrow, and on Friday – will look at the technical aspects of publication, including laying the document out, sourcing art without breaking the bank, and a rough guide to the DMs Guild publication process. There are a couple of reasons why the last part is coming on Friday rather than Wednesday; the first is that this coming Wednesday is the last one in the month, and thus is reserved for my Best Of DMs Guild post. The second is that proofreading and playtesting are integral parts of the publication process, and that’s what’s going to be happening this week. But we’ll get to that.
The process of actually fleshing out the adventure is something that’s quite hard to document, because so much of the work involved in it is purely mental. This is the part of the process that is fairly unique to individual writers and that can’t really be codified into a simple Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 sort of format. Still, I’m going to do my best to talk you through the process I went through and to illustrate how those scraps of information evolved into a finished module over the course of a day or two. This may not be the most useful guide simply because my writing process is so specific to me, but I hope it will at least give you an idea of the kind of decisions you’ll have to make if you decide to do this, and that it will help you see that there’s no real science to writing something.
You may well be familiar with the following picture:
Using the random tables was me drawing the circles. This is step two.
The Rest of the Fucking Owl
For some reason I find it much easier to do creative work by hand rather than at a computer, so my first step was taking the important information from the last post – the map, the hook, the doors, and the list of rooms – and transferring them to my notepad. This goes everywhere with me, and most of the work I do in it is jotting down very quick notes whenever they occur to me, and writing whatever I can while I’m commuting to work. It’s less like actual writing and more like a running log of the work that my subconscious is doing while I’m going about my day.
In generating the content from the random tables, I’d already had the idea that this would be some kind of puzzle dungeon/key hunt. I’d also decided that I wanted to feature a chain devil in the dungeon. The main ‘problem’ (and I use that term loosely, because I didn’t really struggle with it – the ‘solution’ came very quickly) was to find a way to combine those things into something that a) I’d enjoy writing and b) people would enjoy playing.
Once I generated the doors and realised they were all iron, I started picturing the entire dungeon as being built from iron. I kept picturing a squat iron structure covered in rust, nestled in a ruined, blasted part of some town or city. I knew that this was ancient, that it had lain sealed and dormant for a long time, some kind of crypt or tomb. But a tomb screamed “undead”, and I didn’t want to write an undead dungeon.
The answer came quickly because the answer was in the question. This isn’t a tomb – it’s a dungeon, in the classic sense. That is, it’s a place where prisoners are held. And who is imprisoned here?
That’s obvious, isn’t it? This is a prison for a chain devil. It’s not so much designed to keep adventurers out – although it does that, too – as it is to keep the monster sealed within it in.
Looking at the map, though, it doesn’t really seem to work with that purpose in mind. I’d like there to be some kind of central or final room that the rest of the dungeon flows towards, where the final encounter with the chain devil can take place.
At this point there are two options; I can either stick to the map I have and figure out a concept that better suits it, or start changing the map to suit what I’m building. This is where it’s important not to be a slave to the random rolls. I like the idea of a dungeon built to seal this monster inside it, and I don’t want to start again with that. And since the point of this exercise was to generate something quickly, I don’t want to have to completely redraw the map. So, instead, I start tweaking things on the map I already have. [Originally there was an image here showing my hand-drawn changes and notes on the randomly generated map. I’ve lost that, unfortunately, so I’ve instead replaced it with a side-by-side image of the original map with the one that ended up in Breaker of Chains so you can easily see the adjustments I made.]
That isn’t pretty, obviously, but I’ll redraw it once it comes time to put together the adventure for publication.
I’ve made two major changes here. The first is that the entrance is now located in the bottom left of the map. The second is the addition of another room on the bottom of the map and a secret room at the top of the map. These serve two purposes; firstly, it makes the circular chamber – where the chain devil is sealed (and we’ll get to that) – central to the dungeon, and secondly it makes the outline of the map a little more square. I’ve been picturing a squat, square structure, which the original map didn’t really show. This is a bit better. I’ve also numbered the rooms for ease of referencing them.
