I saw a ringing endorsement by Venger about a book that steps up your dungeon design. I’ve been working on a list of adventure design concepts to implement in my next product so I thought it would be useful. After finding a copy of it, I failed to find it enlightening. “Think about light.” and “You should have factions and also figure out where people take a shit at.” This should be tribal knowledge by now. Which is to say that’s it’s solid and practical advice but not anything I haven’t seen before. It’s useful as a checklist or a primer for non-controversial and basic ideas but not personally exciting. Here are some ideas I rarely see mentioned though most of you will already know these.
1. Hooks tie into story beats
Story is a more broad and abstract word in location based adventures. What I mean is that if the player is carrying a sick child around to heal them, include an ogre that specifically wants to eat children. If the players are trying to save a village, have carted off villager loot in the dungeon. Even better, have the loot be items made by a dying blacksmith the players might save in the woods. Have the ogre be grieving over the death of his own lost child(which he ate in a fit of hunger). The connection doesn’t need to be literally, it’s often better to be more thematic or abstract.
2. Planting and payoff
Lindsay Ellis has a good video on how this works in film or novels. Essentially, the emotional payoff of any big dramatic point, reveal, or encounter, should be planted earlier in the adventure. If an npc is torn up about his dead lover, Strahd style, then the players should encounter her grave or monument before they find him monologueing about his sadness. This doesn’t necessitate a literal scene by scene adventure design so much as thematics or semiotics. To avoid linearity, I prefer the shotgun approach. Instead of one plant and payoff, have 10 of them so the effect works regardless of where or in what order the players go.
3. No non-unique monsters and npc’s
Everyone’s guilty of throwing 2d6 nameless goblins at the party. This shit ends now. Whenever you can, write up a two sentence description for how the npc or creature acts, its motivations, etc. If the players decide to talk to the goblins or the goblins are talking to each other in combat, it’s a richer experience if they have names and at least crude personalities.
4. Decision points in navigation need hints and clues
A rational decision cannot be made without information about the decision. Whether to go left or right in a featureless dungeon is a coin toss rather than a strategic choice. Seeing pine needles can clue into a cave garden up ahead, monster tracks, that sort of thing. If every encounter begins with opening a door to be auto-attacked, the players rightly consider scouting ahead to be pointless. Scouting and pattern finding is rewarded when obscure clues to nearby rooms or dangers are sprinkled throughout.
It’s important to break this rule sometimes, say 1/4th to 1/6th of the time. Sometime’s there should be a straight up trap or the players have to make a coin toss decision. Only when the players are used to having information will a lack of information actually create anxiety or tension. Otherwise, they yolo every decision because they never have the info needed to make a real decision.
5. Room-Room interactions and level-wide mechanics are a good thing
Exactly what it says on the tin. This creates more cohesiveness to your dungeon and gives more distinct gameplay concerns to each area. Also, try putting them on the map.
6. Set pieces for potential combat areas
Set pieces would be interesting terrain, odd tactics, things that add more complexity than an empty 10×10 room. This is obvious for planned combats but less obvious to include in empty rooms. With random encounters, interacting with npc’s, fleeing combats, and whatnot; any room could potentially have combat. Planning set piece areas in empty rooms will make for interesting architecture and navigation as well as make the planned set pieces seem less contrived. The real secret to set pieces is to use normal environments. Have spear carrying monsters knock over a table to use as an impromptu barrier. If in a kitchen, sprinkle in pots of boiling water. Almost any room can be a setpiece combat if you sex it up a bit.
7. All encounters should be doing something when discovered
When I read “Room 5. 3 orcs.” My mind draws a picture of 3 orcs standing in an empty room, slack jawed, staring at a door where the players will enter. Not a thought in their head. For all eternity. Have the monsters be praying to a dark god, polishing their blades, wrestling each other, talking about a sweet-ass raid they went on earlier in the week. These actions are the most direct way to give information about the inhabitants, their psychology, society, etc. to your players. Literally, showing rather than telling. This approach can be a little quantum ogre but at least it’s a more civilized and elegant one.
8. All treasure should be unique
+1 swords are boring. Everyone knows this by now. Maybe it’s laziness since my experience is that the average DM is creative enough to craft unique magic items. Where DMs can step their game up is in mundane treasure. Silverware is boring. Silverware engraved in floral patterns and the seals of House Francios is more exciting. Is a bed stolid and made with deer-hide or is it four-cornered with lacy silks? What value is the silk lacework if looted?
Coins are a criminally under-utilized element. Gold coins tell nothing about the setting but gold coins engraved with the image of the third boy emperor who wore a bird mask give clues to the setting, they bring up the question of who the bird mask emperor is. All treasure give information, Dark Souls style, or given an adjective or two. More vivid scenes are conjured if objects are no longer allowed to be generic.
9. Light, room-room interactions and environmental effects should be on the map
It’s just common sense to leverage the visual element of the map.
10. Dialectical situation design
It’s hard to explain what “dialectical situation design” is without being hyper-pretentious. In short, a situation should be defined by contradictory goals and forces within the structure of the situation. What brings this to dialectic is that the opposing sides interpolate and affect each other. Also, any acceleration or disruption of the situation will result in a new situation which is also inherently contradictory. Instead of designing with “problem-resolution-equilibrium” as the assumed structure of a situation, make the situation itself contradictory in a way that creating a new equilibrium is the concept rather than solving a problem. This tactic gives much greater dynamism as well gives greater gameplay mileage from a situation, as a new equilibrium creates new contradictions.
11. Motivations should be both specific and general
Motivations need to be actionable. “Wanting to rule the world.” is not actionable. “Wants to steal the rod of Tim the Enchanter in room 26 and is willing to trade his immovable rod for it.” is something the DM can immediately act upon. Specific and actionable goals create the initial motive for play, after which “Wants to take over the western part of level 4” provides a goal which is both actionable and general. All motives should be actionable if they’re to be relevant to play. A specific goal is more important to include than a general goal but a general goal gives greater mileage of play to the DM.
12. Rumors contextualize both the setting and adventure
The rumors also reveal the person spreading it. Rumors which tie into values/anxieties/interests of the surrounding culture are more likely to be repeated memetically. Only parts of the adventure that interact with the wider setting become rumors. To flip this, woodsmen would talk about beasts in the forests and seeing monuments while sailors would talk about the filth pouring into the rivers ever since the monster attacks began. The types of people in the area will flavor what parts of the adventure they interact with enough to create rumors.
To give a real world example, the most common view(i.e normie) view of Elon Musk depicts him in the engineer savior archetype melded with the captain of industry figure, expressing updated cultural concepts from post-war and turn of the century periods. The right wing has taken an interest in him as a randian hero as well as because of his opposition to the mainstream journalism while the left now reviles him, initially due to allegations of abusing labor but later as a vague symbol of detestable billionaires. A 1d10 rumor table about Elon Musk would not just give info on Elon but also give info about American politics.
I hope as a community, we all grow to understand the basic elements of adventure design; what works and what doesn’t. Enough knowledge about basic design has been spread that it’s time to get more subtle and complex. If you have any ideas about adventure design, no matter how much of a no-brainer it seems, it’d be appreciated.