Darak realized it took them 4 weeks and many spells to gather enough information to find the hidden tomb of the lost emperor, a long dead powerful wizard. His tomb was buried deep in the jungle where any adventurers would have to survive before they attempt to steal his treasures. Darak, and his companion Roogo, suffered through insect infested swamps, quicksand, poisonous plants, snakes, and disease to finally make it to the tomb. Now after disarming the first of many traps they continued to the second strange room within the dungeon…
A colorfully tiled circular room was before them. All the walls were covered in frescos of battles with ancient beasts. Each eye socket was a hole within the wall. Roogo pulls out a lock pick and a lens examining the floor and the walls noting the correlation. “Aha, once you step on a tile spikes will shoot out from the walls I figure. I would not be surprised if it was poisonous.” As he finished the sentence a swooshing sound began. Four magical blades swung from left to right across the width of the room. Each was a haze of ghostly metal but seemed as if it could cut a man in half with ease. They appeared near the ceiling and swung across the whole of the distance. Darak grasped his staff and prepared a defensive spell “so now we have to dodge the spikes and the blades. Anyway to disable this Roogo?” The master thief thought then shrugged, “I don’t think so.”
Suddenly a booming voice came from nowhere. It must have been the voice of the long dead emperor wizard. “Fear what is before you, look back to find wisdom.” Both men scratched their heads. “What the hell does that mean?” says Roogo. Darak turns around and catches something glowing above his head on the ceiling of the room, “R-e-s-n-i-k-marot” he pronounces slowly. Suddenly there was a click and the blades disappeared. Each adventurer looked at the other in amazement. “It can’t be that easy?” says Roogo. He takes his torch and presses down on a tile. A click sounds but no spike shoots out from the walls. Roogo slowly makes his way across the room carefully testing each tile before he places any weight on it. He makes his way without incident. Darak follows in his Roogo’s exact footsteps to get to the other side. Both men are stunned.
As they look back Darak exclaims “did that make any sense to you at all?” Roogo scratches his chin “damndest thing I ever seen.” Both men sit there for a moment and start talking with each other about why the hell a person who wants to keep his treasures guarded from intruders would make such an obvious trap with an even more obvious solution….
Does this seem all too common? Many dungeon masters come up with elaborate puzzles, rooms, monsters, and areas that while individually seem interesting, just make no sense to the overall scheme of the adventure. In this example why would a long dead emperor that does not want to be found leave such an obvious trap and an even more obvious answer to get by it? These are things DMs need to consider when making an adventure but on a broader scale.
Usually the idea is to start with a plot and go from there. So we take that approach and see one way to make it work. This is only a suggestion but it is how I create adventures.
“the helm of Gorosh has been stolen, it is up the PCs to get it back.” That is a simple enough idea that just popped in my head to make an adventure. But go beyond that. What is the helm? Who is the villain? What is his goal? What obstacles must the villain overcome? What would you do as the villain to achieve your goal? Notice I am looking at this from the villain’s point of view not the adventurers.
A DM can answer all these questions in succession. I suggest to start with a background. This is why I think it is very important to have a history with the main focus of the adventure be it an item, person, or place. Something in the past the villain can attach to. Now place yourself in the villain’s shoes and work from there. Think evil, be evil, figure out the best way to achieve your evil goals with the main focus and why.
What is the helm?
It gives strength to an army in battle through magical means. It was used by the Furyondy legions to defeat Iuz in a great war about 500 years ago. The helm is neither good nor evil, just a tool.
Who is the villain?
A power hungry lord in the land of Iuz, named Tanus, from the Red Skulls faction.
What is his goal?
Expand his power within the land of Iuz to gain favor from the god. Iuz respects strength and boldness.
What Obstacles must he overcome to achieve his goal?
He is fighting constantly with his neighboring faction, The Klan of Fist, within Iuz and can never expand his influence. Wars are planned, fought, and stalemated.
What things could the villain do to achieve his goal if you were him?
I would attempt to gain advantage over my opponent in the field of battle, by killing their leaders, and bribing their army with gold.
#1 Gain advantage in the field of battle: I would need an item of power or a creature of power to give me an advantage. I think an item of power is better, it does not betray you as easily.
