Running the Game: Adventures

  1. Managing Game Sessions
  2. Running the Game
  3. Characters

I’m going to let you in on a really big Guide secret. Let’s say the adventurers are sitting in the tavern and they decide to go west, over the mountains, and you’ve never even thought about what lies over the mountains or how those mountains might be crossed. What do you do?

Make something up and run with it. Make it up, or steal it, as appropriate. You can steal game ideas from sources as diverse as current events and obscure music. Your favorite books are bound to have great ideas for adventures or obstacles to put the player characters front and center.

That’s what you do with everything as the Guide. You make it up, or you borrow it from someone else who made it up. It’s not even really a secret. It’s merely a question of when you make it up and how far you run with it.

Normally, you’ll try to make an adventure up before the game starts. There are only a few basic kinds of adventures. Most adventures are expansions and combinations of the basic adventures.

Adventures at their most basic consist of a group of characters taking part in a set of encounters. The other players will provide the characters. Your job is to provide the encounters. Often, these encounters will be placed on a map that you’ve drawn. Each encounter might be marked or numbered, and a corresponding adventure key will describe each marked encounter. Often, characters will not meet each encounter. The players will choose which direction to go, and their characters will meet encounters based on that decision.

An “encounter” is either a place, a creature or group of creatures, or an item or set of items. A place is a location, usually one of the most basic parts of your map. A forest, a river, or a castle are all places, as are the rooms within the castle. Places often contain other encounters. A place might contain a creature, an item, or another place, or any combination of these. A wilderness might contain a ruined temple as one place. The key for the wilderness map would then describe the ruined temple as it looks from the outside. But the ruined temple might have its own map, containing all the places (“rooms”) inside the temple. Places inside the temple are likely to contain encounters with creatures and with items.

Creatures are any person, monster, or animal that the player characters can interact with. A townsperson is a creature, as is a goblin, a dragon, or a deer or squirrel. A talking mirror might be a creature, if it is intelligent, or an item if not—or it might be both. Creatures will sometimes carry items. The manner in which characters interact with creatures will make or break the adventure in the minds of the players.

Items are things that the characters can take, manipulate, or view. Items can be treasure, tools, machinery, games, toys, furniture, or writing scrawled on a dungeon door. Gold coins are items, as are magic swords, books, or paintings. Characters will often collect unique and marketable items for later use or sale, or simply because the player feels it is within the character’s role to want that particular item.

Adventures: Campaigns

An adventure is a short story or a chapter in a longer story. A campaign is a series of adventures with some theme binding them together, or with some goal at the end that each adventure rises toward. You won’t know what the campaign is during the first adventure, nor will you know the theme. You probably won’t know what the campaign is during the second adventure. Because of this, your first few adventures should not be designed with a specific campaign end in mind. The players will pick up on what they want the campaign to be during those adventures.

Think of a campaign as a sculpture. Your friends are the sculptors, hacking away at your block of marble until the campaign shows through. Always pay attention to what they’re hacking away at. Even if you think that your group has decided on the campaign in the first session, watch the other players. They may have changed their mind. Sometimes what we think is going to be fun is not what turns out to be fun.

Create something to explore

The first step to creating an adventure is to create something to explore. The adventures on include a ruined castle with a secret dungeon (Lost Castle of the Astronomers, Illustrious Castle), a magical underground world with caverns leading to strange places (Vale of the Azure Sun), an abandoned mansion (House of Lisport), and a pair of fantastic cities and a modern gambling casino (Helter Skelter). Other fascinating adventures that I can recommend are an ancient shrine of an ancient race (Hammers of the God), the remnants of an ancient city (Caverns of Thracia), and a meandering passage through a mountain (Fell Pass).

If it’s interesting, and it can be explored, it should be a good adventure. Write a short description of what makes it an adventure.

The Order of Illustration formed to safeguard knowledge from before the Cataclysm. They traveled west from Crosspoint and established Illustrious Castle on the western face of the High Divide. The city of Biblyon grew around them.

The Order destroyed themselves when they tried to summon a demon in their secret underground complex. The demon still haunts the crumbling castle, and it is growing stronger.

After you know what the adventurers will explore, populate it with monsters and other non-player characters for the adventurers to encounter, as well as traps for them to spring and treasure for them to find. Make maps as necessary, and expand on the history of the location and its denizens as you fill out the maps. Think about reasons for the adventurers to want to go there.

The rest of this section will help you create more interesting and rich adventures, but that’s the basic idea. Create something to explore, reasons to explore it, and dangers within it.

Kinds of adventures

Dungeons and ruins

Abandoned underground settings such as dungeons, mines, and ancient cities, as well as above-ground ruins and castles, are wonderful settings for adventures. The ‘dungeon’ is not totally abandoned: it is now occupied by monsters. Some of its traps may still be functional, and there may be newer traps created by the newer denizens.

Dungeons will also often contain clues as to who used to live there, why, and why they don’t live there now.

There are many parts to the fun of dungeon exploration: discovering their existence, traveling to them, entering them, exploring them, and getting out rich and alive.

A variation on the abandoned ruin is the citadel or stronghold created expressly to protect or imprison a special artifact or creature. The traps in these dungeons will often be in full working order.

Kinds of adventures: Intrigue

Adventures of intrigue often happen in cities. The characters might get caught up in a rebellion or in stopping a rebellion, or they might be charged with the investigation of a crime that someone else doesn’t want investigated. Or they discover that there’s treachery afoot—or perhaps they are the treachery.

Adventures of intrigue don’t have to be overtly political. The classic hard-boiled detective story is an adventure of intrigue. If the story has “byzantine” plot twists, it is an adventure of intrigue. That’s what “byzantine” means: it’s from “Byzantium”, the Eastern Roman Empire, which was known for its byzantine plots and politics.

Puzzles and riddles

Whatever other kind of adventure it is, adventures are often puzzles that need to be solved. When you present the other players with a puzzle, you’ll need the puzzle to make sense, so that you’ll know, when they come up with a solution you didn’t think of, whether or not that solution will work. You will also need to make sure that you know of some solutions that will work and place clues around the rest of the adventure, but the most important part of puzzle adventures is letting the adventure react, like an ant-hill, to the probing of the player characters.

Kinds of adventures: Tactical

Where political intrigue ends, wars begin. Characters might join an army and fight in a larger battle under higher command, or they might lead their own troops in battle, or they might act as a special strike force.

Characters also can involve themselves in battle because they are protecting someone or a group of people from another group, as in movies like “The Seven Samurai”.


Some great adventures can be had simply traveling from place to place. Adventurers can marvel at new cities, meet new people, and see new things. Characters often travel between adventures, and this travel can itself be an adventure.

Sightseeing adventures are often a collection of “marvels”, strange things that they can tell stories about when they retire and return home.

Reasons for adventures

The reasons that characters go on adventures are much more varied. A king might send them on a quest to find a powerful item of magic. During this quest, they travel to strange lands, occasionally enter and search ancient ruins, involve themselves in foreign political intrigues, and protect helpless villagers from danger.

Or people are disappearing from their home town, and they investigate what’s happening. During the investigation, they solve a mystery, infiltrate the kidnappers’ stronghold, and engage the kidnappers in battle.

Or something evil is happening, and it sounds a lot like something evil that happened a long time ago to a near-mythical ancient culture. Can the adventurers find the ruins of that culture and search for clues as to what is happening before it’s too late?

Foreshadowing adventures

Foreshadowing means giving the characters clues to an adventure or adventure goal well before the adventure starts. For example, rather than giving them the tale of Eric the Bald’s treasure the night you’re going to start running the adventure, you have them hear it in a bar three or four adventures earlier. This adds realism and believability to the game—the game world doesn’t look as if it’s being created on the spot to fit the plot.

If you have a good idea of the history and cultures in your world, some foreshadowing will happen automatically. If you know that there was a war with goblins fifty years ago, you will have already had veterans of the goblin wars hanging out in taverns, and perhaps teaching the neophyte warriors how to fight. Later on, when you decide to run an adventure in an old, undead battlefield, you’ll have the goblin wars ready to use for that purpose.

It is relatively easy to foreshadow adventures. When you get an idea for an adventure sometime in the future, write the idea down. Later, have a troubadour, grizzled veteran, or foreign traveler tell a story about that adventure idea. Sure, when you sit down to actually write the adventure, everything isn’t going to match with the story the player characters heard. But that’s realistic, too.

The magic items that characters find can also lead them to adventure. If you think that you’d like to have an adventure in an abandoned underground Dwarf stronghold sometime, make one of the magic items that the characters find be from that stronghold. Not only will this add an internal consistency to the game, it will also make the characters that much more likely to want to follow that adventure. They already know that the Dwarfs of that stronghold built some useful stuff!

Foreshadowing adventures: Layering

If the characters are going to progress through multiple adventures, you will need to provide layers of knowledge in your world, layers which the characters will peel back like an onion. Clues left in previous storylines will grow to adventures after the characters “solve” or “complete” the current storyline.

