Thanks to a totally broken, inconsistent schedule that appears designed for me to have to drop every campaign, no matter how small or focused, I’ve had to force myself into the world of episodic play with my D&D games. No more epic story arc, no more level 1 through 14 campaigns (I never seemed to get higher than that); now’s the time of one-off TPKs, five-room dungeons, and quick skirmishes.
Scouring many sources across the web, I’ve attempted to gather some of the best advice on how to take published adventures and turn them into killer one- to five-session slugfests, delves, or survival-horror scenarios.
Most of the words in this article are not really mine, though I have attempted to add my spin and personal preferences to them. You’ll find a list of resources at the end; most are incredibly insightful, fun reads, so please do check them out and take what you need from them!
If you’re running an adventure at a game store or at a convention, keep the following rules in mind, modifying as appropriate for the needs of the adventure and your personal style. If this is your first time running, it’s best if you don’t deviate from these in order to get as close to the “official” D&D experience as you can (arguably it changes based on edition, but this serves as a great baseline).
- No more than 5 players. 6+ is often too much to get into their backgrounds much, and also slows down combat and intense roleplaying situations (negotiations, interrogation, etc.).
- No PVP (Player vs. Player conflict). Player Characters must always find a reason to work together, or at least, never operate directly against one another. (Notably, this isn’t necessarily true for other roleplaying games.)
- Tie their background to the adventure, giving them personal goals or missions.
- Create 2-3 pregens per major “role.” Roles could be the main class groups of fighter, magic-user, cleric, and rogue, or you could frame them less by class and more by the 4th Edition D&D roles of striker, leader, controller and defender.
Not using Pregens?
- Provide guided character creation to limit options.
- Give them a shared patron, background, enemy, faction, alignment, or allegiance.
- Don’t be open to a detailed backstory from the players for their characters. Stick with 1-2 paragraphs at the most, because the most interesting thing about the character’s life should happen during the adventure.
Whether or not the players will use pregenerated characters, give each character a mission (see Megadungeon Missions); some/most/all can have the same mission to give them more reason to work together directly.
Stolen in slightly modified form from Beyond the Black Gate. Roll 1d30, rerolling 30s (or just roll 1d20+1d10 and read #1 as 2, #2 as 3, and so on down the table), or simply have the player choose one and work with the player to fill in the details based on your DM knowledge of the NPCs, magic items, monsters, and events of the adventure.
- Rescue someone.
- Obtain pieces of a rare monster for a wizard’s library.
- Recover a lost tome.
- Recover the remains of a fallen adventurer.
- Map a portion of a level.
- Defile, re-dedicate, or cleanse a shrine.
- Confirm the validity of a rumor.
- Kill a monster that has plagued the town.
- Recover historical artifacts.
- Capture a rare beast.
- Bring back a rare plant or herb.
- Discover the fate of a missing hero or lost person of historical note.
- Loot a tomb for fun/profit.
- Raid a wizard’s laboratory for a rival.
- Secure a religious artifact.
- Open a magically sealed vault.
- Hunt down a renegade/rival adventuring party.
- Seal off a level.
- Carry out a curative fungus unique to the Megadungeon.
- Recover the magical gear of a fallen adventurer.
- Capture a valuable jewel.
- Bring back a sample of water from a deep lake or pool.
- Prepare a series of “safe rooms” with provisions.
- Copy an important mural for further research.
- Copy hieroglyphs carved into a wall for deciphering.
- Kidnap the consort of a powerful enemy.
- Debunk a great myth.
- Rescue a trapped adventuring party.
- Secure the bodies of (a) slain monster(s).
Where to Start?
- Provide a patron to keep the group focused, and give them information when necessary. It could be the same patron for the entire party, or individual patrons.
- Start with the adventure already underway; the player characters have already met.
- Start en media res to cut right to an action scene.
- Use flashbacks to establish how the party first met, was formed, or was hired by their patron. Also use them for any campaign world backstory that the PCs might already know if it might be useful in giving the adventure some context.
Preparing the Adventure
Take the time to read it.
