by Mike Shea on 14 July 2014
The D&D 5th Edition Starter Set and Basic Rules PDF describe the three pillars of gameplay that make up D&D: exploration, interaction, and combat. While these define well the main spheres of the game as it plays out at your table, the pillars of the game we might reinforce during our game preparation are slightly different.
In the Lazy Dungeon Master, we discuss the core philosophy of focusing our time and attention on the areas of our game that matter the most to the joy of the group. Most of this comes from eliminating the preparation of thigns that do not actually help make our game great. This might include deep stories, long histories, major plot arcs based on expected PC actions, detailed scene by scene adventures, and long campaign outlines.
If we aren't spending our time on these things, where should we be spending it? How can we best fuel the three pillars of D&D? What should we have on hand when the game begins?
There's no single answer to this question, but we can start with a simple skeleton of four things that, when interchanged, create a dynamic, detailed, and living world for our PCs. These include the following:
While the PCs drive the story at our table, NPCs take the role as the secondary drivers. They react to the actions of the PCs, moving in a new direction and changing the world organically, not one that follows a pre-described plot.
When we prepare our games, it's always beneficial to have a few NPCs on hand both friendly and villainous. Three of each type is usually enough. As we've discussed before in A New Method for NPCs, you can easily develop an NPC with an archetype, a motivation, and a good name. You can also use the random name generator to give them a good name.
Since our PCs have yet to drive the story forward, we don't develop full stories before our game has begun. Instead, we can start things rolling with a handfull of solid story seeds. A story seed should be no longer than a single sentence that describes the main motivator for an adventure. For a longer campaign, you might have up to three of these seeds all at once. Example seeds include things like:
A recent earthquake revealed a long-buried dwarven city older than any known dwarven nation.
A cult worshipping Demogorgon recently begin kidnapping orphans and prostitutes on the bad side of town.
An obelisk covered in an ancient language appeared in the center of a city turning those that read it into horrifying ghouls.
These seeds aren't full stories. You don't know how the PCs will deal with that seed and you don't know where it will go. It's just a spark, not the fire.
Adventurers need fantastic places to explore. Wandering around a boring town alone won't do it. You have an infinite special effects budget to develop something that will truly impress and inspire your players. Fantastic adventure locations should be unique enough to keep your game fresh but familiar enough that players can understand the inherent logic of a place. In this regard, follow Rodney Thompson's advice and focus on the three Fs. Make your adventure locations fantastic, familiar, and functional.
When you're looking for inspiration, take a look through classic D&D adventures. For specific encounter locations, follow Dave Chalker's advice and go through your pile of published poster maps to find specific interesting locations.
Like all inspiration, steal from everywhere whether it's the interesting gothic entrance to your public library or an ancient prison asteroid orbiting a black hole in Dr. Who.
Good D&D games need piles of fun monsters to fight. Once you have NPCs, seeds, and locations, you need to sprinkle in piles of monsters to threaten your PCs. Monster groups should make sense but sometimes its fun to turn the ecology around on its head. Maybe a gang of wererats infest the shadows of Baldur's Gate or maybe it's an uncovered and unleashed cult of Bhaal-worshipping assassin mummies. When you're preparing your game, be ready to jump to a set of stat blocks and throw those monsters into the game when you're group is spoiling for a fight. Your best tool in this regard is the old fashioned monster manual for your system of choice.
This is only one framework for building a fun D&D adventure. Like all things, your own experiences and the needs of your own group take precedence. The next time you're preparing for your game, consider trying this framework out and see if it sets the stage for a fun game at your table.