Getting to the next adventure

Foreshadowing is a useful way of letting the players know where the next adventures are, but remember that having fun is not a riddle for the players to solve. If you and the other players have reached a decision about where the game should evolve or move, but this also requires some action on the part of the player characters, you’ll need to let the players know this. You’ll need to tell them what their characters need to do, and let them role-playing the characters realizing it. This is often important between adventures, when player character choices determine the next adventure.

Designing adventures

There is never a script to a Gods & Monsters campaign. Gods & Monsters is designed around “sandbox” play. A sandbox is a place for the players to explore. The players know only a vague bit about the world, a little more about the town they’re starting in (or visiting). There is no planned story in a sandbox, though a story may become evident after the players dig around. From the townsfolk and travelers the player characters learn about possible adventures, adventures that will trigger their “I will explore the ruins because” sentence.

Reading adventures is the best way to learn how to design them. If you’re in a hurry, Jeff Rients has a great tutorial on writing a quick dungeon in Fight On #6, “I Need a Dungeon Right Now!” How you build your adventures will depend on what you enjoy about building adventures. I enjoy making maps and concocting stories of ruin. So I’ll usually start with a vague idea, sketch a vague map, make a rough list of the things happening in and around that map, make a rough random encounter list, and then finalize the map in Inkscape. After the map is finalized I’ll write an introduction to the adventure and a description for each encounter area.

The first adventure is the hardest, because you’re starting from scratch. Afterward, I find it’s easy to listen to the players, watch their characters’ actions, and make new adventures based on what they want to do in the future. When gaming ends for the night, you should know what you’ll need to have ready for the next session. If you don’t, ask the players what they’re going to do next.

Build the town

Many adventures, especially the first, have a town nearby. Towns are complex, and any reasonably-complete description of a town will be unreasonably hard to use. So keep your town descriptions simple. Provide only enough to remind yourself later of the town’s feel. Then you can wing it when players ask for more information.

Name the town. Write a paragraph or two describing what it looks and feels like. If the player characters live here, describe it from the view of the townsfolk. If the player characters are visiting, describe from the view of someone walking into it. Consider putting it in a clearing or a valley so that you can describe it as they come over a hill or out of a forest on the outskirts of the town.

Name the tavern. Write a paragraph or two describing what it looks like and feels like when it’s busy. Name one of the bartenders or barmaids.

Name either the dry goods merchant or the blacksmith. They will have information about the adventure—rumors, most likely—and will volunteer the information as the player characters buy goods. “Looks like you’re setting up for a bit of a walkabout. Hey, be careful out there. You know what I heard?” And then comes a rumor about riches, dangers, and secrets.

Write a paragraph about one of the town leaders. He or she will be how the player characters learn more about the town’s political structure. Don’t worry if you change your mind later, they were misinformed or lying, or there’s been political upheaval.

Write about a survivor. If there are old battlefields nearby, write a paragraph about one grizzled veteran of the war. Or, if there was a disaster long ago, write a paragraph about one survivor. Or if the royal court is (or was) nearby, write about an ancient person who remembers it. This person always hangs out at the local bar that the player characters patronize. The veteran has information that might lead to an adventure! Maybe not this adventure, if you already have a way for the player characters to get there. But sometime later, you’ll discover something useful for this person to say. And they’ll probably partially, but not completely, contradict your merchant or blacksmith.

Optional: If there is something that this town is known for—riverboats, or the slave-trade, or scholarship—write a paragraph about one person involved in that activity. A riverboat captain, or a boat’s carpenter, or a slave trader or slave from a foreign land, or a scholar, or a bookseller. Describe them from the point of view of someone seeing them pass on the street. This person, like the veteran, will have information about adventures, possibly this one but definitely ones in the future.

Create a list of names. Write down six male names and six female names, with a blank space after each name. When the players need to meet someone new, you can quickly choose a name and write who they are in the blank spot. By writing down names ahead of time, you can collect names that reflect the history and feel of the culture. The Story Games Name Project can be helpful, but I also like to search on “language names”, replacing “language” with a language that’s close to what I want for the town. Then modify the names slightly, as necessary.

The Seven Pillars of Adventure

When you’re writing an adventure, it may help to keep a checklist of seven important parts of an adventure. You can often build an adventure by working through these pillars in order.

Something hidden, secret, or lost

At the center of the adventure is something that the characters want to find, will find, or must solve, if they wish to fully complete the adventure. The secret is why the adventure exists. It may be the ghost trapped in the dungeons, or the treasure buried by pirates, or a ritual performed long ago. Or it might be a noble family’s secret, or the real reason for war, or the true murderer in a murder mystery. The dungeon, castle, conflict, or mystery is built around this kernel.

The adventure’s core

The core of the adventure is a place or situation that might even be called the genre of the adventure: an abandoned castle, a dungeon underneath the ground, a war in progress or one that can be avoided, a mysterious crime, the defense of a town or individual. This is where most of your work writing the adventure’s situations, locations, and people takes place.

Discover the possibility of adventure

Somehow the player characters must learn that the adventure exists—preferably in a way that ties them to the adventure, that makes them want to go there. Is one of the relatives of the player characters—or even one of the player characters—suspected in the crime? They may find out about the adventure when they’re arrested. Or, through research, they may discover that something they want is rumored to be hidden in a lost castle. Many times, one adventure will lead to another: the captain of the guard had a treasure map, or the castle’s scribe recorded that they lost the Orb of Funiculata in battle against the Southern Kingdom.

Often in an ongoing game, the possibility of adventure will come first. The player characters have found a sword with Elvish runes on it, so the players decide to travel to the Elvish lands and learn more about the sword. The players have now handed you the something lost and a good deal of the adventure’s core, and they’ve taken care of the possibility of adventure.

Journey to the adventure

The player characters are here, and the adventure is there. The characters need to travel to the adventure. Whether it’s through the city streets or through a vast wilderness or down through the sewers beneath their apartment, there is a transition that takes place. What is this transition, and who do they encounter along the way? Will they be traveling from the docks to the castle? What kinds of encounters will they have toward the docks, and what kind of encounters toward the castle? Or will they be traveling from the great city to uncharted wilderness? How will their encounters change as they leave civilization?

Meet someone on the fringe of the adventure

Who lives around the area where the adventure is? Are there goblins near the dungeon? A farmer’s family caught up in the war? A streetwalker with her own opinion on the murderer’s motive? The encounter on the fringe of the adventure will have some knowledge of the adventure itself (otherwise, they’re just part of the journey to the adventure).

They might know something about where the adventure’s core is located, or know some legends of how it came to be. They may have been driven out of the area, or drawn to it, or they happen to live there and they’ve incorporated the adventure’s core into their culture and mythology. They might need to be protected from aspects of the adventure or outsmarted to gain entrance to it.

Puzzle or fight through the entrance

There’s a reason that the adventure still exists: something blocks the entrance. Perhaps the entrance is hard to find; perhaps it is well-guarded by monsters. Maybe the local constabulary doesn’t want any meddlers. Maybe nobody involved even admits to the existence of the crime. Or their treasure map contains a riddle, and only by solving the riddle can they gain entrance to the treasure vault.

They need to overcome an obstacle for the privilege of taking part in the adventure.

The return home

Don’t neglect the aftermath of the adventure. If the player characters are now heroes, play it out. If they’re now rich, describe how they’re treated, especially compared to how they were treated at the beginning of the adventure.

Or the journey home may be a gauntlet to fight through or avoid, because powerful forces covet the secret they’ve uncovered.

If they’ve cleared out a monster-infested castle, who waits to move in as they leave the premises? If they’ve ended a war, who is happy, and who is unhappy?

Listen to the players

You need a strong vision, but you also need to allow the players autonomy. In order to make an adventure interesting, it has to play on the players’ interests for their characters. At first and second levels, look at the “I will explore the ruins because” sentences that the players wrote for their characters. These are what they think they want, and they might be right. Pay attention to them and see if you can incorporate opportunities to engage these goals in the adventures.

More importantly, look at the specialties that the players have chosen for their characters. These are the things that make their characters different, and they should have the opportunity to use these specialties. Their specialties should play a major role in the adventure.

Also, look at the fields and skills that the players have chosen for their characters. In Gods & Monsters, skill bonuses don’t necessarily make a big difference to play, but they are things that the players care about. They should have the opportunity to use their skills in the game. Skills that are likely to be used with archetypal rolls should play a relatively major role in the adventure; other skills should play a minor role.

Design adventures that make their specialties, fields, skills, spells, and spirits useful.

Be generous

One of the hardest things about being an Adventure Guide is realizing that the players don’t see the world from your perspective. The characters have the whole world at their disposal. The players have you and the dice. All that they know about their characters’ world comes from the die rolls, your descriptions, and what you accept from their descriptions. Be generous. Be generous with your flavor text, be generous when you answer their questions, and be generous when they act as if they have misunderstood what you meant to say. Make your die rolls in full sight of the players so that they can see how hard or easy it is for their opponents to succeed.

Build it one step at a time

Juno Temple (Caspar David Friedrich).jpgDo not create an overarching story. Place many options in each adventure to intrigue them for the next adventure, and then let them choose the next adventure. As they progress through these adventures a theme will emerge, and you’ll be able to craft the wider vision of what’s going on in this world. Know that things are out there, and when the players ask about them, describe them. As they start focusing in on one direction, that’s when you start expanding what you know about that destination. For example, your map might show an abandoned temple in the wilderness, but you’ll put off writing the temple map key until the players show an interest in it.