Focus on the fun: skip boring parts; rewrite quests, collapse overly long sections or re-populate with monsters that resonate with your players.
It’s not an adventure, it’s a mini-setting: think of it in terms of sandbox locations, encounters, quests, and NPCs your party MIGHT interact with; focus on major themes.
Make it your own: jot down the interesting parts/components of the adventure on a 3×5 and use the rest as guidelines.
Break the adventure down into a distinct outline:
- Prep (find location, shop, hire);
- Travel (guide/map, random encounter check, track resources);
- Encounter (encounters, plot twist);
- Final Check (see how much time is left, more random encounters if necessary, return to homebase).
Give the Player Characters a mission…or have them develop their own to really get into the adventure (see the Megadungeon Missions, above).
The Five Room Dungeon Approach
Whether building your own dungeon, or co-opting a published adventure for a single night of gaming, consider reimagining it as a five room dungeon:
- Guarded Entrance: Make the players and or the characters really have to work to find a way in, whether it’s beating down some guardians or doing some scouting and puzzle-solving.
- Puzzle: A big, tough puzzle doesn’t have to be a complete brain twister, but it does have to be “big enough” to fill a room. It could be a gauntlet of traps, or monsters working in tandem with traps. You could also use complicated lever systems to open various doors or fill rooms with water into make another area accessible, but make sure to add some kind of time limit or there is little incentive to do things quickly and under duress. Wandering monsters are a great time limit of sorts, but traps and other triggered events work well, too.
- Red Herring: Maybe it’s the doppelganger of the main badguy, or maybe it’s the appearance of a new enemy that the players might misconstrue as the force behind the dungeon. You could also use this moment to place treasure or even cursed items, but make sure to work them into the…
- Big Finale: The Big Bad End Guy shows up, and all the events culminate to create an epic showdown. Keep in mind the things that make for a great encounter, including not just a powerful villain, but also interesting terrain features, minions or reinforcements that could show up on later rounds of combat to change the flow of the battle, traps, and puzzles that might weaken the boss.
- Twist: Similar to the Red Herring, a twist might show that there’s more to the main bad guy, even if he was defeated, giving the players the sense that there’s a greater world or more insidious evils left to be defeated. Alternately, it could be a reveal that some mission the characters had is now finished, or cannot be completed…but make sure you don’t rob them of a feeling of victory. Give them some sense that they are closer to “winning.”
- World Building Room (optional): Though this could be an otherwise empty room simply filled with murals of campaign world backstory, it could also be a specific encounter with traps, monsters, or even friendly NPCs that provides more context for the dungeon, or a greater sense of what evils will occur if the players fail to win/survive the Big Finale.
More than most of my articles, this work is largely me simply standing on the shoulders of giants and reworking their genius toward my own ends. The vast majority of this article uses the words and ideas of others, so please visit the following pages to see the origins of this article, alternate (and better explained) ideas, and fantastic lists of Do’s and Don’ts associated with running published modules, great roleplaying game sessions, and advice for writing your own adventures.
- Beyond the Black Gate (search for the “Episodic Play” series of articles)
- Sly Flourish: Using Published Adventures
- Running D&D Encounters? Don’t do any of this
- 8 Things That Ruin D&D Games
- First time DM looking for tips on running a one-off session
- How to quickly plan a fun one-off session?
I’m now going to take some time to focus on the preparation portion of that process a bit more closely, spelling out my methodology on how I choose what’s important and how to pull that information out into a useful reference useful both during preparation and when running the module.
Previously, I broke down preparation of an adventure module into the following advice and steps:
- Take the time to read it.
- Focus on the fun.
- It’s not an adventure, it’s a mini-setting.
- Make it your own.
- Break the adventure down into a distinct outline: (1) player characters prepare for the adventure, (2) travel to the adventure site, (3) encounters, and (4) DM final check and wrap-up.
- Give the Player Characters a mission.
Focus Your Preparation
The Cheat Sheet
Obviously, reading the adventure is the best place to start, but in order to make reading more productive, you also want to take steps to remember what you’re reading.
