Advice Blog

Writing your own adventures

After getting a lot out of what Johnstone Metzger had to say on the subject, I wanted to add my own thoughts on writing adventures.

By now, I hope you’ve all read Johnstone Metzgers’ tips for making your own Dungeon World adventures. From what I’ve seen from him recently, he’s definitely someone worth listening to when it comes to adventure-writing advice. That said, I feel like after over a year of adventure-writing myself, I’ve picked up a few things worth saying myself. So, here’s my two cents.

How are your people skills?

I’ve been re-reading what Johnstone’s written, as well as some of my personal favourites and the stunning things that John Harper has been putting out in his Patreon, and it’s reminded me that at their heart adventures are about conflicts, and conflicts are about people.

It’s easy to forget this. “The fight between the ostrasized frogmen, lost civilisation and ambitious industrialists” is a terrible name for a product, but probably more accurately describes the content than “The Green Scar”.

But when making an adventure, start with the people. In Dungeon World, this is easy – it’s the heart of a monster’s instincts and your fronts and dangers, so start with those. Describe what they’re looking for, how it’ll get in the way of the players’ wants and what will happen if the players do nothing to stop them. If you’ve got the people down and feeling right, you’ve already got the minimum for a DW game.

“You all meet in [the Dungeon World] tavern…”

So start an adventure with the people, right? Not necessarily. Don’t forget it’s the GM who’s reading your adventure – they’re likely looking for a quick hook to convince them this is a game worth running.

When it comes to actually laying out the adventure, it’s better to start with an exciting opening crawl, Star wars-style, or describe the environment in what the characters can see, hear and smell. Marshall Miller does this very well – one of my favourite adventures is the Shallow Sea. With a combination of an arresting title, descriptive impressions and leading questions for the PCs, Marshall sets everything up for a GM to quickly throw their players into the action.

As a writer, Michael Prescott reminded me recently you shouldn’t be afraid to be prescriptive – this isn’t the time to worry too much about ‘leaving blanks’. If you’ve set the scene and characters in an arresting way, you can be confident the GM reading will find their own ways to tweak and find their own blanks.

What the players don’t know

If this were a guide to writing adventures for Pathfinder, or any other traditional RPG, this would be the part where I say “this is the meat of the adventure.” But the truth is – and for traditional GMs, this can be tricky to grasp at first – in Dungeon World, there’s a lot of things the GMs don’t know, and that’s a good thing.

Take maps, for example. People always ask me to include more maps in my adventures, especially ones who’ve come from D&D et al. I’ll be honest with you here – I don’t really like including maps in my adventures. Compared to Dyson, Michael and others my map-making skills are rubbish; but more importantly, I never have a map prepared for a game of Dungeon World in advance. Don’t need it. It’ll be prep that goes to waste.

What tends to work a lot better are locations. Johnstone does this excellently, as does Michael. When describing a location within a dungeon, think of it as a mini-love letter to the players – set the scene, tell them why they’re in trouble, and get them rolling dice so you can start making moves against them.

A lot of people have commented on how useful it is to have pointers for when the players Spout Lore. In theory, this is something you might come up with on the fly based on what the players have already told you. But in practice, when the players put you on the spot it can be tricky to make up something just like that. Being the GM means always thinking two steps ahead of the players – this is why it’s important to have an idea of fronts and dangers as soon as possible, so you can know in broad strokes the consequences of the player’s failure.

And the rest

As far as monsters and treasure are concerned, it comes back to the Dungeon World end-of-session move. You always ask “did we loot a memorable treasure?” and “did we overcome a memorable enemy?” What isn’t obvious at first is this move refers to the players, not the party. Depending on the context, a battle against a couple of humble cave bears might become the most memorable battle of a parties’ career.*

Like with the spout lore examples above, it’s useful to have the stats for a few enemies and items prepped in advance. Most likely, you’ll think of some appropriate creatures when deciding on the people in step one, so this tends to follow naturally. If not, there’s plenty of examples to get you thinking in the DW rulebook, or on

Finally, if you can think of something appropriate, one last ‘epilogue’ custom move is a great way to sign off – almost a ‘reverse love letter’, something to set up next week’s game. If you do this, make sure there are no comfortable results. No matter what the players roll, it must lead to more trouble!

To be continued…

Well, that’s my 2 cents on the topic. I hope you’ve found it useful – what sort of things would you like to see more of in adventures? Let me know in the comments, or on Google+.

* In one of my games, a barbarian, cleric and templar of around level 7 nearly died to two absolutely normal cave bears after they kept rolling misses! They eventually succeeded, but the next time they need to enter a darkened cave you bet they’ll be a lot more cautious…