Encounter entries

When you design adventures, you will often have entries for non-player characters that the characters may meet. Your notes may be as simple as “There are three ogres here,” or it may include a detailed description of the ogre family’s interpersonal relationships and what they’ll be looking for in any encounter with the player characters. For any encounters that the players may end up interacting with—especially if they may end up fighting with them—you probably will want to also note, in abbreviated form, the abilities of the creatures in question.

If the encounter listing involves a location, you may wish to include two descriptions, one for you and one for the players. The following example describes three ogres who are in their lair more often at night than during the day. They are evil, fantastic creatures that fight with spears, have a defense of 2, and have 27, 33, and 23 survival points respectively. The encounter is keyed as “23”, probably on an accompanying map of the area. The first paragraph is for the players; it is what their characters see. This paragraph is usually set off from the rest of the text in some way, and is called “flavor text”. The rest is for the Guide, and may or may not become available to the players’ characters, depending on the characters’ actions.

23. The Old Grotto

Faded marble columns, ancient and cracked, form a semi-circle around a large polished black stone. Vines twist around the columns, and bushes have overgrown the stone, nearly hiding it. Bones and garbage lie scattered about. An oddly warm and rank smell emanates from the cliff area to the south beneath a slight overhang.

This was once a place of worship for the Ancients. The area to the south is the makeshift home of three Ogres: three brothers who left their clan in the High Divide during a battle with the Dwarves of Feltarn. The brothers don’t like fighting; that’s why they left. While they will have no qualms about intimidating (and even fighting) weaker groups, they are more than happy to ignore them or (if the visitors provide the alcohol) party with them. The Ogres will also be open to barter. Alcohol, food, and things that make their life easier, are all valuable to them.

The Ogres (Metlyl, Tekyrn, and Yskern) are very knowledgeable of the Goblin clans in the area, including their relative strengths, animosities, and homes. They’ve even had a few run-ins with the Kotorvato (wolf-rider) tribe. While the Ogres won’t out-and-out lie to any moderately strong visitors, they won’t be averse to saying something like “I heard one of the kotors mention something about that” to any request for information about something the Ogres don’t know about. If the Ogres feel they could easily defeat the party, any lies are possible. Still, any charismatic and aware group should be able to acquire useful information from the three brothers.

The Ogres have little in the way of treasure. They’ve built a spit over a fire pit and put away a little bit of jerky for the winter. They also have three small obsidian wolf-statues “guarding” their fire pit. They took these from the worship area. They are finely crafted, worth about 100 silver coins and with a bulk of 10 each. The Ogres will talk to them as if they were real pets, but they’re just joking with potential marks. They might try to convince a gullible person that the little statues are magical and worth trade for lots of money or some real magic, or some task.

Three Ogres (Evil, Fantastic: 5; Move: 12; Survival: 27, 33, 23; Defense: 2; Attack: spears; Damage: d8)

The ogres are here 40% of the time at night and 95% of the time during the day.

Flavor text

When writing flavor text or describing an encounter to the players, consider what their characters see, what they hear, what they smell, what they feel, and what they taste. If you find flavor text difficult to write (but find it easier to have flavor text than to describe encounters impromptu), first list what, if anything, the characters would see, hear, smell, feel, and/or taste. List these sensations in order of the most obvious, and then rewrite it as a descriptive paragraph.

Write about the most obvious features first, then the next-most obvious, and so on. This will help to ensure that if you are interrupted by the players, it will also make sense for the player characters to have ignored what you haven’t yet mentioned.

After you write the flavor text, you’ll write information that only the Guide knows, but which the characters might discover through careful searching or judicious use of logic. If you expect to make this adventure available publicly, remember that there is never any need to hide things from the Guide. The more relevant information you can give to the Guide, the more prepared the Guide will be for all the strange ideas players come up with. This is also helpful for you: it is amazing what you’ll end up temporarily forgetting in the heat of a really good game session. I often bold important sentences or sentence fragments to highlight special abilities and triggering events.

Finally, keep your flavor text short. The players are there to act, not to listen. To paraphrase Vincent Baker, things happen in role-playing games because the players say something; cool things happen because the players say something cool. Design your flavor text with that in mind. Let the players be cool!

Encounter detail

Most of your non-player characters will be described as a short list of statistics, such as the ogres in the example grotto. You can find these statistics in the Encounter Guide. Within the encounter description you’ll note the creatures’ needs and motivations.

Some more important encounters will require more detail. Where necessary, you can add the non-player character’s six abilities to the short description, or at least the abilities you expect to need.

Finally, a few non-player characters are so important that you’ll need a full character sheet for them. Usually, this will only be necessary for one or two non-player characters in any adventure. These are the creatures who hold potential of being major antagonists if they survive their encounter with the player characters.

Designing adventures: Maps

Maps: Grids

You can find square grids for drawing maps at any good stationery market. If you can find “engineering” pads, some lines will be marked with thicker lines, allowing you to easily count large distances on the map. If the small squares below are 5 feet, then the larger squares are 25 feet.

You may add up diagonals in a square map if you add 40% to the length of a square’s sides. For example, if one square is five feet, a diagonal will be seven feet—and the diagonal across a large square is 35 feet. If one square is ten yards, the diagonal will be fourteen yards, and the diagonal across a large square is 70 yards.

Square Grids.png

I also have some simple blank maps available as PDF files on the Gods & Monsters web site, at

Hex grids are useful for wilderness maps, because they provide more directions. Cells in hex maps have six sides, allowing you to easily add up diagonal directions.

Hex Grids.png

Hex Distances.jpgIf you need to know the math, the distance between two opposing vertices is twice the length of a side. The distance between two sides (how you’ll normally measure a hex) is three quarters larger than a side.

This means that if you are counting straight across, each two hexes are three times the length of one of the hex’s sides. Usually, you’ll want to provide, on the map, the “diagonal” distance as well as the short or long distance, so you won’t have to do the math during the game. If you use two as the side distance, the diagonal distance is 3.5; if you use four as the side distance, the diagonal distance is seven.

Maps: Walls

In general, your walls on different floors should line up. While there may be walls on lower floors that are not on upper floors, significant walls on the upper floors will almost always be supported by walls or partial walls (such as columns or archways) on lower floors.

Because of this, floor plans for upper floors often look like simplified versions of the floor plans for lower floors.

Maps: Ceilings

In any large stone structure, ceilings will usually be vaulted stone. The floors of upper rooms may be wooden beams spread between the stone ground floor and the vaulted stone ceiling of the roof.

The vaulted ceiling uses the weight of the heavy stone (or other amazing material) to support itself, in a bit of real-world architectural magic. Underground, most rooms dug from the dirt or rock will also be vaulted, so that the dirt or rock doesn’t cave in on itself after the room is carved from it.

Maps: Doors

Always look to the purpose of doors when deciding if they have locks, if they close on their own or stand open, and whether they slide or have hinges.

If in a prison, hinges will be on the jailor’s side, for obvious reasons. Similarly, doors with external hinges usually open toward the defender. Otherwise, the attacker could remove the hinges. Decorative doors, on the other hand, usually open outward.

Some doors use pivot hinges, where an internal hinge runs vertically through the door and connects the door to the ceiling and floor. These can be especially useful for large doors in stone castles and at the gates of cities. They allow the door to open outward while still protecting the hinge from tampering.

Geographical Names

On your maps, you’ll need names, especially for the geographical features that you have (I hope) placed on your overall area map. You’ll want to avoid non-adjective names such as “cliff” or “jungle” or “river”. Each should have a name. You can of course make up strange names in strange languages, but it’s easy enough to evoke mystery and excitement simply by choose a color, a flora, or a fauna.

The cliffs near the coast are mundane. The White Cliffs of Dover are magical. A forest is a forest, but the Red Forest is its own beast. Even coastlines can be enchanted by naming them the Golden Sands, or naming them after a local tribe, such as the Barbary Coast. Faun River has a different feel than Stag River or Reindeer Pass. The Sunlit Grove should be a fine place for a picnic, whereas anyone crossing Old Willow Trail at night without magical protection deserves whatever is coming to them.

And when you start feeling like mixing things up, the Wyrmwood Marshes must be the home of some amazing adventures.

If that isn’t enough, consider replacing the geographical part of the name with body parts. Wolf Pass can become The Wolf’s Throat. The Red Lakes can become the Red Fingers. Stone Giant Hill might be the Stone Giant’s Knees. Other evocative names for geographical features are teeth, maw, hand, bones, backbone, fang, and claw.

It’s a lot more fun to cross the Devil’s Backbone by way of the Lion’s Maw than to cross the Generic Mountains through Mountain Pass.

Another great source of names for man-made features and for things near civilization, is professions, especially professions rarely used nowadays: Miller’s Crossing, Chandlers Dell, Knight’s Road, Woodward Lane, or Divers Alley.

You can add a sense of history to your locations by adding “new” or “old” in front of the name: The New Wyrmwood Marshes or Old Chandlers Road indicate that there’s another older or newer place with the same name elsewhere.