Now, for some people (like me), I need to read through the thing once without doing any other work, but by my second read-through, I’m taking notes, and that’s where things truly begin. My first set of notes is — preferably on a single sheet of paper — a listing of the locations, encounters, and treasure. Those are the biggest pieces of any D&D adventure, so getting all of that distilled into a short-hand format on a single piece of paper makes it immediately accessible during all other stages of prep.
Think of it like a comprehensive cheat-sheet, missing plot information only. This list contains:
- Location or area title (i.e. “Castle Zagyg” and then “Level 1: The Upper Works“).
- Room or location number on the map (in bold), followed by a simple listing of any monsters, NPCs, traps, or other encounter subjects, and then treasure. For example, “#2: goblins x5, Greznik (goblin leader), spiked pit trap. 105 silver, short sword +1, potion of heroism.”
So it might look like this on a sheet of paper:
Level 1: The Upper Works
Area 1-1: goblins x2, worg; tripwire alarm. Set of bone dice (5 gp), 150 cp.
Area 1-2: goblins x5, Greznik (goblin leader); spiked pit trap. 105 sp, short sword +1, potion of heroism.
Area 1-3: Empty
That’s the simplest way you can distill information down, I think, but it necessarily concentrates on room name/location, monsters, traps, and treasure. You’re missing all of your set dressing and any context for what’s in there. As a cheat sheet, that’s not really a problem in most cases because you’re generally referring to the adventure for the details anyway. But the design of some adventures can get in the way: overly verbose adventure writers or text-heavy, important plot locations may be very dense to parse in play, and so some DMs would rather spend extra time distilling the adventure down to useful notes and setting the adventure book itself aside for only occasional referencing.
One of the best systems I’ve seen for getting all the information down in a very logical format can be found at Hack & Slash: On Set Design. The system there notes the set dressing, places monsters or traps on a separate line (followed by an exclamation point ! in order to make it easy to find at a glance) and then shows where treasure is placed. The logical flow of information arrows -> even shows how certain features can be interacted with, such as the case when treasure might be hidden in a secret compartment. Their example:
Small Alcove 32) | Refuse, Furniture, Bones->in corner, 8 Ghouls!(AC 6, HD 2, +3/1d4-1/1d4-1/1d6, Para 1d6+2, ML (20) XP 175)Ornate Iron Armchair-> Dwarven, decorative cobalt inlay (900gp) 65lbs. + Bulky.Blanket (60gp) Chiffon, covering-> ottoman, Hollow slate upholstered in woven twill. (200 gp) 35lbs. + Bulky.-> Gem, Kunzite /mi (202 gp)-> Human sized Iron mail (Chain +1, weightless)-> Fleece Pouch (Pouch of Accessibility)-> 3 Scrolls (Scroll-Protection from lycanthropes, Scroll-Cursed,Scroll-Cleric, spell levels 1,2,4,5,6,6)Sack, Moleskin(10gp) Horsehair cord->platinum aiguillette-> 3 vs/vf Rubies (400 gp)-> 400 gp, 200 hs, and 80 pp
Next, I make a photocopy of (or print out) the maps I need. Generally, I will stick to the “main” map (if there is one) so that I’m not drilling down into room-by-room details at this point, but am looking at the larger picture.
If the module has multiple such maps, then I’m gonna print out all of them that matter immediately to the events of the adventure. I spell that out here because there are times when modules give you a “contextual” map — usually a larger-scale wilderness map — but only the dungeon map of one location on that contextual map is really important, so I skip printing out the contextual map. I’m really only concerned with the adventuring site.
Ultimately, this map copy is to serve as the companion to my cheat sheet. If I lay the two side-by-side, I have a broad overview of the entirety of the adventure, and can easily see visual cues: where do certain monsters lair, what are the various routes the players can take, and how do certain monsters, treasurs, and other features relate to one another in terms of distance and accessibility.
In some cases, I will make two copies of the map, transposing some of the most important encounter/treasure information from my cheat sheet onto the second version of the map if it helps me visualize things better.
