The Adventure-Writing Process (Basic and Advanced)
These are diagrams/sketches I draw when I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna write an adventure--(I've censored out stuff my players haven't seen yet on the off chance they'll be able to figure out what any of it's supposed to be).
Basically the idea is to figure out what kind of monsters and items and tricks are going to be in there--and, to some degree--how it's all supposed to fit together.
Me: So when are you gonna finish writing that adventure?
Mandy: I don't know--I'm scared.
Me: What's scary about it?
Mandy: Well, I just don't know if it's good enough. I mean, I know what kind of things I want to be in the adventure--I know what mood I want, but I don't know how to get it.
Me: Just remember, the people want to imagine the things that you're saying. Like, if you say "There's a giant red mushroom with green spots" the players are gonna imagine a giant red mushroom with green spots because they want to imagine it--they want to play the game and believe it and have fun. You don't have to describe it all. What you really want to do is focus on setting up a situation where the players do the kinds of things the main characters in the kinds of stories you want to use do. Like if it's a Night of the Living Dead thing then you don't have to worry about describing decaying faces and graveyards and all--the players will already be doing that. What you need to do is set up a situation where the players have to like fortify a location and decide who gets the rifle and worry about who they can trust and whatever else people do in those movies.
Mandy: Well I've already got a map and monsters on it, am I done? I mean, there's all these cool items and treasures and I think "Oh, that'd be cool" and I get overwhelmed, I don't know where to put everything.
Me: When you're starting out, just treat the monsters like problems the players need to solve--they're the main thing. The items are there, if the players run into them, it changes the problem a little. Like if you get a sword that is +1 vs. rabbits and the players know there's a rabbit monster one way and a different monster the other way then they'll fight the rabbit monster first. You don't have to make it all make sense on the first go. Just focus on the monsters and stuff like that and then the items are like extras that can change things around if the players find them.
Mandy: Well, then, am I done?
Me: Do the monsters have stats?
Mandy: Well I didn't do that yet...
Me: Well pull out the books and stat up the monsters you're going to use. You might get some ideas while you're doing that. Just having the books there and having to think about that stuff can give you ideas about what else could be in the adventure.
Then Mandy gets a phone call from her sister.
So anyway, while they're keeping me awake at 5am on a Saturday night with their real problems, I'm sitting here trying to think up some good adventure-writing advice for Mandy.
What I want to do is just sit down with her and the stuff she has so far and just go, "Ok, let's do this and this and this..." but then, of course, it wouldn't be as fun for me when it comes time to go through the adventure as a PC. Unlike many of us, Mandy didn't spend hours of her youth drawing little boxes on graph paper and filling them with sinkholes and pit traps and crevasses and whatever else was on the Red Box map key and then slowly building up DM expertise from there.
So, anyway, if you can think of any specific ideas about things that could help someone finish off that first adventure, post them here.
What probably won't help is links to pages full of general "how to write an adventure" advice or links to published adventures. We've got lots of that in the house already. What Mandy needs at this point is to simplify the process rather than to have more options laid out for her.
When you're writing your second or third or fourth adventure you can worry about "Hey, why not have a whale's stomach be a dungeon?" and "Why not have a trap that isn't a trap unless the PCs think it's a trap?" Right now the idea is to simply lay out what you need to make an adventure decent and DMable.
Here's an example of a simple tip that worked: When it was time for Mandy to draw a map, she got a little worried about how to do that right--so I suggested she could print out a map of a forest from a video game and then just change the key and start filling in things she wanted in the forest, and then that'd give her a sort of feel for how maps work.
So, here's where we are:
The adventure has a format (it'll be mostly location-based and mostly linear, I'm guessing.)
The adventure has a setting (a spooky enchanted forest) and it has a map.
The map has monsters in it, and probably one or two distinct "places" within the forest.
Mandy has lots of interesting magic items and ideas she might want to use.
So, if you have any simple ideas about how to seal the deal, or how to tell when an adventure has reached that critical mass where it has enough stuff in it to support at least one session of play, or tricks you can use to push an adventure over that critical mass, post your ideas here.