Creating Adventures from Small Ideas

From Sébastien Boily

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0454

A Brief Word from Johnn

Roleplaying Tips Being Published Every Other Week

This summer I’ll try publishing Roleplaying Tips every two weeks. A number of factors are involved in publishing issues, the most important of which is your feedback and GMing needs. So, feel free to write in anytime during this experiment. Next issue will be the week of July 19.

Win Great Prizes – Combat Hazards Contest

Thanks to those who have entered the combat hazards contest so far. If you haven’t entered, there is still time.

What are some cool terrain, trap, environmental, obstacle, and strange hazards that could affect the PCs or their foes during exciting combat action?


  • Ye old pool of lava
  • Strong gusts of wind that push combatants around
  • Teleportation circles combatants use to jump around the field of combat
  • Combat takes place on large disks attached to ceiling with chains – you get swinging motion plus tippy ground (thanks White Plume!)
  • Thin ice over bone-chilling cold pool

How to Enter

Email me [[email protected]] your combat hazard ideas. Multiple entries are welcome and each gives you a chance to win a prize. Winners will be drawn at random.

Feel free to let me know your prize preferences as well.


Contest ends July 21. Multiple entries are welcome, but they must be emailed to me by Tuesday, July 21, 2009.

The Prizes

Mythic Design presents:

  1. Tribes of Danu: Heart of the Neolith
  2. Adventure Art Issue #1
  3. Adventure Art Issue #2

PDF and print version of each are available

Malevolent and Benign in PDF by Expeditious Retreat Press

War of the Burning Sky #1: The Scouring of Gate Pass by E.N. Publishing Your choice of 3.5 or 4E version in PDF

Obsidian Portal 6 month memberships

In total, there are 18 prizes up for grabs.

Winners will be selected randomly, so don’t worry about writing skills – it’s the ideas that count.

Entries will be compiled and edited and given back to you for free. Thanks for helping other game masters with your combat hazards!

Email [email protected] your entries today.

Creating Adventures from Small Ideas

GMs want to build original and interesting adventures and campaigns. One of the problems many GMs have is thinking too big too early in the process of creation. By doing this, we are putting pressure on ourselves, which only increases the chances for the page to stay white. Here are a few tips on how to deal with this issue.

Step 1: A Small Wire Can Make a Big Spark

Use small concepts, and instead of expanding them, build around them.

Grab your handbook or any game material you have, look into it, and find something interesting.

For example:

  • A feat
  • A skill
  • A piece of equipment
  • A spell
  • A class
  • A race
  • A creature
  • A quote
  • A character
  • A quirk or virtue
  • A magic item

Step 2: Ask and Answer Questions

Make a list of information about the topics you choose.

Here are some questions to help you. This list isn’t all- inclusive; use the questions if they are appropriate to your topic. While doing so, make sure to note any idea that comes to mind.

  • Who uses it, has it, said it or casts it?
  • Why is it made, said, or used?
  • What is done with it?
  • How is it made, learned or done?
  • Why is it interesting?
  • Where can you get it, see it, eat it, etc.?

Here is an example with a common item: a pair of gloves. You’ll see that some answers can overlap, but it doesn’t matter.

Gloves: Who uses them? Adventurers, workers, farmers, the rich and the poor, kings and slaves, some monsters, fighters, mages, chemists, soldiers.

Why are they used? To protect the hands, to provoke a duel, to hide fingerprints, to hide skin color, to manipulate chemicals.

What they do with them? Fight, slap, work, sell them, give them as a gift.

How are they made? They can be sewn, forged, or crafted. They can be made of many materials: iron, leather, linen, plastic, adamantium, rings, scales. They can be bought, given, or found.

Why are they interesting? They can be magic; they can be a symbol; they can have details such as runes, gems, or blood spills.

Where can you get them? We can get gloves at the market. They can be found, stolen or crafted.

Step 3: Ask 3 Big Questions

Ask yourself one or all of the three most important questions:

  1. Is it possible for someone or something to make profit from it?
  2. Is it possible for someone or something to gain power with it?
  3. Is it possible for someone or something to gain an advantage out of it?

If yes to any of these questions then try to answer the question, how?

In our world people can make profit out of almost anything: a skill, a feat, even a quote.

Building on my example: a pair of gloves.

  1. Someone could make profit by selling them; the glove industry can bring a lot of money.
  2. Someone could gain power by having a glove of strength or a glove of dexterity. Perhaps the king prizes gloves, and crafting a particularly interesting glove will give access to him.
  3. Having a pair of gloves is indeed an advantage when climbing a mountain or wielding a sword.

Then continue building. If you keep answering how, you will soon have many concepts or ideas to draw upon.

Step 4: Make it Interesting

While you are adding layers to your idea, try to have twists, making the subject interesting for a role playing game.

Maybe the glove merchant wants to hire adventurers to get rid of a competitor. Maybe he wants you to convince an elven glove maker to teach him the long-lost elven secrets of glove making.