Example: I used this latter method for the adventure N1 Under Illefarn, because it includes a fairly complex map and only a few fixed encounters, but a lot of information on overall territory that is controlled by each of the major NPC factions (necromancers, orcs, and dwarves). Transposing information directly onto the map gave me a much better view of where encounter tables changed, where patrols might be located, and how fixed encounters might interact with the wandering patrols of each faction.
If you are doing any conversion work, or are simply unsure of the balance of an adventure, now’s the time to run the math. You have the cheat sheet listing all the monsters, traps, and treasures, so it should be easy enough to plug these into a handy dandy online Encounter Builder spreadsheet or verify if the treasures are a bit too pricey for the suggested levels of the adventure.
This step is simply an optional check, but that cheat sheet should make it a breeze to do this, making you more comfortable with the underlying assumptions of the game system.
This final step is where the cheat sheet and maps meet the plot portion of the adventure, however little their might be. More importantly, it provides you with the tools you need to really tailor the adventure to your group of players. It begins with lists that you might find in the tips from The Lazy DM or from the Mythic GM Emulator.
You want to make lists of the following things.
The Plot Threads. These are the major quests, sub-quests, and plot hooks that will come up during the adventure. There may be few (“find such-and-such treasure and bring it back”) or there may be a ton of them, different ones for each potential patron or NPC the party runs into, but either way, making a list gives you a sense of what the adventure is about. Don’t detail the plots, simply list them: at most, one sentence each, but probably simply key words or quest titles is all you really need.
You can then use these as a guide when running the game, add a page reference to each in order to find the pertinent details in the module, and cross them off as they are completed (or closed off due to the events of the game session).
The NPCs. This list should include any named NPCs, which doesn’t always mean just the “major” ones. At the same time, you don’t want to drill down to the list of monsters on your cheat sheet, because you’ve already done that work. This list should represent characters who will show up and — at least theoretically — should have different personalities and roleplaying traits.
Don’t detail them on this list (unless it’s a single word or phrase to help you remember some roleplaying tips, like “Sean Connery” or “meek”), but instead use this list as a way to guide any random encounters, cross off names if the NPC is killed or disabled, and otherwise organize the people that may be connected to the plot threads list. You never know when they may recur later on, or when you’ll need to pull them out of your hat for other reasons that we’ll see below.
Player Character Bonds. Bonds are a mechanical doohickey in Dungeon World that provides a clear connecting statement between two player characters. They serve to provide context to the players as to why their characters are together, even if they may be different alignments, factions, affiliations, and so on.
I find it best to write a handful of Bonds individually on index cards, and simply pass these out to the Players at the beginning of the adventure to tie the group together. Keep them generic, and tell the Players that they can interpret them how they like, and the players get to have a round of introductions for themselves and their characters that immediately brings them into the game world, and likely gives you, the DM, various additional plot threads to hang the players with!
You can then create a list of them to reference on your own, if you wish, or you could simply add any useful information to the Plot Threads list.
Rumors or Motivations. Like Bonds, I tend to write any random rumors or potential motivations for the player characters on index cards to be handed out. The key I’ve found here is that every one of them needs to be directly tied to some aspect of the adventure that is fundamental to it, thus ensuring it’s useful information (even if it’s a rumor that doesn’t actually reveal truth). The point of this is to give the party a reason to go on the adventure, beyond simply being hired to do so. Also like Bonds, I try to keep them generic, but still related to the adventure.
Example: In Under Illefarn, I might have a rumor about the dwarven faction that goes to a dwarf PC, ensuring an emotional investment from them once they enter the mines, and for a human PC, I’ll have one that explains a life-debt owed to the Duke.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s all done in the prep, and that means you’re showing up to game night with everything you need to run the adventure already done, potentially for multiple sessions.
If it’s something that will last only one session, it’s likely focused and short enough that the cheat sheet and any lists are small, and thus manageable.
If it’s a multiple-session adventure, you’ve just ensured your prep work for every session beyond the first is simply a couple sentences explaining what happened; you’ve already crossed off the dead NPCs, closed off any completed Plot Threads, and checked off the rooms visited on the Cheat Sheet or the map you printed out.
Want a more in-depth look at taking notes for published adventures? Check out this article!
If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.