You may very well give your locations their descriptive names first, and then decide what they describe. Cool names can guide you to the content behind the names.

Where is my horizon?

Usually, the limit to how far characters can see will be some obstruction, such as a building, a forest, or some hills. Mist and darkness also limit vision. Sometimes, however, the characters will be on flat plains on a clear day and the only limit to their vision will be their perception and the horizon. Once something goes below the horizon, it can’t be seen. But where is the horizon?

Height Horizon
3 feet 2.3 miles
4 feet 2.7 miles
5 feet 3 miles
6 feet 3.3 miles
8 feet 3.8 miles
10 feet 4.3 miles
12 feet 4.7 miles
15 feet 5.2 miles
18 feet 5.7 miles
24 feet 6.6 miles
30 feet 7.4 miles
40 feet 8.5 miles
50 feet 9.5 miles
75 feet 12 miles
100 feet 13 miles
150 feet 16 miles
200 feet 19 miles
300 feet 23 miles
400 feet 27 miles
500 feet 30 miles
1,000 feet 43 miles
2,000 feet 60 miles
3,000 feet 74 miles
4,000 feet 85 miles
5,000 feet 95 miles
7,500 feet 117 miles
10,000 feet 135 miles
12,000 feet 147 miles
15,000 feet 165 miles
20,000 feet 190 miles

This unfortunately requires some math. On an earth-sized planet, the horizon for a six-foot tall person standing at sea level or on flat plains will be about 3 miles. This means that they can see features that are at ground level for up to three miles (depending, of course, on the quality of their vision and the size of the object). Features that are higher than ground level can be seen further. For example, two six-foot-tall people walking toward each other could, assuming all other conditions were perfect, begin to see the tops of their counterpart’s head at six miles: once their horizons meet, they are technically in sight of each other.

But, what if they stand on higher ground? This is where the math comes in. However high their eye is in feet, take the square root of that. Then multiply it by 1.346. That’s the horizon in miles.

A thing’s horizon is the same: the square root of its height in feet multiplied by 1.346. To see how far something can be seen, get that thing’s horizon, and add it to the watcher’s horizon. That is the distance at which the tip of the thing begins to come over the horizon.

Thus, the tip of a 200 foot tower could be seen coming over the horizon, by a six-foot person standing on a four-foot hill, at about 23 miles. Of course, this assumes that other conditions are fine, that there are no obstructions, and that the player makes a likely difficult perception roll. But we can also see that fifty feet of the tower will be over the horizon for that person at 19 miles—because that’s the horizon distance for a 150 foot tower.

Characters walking toward a 12,000 foot mountain will begin to see its peaks from 150 miles away.

The horizon is especially useful for describing geographical features as they come into view. You’ve got some leeway if you need it; atmospheric conditions can cause refraction, bringing sights that should be below the horizon into view. And it is still up to you to assign a difficulty level to sighting something above the horizon.

Designing adventures: Treasure

There are many different kinds of treasure, but it usually comes as rewards, money, things that can be sold for money, magic items, knowledge, and equipment.

Be careful how much money, magic, and knowledge your adventures contain; too much, and the game becomes less exciting, too little and it can be frustrating.

Treasure: Rewards

Rewards usually come after the adventure is completed; the adventure was part of a job that the characters were hired to do, and now their employers pay up. Or as a result of their adventure, they’ve assisted, freed, or otherwise done something nice for someone who rewards them out of gratitude. Rewards don’t have to be cash; they can be things that the rewarder feels are important, such as a good horse, a cart full of grain, or their daughter’s hand in marriage. Great wizards might grant magical assistance as a reward; gods might grant a boon, and rulers might grant status or land.

Rewards can lead to more adventure: land grants, for example, are often in places that the ruler thinks need taming.

Treasure: Money

Chests full of gold and silver coins, piles of gold: some creatures collect treasure in the form of money, and sometimes the money is what the characters were after. When money is found in a dungeon, it will often be “old” money from previous monarchies, previous dynasties, or even previous cultures. How this affects its salability is up to you, but in general, the more different it is, the more it becomes easier to melt it down than to use it as real coinage.

Money is the most traditional form of treasure, and carrying sacks of it out of a dungeon can be very satisfying.

Things that can be sold

Most “treasure” in “real” dungeons probably consists of this sort of thing. What we call antiquities have worth beyond what they’re made out of. Ornate wine pourers in the shape of dragons, jewelry, crowns, books, artwork, and furniture, all can, if well-made, be worth a lot of money if returned to civilization and sold.

Some such items will be easy to carry back. Others will be more difficult. A crown of gold is easy; a crown of gold in the shape of hundreds of tiny leaves attached to a golden branch will be more difficult. Such an artifact might be worth 1,000 gold coins or more if returned intact, but only fifty or so after being pounded flat due to being stuffed in someone’s backpack and trudged across country on the back of a horse, occasionally slung down to the ground or tossed across streams. Give fragile items greater bulk to account for their difficulty to successfully carry.

Magic items

Magic weapons and other artifacts can often be found on the corpses of their previous owners, or locked away in strongboxes in a stronghold whose knights were destroyed centuries past.

Treasure: Knowledge

Perhaps the greatest treasure is knowledge. Sorcerors are always looking for new spells. Maps lead to greater adventure and greater treasure. And journals provide insight into mysterious creatures, or hint at passes through impassable areas.

The journals of the now-dead denizens of one ruined castle can refer to more ancient ruins, which will contain more ancient treasure and more ancient danger.

Equipment and supplies

When you’ve been trudging through the desert for weeks and your water ran out two days ago, there is little treasure more appealing than water. Old weapons, extra draft animals, lanterns, flasks, all might be of use to an adventuring party, turning them from “dungeon dressing” into treasure.

Dungeon dressing

“Dungeon dressing” are things that probably don’t matter to the success or failure of the characters, but that add to the experience of being in the dungeon, ruins, or other location. Good dungeon dressing invokes a sense of realism, a sense that this dungeon really did exist before the characters found it. This location, whatever it is, had a use, and evidence of that use remains.

To add good dungeon dressing you need to know what the location was used for. What was it used for in general, and what were the last things to happen there? Did the royal family have a big party before the goblin armies surprised their forces and ransacked the castle? Then the royal ballroom will reflect this—there may be decorations, tables set up, and even leftover food, nearly petrified. Did the goblins break in during the party? Then there may be skeletons, both of the nobles and the goblins, among the party’s detritus.

If this was a place where an individual lived, what kind of an individual were they? Messy? Neat? Self-righteous? Proud?

When describing anything, especially when writing flavor text, consider the purpose to which the structure or room was put. Consider what it was last used for. Think about its light sources, and consider its state of repair. How much natural degradation has occurred, how much has occurred from animal sources, and how much from the raids and ransackings of humans or other intelligent creatures.

Light sources

Rooms do not have to have light sources; they can be completely dark. But usually the former denizens needed some way of seeing while in the room. It may be that they brought their light with them, carrying torches or lanterns. or there may be torches or candles ensconced in the walls. Perhaps windows or skylights allow natural light to enter the room. There might even be magical light illuminating the area.

Candle holders can range from simple to artistically complex. They can be carried, built into the wall or furniture, or in the form of hanging chandeliers. Fireplaces and braziers can provide heat as well as a flickering light.

In the time periods of most adventure campaigns, windows were usually either fully open or fully closed: glass wasn’t used unless it was for decorative purposes. An unshuttered window let in not only light but also breezes or inclement weather. Clear glass was a mark of luxury and status, and in the early period only let in light for illumination. Glass wasn’t clear enough to see through it as we can see through modern glass. It was only in the 1800s that glass-making technology advanced enough to make glass more common in average buildings. Until then, the shutter was the most common way of closing a window to keep the wind out.

Dungeon dressing: Portraits

Portraits are a great place to hide secret spyholes, secret doors, and secret safes. But they also weren’t uncommon on their own. A proud person might have a self-portrait. A dedicated follower might have a portrait of their secular or religious ruler. People might also have a portrait of their spouse, their sponsor, their child, their family, and their ancestors. They might have received a portrait of a friend as a gift.

Portraits can give clues to the state of life in the ruins before they were ruins. A portrait made before the mad prince’s room was boarded up might show a doorway where there is no doorway now.

Notes and books

Some kinds of people like to keep diaries; others might keep simple notes. Diaries of important or brilliant people can be as good as tutorials. A military leader’s diary might have more than information about the way the battles went, it might be a resource for ensuring that battles go well. Diaries can also provide clues to the layout of a building, or about rooms that aren’t obvious.

As children, we played in our secret attic playground. As adults we planned our wars there.

Professionals might also have copies of important books relating to their fields. Hobbyists might have books relating to their hobbies. Military leaders, surveyors, and guides might have maps.

People in the past were often much better at drawing than the average person today. It was a useful skill in an era before cameras. Diaries, notes, and maps often contain drawings to supplement the text.

