After playing Dungeons & Dragons for about a year, it dawned on me that I could write my own story content for other Dungeon Masters (DMs) to use. As exciting as this was, I had no idea where to begin. I reviewed collections of one-shots to try and decipher the common framework for writing my own one-shot game.
Writing an adventure can be intimidating—but all you need is a bit of know-how and some creative juices flowing. Here are seven steps that will make writing your next D&D adventure much easier.
Step One: Find The Urgent Problem
This is where it all begins! The first step to creating your adventure is coming up with an urgent problem for the players to solve. This should be something that can only be solved with their skills and abilities, not just random luck.
Once you have your problem figured out, you can move onto the next step.
Step Two: Come Up With a Hook
This is one of the most important steps in writing your adventure. The hook should pull your players into the story and build momentum. It should connect to the urgent problem, but also give them something else as motivation – rewards, buffs, renown, uncovering clues – that will keep them invested in solving it. A great hook will draw in players and make them care about what happens next.
Step Three: Outline Your Adventure
Now that you have your idea and hook mapped out, it’s time to outline what each step of your adventure will look like when played out. Imagine playing through your adventure as if you were one of your players. What would success look like? Would they win or fail? This will give you a good foundation for building your story. Outline each step so you can get an overview of how it plays out before diving into more detail later on.
Step Four: Design A Great Map
Not every adventure needs a map, at least that the party gets to see. I’ve run my fair share of games where I had the location map on my screen and didn’t bother sharing it with the players. Either way, it’s helpful to mapping out location possibilities in your story. Alternatively, you can find a map and build your story around it! This is my favorite method.
Maps can offer a sense of direction and keep you and/or the party on track with objectives. There are tons of free mapping tools available online that can help you along. Even if it’s just a rough sketch at first, having something visual will help keep track of where characters can go and what obstacles may arise during play. Don’t forget to include details such as terrain features like mountains or forests!
Step Five: Turn Your Outline into DM-Friendly Writing
Now it’s time to flesh out all those details! However, remember that this document is meant for DMs (not necessarily players), so keep it concise and easy-to-read with bullet points, bolding key phrases/words, and cutting any fluff that isn’t essential. As you write imagine yourself designing one room at a time—this will help make sure nothing gets overlooked!
Step Five: Turn Your Outline Into DM-Friendly Writing
Once you have everything outlined and mapped out it’s time to turn it into DM-friendly writing! Your outline should serve as a foundation for your writing.
Your writing should speak to Dungeon Masters/Game Masters, not to players. Organize the information in a way that’s easy to read.. Short snippets of info that can be skimmed, including any reference material needed. Remember to keep it to-the-point. Writing a lot of backstory may be overwhelming.
- Use headers generously
- Bold and italicize key words (keep in mind, though, that italics cause problems for dyslexia)
- Use bullet points
- Use actual paragraph breaks (definitely not the standard)
- Include plenty of artwork
- Cut non-essential fluff (put your beautiful worldbuilding lore in a separate document)
Step Six: Lay Out Your Document And Add Art
Tools such as Canva, Affinity Publisher, and InDesign are great choices for building your PDF layout. For quick projects, I recommend Canva. For bigger projects, the most affordable professional tool seems to be Affinity Publisher. You pay one price for lifetime access to the software. If you hope to make the most accessible document you can, however, I cannot recommend Adobe InDesign enough. It’s a monthly fee to use the software, ranging from $30-50, which is unfortunate. But it has the tools for tagging, alt text, and other accessibility tools that Affinity has claimed they’re not focusing on anytime soon. (Boo) Use templates or pre-made layouts to speed things up, if you don’t want a plain document style.
Step Seven: Include The Right Legal Stuff
Make sure your document includes the OGL (Open Game License) to whatever system you’re using. For example, if you reference the SRD (System Reference Document) for Dungeons & Dragons, you’ll need to include the OGL for Wizards of the Coast. This will keep you safe from copyright infringement. Make sure to credit contributors and artwork. Failure to comply with proper licensing could result in legal consequences down the line!
(Update 1/10/2023: There may be a massive change to D&D’s OGL which will make it more difficult for creators to publish work using the D20 system. I’ll update this post when the new OGL is officially published.)
DMs Guild Publications
DMs Guild (Dungeon Master’s Guild) has its own rules for licensing and publishing work, which is significantly more lenient than using the SRD. You must simply put the logo on the cover of your work and include a licensing paragraph within the project.
Writing an awesome D&D adventure doesn’t have to be complicated or overwhelming – just follow these seven steps and soon enough you’ll have something awesome ready for your friends (or customers!). From developing ideas with urgent problems requiring skills from players to laying out documents with artwork – these steps cover everything you need know when crafting those amazing worlds we love so much.