Building the Best Adventure Sites
Well, fifth edition has been released! The D&D Starter Set hit local friendly game stores last week and the D&D Basic rules are up… for FREE! Go download and check out over 100 pages of new D&D content for $0. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting many a podcast about my thoughts on the new edition, but spoiler alert… I feel very positive about it. Maybe you’re not feeling these new rules or maybe you agree with me that this could be our finest D&D yet. Let me know if you think I’m right/wrong and sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter. I love to hear others thoughts and opinions. Remember, in the coming days of discussion and possible disagreement – just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean he or she is a Nazi. Be polite and respectful and people will respect your own view-point more. In the end this is just a game.
Anyway, with this release I know the DMs out there are beginning to craft worlds of their own. I thought I’d talk with you all a bit about how I built some adventure sites into Exploration Age and then give you some examples (which you can feel free to pillage for your home campaign).
Write Down What You Got
Before you begin adding adventure sites to your world, make a quick list of all the ideas for cool dungeons, forests, castles, and more that you have. You don’t need more than a line for each site and the description only needs to make sense to you. For instance, maybe you’ve got an idea for red dragon’s volcanic lair which also serves as a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire. You could simply write – red dragon, volcano, portal and know what that meant. The important thing is to get any ideas you have down on (virtual) paper so you don’t forget them.
As you know I love Google Drive, so I recommend starting a document there, so you can add ideas as you get them. You never know when you’ll feel inspired! If you don’t have any ideas, have a good old-fashioned brainstorm session, or have no fear and continue on. Tips for idea generation are below!
Map It Up
I’ve already written about how I made the maps for Exploration Age. Once you’ve got all of your continents and oceans created, it’s time to start dropping in adventure sites. I had my idea list, but it wasn’t enough to fill the giant world I had created. I began adding ruins, castles, and more to the map. I didn’t do this totally randomly, I looked for places that might make sense. A dangerous ruin might be in a swamp, away from a lot of other areas of civilization, and a fortress might sit with its back to the mountains or on a border between two countries in a defensible or valuable position.
Once I had placed these sites I went around naming them. I tried to look at the names of some of D&D most classic adventure sites. The Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and Castle Ravenloft all have names which evoke a particular feeling of grand adventure while also giving you little hints about what to expect from the site. So for the sites that weren’t part of my original list, I came up with their names first and concepts second. Sometimes their names were based on the location in which they were found. For instance, within a patch of dead forest in Taliana I placed the Deadwood Castle. Other times these names were something evocative that popped into my head that I knew I would sort out later – like Gnome Graves in Parian’s Niro Swamp.
Make Your Lists
Once I had all my adventure sites and my map finished, I wrote down every single site I had placed on the map. In my case, since the map is so large, I divided my list into sublists by country. However, your map may be smaller than my own, so you may just make one list or perhaps your map is way bigger than mine and you want to find some other method of dividing your list (maybe by terrain or region – really whatever is easiest for you). Any notes or ideas I had about what the sites might be, I included on the list.
Once I had that master list of adventure sites, I set it aside. It’s always good to shift gears and let the mind rest for a bit. Many of your best ideas come when you brain is just wandering so let it (but keep that list handy so when an idea comes up you can add that detail or note to the list so you don’t forget).
Adding the Details
Finally, I began detailing each site. Obviously, with so many adventure sites on the world map, I wasn’t going to create a unique dungeon map and stat out every single resident monster for each. Besides, I want to keep things a little more open so I can tie an adventure site into the larger campaign’s story arc as it unfolds. However, should my players decide to travel through a site, spend the night in one, or just go delving into some dungeon on a side mission, I wanted to be prepared. I decided I would write at least a quick paragraph for each adventure site to have the basics covered. This will also help me if I’m running a more sandbox style adventure where the players feel free to roam all over the map.
In my mind, good adventure sites need three details.
- History How did a ruin become ruined? What was it before? Who built the structure? What are the stories locals tell about the place? If it’s a natural land formation why is it special and different from other places created by nature? What is unknown about its history? Who is alive today and still tied to the history of the place? Do they want people delving into the site or not? Giving a site history roots it solidly in the game world. It gives adventurers a chance to hear about a place through word of mouth instead of just stumbling onto it and it can inspire the dangers and draws of the place.
- Danger It wouldn’t be much of an adventure site if it weren’t dangerous. If you’re playing D&D 99% of the time that danger is one or more monsters, so think about the kind of baddies that populate a place. Is this one creature’s lair or home to a host of baddies? Of course, danger need not always come in the form of killer claws and jaws. Maybe the danger is some ancient curse, magical phenomena, natural hazard, supernatural disease, or mechanical trap. Your players may be more curious and probably more terrified if they wander into an adventure site and find no one at all… because an ancient curse drives any intruders so mad that they throw themselves into the tar pit in the basement.
- Draw What makes delving into the adventure site worth while? Are there riches to be uncovered? A dragon’s treasure hoard? A vein of mithral? Is there someone to be rescued or liberated in the site? Is the defeat of the evil inside the draw, because that evil is threatening a local village or something greater? Is there information that can only be learned within the site? Is traversing the adventure site the only way to get from one area to the next? Whatever the draw, every adventure site needs one, otherwise why bother risking life and limb to explore the place?
