Gearing up: The Setting, Pre-Prep and the Adventure Plan

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!


  1. It sounds like i use a very similar prep system.

    I start by compiling a note point list of everything in the adventure ‘script’ then i go through each note point adding in the necessary details. NPC’s, locations, monsters, bad guys, traps, plot hooks and points of interest etc. This takes roughly 1-2 hours for a 3-5 hour game, depending on how my brain is firing on the day. After this i let my brain wabder and add in extra details and twists as they come to me, mind you i gather inspiration from the strangest places (a quick example: an economic magazine had an article on the dangers of greed within trading stocks and bam, i have an Archdevil of greed that lures people into deals to good to be true.)

    On a side note, my group and i hate Dungeon Crawls, the time it consumes to move through a dungeon is way too long and any type of random encounter bores my PC’s to death. They expect every combat to be crucial to the story and have a Micheal Bay-esque feel to it, :). Large Explosions, giant robots, scantily clad women, you know the type, hahaha.

    Thanks Chatty


  2. Hmm I’ve never really gotten the hang of one note, but that’s an interesting use for it. I’d never though about using it for D&D, just work!
    .-= Buccaneers Guild´s last blog ..Magical Minds #2 – Earrings of the Sidhe =-.

  3. @Scott: I too dislike ‘exploration style’ dungeon crawl where table-formed randomness rules 1/2 the encounters. I find 4e not ideal for such a model but I like giving PCs choices as to where they will go based on limited information (what Tracy Hickman calls a ‘closed matrix’). I also like closed environments more than outdoors encounters.

    @BG: One Note is perfect for adventure notes. You can copy paste anything in them, including stat blocs from any available monster maker (including WotC’s)
    .-= ChattyDM´s last blog ..Chatty’s Tales of the Arabian Nights =-.

  4. What do you do when an idea central to your setting, campaign, or adventure simply doesn’t, on further reflection, make sense? As in, what you’ve put together doesn’t hang together on a line and would likely raise too many questions and objections from the players or (worse, in my opinion) they discover a quick and easy way to “cut the Gordian knot”? This is my key problem. I feel like I have a lot of good ideas, but I don’t see how to relate them to each other or the world in a logical way that ALSO lends itself to a fun adventure with good interaction, motivation, and combat.

    Is this what you refer to as “getting lost in the details”? I’d be happy to set my fragile ideas aside, so as not to break them, except that I’m starting a new adventure soon and so many ideas are up in the air that I’m afraid it lacks focus (i.e. a middle, and an end.)

    Probably too many questions for a simple comment. Thanks for the article, though. I’ll see if I can put those templates to use.

  5. @Centauri: The issue of having fragile ideas is one I constantly battle with. I always need to get back to the ‘KISS’ principle and it hurts because I grow to love my ideas dearly.

    The adventure plan approach allows to focus on getting your core game ready as fast as possible. Take one solid idea that survives in your mind intact more than one day (I call this the anti ADD ‘sleep on it’ method) and build your adventure plan around that.

    Then focus on elements that will give you a complete adventure… then if you have time ask yourself ‘What cool stuff can I add’ and ‘How can they make sense in the structure I built’

    You’d be surprised how much crazy stuff you can add to an adventure.

    Hope that helps

  6. Would you see about maybe posting what your completed notes look like? A screen shot or a PDF from one note? I would find it helpful. It would be interesting to see how you add a “a stat block” and other things.
    .-= Youseph Tanha´s last blog ..All I Need To Know About Life I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons =-.

  7. I really wish I had time between work and the game I’m running tonight to impliment some of this. I feel entirely unprepared.

  8. You know, I only started running a game a year and a half ago. When I started, 4E had just come out, and I had hoped it would be as fun as it looked. Well, good news, it is, but in other news, I still haven’t nailed down any kind of system for prepping for DnD.

    Generally, though, I find the “less is more” approach to be best for me. I have a general idea of what’s going on in game (sort of like remembering the plot of a book, you have the major events pretty cemented in your head as you read). I have some random notes I’ve taken that I occasionally review to mine for ideas. But I mostly let my players dictate direction and content.

