How I Improved My Homebrew D&D Adventures

A few years back, I published my homebrew D&D adventure skeleton. This template was the basic skeleton I used to create homebrew adventures, mainly for Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, because there was nothing D&D specific to the formula. But, my template for homebrewing D&D adventures has changed. Over the years, I’ve added, removed, and altered pieces of the original adventure skeleton to suit my homebrew D&D adventure needs. So, I thought it was about time to share the updated version with you. As a warning, this adventure skeleton isn’t the end-all-be-all of homebrew adventure creation. I have a living resource document for adventure creation that’s over 50 pages. But, everything in that living document is centered around this adventure template. It’s just a bunch of extra support to get my creative juices flowing. 

My current adventure skeleton for homebrew D&D adventures is broken into five sections: Ideation, Start, Middle, End, and the Adventure Crib. Let’s get started discussing the new homebrew adventure outline with Ideation.

Homebrew D&D Adventure Ideation & Overview

I always assumed in my previous adventure skeleton that you would already have an adventure idea in mind. However, the distance between “I need to create an adventure” and “I know what I want to make my adventure about” can be a vast chasm. Now, I include a pre-planning section at the top of my homebrew D&D adventure outline that I can use as a reference for the rest of the adventure’s creation. And I believe every good adventure starts with a kernel of an idea to build off.

Idea Kernel

The idea kernel is a short phrase or couple of sentences that encapsulate what you want to build an adventure around. Usually, it springs to my mind as, “It’d be cool if X happened in the game.” An example I often use for an idea kernel is a “Flying Dutchman-style Airship.” That’s all I need at the pre-planning stage. Everything I do in adventure planning should drive and highlight my idea kernel. If I were making Curse of Strahd, it would likely say, “Dracula,” “Castlevania,” or “Vampire Hunter D.”

Adventure Motif(s)

I took this from an interview with one of the D&D devs a few years ago on homebrew D&D adventure building; I can’t remember who it was. The idea is to add one or two motifs to your adventure to use as aides without defining the adventure. For example, I could have a very standard save the noble’s absconded kid from highwaymen, with a dragon motif. So the highwaymen may use a dragon as their symbol, the magic sword the party finds has a dragon scale pattern etched on the blade, the local tavern is named The Dragon’s Roost. Think of it as the homebrew adventure creation equivalent of the DM’s names list. The motifs give you a quick source of answers for your adventure by creating these thematic links between unrelated elements.

Pillar Mix

It’s a singular statement: “This adventure is mostly X, with some Y, and a little Z.” Replace the variables with the different pillars of play. 

I began adding the pillar mix statement to ensure each play pillar was represented while ensuring I varied the emphasis on different pillars of play throughout a campaign so different player types feel their favorite part of the game gets equal treatment. You also need to be thoughtful about the kind of players you have at your table. You might generally create homebrew D&D adventures with social encounters holding the Z position. But, if your table is full of Slayers and Power Gamers, they probably won’t enjoy an adventure where the social pillar holds the X position. Instead, consider swapping social and exploration pillars in the Y and Z position. That should keep your blood-lusting players appeased while still offering variety to your adventures.

If you want to quantify the statement, I think of it in six encounters/scenes/challenges. Out of six encounters, three should be the primary pillar, two should be of the second pillar, and one should be of the tertiary pillar. These aren’t ironclad numbers, just 50/33/17% guidelines.

Homebrew D&D Adventures: The Start

With the adventure ideation sorted, I will have started to conjure up the beginnings of what the adventure may look like. That means it’s time to start planning the actual homebrew D&D adventure. Over time, the inciting incident or framing event and quest giver sections of my original adventure skeleton mutated into the start section of my current adventure template. I started first by breaking up the framing event and inciting incident into two separate points or scenes in the adventure, described below.

Framing Event

The framing event is my establishing shot for an adventure. As a DM, I zoom in on the party’s current location and take turns highlighting each of the PCs and what they have been doing at the location. This framing is very useful if they traveled to the current location based on a previous adventure hook, did some shopping with the last adventure’s spoils, or want them to explain what they’ve been doing during downtime in between adventures. Once I establish the background of what happened between the end of the last session/adventure, and now, I hit them with the inciting incident.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the scene that kicks off the adventure and engages the players. There are two considerations I use for constructing an inciting incident. I think of whether the scene happens during the action or later and if the inciting incident is an active or passive event. Let me illustrate the differences using a bar fight scene as an example.

Active/Now

Two bar patrons in an argument get physical, one unintentionally elbows a bystander in the face, and the whole scene devolves into a fistfight that sweeps up the PCs. The scene is immediate, and it acts directly on the PCs. They can try to exit the bar, but people will actively throw punches and grapples at them. 