Maybe the king will open a contest to choose the official glove maker for all nobles at the court. Maybe you need to wear gloves made of a particular heat-enduring material to wield the famous Blazing Greatsword of the Seven Hells without taking damage.

5. Example: Veins of Gold

In the World of Warcraft RPG book Dark Faction, there is a spell called Flesh to Gold. It works just like Flesh to Stone, but the stone produced shows veins of gold.

The first choice is obviously to have a powerful mage use the spell to generate gold. The size of this venture can turn this idea into a side quest, a campaign, or anything in between.

The second way: someone important, or at least important to the PCs, has been turned to stone with the flesh to gold spell, and the gold is used to make coins. Those coins were spent, but had something to distinguish them from other coins. Now your PCs must get at least one of the coins so they can resurrect the person.

The third choice would be an artifact or wand with a precise number of charges from the spell. Now your PCs have found some gold, but hey, they will need to work for it.

Here is how I’ve been using it:

In my campaign, the PCs had previously dispatched a slave trading organization led by a mage called Von Shlafen. Even though they freed the slaves and killed most of the henchmen, they could not get the leader, who fled taking with him his most valuable objects, a few hundred coins and a good share of the PCs’ pride. Their attempts to locate him all failed and soon a year had passed. That is when I decided it was a good time for that character to appear again.

Von Shlafen started up operations in a mine, turning hapless miners into gold. Before long, he hired other mages to help, moved on to kidnapping peasants, and even started casting his spell on monsters. Soon, he realized that the stronger the victim was, the more gold was produced. This made the PCs potentially very valuable. Now it’s up to them to shut him down, while avoiding being turned into easy money themselves.

I built the idea using the same pattern:

  • How did Von learn the spell? On the black market and through his past contacts.
  • Where did he find a good alchemist and miners? Contacts again.
  • How can he maximize his profit? By recruiting a few fellow mages to cast the spell with him. By having henchmen capture people and monsters.
  • How can he hire henchmen? Contacts again!
  • How can he hide his business and even justify disappearing people? By settling in a forgotten old mine where death among miners happens often.

Just keep going with questions like that, and you’ll have an entire adventure idea in no time.

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Battlegraph Dry Erase Boards

Battlegraph Dry Erase Boards represent one of the greatest leaps in gaming technology since the twenty sided die. Each board is precision cut to fit together like a puzzle into a single interlocking mapping surface.

As your game advances, older sections of the map can be erased and moved to the front creating one continuous scrolling map. Each board is 11″ x 11″ x 1/8″ and covered with a beautiful white dry erase surface permanently scored into a 1″ x 1″ grid. Order multiple sets and plan an entire night’s gaming in advance. Your game may never be the same again!

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Advanced Adventures #10

The Lost Keys of Solitude

Advanced Adventures #10: The Lost Keys of Solitude is now available in stores and at our on-line store! This OSRIC(TM) module is designed for 6-8 adventurers of levels 6-10. What lies in the once-abandoned monastery deep in the remote mountains? Explore the terrors and treasures of Solitude!

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Magic Item Backstories For Your Game

Wand of the Golden Soul

From Sébastien Boily

This magic item was crafted 32 years ago, by a gnomish mage-alchemist who wanted to succeed where all before him failed: turning stone to gold.

His lifelong searches had made him crazy by the time he thought of the way to achieve his goal. He realized that altering the Flesh to Stone spell was much easier than creating an entirely new formula, and so his spell turns flesh into gold.

He died in the process of creating the wand, and his secret lab was never found – until now.

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Murlynd’s Spoon

From Brad Chacos

Murlynd the druid thought having intelligent plants to converse with in the atrium was a wonderful idea. He got together with a local sorcerer, and through much trial and error, managed to cross pollinate several magical and terrestrial plant strains into a new, intelligent, wonderfully talkative breed.

Unfortunately for Murlynd, while the discussions on the philosophies of civilization, nature, and all things in between was deeply fruitful and engaging, the new plant was based primarily off of a particularly virulent strain of weed, and his atrium is now filled with scores of large, talkative bushes.

Also unfortunately, the hybrids are no longer able to photosynthesize and must all be fed a fairly large portion of food each day. It wasn’t so bad at first, but his food budget was rapidly outgrown by their sprouting.

In desperation, he turned back to the sorcerer, who made a fairly unremarkable looking spoon that was able to magically create a large amount of thick pasty gruel each day; perfect for feeding his new philosopher’s forum.

It has been a few months, and they are starting to complain – loudly – of the warm cardboard taste of it all. The clamor has gotten so loud that he has been issued several noise citations, his landlord is threatening to kick him out and burn the plants to the ground, and worst of all, the food that Murlynd’s Spoon is creating still tastes bland.

In desperation, the druid has turned to the party to help calm the landlord and the neighbors, as well as find some way to make the magic food palatable. Any flavor will do, though most of the plants are asking for delightful fruit flavors – pomegranate in particular – and that one slightly shriveled plant in the darkest corner of the atrium is wondering aloud what a flesh-flavored gruel would entail.