So now I go back to my doors. The random doors we generated last time gave me two results that I really liked – the platinum door with multiple locks, and the iron door with six magnetic studs embedded in it. I had already wondered whether the platinum door should be the entrance to the dungeon or (as Deadly Dungeon Doors suggests) the door hiding the boss fight, and I’ve now decided that it should be both. Sort of.
I’m keeping the platinum door with multiple locks as it is, and that’s going to be the entrance to the dungeon. I want to let the players know right off the bat that it takes more than one key to open some of the doors in this dungeon. I also want them to realise quickly that platinum doors are special and require multiple keys; since there will only be two in this dungeon, they should realise what’s going on as soon as they see the second platinum door.
That second platinum door, I’ve decided, isn’t really a door at all. It’s a huge disk of platinum – sort of like a plug, or a cork – embedded in the floor of that central circular room. Beneath it is a deep pit where the Kyton is kept locked up. Its surface is studded with those magnetic disks which are used to activate the locking mechanism; the players will have to search the dungeon to find the multiple disks needed to unlock that plug.
The idea is that even though the final door doesn’t actually look like a door, the players will hopefully realise that the only other big piece of platinum they’ve seen in the dungeon thus far is a door. I’m also going to indicate this through environmental cues and discoveries in the dungeon. Maybe they’ll find an ancient text left by the builders of this place that details the functioning of the prison, or else maybe there’s a mural of some kind on the walls in the entrance chamber that contains clues.
Since the Kyton is imprisoned here, it doesn’t make much sense for me to include chains as hazards in the dungeon; the chain devil can control them, so his jailers would have made sure that there were none in the building. Obviously I need to somehow have chains appear in the final battle, or else we lose out on half of the flavour of the monster and half of the power of the monster, but we’ll get to that.
Instead, I now need to figure out what kind of hazards would be included in the chambers of this dungeon. They need to fit a few criteria:
- Be long-lived enough to have survived for as long as the prison has been standing.
- Be able to prevent the Kyton from leaving the dungeon if it ever escapes its oubliette.
- Be able to prevent would-be looters from gaining the keys found in the dungeon and freeing the chain devil.
The first point tells me that I can’t really use any living monsters in the dungeon unless I use undead. It is a horror module, in theory, so undead do fit, but I’ve already mentioned that I don’t really fancy writing an undead-heavy module.
I can obviously use traps – and I will use traps – but a whole dungeon filled with traps can get a little samey very quickly. I need to vary things a little. So what else could populate this dungeon? What, besides traps and locked doors, can act as a guardian?
The obvious answers are constructs – either mechanical, or else things like golems. There’s also the option of elementals, but they don’t really seem to fit the themes that I’m wanting to play with. I’m also struggling with the bone-handled door, and trying to figure out how that ties into the dungeon. As with the map, I can obviously change this or disregard it if I want to – again, I’m not going to be a slave to the tables – but it’s such a cool image that I don’t really want to.
I’m not sure exactly what to do at this point, so I let those ideas sit, and start fleshing out the bits of the map that I do know about. I don’t necessarily come up with all the encounters yet – vague ideas of what each room contains will do for now. Still, I keep in mind that this is a small side-quest adventure, and this that in mechanical terms it needs to comprise roughly a full adventuring day’s worth of challenge. I tend to ignore this requirement when I build adventurers for my group, but for publication it’s nice to keep things as close to RAW balance as possible.
So, let’s remind ourselves of the rules surrounding the adventuring day. Looking at page 84 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I know that most adventuring parties can handle 6 to 8 medium or hard encounters in a day. A chain devil is CR 8, but since I’m using him as a solo boss I’m going to make this adventure suitable for a 7th level party; I want that fight to be hard, and CR gets a little wonky when you throw a solo monster against a full party.