Here are some examples of adventure sites from the Exploration Age Campaign Guide.
- Sunken Hold of Hymore (Aeranore) Even the trolls of the Cold Marsh won’t go near the Sunken Hold of Hymore. The old estate which once belonged to a noble family known for their gold jewelry collection is now buried three-fourths of the way into the marsh. It is said that Hymore, a well-known angry drunk, struck the life out of his wife one night. His young daughter, who had shown great psionic ability, buried the house into the ground, suffocating her family and the servants. Some travelers and treasure-seekers who explored parts of the hold say they’ve found undead with strange psionic abilities and heard the voice of an eerie little girl singing a lullaby throughout the house.
- The Wastes (Bragonay) Bragonay is mostly desert, rocky in the North, sandy in the South. The Wastes are vast expanses of dangerous sandstorms, killer predators, warforged bandits, and countless other dangers. However, merchants constantly cross these wastes when they cannot transport their goods on the Jackrabbit due to cost, limited space, or their destination not being one of the stops on the line. Adventurers may be hired to protect a merchant caravan crossing The Wastes as guards or simply be getting from point A to point B themselves. They better bring plenty of food and water… and a good weapon. There are other reasons to go delving into The Wastes.
- There are magical twin cacti right outside Mt. Thraxallis. The needles of these cacti can be collected and be used as magic arrows. Stripping both cacti yields 10d10 +2 arrows, however adventurers who do so risk angering the volcano’s resident, an ancient red dragon named Thraxallis who believes the cacti are his alone.
- It is said that a camp of djinn nomads wander the desert waiting for travelers to happen upon them. If a traveler can best their champion in combat, he or she is granted a wish per the spell.
- Sand krakens attack from below, but have beaks of solid diamond that can be harvested once they are killed.
- Troll Lake (Verda) The scrags and trolls who live on the banks of Troll Lake are not to be trifled with. There is an odd magical effect within the waters of the lake and the surrounding lands – elemental magics cease to function. Melf’s acid arrow quiver is empty, lightning bolts do not crackle, and flame tongues cannot produce their fire. This has made it the perfect sanctuary for the denizens of Troll Lake, as only natural fire and acid can be used against them in that area. It is best to avoid the huge lake all together, as the trolls have begun to multiply. The monsters now have an army and the areas around Troll Lake have grown crowded. It is only a matter of time before they march.
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July 8, 2014 @ 4:01 pm
As an alternate perspective on site list-building for DMs who are not building a world for the masses (as I know you are, James) is to look at what your players and their characters are bringing to the game. If you’re creating a world for just that one party of friends you’ll be gaming with, paying attention to the party is hugely important.
For instance, if I’ve got a party of all dwarves, drow, & goliaths, I’m probably going to focus more on rocky sites, mountainous adventures, and deep dungeons, with fewer adventure sites in the Feywild. I had a player once who wanted to play a trap hacker… a mage/thief (this was back in 2nd ed) who went into dungeons not for treasure, but to prove that he could beat the traps. That meant that much of my building of adventure sites involved planning out elaborate traps, and I decreased the instances of huge monster fights (unless they were in areas where traps were common).
When I know I’m gaming with players who enjoy opportunities to be heroic, I populate my world with sites and situations where epic heroism is a definite possibility. If I know I’m playing a backstabbing political game with folks who enjoy Vampire: The Masquerade-style politics, the adventure sites I create have more moral ambiguities and alternate possibilities depending on what angle the party takes.
Character backstories are another huge one. My current 4E home game has at least 13 major plots tied to adventure sites around the world that (even if my players don’t yet realize it) are tied to specific things in their backstories, so that when they get there and figure it out, they can have those “OH!!!” moments that every DM loves to see players experience.
But, as I said, that’s more for folks creating a world who know our parties and our players. When building a world for general consumption, there’s much less of an opportunity to do that. Sure, even a pre-printed adventure can be customized (as I’ve started doing with a group that I took into the 5E Starter Set’s “Lost Mines of Phandelvar” last night), but there are limits there. You have to rely on the writers of the general version of the adventure leaving enough open ends that a DM can attach a player’s motivations, history, or concept to. That’s not an easy task for the world-builder, so I certainly appreciate the work you’re putting into this.
July 10, 2014 @ 9:05 am
I couldn’t agree more with that. In fact, you don’t even need to create a whole world at once in the situation of a homebrew world for one group (you definitely can), but a lot of GMs find it easier to have the characters give in backgrounds and then design one home base and a few places around it and expand the world out as needed during the campaign. It’s a great way to do things – and saves a ton of time.
I actually got the seeds of Exploration Age from my current groups. I started it all with a questionnaire – https://worldbuilderblog.me/2014/01/19/give-them-what-they-want/
Also, in all seriousness, Joe when are you gonna start blogging and handing out advice. That’s a blog I would follow for sure!
July 8, 2014 @ 4:02 pm
Also, I really hope those magical cacti can be animated… as I cannot help but think of Cactuar from Final Fantasy 7 (or was it 8) whenever I read “magical cacti”.
July 10, 2014 @ 9:05 am
I loved Cacutar.
July 10, 2014 @ 10:01 pm
There were cactuar in FF VI, even! Maybe even earlier. You know how silly the FF series is with their traditions.