Hobbies or preoccupations

Depending on the time period and the culture, certain hobbies may be prevalent. Many people grow or collect plants, or collect and perhaps catalog rocks, gems, insects, animal heads, or drawings of any of those. Some might collect marvels, or things that were marketed as marvels. Even in the real world unicorn horns were a popular item. All unicorn horns in a fantasy world don’t have to be real either.

“Naturalists” might also have the rudimentary tools of scientific inquiry. Scales, magnifying lenses (if your technological level allows it), flasks of various liquids, furnaces, bellows, and tongs might each be useful to various experimenters.

Dungeon dressing: Furniture

If people lived there, the kinds of furniture they kept can provide insight into the kind of people they were and the things they did. Besides normal furniture such as beds, bureaus, tables, and chairs, rooms might contain chamber pots if the structure didn’t have indoor plumbing. Kitchens were often completely separate to avoid a cooking fire burning the main building down. Were musical skills common? Musical instruments might be kept for playing or merely as decorations, like dress swords.

Dungeon dressing: Clothing

The kind of clothing a person wears tells something about them and their profession. Many professions have uniforms such as military uniforms, clerical robes, and chef’s hats. People have clothing for specific purposes, such as dances, dinners, walking, and sitting. Warriors might have weapons and armor designed solely for parade. Some professions will have functional clothing such as chefs’ aprons or warriors’ swords and armor. Sometimes they’ll keep these in special rooms. Others will keep such clothing in their main room, or in a small room (such as a closet) off of it. Depending on how the location fell into ruin, there may be clothing of different kinds on the dead (if there are any), or set out waiting for their owner to return and prepare for tea.

The material that clothing is made from, and the colors that clothing is dyed, provide more than clues to the culture that made and (possibly) wore the clothing. It provides information about the plant life that the makers used, who they traded with, and even how they used their tools.

Stylistic fads and lost motifs

If you’re familiar with architecture, painting, or any form of art, you know that there are styles and motifs that come into and go out of favor over time. The presence of these features tell us not only when the structure or item was created, but who created it and who influenced them. Stylistic variation provides information in the same way that layers of sediment and human remains do for geologists and archaeologists.

Sometimes such styles evolve naturally, and sometimes they are born from some popular or visionary artist. Including such stylistic markings adds verisimilitude to your ruins. Ruins of different ages will have different styles, and be inspired by different designers or sources.

Perhaps more interesting are the lost motifs that were once universal but have now all but disappeared. These indicate massive social or political upheaval—the kinds of things that make ruins for adventurers to explore. An observer unfamiliar with twentieth century history in our world would notice the near-universal use of the swastika in commercial, functional, and other art up until the forties. It appeared in postcards and in native American-inspired and Near East-inspired art. Go on any tour of a house built before the forties and you’re very likely to see decorative pottery and tapestry that includes the swastika symbol on it somewhere.

After about 1940, the swastika nearly vanished from popular culture. Where it continues to appear, its meaning is completely different, cluing our theoretically ignorant visitor into the fact that something major happened involving the swastika.

Clues like that to this kind of major event will not be obvious to the player characters immediately. It will only become apparent over time, as they observe (through your flavor text) art objects in the abandoned areas they explore.

Danaides Waterhouse 1903.jpg

Mysteries and clues

Many adventures have mysteries in them. Whether it’s the traditional mystery where a crime has been committed and the criminal must be caught; or the mystery of how the castle fell into ruin, or the mystery of how to stop the demon escaped from hell, there is a mystery and the players need to solve it.

The very presence of clues will sometimes be the signal that a mystery even exists. When you design the adventure you must have a clear idea of what happened. From this, you will think up clues and place them in various places and times in the adventure. You’ll want to place them liberally: the more important the mystery, the more clues it will have simply because it will impact the world in more places. In real life, there is rarely an event or thing that only has a single clue leading to it.

The player characters are unlikely to find all the clues, but for the most important parts of the mystery that won’t matter, because there will be more than one clue available. Which clues they find will affect how they tackle the mystery, of course. If they find all of the clues, the mystery will be easier to solve; the fewer they find, the more difficult it will be. And some side-mysteries might never be solved, because they did not find the single clue that would allow them to solve that sub-mystery. There’s nothing wrong with that. There will always be side adventures or extra loot that are fun if found but that don’t have to be found.

Mysteries and clues: Abduction

Role-playing games are interactive in a way that other games have not yet reached, and which current technology cannot reach. Player characters can interact with every single part of the game world, regardless of whether the Adventure Guide has previously considered that part. Because you have a high-level overview of what is going on, you can extrapolate consequences you didn’t previously think of in response to the strange and wondrous things the player characters try.

When your adventure involves a mystery, you’ll need to take advantage of this. You will never place all the clues that can exist, because the world is too big for that. You can’t foresee all of the possible clues that might exist; there will almost always be more than you can think of during the design process. This doesn’t mean that your mysteries are doomed to failure; it means you need to be open to the players searching in unexpected places for unexpected clues.

Because the player characters see the world through you, they must act abductively; they can’t just deduce the solution from what you tell them. They must poke and prod the world to uncover more clues. When they do this, they must think out loud, so that you know what theory they’re testing and what clues they’re looking for. If their theory is correct and it means that the clue they’re looking for must exist, then the clue does, in fact, exist—regardless of whether you have it in your notes.

They’ll basically be making science: constructing theories, making predictions based on those theories, and testing those theories against the world by looking for the clues they predicted.

You will need to encourage them to do this. It isn’t enough for them to tell you that they are examining the bedsheets. They need to tell you why they are examining the bedsheets. They need to explain that they don’t think the victim ever reached the bed, and so there isn’t going to be evidence that it was slept in.

If they don’t do this, you need to ask them to do it. If they try to hide their logic from you, you’re going to miss some brilliant deductions, and they’re going to not get the clues that really should be there.

Often, when their theory is wrong, it will not only not produce the clues they were expecting, it will produce clues to another theory. For example, not only do the bedsheets reflect someone having slept in the bed, they also contain hairs that do not belong to the victim, or it looks as though three people slept in the bed.

The consequences of not finding clues

Not finding clues does not have to stall the adventure. Not finding the clues will have consequences, and these consequences will mean that the adventure continues. Some clues grow bigger over time. The body in the attic is causing a blood stain in the corner; that stain will grow bigger the longer it takes them to find the body.

Many clues are not just one-time/one-location things. Some clues are events that keep happening: the dog that didn’t bark when the intruder stole the horse barks every time a new person approaches the barn. Clues like this don’t stop happening just because they’ve already been seen once. If they did, they wouldn’t be clues. The clue is that the dog barks at everyone except the culprit.

For those kinds of clues, the consequence of not finding the clue is that the clue becomes more obvious.

In other cases, the consequences of not finding clues is that the nature of the adventure changes. If the mystery is how to stop a murderer from murdering again, at some point the murderer will try to kill again. Either they’ll succeed, and the new murder will produce new clues, or the player characters will be in a position to stop the new murder; the adventure will shift from solving a crime to stopping a crime in progress.

The same can be true of greater mysteries: if the mystery’s solution is that an evil wizard is attempting to summon a demon, and the wizard successfully summons that demon, the adventure will shift from stopping the summoning to stopping the demon. It will shift from stopping something from happening to stopping something that is happening to ending something that did happen.

What comes next?

In 1928, Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp analyzed fairy tales for their narrative structure. As part of his analysis, he created a list of things that often happen in order. This list can help you when you’re stuck on what to do for the next adventure. Find what just happened on this list, and then look at the next few things to see if they inspire any great ideas.

1. A friend or family member of one of the player characters disappears. For a starting character this can by why the character lost their fortune (their father disappeared) or it might be the start of a quest.

2. A player character (or all of the player characters) are forbidden from doing something. The taboo might be directed at the player characters, or at their family, village, county, or country. It might be a new law, or a long-standing taboo. It should be a line that civilized people do not cross, but heroes do.

3. A player character violates a taboo or something they are forbidden from doing. They might do so deliberately, or they might have been tricked into it by an enemy. Perhaps they freed an evil they must now stop, or they have been exiled from their community for being different.

4. An enemy or potential enemy makes a feint to test the player characters, or enters the narrative looking for something that the character or their family (perhaps the disappearing family member) has.

5. Someone sells or gives information about the player characters to an enemy or potential enemy. Something that is relevant to that enemy’s plots and designs is currently in the hands of the player characters. The characters have the potential to foul up those plans, and the enemy knows it.

6. An enemy or potential enemy attempts to deceive a player character, family member, or friend in order to possess that person or some important belonging (often land or an heirloom).

7. The character, a family member, or a friend is deceived and unwittingly helps an enemy by passing information or by transferring ownership of something important.

8. An enemy or potential enemy harms a friend or family member of a player character. The victim might have been kidnapped, robbed, charmed, or cursed; or a curse was cast on their town or crops. Other common harms include planned marriages, imprisonment, and recurring nightmares.

9. The player characters discover that they need something important, or a family member or friend needs something to continue their way of life. The player characters are tasked with acquiring it. Or the characters discover a misfortune or lack in their community—or a community they’re traveling through. The characters are requested or commanded to assist. Or, as in so many episodes of Star Trek, they choose to assist even though their assistance is unwanted because it’s the right thing to do.

