Five Hazardous Elemental Dungeons — RPT#661
From: Phil Nicholls
This article is inspired by the hazards from Jesse’s fascinating article in RPT #647: 6 Interesting Hazards. I’ve picked several hazards and woven each into a five room dungeon I’ve created.
The dungeons described below are presented as outlines for you to expand upon according to taste, and the requirements of your rules. The intention is to show you different ways of using hazards within the five room dungeon format.
I’ve also linked these dungeons into a single narrative as a campaign outline. You can choose to use each five room dungeon singly, or as part of a longer plot by an evil Cabal of Elemental Lords.
Lair of Winter
The initial plan by the Elemental Lords plunges the land into a harsh winter, brought on by ice elementals. The King sends the heroes to end this unseasonable weather. Exploration reveals the centre of the freezing weather is a group of tall trees.
The ice elementals have made their nest around a portal to the plane of ice. This nest is located in the highest branches of a copse of tall pine trees. These trees are lashed together and reinforced by thick webs of ice. The result resembles a huge ball of webs, anchored to the ground and surrounding trees.
To ascend into the nest, heroes must climb the ice webs. This Ice Web hazard was described by Jesse:
Ice Webs look like jagged connected icicles. Cold enough to cause damage if handled without gloves. If broken up they don’t pose much danger.
Once within the nest, the heroes find a native dryad shackled to the trunk of her tree with chains of ice. The dryad is nearly frozen to death, but can be revived. If treated kindly, and with respect, then she reveals valuable information. She knows of the ice elementals’ plans to expand the portal and turn the forest into barren tundra as a prelude to invasion.
The treetop nest grows unstable. Heat from the PCs’ bodies, along with any damage they have caused to the ice, is destroying the nest. Strands of the huge ice web fall away from the nest.
The tops of the trees had been bent over by the weight of the nest and the strands of web binding them together. Now these bent trees break free of the web, sending shock waves throughout the nest.
Inevitably, the ice elementals learn of the presence of the heroes. A wave of elementals attack the heroes from all around. This hastens the collapse of the nest. The PCs must fight the elementals while avoiding falling chunks of ice. Plus, the whole nest is violently swaying as the trees break apart.
Defeating the ice elementals gives the PCs access to the portal, located near the top of the highest tree. Closing this portal will end the cold weather and impair the planned invasion.
A Titan’s Toy
The Elemental Lords’ plan to change the environment has failed, but war still comes to the kingdom. At the heart of the invading army is a vast steam-powered siege engine, the product of divine creation, or the plaything of Titans. This mighty machine could reduce the capital’s defenses to mere rubble.
The armoured behemoth is too large to damage with conventional weapons. Instead, the Vizier believes the only way to stop the siege engine is from within. As the machine creeps towards the royal city, the heroes are sent on a desperate race against time. They must deactivate the siege engine by destroying the delicate mechanisms inside the lumbering machine.
The invaders are overconfident about the invulnerability of the siege engine. Thus, it is an easy matter for the heroes to sneak past the inattentive guards. The true challenge is climbing into the lumbering machine. The large plates of armour are pitted from extreme age, and numerous exhaust pipes and ventilation shafts dot the surface. Perhaps the heroes have a map to follow, some basic engineering plans, or just have to trust to luck to find a way through the twisting steel pipes.
For this dungeon, Jesse’s steam hazard appears as part of a puzzle. Shortly after the PCs infiltrate the siege engine, the invaders stoke the boilers in preparation for attacking. The tunnels used by the heroes gradually fill with steam.
Jesse describes steam as a hazard like this:
While nice in the shower and steam rooms, hot water vapour can be dangerous if the characters do not expect it. There will be steam around water boilers, steam driven engines, forced-steam heating, and steam driven power suits and golems, for example. Steam not only burns, it obscures vision.
The puzzle facing the heroes is twofold: to endure the environment and to find a route through the hazardous tunnels. Steam is filling these tunnels, initially just in small clouds. However, once the boilers are stoked, the environment grows ever more hazardous.
Alongside the inherent dangers of the steam, the PCs must find their way through clouds of steam and tunnels made slick by the damp atmosphere. They might have plans to follow, but the steam obscures many of the tunnel markings. The steamy environment makes it harder for the heroes to find the best place to sabotage the machine.