#2 Kill their leaders: I would have to hire assassins. But then again common assassins can’t be trusted and ones that can are too expensive. I would need killers that have a reason to murder the leader of the Klan of Fist. It doesn’t matter if the reason is a lie as long as their hearts were devoted.
#3 Bribe their army: It is not easy to bribe thousands of men or orcs. But perhaps I can bribe a select few discontent subordinates for information.
Think like the villain: I will steal the Helm of Gorosh from Furyondy. I will dress my men in the uniforms of the faction I oppose to place blame on them. Meanwhile I will send spies to Furyondy to observe what they will do, once they discover the helm was stolen. Most likely they will send a group of mercenaries, adventurers, to retrieve the helm. Furyondy will not risk war as they are too weak. I will intercept and offer the mercenaries an added incentive of gold and magic if they also kill the leaders of my enemy. I will appeal to their greater good for all. I can trust good to destroy the greater of two evils from the purity of their hearts more than paid assassins. If the mercenaries are killed or succeed in their mission it will be enough to distract my enemy and allow me to attack with my armies lead by my hand and the helm. Either way its when they least expect it. I will keep the helm hidden away deep within my own keep until it is needed. In case my plan is discovered I can use the helm to defend my kingdom. If the plan succeeds the mercenaries are of no consequence anymore and I know who they are, thus I can easily defeat them if they survive their mission. By the time they discover the truth I will have conquered my enemy and have control of twice the army I once had and the helm, muhaha, MUHAHA, MUHAHAHAHAHAHA!
The Adventure: The Helm of Gorosh has been stolen! The clues lead to Iuz. Symbols from the Klan of Fist were found on one of the dead thieves sent to steal the item that was killed in the assault. The leaders of Furyondy do not want to risk war with Iuz, they are too weak currently. They have called upon your party to go into Iuz and retrieve the Helm. The Klan of Fist is a powerful humanoid faction in Iuz that constantly wars with others to gain power, it is the only way they think. If they become the ruling faction and gain favor with Uiz they just might convince the old god to start a war with unprepared Furyondy.
Later that evening the party is approached by a representative from the Red Skulls within Iuz. He is under a flag of peace and requests an audience with the party. He informs them that he knows The Klan of Fist has the helm for certain and it is their leader that is blood thirsty. The representative offers a reward to kill the leader of the Klan of Fist. “We only want stability in Iuz as neither side, Iuz nor Furyondy, is prepared for war” and appeals to the greater good of the PCs.
The Plot: The adventurers don’t know that the helm is in the hands of the Red Skulls. They must figure out the truth and follow the real clues. As a DM now you have two ways the adventure may go. Either the PCs figure out the true plot early or late in the adventure. They will drive the direction the direction of the adventure, which appeals to many gamers. Design the stronghold of both factions as if you were the leader. How would you make it? How would you defend your capital? What resources would you need to maintain a keep? How would you protext the helm if you ere the leader of the Red Skulls. Use resources available to each villain whether magical, mechanical, or muscle. Now you have an intricate plot with surprises. You can add minor details to the plot to make it more interesting, perhaps they take on a henchman that secretly works for the Red Skull. Perhaps the original creator of the helm is a lost relative of one of the PCs. Perhaps the main villain will be betrayed by one of his own men.
In Conclusion: After you determine the main focus of the adventure be it an item, place, or person, design from villain’s point of view. Start with the broad scope and work down to details. Personally I find it more interesting and easier to work allowing for various endings and sub-plots. The above example I created as I wrote this article. If I attempted to think the idea through from a story line perspective it would take me much longer and I would not get the true grasp of what the villain really was trying to accomplish.
Examples: One adventure I really enjoyed was Return the the Tomb of Horrors. It placed a reason behind the original module. Only the strongest souls survive Acererak’s tomb because he needs only the strongest soul for his main plan. It put a reason behind the tomb’s existance. An example of a bad adventure design is White Plum Mountain. Why would a wizard that just stole the realms three most powerful weapns contruct such a complicated place, in an obvious landmark, that is easy to navigate. If I remember correctly his actual lair was below the mountain where the PCs could not get to. Think about it.