10. The player characters agree to a command, agree to assist the victims of a crime, or scheme to counter an unjust command.

11. The player characters leave home for the ruins.

12. The player characters are interrogated, attacked, or in some other way tested to prepare them for meeting a magical or divine power or to receive a powerful artifact. The characters may have to perform some service to gain the trust of greater powers.

13. The player characters acquire an artifact or gain the assistance of magical or divine power in the ruins.

14. The player characters are transferred, delivered, or led to their destination. In an adventure game, player characters should not be led, they should lead. However, some journeys can be mini-adventures, where the goal of the adventure is to defeat the journey: to cross an uncrossable desert, pass through impassable mountains, or discover a hidden path.

15. The characters and their enemy meet and enter into conflict.

16. The player characters are branded so that they are in some way recognizable to their enemies or to a benefactor. This might be a physical brand, such as on odor, a tattoo, or a haircut, or a gift such as a ring or item of clothing. It could be a wound received in combat, or an item the characters stole.

17. The player characters defeat their enemy.

18. Player character actions right a wrong or fill a need. A curse is broken, or the unjustly imprisoned are freed.

19. The player characters return home from the adventure.

20. The player characters are pursued by minions of their enemy or by someone met during a previous adventure. In fairy tales a rescuer might appear, but adventure heroes must save themselves, perhaps with assistance from new friends and new powers (specialties, spells, or improved fighting ability from increased level). The pursuer might be delayed by the characters, the characters might hide from their pursuer, or they might defeat the pursuer. The pursuer might be someone they were utterly frightened of at the start of the adventure, but who they now hold the power to defeat.

21. The player characters arrive home unrecognized or pass through the site of previous adventures unrecognized.

22. An enemy or false hero has taken credit for the player characters’ deeds.

23. More difficult tasks are proposed to the player characters. Riddles and tests must be overcome.

24. The player characters are recognized as heroes.

25. An enemy or false hero is exposed in the character’s community.

26. The player characters gain new powers. These most often will result from a level increase: the character gains a new specialty, or the ability to cast new spells, or greater skills. New specialties must always matter.

27. The enemy or false hero is punished or repents.

28. A player character becomes transcendent, and leaves the game by taking on non-adventurous roles such as marriage, nobility, or rulership. This ends the game for that character. Often in an adventure game, the end will come for all characters at the same time. Other times, a player will choose to let their character exit and start a new character afterward.

You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, slavishly follow these steps in order. They’re just guides. Often you’ll choose one from the first few to start an adventure. After an adventure is completed, choose something after right a wrong or return home. Some of them, such as gaining new abilities, are under the player’s control but can be worked into the game by you. When a character gains a new specialty, especially one of magical or divine import, it should first manifest itself at an important point, such as when the characters face a new task or when they reach a new destination.

Propp also lists six non-player character types to help push the adventure along.

1. The villain they strive against, who modern video gamers call the boss.

2. The donor, a mentor or benefactor who prepares the characters for their quest by giving them knowledge or a magic item.

3. The helper, someone who the heroes meet during their quest who helps them along when the hour is dark.

4. The princess or the king, who is either the object of the quest or who commands them to take the quest.

5. The dispatcher, who makes the characters realize what they are lacking and who sends them into the wild to find it.

6. The false hero or usurper, who takes credit for player character actions and who tries to benefit from their success or failure. The false hero isn’t necessarily aligned with the villain, but their morals are such that they don’t mind if their soul is lost as long as they acquire earthly reward. This is the uncouth non-player character who attempts to marry the princess, for example, by taking advantage of the king’s misfortune rather than adventuring to save the crown. Often the usurper is aligned with the villain and takes orders from the villain; other times the usurper is merely a once nice person with low willpower who has been duped. This Gríma-like character is to be pitied as much as vilified.

Adventures: Creatures

Creature level

Most of the grunt encounters of an adventure (you might also hear them called “disposable NPCS” or “mooks”) will be lower level than the player characters. For example, at first level the characters might encounter goblins or xolome, at second and third level orcs, skeletons, or walking corpses.

There should be a handful of potential encounters in the adventure that are the same level as or a level higher than the characters, perhaps with special abilities: a large spider or skeleton for first level characters, a crown of eyes for second-level characters, or a giant snake for third or fourth level characters.

The main opponent for an adventure should be higher level than the characters. A good rule of thumb is to take the highest player character level, and then add half the number of characters in the group.

Because creatures can also have special abilities, “stocking the dungeon” is a skill that you’ll want to learn: watch how easy or difficult the adventures are, and how that affects how much fun the adventures are to play. Then, in later adventures, adjust the kinds of creatures involved accordingly.

If the main opponent lacks any special abilities or is of animal intelligence, you’ll probably want to give it two or three extra levels to make it more challenging.

Creature variety

I find it adds a sense of reality, or grounding, to use only one or two special creatures in each adventure, and slowly cycle in new creatures as the characters gain experience.

In their first adventure, the characters might strive against goblin clans. In their next adventure, their opponents are goblin clans and orc taskmasters. As they delve deeper into the dungeon or forest, they find themselves up against orc clans and maybe an ogre or two, and suddenly there’s an element of the undead starting to show: skeletons, maybe the wandering dead. The next adventure involves stranger undead, and maybe the next one is mostly ogres with a smattering of orcs and goblins.

Every once in a while, throw in something completely different: they need to pass through a misty valley far from civilization, and the valley is filled with dinosaurs! Or, throw in a dungeon level filled with creatures of the chaotic mist, or a village that’s been taken over by giant spiders.

It’s hard to go wrong with giant spiders, skeletons, and dinosaurs.

The right amount of variety keeps the adventures interesting; too much makes them numbing and too little makes them boring. What constitutes too much or too little will vary from group to group; you’ll have to pay attention to the other players.

Wandering monsters

Wandering encounter charts are an acknowledgement that this is not a board game. You don’t know how long the players are going to have their characters remain in each location. You can’t plan for it by specifically setting each encounter. Your adventure, like their path through it, is not set on cardboard like a boardgame. You need to be able to choose encounters based on their actions and their lack of action.

“Wandering Monsters” are encounters that are not set in advance by the adventure designer. These encounters will be with a creature that inhabits the area the adventurers are in. This flavors an area with inhabitants whose existence is not based on waiting for the players to trigger their scene.

Your wandering monster table also provides you with a simple creature population for the important areas that the adventurers will travel through. Done correctly, this will give you a quick and easy way to see what creatures inhabit the area, and how often, on average, each type of creature is likely to be encountered.

I recommend making a quick overview table first. For example, in a forest far from inhabited areas, you might create a table that emphasizes animals and weird creatures.

Percentage Encounter
01-55 Normal Animals 55%
56-75 Fantastic Creatures 20%
76-90 Natural Encounters 15%
91-98 Humanoid Creatures 8%
99-00 Civilized Folk 2%

This tells you at a glance that in this area, only two percent of the characters’ encounters will be with what you call “civilized folk”. Fully 20% of the characters’ encounters will be with “fantastic creatures”. And 15% will be with inclement weather or other natural encounters.

In nearby areas you can use the same subtables, merely adjusting the percentages on the main table to make the area more wild or more civilized.

If you enjoy improvising, you can stop there and create the rest during the game. If you prefer details, create a separate table for each item on the main table:

Civilized Folk
01-50 Humans (d20) 50%
51-75 Elves (2d20) 25%
76-00 Dwarves (2d10) 25%

You can see that half the time, such encounters will be with humans, and if meeting humans there will be 1 to 20 humans in the encounter group.

Fantastic Creatures
01-20 Giant Spiders (2d4) 20%
21-30 Undead 10%
31-40 Dryad (1) 10%
41-50 Rock Dryad (1) 10%
51-60 Yeti (2d6) 10%
61-70 Walking Trees (1d4) 10%
71-80 Owl Dragon (tower, room 2) 10%
81-90 Green Dragon (courtyard) 10%
91-95 Living Light (1) 5%
96-00 Chaotic Mist 5%

There are two items in this list that are further categories themselves: undead, and Chaotic Mist. Presumably, somewhere in this area is a source of undead, and somewhere in the area is a manifestation of the Chaotic Mist. I try to avoid too many levels of tables. One overall table and one breakout table for each entry on the overall table is optimal. But in some cases, such as the Chaotic Mist, or an area where there are lots of undead, it will be easier to segregate those encounters into their own table so that you can see at a glance what’s in the Chaotic Mist, or what kind of undead have infested the area.

Two of the encounters in the sample Fantastic Creatures table have a location in parentheses, rather than a die roll for how many appear. There is a specific Owl Dragon and a specific Green Dragon living in this area, and no more. Encounters will be with that particular creature. You can get more information about that creature by referencing the encounter location.

“Wandering Monster” encounters from these tables may be chosen by the Guide with or without dice. If the Guide decides that there is going to be a wandering monster encounter, and it will be random, a “65” on d100 would indicate a “fantastic” encounter, and a further “59” would indicate a yeti encounter. Finally, rolling two d6 for “1” and “3” would mean an encounter with 4 yeti.

Natural encounters

Rather than create a system for weather, geography, and climate, I add appropriate weather events and geographical features into the encounter chart.