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Sphere of Annihilation

From David Mortensen

“Hungry, so hungry. Nothing here provides any sustenance. Soon I will be unable to move at all. Just want to go home.”

A Sphere of Annihilation is found to be moving towards a population center. The PCs are called in to discover who is controlling the sphere and to stop them or destroy the sphere before it enters the city.

The twist is, there is no controller. The sphere is sentient creature from another plane just trying to make his way home.

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Pelor’s Potions

From Anthony P Warchal

The Temple of Pelor has to supplement their tithing income by producing various potions to sell to adventurers. Lately, none of the potions are working, or even worse, they are producing a negative effect. The adventurers must find out what is corrupting the process.

The offending person is a supposedly lower level priest new to the temple. He actually is a high level priest from a rival temple using magic to hide his alignment.

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Ghâshmag the Dancing Sword’s Restaurant

From Graham Darling

What happens to a powerful magic weapon when the Great War is over?

To avoid being beaten into a ploughshare, Ghâshmag the Burnblade, an intelligent Dancing Sword formerly wielded by the slain Dark Lord, has opened a swanky restaurant.

Ghâshmag satisfies its lust for blood in preparing a killer filet mignon. It uses its Heat Metal ability to sear each slice to perfection, whilst indulging its evil alignment by charging patrons outrageous prices, and bullying the kitchen staff. Winner of the national Iron Chef Award six years running.

Ghâshmag is snooty and contemptuous of would-be Black Knights trying to lure it back to “active duty.” It was the object of a recent kidnapping attempt. It pays adventurers in free meals, providing they arrive in proper attire.

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The 5×5 Method

From Dave Chalker

When working on chapter 2 of my D&D 4e campaign (in the paragon tier, chapter 1 having encompassed the heroic tier), I kept running into roadblocks when trying to map out the next major arc. I had left a number of dangling plot threads that didn’t feel right to abandon (that the players were just getting into, as well) so changing gears majorly didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

At the same time, I wanted to give the arc a bigger scope than the specific mission-based adventures I had been sending them on, as well as giving them more freedom to roam about the world I had spent 9 levels introducing them to.

I also wanted to let them take more direct control of where they wanted to go next, but still script things out enough to let me plan ahead (i.e. not go full-on sandbox quite yet).

I developed an answer to all of these in what I decided to call “The 5×5 Method.” I don’t think it’s anything ground- breaking, nor is it going to work for every campaign. However, I was asked to share, and here it is.

Take 5 major, distinct quests. Give them an appropriate title. For purposes of this example (and so as to not spoil my game for my players) we’ll make one of the quests be:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith

And assume there’s 4 other quests there. Then, for each of those 5 quests, give 5 steps needed to complete that quest. Each one should provide enough to provide an entire adventure (or more, but probably not less). So our example might look like:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith:

  1. Find Minas Tirith, meet the King.
  2. Save Faramir.
  3. Meet Elrond and retrieve Narsil.
  4. Brave the Paths of the Dead and convince the Army of the Dead to join up.
  5. Use the Army of the Dead to defeat Sauron’s Army.

If possible, make #5 epic, and definitely make it finish that quest. Now, here’s the part that may take some tweaking. Give each step a location, preferably spread out all over your map. When possible, make these locations near each other at different points on the other quests. That way, they may decide to work on a different quest after finishing up one part simply because they’re geographically nearby. Thus:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith

  1. Find Minas Tirith, meet the King. (Minas Tirith)
  2. Save Faramir. (Osgiliath)
  3. Meet Elrond and retrieve Narsil. (Dunharrow)
  4. Brave the Paths of the Dead and convince the Army of the Dead to join up. (Paths of the Dead)
  5. Use the Army of the Dead to defeat Sauron’s Army.

(Minas Tirith)

Then in your other quests, you might have something like:

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4. Discover the Witch King’s weakness (Dunharrow)

in one of the other entries in the 5×5. In my theoretical example, the goal would be to have the other quest advanced to the point where, after meeting Elrond, they go off and investigate another lead in the area, and then have two different branches that could be followed from there. Or they’ll notice that one lead is on the way to another, and stop off to finish that portion. Plus, the leads themselves will suggest a certain priority, or will intertwine in different ways depending on what order the PCs discover them.

There are some potential downfalls, of course. Players might decide to follow one path at a time, finish one quest then move on to another in succession, thus eliminating part of the cool factor of using the 5×5.

Or they might try to jump ahead when two paths criss-cross too much. In any case, the DM is still going to have to do some work and weave the different threads together in a satisfying fashion. And if they’re hell-bent on finishing one quest, let them do it…but let them know about the other opportunities lost and enemies advancements that are happening while the other pieces are ignored.

Overall, give them interesting choices among the quests, by providing both strategic objectives and chances to roleplay what their character is interested in. (Easier said than done, I know).