Passive/Now

The PCs are walking down the street past the bar while there is a commotion inside. An NPC comes crashing through the window to land right at their feet. The scene is immediate, but nothing acts directly on the party. They will need to engage with the NPC actively, so it’s Passive.

Active/Later

The town guard drags the PCs out of bed and lines them up with the other inn patrons. During a bar fight earlier in the day, someone pulled a knife, and now there’s a body and a murder investigation. As well-armed non-locals and inn occupants, the PCs have to defend themselves against serious allegations. The inciting incident acts directly upon the PCs, but they are dealing with it after the fact.

Passive/Later

The street is wet and stinks of ale. The PCs can find the source in a shuttered tavern. The tavern staff are tossing buckets full of ale into the street from the flooded basement. The PCs will need to engage with the scene to learn about the cellar’s ale butts being smashed during a bar fight earlier in the day.

The most important thing I try to remember with my inciting incident is to show, not tell, my players the problem. I want to paint the scene, the action, and the emotion. If I can make the inciting incident interesting or exciting, I can get my players engaged and on board with the adventure. Once I have them hooked with the inciting incident, I transition them to the Call to Action. 

Call to Action

The Call to Action is a permutation of my previous Quest Giver segment. I wanted to switch it up because there’s not always a living person that acts as the Call to Action for the players. Finding a treasure map or having someone hand the PCs a sealed letter, breathing instructions with their dying breath are also effective Calls to Action. 

The specifics of the Call to Action segment for homebrew adventures are primarily unchanged. First, I want to explicitly detail the current situation and the adventure’s goal. Additionally, I also want to make the stakes and consequences crystal clear to the players. What happens if time expires, the party fails, or they decide to ignore it and take no action? 

I made an addition for player character personal motivation. In my experience, the best campaigns have PCs with some personal goals outside the group or campaign’s main goal. I decided to make this a formal part of my adventure development based on an interview with Chris Perkins. Hooking one or two PCs into an adventure for personal rewards makes it much easier to get players engaged with the adventure. You just need to do this for one or two PCs, don’t try to get all the PCs hooked into every adventure using their backstory and personal motivation. If you can connect one PC with personal motivation, they will help drag the rest of the party over the goal line into your adventure.

witcher-3-bloody-baron-homebrew-dnd-adventure
Witcher 3’s Bloody Baron

My favorite example of this is the Bloody Baron questline from The Witcher 3. The only reason Geralt spends time at Crow’s Perch entertaining that situation is the Baron holds information about Ciri’s whereabouts. 

And of course, you should detail what the adventure rewards are. What do the PCs get for completing the adventure? Remember, you don’t always have to provide rewards in coinage and items. Sometimes transportation, access to something rare, information, or a letter of introduction can be more powerful rewards than a pouch of coins and a few healing potions. Especially rewards that need further work on the players’ end, such as collecting parts of a treasure map or deciphering an old scroll in a dead language or cipher.

That concludes the outline for the start of your D&D homebrew adventure. With the setup situated, it’s time to move on to the adventure’s middle.

The Middle

This section has the most amount of change from my previous D&D homebrew adventure skeleton. Beforehand the only point I had for the middle of my adventures was The Big Event. And while that’s still useful, the middle of the adventure is the thick and juicy meat of the adventure, and over time I felt like I needed to reflect that in my planning. The secret to planning the middle part of an adventure is to avoid being too specific and linear in the design. Once the players make a deviation, all that planning is wasted. Instead, I broke the section down into three main steps.

Underway

Underway IS the adventure. It encompasses all the travel, exploration, combat, conversation, and investigation building to the adventure’s climax. At the middle of Underway is the Setback, the new form of The Big Event. In the Underway section, I want to bullet point out the beats that I think the PCs will need to hit to move from the Call to Action to the Setback and then from the Setback to the adventure’s climax.

In a standard dungeon delve, for example, I might want to know… 

  • How they will travel to the dungeon location
  • What might occur along the way
  • How do they find the dungeon
  • What will keep them from gaining access to the dungeon
  • What’s waiting in the dungeon between the entrance and The Setback
  • What adjustments may they want to make with the new info from The Setback
  • What stands in their way between the Setback and The Climax Intro

This section is less about detailing specific dungeon rooms and challenges. Instead, it focuses on just generating some thoughts on things that might show up along the adventure’s path to confound the players and block their characters.