01-25 light storm (d100 hours) 25%
26-40 fog (d20 yards visibility for d8 hours) 15%
41-50 heavy storm (d40 hours) 10%
51-60 river crosses path (3d6 feet deep) 10%
61-70 thick foliage (d100 yards) 10%
71-79 exceptionally cold (d6 days) 9%
80-87 exceptionally warm (d6 days) 8%
88-95 steep ravine blocks path (d100+100 yards deep) 8%
96-00 quicksand (d8 yards diameter) 5%

Just as for creatures, this makes it easy for me to see, at a glance, what the area looks and feels like. This particular area is fairly wet.

How to populate the overall table

If it’s a fantastic area, there should be more fantastic encounters. If it’s mundane, more civilized peoples and/or animals. Think about the area in general. Think about the kind of encounters you want for the feel of the adventures that exist there. Are fantastic creatures common or rare? Is the area well-traveled by caravans, farmers, or brigands? Will the adventurers often be huddling in their tents from the damp mist or rolling thunderstorms, or will they be seeking shelter from sandstorms or the blazing sun?

Is there a special category of encounters you want to focus on? If so, give them their own breakout table. Dinosaurs in a prehistoric valley should have their own table. Undead in a necropolis are likely to have their own table. On the other hand, if you consider undead to be another fantastic encounter along with the others, then they don’t need their own section.

How to populate the breakout tables

Once you know the kinds of encounters, populate the breakout tables. Try to avoid breakout tables on breakout tables, but if there’s an extremely rare set of encounters, give them their own table so that you can track them separately. If there’s a rarely-used faerie ring in the area, for example, a separate table for faerie will help keep the encounter chance low while providing a potentially wide variety of faerie encounters.

1. Are any warring factions in the area? If they’re sending out patrols those patrols will show up on the Civilized Folk or Humanoid Creatures tables.

2. If you’ve sketched up nearby adventures, look at the encounter keys. What creatures will wander, or investigate strange noises, or prowl for victims?

3. What natural features does this area have that might cause problems? Waterfalls, rivers, streams, and canyons, if common, are good natural obstacles to put on the Natural Encounters table.

4. What mundane animal and plant life might constitute an encounter?

5. What’s the weather like? Interesting weather goes under Natural Encounters.

6. Who travels through this area? Do caravans pass through? Where are they from and where are they going?

The answers to these questions will populate your breakout tables. If, after answering these questions, the tables aren’t interesting enough, look at nearby areas and see which creatures that live there might pass through here.

Finally, glance through the Encounter Guide for the area’s environment, and cull common encounters from that for the appropriate tables. If you haven’t already chosen a creature that is unique to this area, now’s a good time to do that, too. It helps to have one or two creatures, even if they’re normal animals, unique to each area, to ensure that each area has its own unique flavor.

How often do encounters occur?

That’s up to the adventure’s designer and you as the Guide. Usually, encounter chances are listed as a percentage ending in zero, such as 30% or 20%, and a time period, such as once a day, or once an hour, or even every ten minutes. Wandering through a mundane forest, you might specify a 20% chance of an encounter per day. A busy dungeon might incur an encounter 10% each ten minutes or 30% each hour.

If the characters are doing something increases or decreases their chance of an encounter, modify the percentage. You might decide that they have a 24% chance of an encounter because they’re making a lot of noise in the forest. Or you might make an extra check whenever they do something that is likely to attract attention.

Large groups will incur more possible encounters than smaller groups. The encounter possibility should assume a medium-sized group of human-sized adventurers: four to seven members. If there are more members, the chance of an encounter will increase.

If there are thirty-three characters and creatures in the group, and the normal chance of an encounter is 30%, the real chance will be 45%. Of course, some of those possible encounters may decide to steer clear of such a large group. Most likely they’ll sneak around looking for an opportunity for robbery or mayhem.

Two small creatures count as one. Four tiny creatures count as one, and eight fine creatures count as one. Thus, if the thirty-three creatures above were all pixies (tiny), they would only count as nine individuals, so their encounter chance would be 35% instead of 45%.

One large creature counts as two. One huge creature counts as four. One gigantic creature counts as eight, and one titanic creature counts as sixteen. Three humans (medium), and three horses (large) will be a “group size” of nine.

Usually, encounter checks will be rolled more often in inhabited areas, and less often in wilderness areas. They’ll also be rolled for more often in dangerous areas than in mundane areas.

What if the players take precautions?

If the characters act in such a manner that the encounter you rolled doesn’t make sense, awesome. Give them some indication that they’ve dodged a bullet, so that they can bask in their cleverness. They might see the dragon fly overhead looking for prey, and missing them; or they might see the footprints of the ogres outside of their well-hidden campsite. Or they may hear the conversations of the necromancer’s guard beyond the wall of trees concealing them from the main road—some indication that their precautions succeeded, at the same time giving them information about what lives in the area and perhaps even clues to this or future adventures.

Bedding down for the night

It makes sense that if the characters are both not moving and not making noise, that they will not randomly wander into an encounter (they’re not moving, after all) and that they will be less likely to attract an encounter (they’re not walking around in armor, dragging packs around). Depending on circumstances, consider reducing the number of encounter checks by one when the characters set up camp outdoors, and halving them inside a dungeon.

Creating new creatures

When I create new creatures from myths and legends, I like to search a variety of sources. I have a collection of books about mythology and fantastic creatures, and I’ll look up the creature in each of those books, taking note of the parts I want to keep, the parts I want to ignore, and the parts I think might be kernels of more interesting ideas. There will often be references to similar creatures in other cultures, and I’ll follow up on those references. If these fantastic creatures are real, after all, the same creature may well appear under different names in different cultures, even though in real life some mythological creatures are similar only because they spring from the same human need. In your game world, similar creatures in different cultures might be the same creature seen from different perspectives. I’ll also use the Internet as one source for information. Many writers have researched specific creatures of interest and have placed that research on-line.

It is important to reconstruct not just the powers and appearance of the creature, but also its underlying importance, its niche within your campaign world. Find ways to reconstruct the culture of the creature. In real life, the creature’s culture is the same as the culture that created it, but in our “real” fantasy, these creatures have their own culture. Determine the powers the creature really has, as opposed to those that are mythological even in the fictional world you are creating. Look for origins. Where did this creature come from? Look for motives. What do these creatures look for out of life? Are they Evil? Good? Ordered? Chaotic? Or do they not care? Are they related to divinity, or to the faerie, or to the giants? Who put them there? What are they doing now? Where are they going? Are they part of some deeper cause?

Don’t neglect modern mythology either. Many novelists create marvelous worlds filled with unique versions of mythical creatures, as well as with original creatures.

Fuse all of these sources together and you’ll have a creature that, while it is clearly identifiable and could be its mythological counterparts, is also a unique addition to your game world. Every culture remakes its mythology. Be your own culture.

Adventures: Traps

One of the things that all dangerous, treasure-filled places have is traps. If they didn’t have traps, someone would have already taken all of the treasure. Now, because of the traps, someone who might have taken all of the treasure is lying dead in the hallway, or hanging from the ceiling, or stuck to the wall, their corpse glaring back at the adventurers, daring them to go further.

Traps can be pits, they can be poison needles on locks, they can be projectiles that shoot from the wall, they can be blades that slice, walls that tumble, ceilings that fall. The main reason that poison has a section in the rulebook is for traps. When magic is added to the mix, traps can teleport, sleep, talk, and do anything that a magic spell (or divine spirit) can do. The form of a trap is up to your imagination.

Traps pretty much do two things for the characters. First, they warn the characters that they’re on the right track. Traps are expensive and inconvenient to make. The existence of one indicates that something worth protecting is nearby. Second, traps provide the opportunity to die in surprising and gruesome ways—or to escape death by cleverness, skill, and luck.

Traps can do two things for the people (or creature) who built them. They can kill, or they can warn. That is, they can be secret, and try to kill everyone who passes that way, or they can be a visible warning that going further runs the risk of death. A trap that isn’t visible is not a deterrent. Consider, for example, the curse of the pharaohs. It’s displayed prominently to warn tomb robbers away.

Look carefully at your traps. Traps which do not reset after being triggered have probably already been triggered. Traps which do reset have probably been triggered at least once. There’s probably already a corpse or skeleton or two lying around. (Take a look at the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.) If no one else has set off a trap, it means that the player characters are the very first individuals to come this way. There aren’t likely any random encounters beyond the trap—random encounters would have set the trap off.

Traps are built using the resources that the original builders had access to, both skills and materials. Poor builders can’t build expensive traps. Unskilled builders can’t build complex traps (at least not and have them work reliably). Mundane builders can’t build magical traps. When sorcerors build magical traps, this means that they knew the magic that went into the trap. If you look through Lost Castle of the Astronomers, for example, you’ll see that the Astronomers’ spell research notes include the spells they used in their traps.

Traps that were built in once high-traffic areas must be easily disabled. Treasure is rarely put into a vault and sealed away; whoever put it there expects to return later.

