With a new campaign starting, I find myself steeped in new ideas about making the game an exciting experience for my players, pushing my mastery of the game and the DMing arts with new challenges and the desire of sharing everything on this blog.
Today, I’d thought I’d share a bit of my adventure prepping techniques for homebrewed adventures. I’ll start by re-introducing my campaign world and discuss some techniques I’ve been using for planning my bi-monthly games.
Gears of Ruin: Or How Chatty Steals from Everyone for his Campaign.
As many of you know, I’m starting a D&D clockwork campaign called Gears of Ruin set on a dying, water and magic-poor world. One where the gods nearly lost the war against the Primordials and more or less abandoned this ravaged, but resource-rich husk to its own fate.
The world’s main powers (mostly outerplanar outsiders) are the airborne Humans and their humanoid allies, the fierce native mountain dwellers (like the Goliaths) and the scheming denizens of the Elemental Chaos.
The stakes are high: mineral resources abound, water is a very scare strategic asset and the forces of the Elemental Chaos (Efreet, Demons and Slaads) want to to both destroy the whole place and (in true chaotic fashion) take control of it to invade other planes.
Furthermore, the magic scarcity of this world has created technological and biological revolutions of such power and magnitude to rival any magi-centric civilizations. This makes the world a prize beyond belief to whomever controls it all AND a multiversal threat should that ever happen.
You can see my description of on technology here.
I’m as excited, if not more, to play this campaign that I was for my Primal/Within one. I’m pegging its genre as clockwork rather than steampunk because I wanted a more Magitek feel. Plus on a water-poor world, steam machines are downright obscene, making them perfect villain fluff.
From Ideas to the Plan
I usually prep for my adventures on the evenings of the week leading to the game (we play every 2 Fridays baring scheduling issues). But my prepping actually starts on the week before that, I’m just not very formal about it. When I’m done with a game and I’ve posted the game reports, I start brainstorming where the game will go from the last stopping point.
In our case, the PCs were standing in front of a factory built into the side of a mountain. They are accompanied by a wounded Intelligence Officer of their patron’s government and must recover a second agent trapped within the complex. They have also been tasked to investigate the psychic signals likely emanating from within the factory.
This signal seems to have turned all of the world’s autoclanks (i.e. or non-sentient programmable mechanical constructs) into homicidal necrotic-powered undead killer robots. Every clank, that is, except for Holy Clank (Yan’s PC), the Hybrid Fighter/Cleric, possibly the only sentient one in the world.
From this premise, I cast out my subconscious mind with the job of making free associations and bringing me elements that would create an enjoyable level 14 dungeon crawl adventure. My ‘specs’ so to speak were to have adventure elements that called to most of my PCs. I also wanted to test explore ways to make dungeon crawling ‘work’ in 4e for me (I may explain why it doesn’t in a future post).
During that brainstorming period, I came up with the concept of the adventure’s villain, a subversion of a classic that will tie in directly with 2 PCs. While I won’t spoil it, I’ll share the ‘pre-stating block template’ I use for NPCs during prepping:
Description: A one/two sentence describing what the NPC looks like and who he/she/it is.
Background: The story behind the bad guy and, more importantly, why his/her/its plans clash with the PCs.
Agenda: What the villain seeks to achieve in the adventure. This is very important as it will drive the decisions and roleplaying for that NPC through the adventure.
Mechanics (optional): A few notes to guide the design of the combat stat block (if the NPC will have to be fought).
Also, during that time I developed the following setting elements:
- Clanks are the setting’s mecha: all sorts of clockwork machines designed to do work/transportation.
- Auto-clanks are programmable clanks used in repeating tasks in factories and on airships.
- The ‘Baron’ (PCs’ patron) has been developing military warclanks and autoclanks.
- People live in airship cities (or fortified encampments) because raging bio-constructs roam the world, destroying everything and killing humanoids on sight!
All these ideas were obtained while woolgathering (I do a lot of that), chatting with friends and emailing buddies. Of course, precious little of this had been written down (this is pre-prepping after all) but by the start of last weekend, I had most of my adventure concept figured out.
For many DMs, like my friend Yan, that (along with a few stat blocs and some rewards/info packets) is enough to run a game. I need a bit more structure. That’s where the Adventure Plan comes from.
The Adventure Plan
During the week leading up to the game, I fire up Microsoft One-Note (a note-taking application) and I write an outline for the adventure, just like I write outlines for complex blog posts and Standard Operating Procedures at my current job.
Here’s my template:
- Treasure Parcels: A bullet list of magic item levels and monetary value of each parcels.
- Dramatis Persona: List of main NPCs to be developed according to earlier template or copied there if already done.
- Existing Quests: Short list of unfinished quests that are relevant to this adventure.
- New Quests: Short description of new quests introduced in this adventure.
- Player Intro: Recap and/or intro to the adventure.
Structure of the Adventure
- Background: Just enough to remind me what the goal of the adventure is and its context in our campaign (usually one-two paragraphs).
- Adventure-Specific Mechanics: List of things I’ll need to design in this adventure (monsters, traps, puzzles, skill challenges).
Scene Breakdown (if event-based) or Area Breakdown (site-based) or Hybrid
- Scene 1: Name of scene
- Goals: What must/can/may be achieved in this scene.
- Scene Summary: High level structure of the scene, including NPCs involved.
- Complications/Rule of Cool: Elements to make things more interesting.
- Expected Outcomes: Short list of possible conclusions and consequences.
- Area 1: Name of Area
- Objectives: Why PCs explore/visit this area, what they may gain from doing it.
- Threats and Opportunities: What populates the area and how they can be a challenge/interact with PCs.
- Complications: Anything that may go wrong, make conflict more interesting or blow up in PCs face.
- Expected Outcomes: As above.
Rinse and repeat.
I then go through the plan time and time again, fleshing it out part by part, adding a new scene here, a stat block there and cutting out things I won’t have time do, shifting scope and adding ideas as they come to me. All this time, I try to focus on prioritizing what will bring me to a playable adventure the fastest. Getting lost in the details is so easy so I try to be careful lest I start botching it come Thursday night. After, if there is time, I may add more elements like complex traps and such to make things more exciting.
Often, by the time Friday rolls by, I have a nearly complete adventure that only needs minis and battlemaps to be played. I know I tend to overprep, but I often find myself with material I can recycle into publishable material afterward, so I have an incentive to keep doing it.
What about you? What’s your prepping technique like? NPCs? Scenes? Regardless of system, I’m curious!