    This requires more improvisation skills than even I have. Fortunately, between the six of us, we manage to cover the improvisation bases. My most favorite line as a DM has become “You tell me.”

    As in, my player asks, “Have I ever been to this brothel before?” It wasn’t something I had considered, and rather than dictate to him, I let him dictate the story to me. So yes, he had been there before (and thus earned the title of “Best Paladin Ever!”), I gave him some diplomacy bonuses for dealing with the madam, and they managed to find the information they were looking for in a way that was enhanced because it became their story, instead of my story that they get the honor of participating in.

    It’s just funny to me, that you put all this elaborate attention to detail into your prep, and I mostly just wing it. How do you handle when players wholly derail your plot?
    .-= Jenny Snyder´s last blog ..A word from our sponser… =-.

  9. @Youseph: I might as a followup post, dredge an old game page and put it up. As for the monsters, I copy past the monster from WotC’s Monster Builder stat bloc as an image into my notes. It’s seamless.

    @Jenny: Ahhhh, I was waiting for the ‘but I don’t prep as much’ answer! I’m glad you did.

    My short answer to your question is: My player rarely if ever derail the plot. Mostly because they had a hand in influencing the story leading to the scenes I create. Mostly because they trust me.

    Longer answer will partly be in tomorrow’s post title “Do you try too much?” but it comes down to the way my brain is wired… I have a LOT of ideas, many of them I find would be great at the table, if I don’t put them down in an orderly fashion, they become jumble and a mess at the table.

    So brain wiring, DMing style and personal preference come in play here…

    So prepping a formal plan helps me a lot.

    Also, lets not confuse elaborate prepping with railroading 🙂 Sandboxing can be highly prep-intensive for some.

  10. Sounds like you have some awesome players 🙂 I think at some point my players completely derailed everything I had planned, and at that point I stopped prepping so much. I think my brain wiring leads me to be an all-or-nothing kind of prepper. Either I go total OCD and try to plan for every. single. possible. contingency, or I let it all go and sacrifice some detail for the sake of some personal sanity. I’m actually impressed by how much you prep–it’s not a task I think I could accomplish as well.

    Although I am still curious-you said your players “rarely” derail the plot, not “never.” Can you think of an example of when they did, and how you handled it given how much you prep?

    I’m still relatively new to DnD in general, much less DMing (I think the combined experience of my players outstrips mine by 50 to 1), so I don’t know if the “fail to prep too hard” is actually my style, or my fallback as I’m still figuring out how to handle things.

    I’ll tell you what, I’ve learned an awful lot about communication in the past year or so just by running DnD 😉
    .-= Jenny Snyder´s last blog ..A word from our sponser… =-.

  11. @Jenny: How much you prep is really a question off preference and where are your strength. If you have a hard time improvising then preparation is probably a good idea.

    As for derailing the plot… It’s rarely major most of the time it’s some minor detail. Although, Phil once thrown at us the equivalent of nuke and we just walk bye as if nothing had happen. It was a kind of spaceship in a fantasy game we where playing with GURPS at the time.

  12. @Jenny: There is no good or bad way to prep, provided that it does not contribute with your game being bad (and it often does… either way). It falls between ‘don’t fall in love with your game” and “respect your players enough to have something fun to play”

    As Yan says, I had maybe 2 player jumping the rails so to speak and seeing a US Air Force space ship crashed on their fantasy world was one of them. 🙂

  13. Need a tip for easy adventure creation in a clockwork world? Robo Rally. The maps contain 1 inch squares, and it comes with minis. Each board element and timing can be squeezed in to a 4e combat round. This is up next for my players and I can’t wait to see their faces when I pull out the boards. They only know they’re crashing a crazed artificer’s lair.

  14. Funny you should say this, I borrowed my old copy of the game a few weeks ago and it currently sits spread out all over my gaming table 🙂


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