At 7th level, the adjusted XP per day per character is 5,000. Most published modules are balanced for a party of 4 to 6 characters, so I’m going to build encounters for parties of 5 characters as a baseline. That means I’ve got a budget of 25,000 XP for the adventure, split between around 6 encounters. Looking at the tables on page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I can see that for a 7th level, 5-character party, the threshold for a Medium encounter is 3,750 XP and for a Hard encounter is 5,500 XP. A chain devil clocks in at 3,900 XP, which is actually still a Medium encounter despite being CR8 (and that’s true for a party of 4 characters, too, despite the threshold for Hard being lower). That leaves me with a budget of 21,100 XP for the rest of the day. If I throw in one Hard encounter and make the rest Medium, I’ll come close to filling that budget and having a ‘balanced’ adventure.
We’re not quite at the stage where that information is entirely useful at this point, but it’s good to bear it in mind as I flesh out the rest of the rooms. At this stage, all I need is a vague idea of what each space holds.
Firstly, that narrow passage between rooms 3 and 6. I had already decided that it was a secret passage, but that doesn’t seem to fit with the concept of the dungeon – why would somebody build this place, lock the keys behind other locked doors, and then build a secret entrance to bypass them? It doesn’t make sense.
What does make sense, though, is that elaborate trap rooms don’t just work by magic. (Well, they can, but that’s lazy). If room 6 contains some kind of whole-room trap, the dungeon needs space to account for the mechanisms that drive said trap. If you can read my handwriting [which isn’t present on the new image because I lost that picture], you’ll notice that this is what I wrote in the secret room between rooms 3 and 6, just above that hidden passage. Secret room – trap mechanism?
So that secret passage becomes a ventilation tunnel of some kind, and it’s going to branch off into that hidden room where the mechanisms driving the traps in room 6 lie. If the players discover this, then they can not only bypass at least one locked door but can also potentially disable – or weaken, at least – the hazard that they’ll face in room 6, and potentially recover one of the keys a little easier. That seems like a good reward for having found the secret tunnel to me.
I know that rooms 4 and 9 don’t contain any of the puzzle pieces, because they’re attached to the central chamber without any locked doors between them. I don’t know exactly what will be in them yet; room 4 should contain some kind of hint as to the solution to the puzzle of the door in room 7, I think – something that indicates where the keys can be found, and maybe gives a hint as to what is sealed here.
7 is fairly straightforward. It’s the giant platinum disk embedded with magnetic plugs, which seals the chain devil beneath it. I’m also making this room the Emerald Oblivion, from the list of room names that I generated earlier. It’s entirely green and heavily warded against the devil – but the wards are breaking, and as a result people have been able to enter the dungeon once again.
I haven’t forgotten that the original plot hook I generated calls for a restless, potentially vengeful adventurer’s ghost. I figure he’s the remnant of the last person who managed to gain access to the dungeon. I also don’t think he ever got past the door in the south of room 3. His corpse is still there, slumped at the bottom of the door where the traps on the lock killed him. I don’t think his finger is being used as the handle, as much as I like that image, but that may change when I come to write up the room. Perhaps he’s a ghast or a wight, and the party have to fight him; perhaps his spirit still remains and can either attack the party or give them a clue that leads to the discovery of the secret vents that will lead to area 6. (See how I’m going back and forth on the idea of undead being in the dungeon? That’s common when I write adventurers; I like to keep my options open until I have a more solid idea of how everything fits together. Plus, I like playing what if?).
Room 1 is also pretty straightforward. It’s the entrance chamber, and contains the first trapped door of the dungeon. It should also contain some kind of story information that gives hints as to what will be found later in the adventure, as well as some kind of red herring to make the party think they really are just trying to slay a restless spirit. Maybe this is where they find the adventurer’s finger bone wedged into the handle of a door, and they find the rest of his body a little later on.