Remember also that traps have a reason behind their design. Traps on treasure rooms aren’t there to kill thieves. They’re there to keep thieves from stealing the treasure. Certainly they can do that by killing the thieves, but they can also do that by deterring thieves from entering, by misdirecting thieves, by disabling thieves before they find the treasure, or by keeping thieves from leaving once they find the treasure.

Some of the same logic that goes into writing flavor text can help you decide what form traps will take and what evidence is visible. What is the purpose of the trap, what was it was last used for, and has it degraded in any way? When adding traps to your adventures, put yourself in the shoes of the builders. Anyone can create unbeatable traps on paper. The fun traps are the ones that make sense and which provide an opportunity for the player characters to do something.

Black River Crossing

There is no one way to make a dungeon. How you write yours will depend on what inspires you, what you enjoy doing, and how much time you have. If you enjoy maps, write map-filled adventures. If you don’t enjoy maps, keep your grids simple.

That said, here’s a simple process for writing a dungeon-style adventure, cribbed from Jeff Rients. If you’re in a hurry, you can use this to make a dungeon in half an hour.

Black River Crossing: Themes!

The first step is to choose three themes. I’m not talking English-major stuff here; I’m talking down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts ideas. What is the monster theme, what is the terrain theme, and what is the dungeon theme? That is, who or what are they?

I like spiders, dinosaurs, and skeletons. I’m going to choose “giant spiders” as the monster theme. There will be spiders in this dungeon.

The terrain can be anything from a city, village, forest, or mountain nook, to a cavern, underground lake, or lava river. What makes up the area around the dungeon? I’m going to choose a forest. A really thick forest.

The traditional dungeon is a series of underground rooms, but it can also be rooms in a single building (such as a castle or manor), a series of natural locations (such as meadows, trees, caves, and natural springs), a cavern complex, or a series of small buildings (such as a village or city block). I’m going to choose natural locations.

So this is my theme: giant spiders in a thick forest, spread around natural locations.

Black River Crossing: Sketch!

The next step is to sketch a simple map. Draw the terrain first, then draw the “dungeon” around or within the terrain. If you’re in a hurry, use a pen: it will keep you from revising what you’ve already done.

You can do this step in a few minutes. You know the terrain, you know what kind of places are in the terrain, and you know what kind of monsters live in those locations. Slap some terrain down, then slap some random places down.


Name and number the locations

You must name the locations. Names help you when it comes time to game: this isn’t just a small building with a spider in it. It’s an outhouse with a spider in it. Or a spider hiding behind Titan Rock. Or the ruins of Old John Grimble’s Farm. Whatever. Name your known locations if you haven’t already.

If you have a simple map, write the names directly on the map; if it’s more complex, number the locations and put the names on a sheet of paper along with the numbers.

This should take a few minutes, maybe ten or fifteen if you have a lot of locations.

Seed it with monsters and treasure

Your locations have titles. Now add your “theme” monster(s). Then, roll up a random encounter or two, or flip through the Encounter Guide to find something appropriate, and add a few non-theme monsters. Add a few words for each location describing what the creature is doing. Hiding? Ambushing? Prowling? Sleeping? Making tea and cookies? (Nothing wrong with putting a grandmother or two in your adventures, living out in the middle of nowhere, minding their own business.)


Now you know where the monsters are and what they’re doing. Which ones are likely to have some treasure? Write it down. Which ones have killed passers-by and are hoarding stolen treasure? Write that down, too, and maybe a note about where the passers-by came from. There may also be remains of their corpses.

If some of the monsters know each other, note their relationships, how they get along. You can make it as simple as “likes” and “doesn’t like”, or more specific such as “property dispute with”, “stole the sardonyx amulet from”, and “ate its cabbage”.

It should only take a few minutes per location to do this.

Add mystery!

Add something out of place: a mystery, puzzle, or anomaly. Something that doesn’t fit this adventure but leads to new adventure. Something for the characters (and players) to talk about. It might be a foreigner’s corpse, a map that’s clearly wrong, a map of a location that doesn’t exist, alien jewelry, a book in an unknown tongue about an incomprehensible thing, a simple note signed by an unfamiliar person in a nearby city. When in doubt, a map is the easiest and most versatile choice. The mystery will often tie into the “something lost” of subsequent adventures.

For this adventure, the meadow is the mystery. It’s not eerie because of the spiders. It’s older than the spiders. If you drink from the well and then rest in the meadow you’ll need to make a willpower roll or fall into a daze for d4 hours. There’s a 1% chance that if you fall into a daze, you’ll wake up remembering a fantastic land, like the Dreamlands of Lovecraft. Obviously it’s a dream… but it felt so real.

If you can’t think of a mystery, don’t worry. You don’t need one for every adventure.

Wandering Monsters

Make a wandering monster chart if necessary. Black River Crossing has spiders, a hermit, a poet, and Grimble’s ghost. It also has rain, fallen trees, sinkholes, and other travelers, most likely—whatever you add to the adventure, since it’s unfinished.

Here’s an example; there is a 30% chance of an encounter every 6 hours. The chance of an encounter can be from every few rounds to every few minutes to every few hours to every few days. Encounters should happen often enough to be interesting. If that part of the adventure is measured in minutes, encounters will have a chance of happening measured in minutes. If it’s a road they’re traveling through and the things they do are measured in days, the chance of encounters will be measured in days.

01-35 Area Encounters 35%
36-65 Natural Encounters 30%
66-95 Normal Animals 30%
96-00 Travelers (d12) 5%

To more easily assign percentile ranges, go to and list your creatures. It will generate a simple table which you can adjust by percentage; as you change the percentages, it will automatically adjust the ranges for you.

Area encounters

01-25 Giant spiders (d8) 25%
26-45 Goblins (2d8) 20%
46-61 Old poet (location 2) 16%
62-74 Swamp hermit (location 7) 13%
75-87 Grimble’s ghost (location 3) 13%
88-95 Webbed spider outpost (d6 giant spiders) 8%
96-00 Wyvern (location 6) 5%

In a webbed spider outpost, webs cover the trees and paths, making it difficult to pass without getting stuck, and impossible to pass without alerting the giant spiders.

Natural encounters

01-20 Rainstorm (d8 hours) 20%
21-35 Fog (d8 hours) 15%
36-50 Thunderstorm (d6 hours) 15%
51-65 Animal trail toward river 15%
66-75 Path blocked by fallen trees and undergrowth 10%
76-85 Animal trail toward meadow, swamp, or peak 10%
86-90 Sinkhole (d8 yards) 5%
91-95 Swamp gas (2d20 yards) 5%
96-00 Swamp gas explosion (2d10 yards, d6 damage) 5%

Animal trails are one to three feet wide and meander toward their destination around hills and natural features. They are a snap to follow: +8 to the roll.

Normal animals

01-22 Mosquitos (d100) 22%
23-39 Spiders (d20) 17%
40-54 Deer (d8) 15%
55-69 Squirrels (d12) 15%
70-84 Foxes (d4) 15%
85-94 Cougar (1) 10%
95-00 Poisonous spiders (d6) 6%

That should give you a start. Obviously, if you finish the encounter key, you’ll need to add your own entries into the list. I originally planned giant dragon flies for the swamp, but then I remembered Dave Trampier’s wonderful wyvern, and changed my mind. I’m also assuming goblins, perhaps in Ogre Valley or beyond Widow’s Peak.

If you’re in a hurry, you don’t need fully-adjusted breakout lists. Do the overall table, and then number the entries on the breakout lists rather than assigning percentages. You can roll whatever die most closely matches the number of monsters in the list.

The characters will likely take a day or two to explore Black River Crossing, and every six hours gives a good chance of something happening each day.

Using prewritten adventures

When preparing to run an adventure that someone else wrote, read over the adventure a couple of times to familiarize yourself with the settings, the themes, and the encounters. Take notes about what parts you don’t like, what parts you might wish to emphasize, what parts you might wish to de-emphasize, and what parts you might wish to remove or change.

Change the adventure to fit snugly within your own campaign. Look at the adventure from the other players’ perspectives. If they prefer certain kinds of adventure, you might want to add something of that sort. If they like tactical adventures, you might provide at least a diversion that allows them to take on another group of foes. If they prefer puzzles, play up the puzzles that exist, or add new ones (perhaps replacing one or two of the hack and slash room encounters with a puzzle encounter).

If you are not using the campaign world that the adventure was designed for, or if the adventure was designed without a specific world in mind, change the adventure to fit into your world. Replace the key figures in the game to match figures that already exist in your campaign world, or modify them to fit better with your world. Change names, towns, and creatures as needed. Statues of gods and goddesses should be renamed to match the gods and goddesses appropriate for the area you’ve dropped the adventure in, for example.

Re-read the adventure after your changes and look for inconsistencies you might have created. Also, keep an eye out for inconsistencies that already exist: some problems will get through the editing process. Sometimes problems that the author considered minor will turn into major problems in your own world. Do not be at all shy about taking a pencil and glue to any adventure! If the adventure is an open source one, take it straight to your word processor or text editor.

You can find great adventures in the magazine Fight On!, on the Dragonsfoot web site under Adventure Modules, and on The Biblyon Broadsheet in the Guidebooks section. I’ve also listed further resources at


  1. Managing Game Sessions
  2. Running the Game
  3. Characters