Okay, we’re in the home stretch now; sorry about the delays, but I drifted into writing these posts on about the same schedule as my own D&D game (13th Age, whatever) and that basically fills up my brainspace for the whole day.
Alright, let’s assume you’ve picked a game, you’ve got a setting in mind and you’ve assembled a group of players. You’ve got the tools you need to start writing your first D&D story.
The next step is doing that. So what tips and advice do I have?
Well, let’s start with this moment of Zen.
Don’t write a D&D story
You don’t write a D&D story – because you aren’t the author. The GM is just one contributor to the story that occurs at the table (or over video chat right now), not on paper; the players are your collaborators, and without their input that story will never be crafted. You’re vital to this process, but so are they.
So don’t think of creating a D&D story (or adventure) as ‘writing’; that puts you in the wrong mindset, and suggests that your job is to create a finished text that is your pure vision. Instead, think of it as pitching a concept to a team of writers, or of developing a plot that someone else will flesh out into a story. You’re a showrunner, not an author.
This also means that your adventure plan won’t look like a finished story, or maybe even a coherent document; mine are just chunks of bullet points and notes to myself like ‘insert magical bullshit here’. It’ll probably be more like a compartmentalised outline – brief plans and options that become looser, sketchier and more disconnected the further you go into it. Get comfortable with that, and don’t waste time trying to pretty up your notes so that they read well to other people.
Bring that beat back
I don’t love the notion of ‘beats’ that has drifted from screenwriting to permeate most writing discussion. It’s a model of plotting that focuses on isolated intellectual/emotional payoff scenes, rather than developing an overall coherent and effecting narrative.
But it turns out beats are a perfect tool for creating the bones of a D&D adventure, because that story is assembled by the players experiencing those isolated payoff scenes. Hell, dungeons – the granddaddy of all this fantasy adventuring – are little more than a collection of self-contained or loosely connected beats; each room of goblins, traps, puzzles and/or general fantasy nonsense is its own payoff.
Once you have an adventure concept, resist the urge to come up with a linear storyline that characters must complete to finish the tale. Instead, brainstorm a collection of beats/scenes that could be part of that story, then implement one if/when the decisions of the players and characters make it relevant for the story. This technique requires a little work up front, but less than planning out a complete linear storyline, and pays off with its flexibility during play.
Keep it simple, keep it short
Let’s be real – we love big stories, we love fat books, we love EPICS. When folks listen to a D&D podcast, or watch an actual play stream, they love the long, intricate plots that many of them present – and if they’re new to all this, might come away thinking that the job of a GM is to create a 60-session epic tale.
DO NOT TRY TO CREATE A 60-SESSION EPIC TALE
Don’t try to create one as your first ever D&D story; hell, don’t try to create one after you’ve been doing it for years. Grand plans are a trap; they force you to start thinking linearly, they rob players of agency and they rely on everyone sticking with you from start to finish, which will not happen because life gets in the way.
A short, simple story is the best place to start with D&D, and frankly it’s the best way to continue. You can get a lot of player engagement from something accessible and punchy, and you can keep it by following it up with another story the same length, and another, and then another. Those can build on each other and escalate, making something like an episodic TV series with an emergent arc, or they can stay self-contained like a anthology of fantasy stories ala Conan or Thieves’ World.
How short and simple? There’s a model called the Five-Room Dungeon that is the perfect foundation for a D&D adventure. Those rooms are:
- an entrance with a guardian that must be overcome
- a puzzle or roleplaying challenge
- a trick or setback
- a big climax
- a reward, revelation and/or plot twist
The model refers to dungeons, but these ‘rooms’ could be any kind of scene. If you’ve brainstormed a bunch of beats, choose five ahead of time, or in the moment, and keep the rest for the next adventure.
There’s a lot to discuss about this model and I don’t have the space here – you can find fuller explanations here, and even a free ebook with almost 90 sample dungeons (of varying) quality if you want. Check those out and think about how the model could work for you.
Make the story about your characters
It’s easy to come up with a (short, simple) D&D story concept in a vacuum, have players come up with characters, then run that story as (not) written. It’s easy, and it can be fun, but the game won’t be as compelling or engaging as it could be because the characters aren’t connected to the story in meaningful ways.
The single most important and effective way to engage players is to centre stories around their characters. It’s not a generic magic sword they’re sent to find – it’s the ancestral sword of the wizard’s family, stolen generations ago. It’s not a random villager who’s gone missing, but the kindly innkeeper who gave the rogue a job when she got out of prison. The villain isn’t just some mystery dude in black armour, but the corrupted father of one of the heroes, someone he thought long dead, DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE
The best tool you have for this is the players themselves. Don’t come up with a story idea until after they make characters. Be part of that process, asking them questions about their heroes and seeing what ideas they want to explore. Work one or two of those ideas into each story, involving different characters each time, so that there are always personal stakes for someone in the group. You can make each player feel like their character is the central hero, and all it takes is a couple of simple plot connections in each story.
Stuff it, just buy one
Does this all sound too much like work? It is – it’s not hard work, and if you’re anything like me it’s work you’ll enjoy, but the world is a fuck and maybe you don’t have time for that. Fortunately, there is a solution – you can just use someone else’s story instead!
No matter what game you run, you’re certain to find pre-written adventures out there – some cheap, some free, some bloody expensive. If you run D&D, you’ll find vast quantities of them at the DM’s Guild site; for every other game, you’ll probably find some at DriveThruRPG. Those are both PDF sites; if you prefer print, your options will be a lot more limited and a lot more expensive, but see how you go.
The thing about pre-written adventures is that they go against all the advice I just gave you: they tend to be long, they tend to be linear, and they’re generic rather than being tailored for your character group. It’s not hard to simplify, open up and personalise them – but now you’re doing the work you were trying to avoid!
I’m honestly not trying to rag on pre-written adventures – trust me, I have literally hundreds of them on file and I buy more all the time. But they’re a starting point, not an end point; the best of them are the ones that know that and give you tools to make them your own.
If you want to read some adventures and get ideas, start with free ones, maybe splurge on a couple that cost 2-3 bucks. Don’t drop $60 on a deluxe hardcover, or a series of booklets that promise you a year-long epic campaign, not until you’re sure that you actually like this whole roleplaying thing.
If you’re sold on running actual D&D and want something that can sustain you for a while, my advice is to avoid the official campaigns as they’re expensive and kind of shallow. Instead, check out Ruins of the Grendleroot, an independent product with an evocative premise, lots of personalisation advice and a variety of short, simple adventures that build into something bigger, just like I suggested earlier.
…no, I didn’t write it.
I am capable of recommending things I didn’t write, you know.
Next time – the epic conclusion!