Room 2 gives me pause, since it’s a large space and I’m not entirely sure yet what purpose it serves. It’s big enough to provide room for a large combat encounter if I want one. Perhaps there’s some kind of army of constructs here, the last line of defence if the chain devil frees itself and tries to leave its prison. Looking at my list of rooms, though, I’m also drawn to The Cave of Forgetfulness. It’s not a cave, this room, but it could certainly be the Hall of Forgetfulness. Maybe this is both the last defence against the chain devil and the first defence against anybody trying to free it – a magical effect that modifies memory in some way so that the those entering it forget why they came here.
Of course, if there’s an army of guardians in Room 2, it could also be the Green Guard Post. Maybe the constructs are formed from the same green material that Room 7 is constructed from.
Room 8 is either the Whirling Chimney or the Winter Abreuvoir. There’s an elemental trap of some kind here – either air, water, or cold, I’m not sure what yet – that must be navigated to retrieve the key.
Room 9 is going to be similar to Room 8. It might contain story information, or another clue to one of the traps in the dungeon, but there’s no challenge here as such.
Room 5 is another challenge, and another key. This is the Crooked Trophy Taker. I think the players will face a choice here; give up a part of themselves, or something that grants them power, in exchange for the ke, or else fight for it. Since it’s a horror module, I don’t think asking for some kind of blood sacrifice is out of the question.
And with that, we have most of an adventure. Let’s have a look at it all in a briefer, more intelligible form.
|1||Entrance chamber, trapped door, red herring.|
|2||The Green Guard/The Hall of Forgetting.|
|3||The Restless Adventurer and the entrance to the Secret Room.|
|4||Antechamber to the Emerald Oblivion. Trapped door, clue of some kind.|
|5||The Crooked Trap Taker, the blood sacrifice, and a key,|
|6||A mechanical whole-room trap, and a key.|
|7||The Emerald Oblivion, the jail of the Kyton. Thrice-locked platinum door.|
|8||The Whirling Chimney: a whole-room elemental trap, and a key.|
|9||Antechamber to the Emerald Oblivion. Trapped door, clue of some kind.|
|Secret Room||Ventilation tunnel leading to the mechanism that drives the trap in Room 6. Some means of bypassing an encounter.|
If we treat each of the traps as an encounter, then we have too many encounters – but if we make them Easy, then the budget can hold more encounters and they also don’t take as long/as many resources to overcome. I’m aiming for a constant chipping away of resources before the final battle, so that works nicely.
The only thing remaining to do now is to write up the encounters and redraw the map before getting it out to playtesters and proofreaders, then flowing it into layout and putting the final document together.
Writing It Up
If you want to publish regular content, one of the most important things to sort out early on is your workflow. I’m still struggling with that – that’s the reason I still haven’t managed to put out one new release a month, as I said I was going to try to do. Something that’s been invaluable to me, though, is putting together templates to work from. Not only do these save time, but they help to ensure a consistency in format and presentation across all of your releases that really helps when it comes to building a brand.
I’m not just talking about things like cover templates and InDesign templates for layout, either. Something I find very useful is having a template for writing encounters. If you own any of the official WoTC-produced adventure supplements – Storm King’s Thunder, Tales From The Yawning Portal, whatever – take a second now to flick through them. You’ll notice that all of the encounters are presented in the same way, which looks something like this:
[Alas, this image has gone the way of the dodo, and since I don’t use the same templates anymore I no longer have it. Have a glance in any WoTC hardcover and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about here, though.]
This is pretty much the template that I use to write encounters. Once I know roughly what each room will contain, I put together a basic Word document with space for each of the maps on the key. With a template like this in place, writing a site-based adventure – i.e. one that doesn’t require many interactions with NPCs, or a lengthy investigation section – very straightforward. Bulette Storm took a long time to write due to the first section, where the party were encouraged to explore a large area and speak to lots of people.The latter sections of that adventure, which were mostly combat-based, fell into place very quickly.
And really, all that’s left to do at this stage is to write the thing. So that’s what I’m going to do now.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the redrawn map, and I’ll talk a little about sourcing art and beginning to think about publication – including laying the adventure out in a more presentable form than a basic Word document, proofreading, and organising playtesting.
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