The Setback

The Setback is the nougat goodness in the middle of Underway. Like The Big Event before it, The Setback is just my DM dial for increasing tension in the adventure. I’m just able to create a reveal for the players that the situation is worse or different from their expectations. You can look to the introduction of Paizo Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path for an excellent example…

Rise of the Runelords Spoilers

Goblins attacking Sandpoint is pretty straightforward. The Setback is learning that there’s demonic shenanigans behind the goblin attacks. A revelation that makes the situation both different and worse than the standard trope of first-level-fight-goblins initial adventure to a new campaign.  

The natural inclination, especially for new DMs, is to make The Setback a twist of some sort. The old, no, the princess is the one holding the dragon hostage. Don’t never do it, but I do always caution to use it sparingly. About once in every five adventures, 20% of the time, I think about once is a good guideline. It’s often enough that players aren’t completely caught off guard. They have it in the back of their mind, but not often enough that the expectation of a twist or betrayal loses its impact. You don’t want to become M. Night Shyamalan. 

Including a twist will also make your adventure more complicated. You’re basically resetting the adventure to the Call to Action step because you’ve changed the adventure’s goal and stakes, if not more. My general advice is to keep adventures simple and let the players complicate them.

Climax Introduction

I added this to the adventure template as a reminder to check the time at the table. Before I go into the first round of combat with the BBEG, I want to make sure I have enough time to finish out the remainder of the adventure in the session. I want to avoid running long or ending the session right after a big boss fight. That may sound strange; let me explain.

The most common advice for pacing RPG sessions is to end the session when tension hits its highest or lowest point. I agree with the former, but not the latter. In my personal experience, games run more smoothly if sessions break when tension is always building. I hate as a player and a DM starting a session right AFTER a big fight or finishing an adventure. Players are listless and directionless, and it’s often difficult to prep for the next session because the last session ended without the players committing any intent for what they were going to do next. I just find sessions start more smoothly, and games run better when they break, knowing precisely what the party will do when they hit the table next.

Specifically for the Climax Introduction, I want to introduce the villain if they haven’t been introduced already, roll initiative, and then end the session on that cliffhanger. That way, players can stew about what they’re going to do in the first round of combat until the next session. Super simple, and it makes prepping for the next session a breeze. I know they’re going to push through the climax and slide down the falling action and all I probably need to do for prep is develop some hooks for the next adventure, which I’ll detail in The End.

The End

This section is the back end of the adventure, and it starts with a bang, Climax. The end comprises the end of the adventure, naturally, and also how to transition from the current adventure seamlessly into the next adventure. In my previous adventure skeleton, this section included the Climax, Falling Action, and Conclusion & Seed. Much of that is retained and expanded on slightly in this new D&D homebrew adventure template.

Climax

The Climax is usually a fight, but not always. There’s usually a personified villain, but not always. Ripping off a disaster movie is a great way to have a villain-less adventure. Consider if having a head-to-head fight is the most exciting and fun resolution. A race against time, a complicated heist, or a head-to-head skill challenge situation may be more fun. I personally try to find adventure resolution options that aren’t murder the hell out of everything. But, that is dependent on your players and the type of games you like to run. Answering the 6WH questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How) for your climax goes a long way.

The Thrilling Climax to Your Adventure

Other things you might want to bullet point include what happens if the players absolutely beef it. Sometimes the fickle dice gods favor the DM. What happens right now if they fail? Is it a total party kill? Also, consider an escape route for your villain. A recurring villain is the best kind of villain, and if things get too spicy, it’s worthwhile to try and have them escape to show up later. So think of how your villain might try to get away.

Final Danger

Previously this was Falling Action, but I felt the former adventure skeleton didn’t do a good job of evoking the teeth I wanted it to have. So instead, I changed it to be the Final Danger. Like any good action story, I always try to put something after defeating the villain that stands in the PCs’ path. One of my favorite examples is the Balrog snatching Gandalf off the narrow path in Moria after it was defeated. Try to avoid going complete JRPG, “this isn’t even my final form” ludicrous with your villain. My personal favorite is hitting the party with the adventure’s Hammer Encounter (most punishing encounter) after they’ve gone nova on the villain. 

If you want to include a twist in your adventure, this is the best place to do so outside The Setback. As mentioned before, don’t do it too often. It will make your adventure longer and more complicated. Keep that in mind. The Final Danger can also include something on the travel back to the adventure patron. It could be rival adventurers waiting to take the prize from the PCs right as they step out of the dungeon. But again, it doesn’t need to be combat. It could be the dungeon collapsing, an avalanche, or any big challenge to throw against your resource-depleted players to spike the tension before the Finale.

Finale

When I think about what should happen in the Finale, my first concern is showing the PC’s evidence of their success or failure. Again, I want to follow the idea of show, don’t tell. It can be as simple as hearing people celebrating in the streets before they enter the town. It’s a little more than the Conclusion & Seed I outlined in my previous adventure skeleton. The second area of the Finale is the presentation of rewards and consequences for the end of the adventure. Occasionally give them a bonus or short them just to make sure they’re paying attention. 

At this step, you also want to hit them with one or more adventure hooks for the party to explore. I build off the underlying idea of Critical Hits’ 5×5 Method. So when I’m developing new adventure hooks, I will try to connect something in the current adventure to the next. Sometimes it’s just following the personal PC clue they received from the quest giver. I might also include something related to the villain, the location, maybe a piece of treasure the party found, or information they discovered during the adventure. Just providing one connection between the current adventure you’re finishing, and the next potential adventure goes a long way to making the transition of adventures seamless. 

The most important thing I want to accomplish here circles back on what I spoke about in Climax Introduction. I don’t want to give my players rewards and end the session there. I want to present them with the adventure hooks and end the session after asking, “what do you do?” Once the players commit to a course of action, I can plan for that specific course in my session prep and not prepare the introduction to three different adventures because I didn’t make them decide on what they’re doing. Then I can end the session by telling them they have # days of downtime to spend as they want or that we will pick back up next session with the party traveling to the next adventure location. 

That’s all for the overhead outlining of my D&D homebrew adventures. I find this to be a significantly improved version of my previous homebrew adventure skeleton. But, I also want to talk a little about the Adventure Crib, this is the support section of my homebrew adventure outline, and I think you will find useful bits within.

Homebrew D&D Adventure Crib

In my original Adventure Skeleton, this section was just a list of obstacles and asides. These are simple encounter/scene bullet points I kept on hand to toss into the adventure as audibles or if I needed to pad a session before a good stopping point. I’ve now expanded this second page of adventure crib notes to detail more specifics about the adventures I plan.

dnd-arcanaloth-figure-homebrew-dnd-adventure
They can probably trust the arcanaloth, right?

First, I include the major NPCs and a bit about them. Major NPCs include the villain, villain’s deputy, the adventure patron, the party’s ally, and any useful neutrals. The villain’s deputy is just their right hand. Think of them as the mini-boss for your adventure. Useful neutrals are NPCs that could be helpful for the party, but the players need to negotiate their help. These hired guns can help fill out party roles or provide specific skills like a wilderness guide or an interpreter. Because the neutrals are not party allies, there’s also a bit of tension about how much the party can trust them. If things get too tough, they may abandon the party or switch sides if someone offers them a better payday.

I also think that every good adventure has a map. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy novel quality map, but it should be at least a mind map/flowchart illustrating how your adventure locations are spatially related. It should also include some brief descriptions of the different areas of the adventure and specific location details within those areas. 

The following section holds a list of my planned adventure challenges. This area includes monsters, traps, puzzles, skill challenges, wandering monster table(s), and other challenges my players will need to overcome. Depending on my DM setup and mood, this may just have a bullet point and Monster Manual page numbers or have detailed notes. There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in my volume of prep for this section. I’d say to follow Web DM’s advice and only prepare what you’re not comfortable improvising. 

I also include a section where I can bullet point out treasure, secrets/clues, and other little rewards the PCs may come across in their adventuring. I found this extremely useful for my prep when one player randomly decides to loot some goblin corpses or dig through a harpy nest. I can just check this section and cross off the most reasonable loot bullet if there is one. 

Obstacles & Asides Hot List

I no longer prepare obstacles and asides as part of my adventure preparation. I now do it as part of my individual session prep. Instead of trying to come up with obstacles and asides for the entire adventure, I can tailor them as specific optional content targeted to what’s happening in the next game session. So, if the party will be spending most of their time traveling to get to the adventure location, I can create an easy list of 3-5 obstacles and asides tailored to the environment they’re going through. Like the previous homebrew adventure skeleton, I reinforce that these are principally optional encounters/scenes and that some are detrimental, beneficial, or just neutral for the party.

The Adventure Skeleton is Dead, Long Live the Adventure Skeleton 

My new outline template for preparing homebrew D&D adventures, or adventures for any system, is certainly more specific than the old adventure skeleton of years past. But, it is still lightweight and flexible, so it’s easy to create an adventure and simple to augment and append when the players do something I hadn’t anticipated. I hope you find this guide as helpful as I do for creating homebrew D&D adventures. If you use it, go ahead and share with me on Twitter, I’d love to see what adventures you conjure up.

The next planned blog post is a return to the Worldbuilding from Scratch series, where we’ll be touching on resource distribution and the impact it can have on your campaign setting. See you then!

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