As if the steam was not enough, the machine now starts to lurch about crazily. The machine has reached the outskirts of the royal city, and is now crashing through the outlying villages. The PCs struggle to cope with the sudden movements of the machine, adding to the difficulties of sabotaging the machine.
The PCs place their acid bombs, then flee the machine. They find an easier route out of the steamy tunnels, onto the back of the pitching machine. This puts them in the path of a squad of troops, led by artificer-priests.
The climactic battle for the siege engine is conducted atop the machine as it crawls into position to attack the palace. Steam vents unpredictably, the artificer-priests wield strange clockwork magicks, and the PC are desperate to flee before their own acid bombs detonate.
As a reward for saving the city, the King awards titles and military ranks to the heroes.
Cage of Heroes
Furious at the PCs for thwarting yet another plan, the Elemental Lords seek direct revenge. They set a trap for the PCs, whisking them off to a planar rock which is falling to the surface of the world.
The Lord of Air sends a giant tornado to devastate the kingdom. This is a serious threat to farms and outlying communities, but the main purpose is to capture the heroes.
When the heroes investigate the tornado, it homes in on them. The tornado chases them down and carries them into the upper atmosphere, where a huge planar rock floats in the sky.
The tornado deposits the captured heroes in a chamber at the heart of the floating rock. Here an avatar of the Elemental Lord of Air taunts them. In the style of a Bond villain, the avatar will glory in their capture, reveal the plans for their imminent death, and can be cajoled into revealing more of the Cabal’s plans.
Should the PCs attack, or the avatar grow tired of the conversation, it drops the orb it has been carrying, and the rock begins to plunge downwards towards the distant ground below.
In the Cage of Heroes, Jesse’s hazard forms the setback part of the challenge. As the planar rock falls to the surface, the tunnels and chambers fill with rushing wind.
Jesse described a wind tunnel hazard as follows:
Wind tunnels are naturally occurring or man-made features that funnel winds. Depending on the direction the wind is going through such a tunnel, sounds or scents might travel further or cause PCs to be whisked away. In such tunnels, projectiles might be more difficult to aim.
For the current setback, the situation is far worse. The wind through the tunnels is so strong it threatens to blow the PCs out of the rock and leave them falling helplessly. The wind howls, making conversation and planning difficult.
Not content with merely leaving the heroes to plummet to their deaths, the Lord of Air wanted to make sure of killing them. Thus, he left a contingent of flying troops in the rock too. These can be mounted on pegasi, giant eagles, or flying carpets to taste.
This added threat serves as the escape plan for the PCs. After a few terrifying minutes within the windswept tunnels, the planar rock begins to fall apart. The mounted troops swoop down, hoping to finish off the demoralized heroes. However, this only sets up the climactic fight as the PCs leap from one falling piece of rock to another, grapple with the riders and seek to escape the ground looming quickly below.
The primary reward is for the PCs to escape with their lives. There is also the option of capturing the flying mounts used to ambush the heroes.
The Pyramid of Khayu
The Cabal has one more plan for conquest – a mighty spell to enslave the land. A similar spell was thwarted many years before by the great Sorcerer-King Khayu. His pyramid tomb has vanished from knowledge, swallowed by the sand of the Endless Desert. Consequently, the Cabal believe their spell cannot be stopped.
However, the Vizier has been studying the secret archives of the kingdom. Legend names Khayu’s tomb as the resting place of the mighty Ankh of the Earth, a magical artefact able to counter the most powerful spells. An ancient parchment map locates the tomb of Pharaoh Khayu deep within the desert. The heroes must find the pyramid and return the Ankh to the King before the Cabal finish their fell sorcery.
Access to the pyramid is across the Endless Desert. Explorers must brave the harsh terrain, scouring winds and trackless wastes of this mighty sand sea.
Progress through the Endless Desert could be handled as a long-term skill challenge.
Following the parchment, the PCs find the tip of the pyramid poking through the sand. The hidden entrance to the tomb is through a loose block near the top of the pyramid, which pulls free to reveal a tunnel.
Only the top third of the pyramid is visible, making the search easier. Knowledge of architecture, history, or local culture suggests a hidden entrance through the walls of the pyramid. Careful examination of the crumbling structure reveals an ill-fitting block. The heroes must devise a method of hauling out the block, or perhaps cutting through the old stone.
Within the tomb, a series of passages lead down, deep into the heart of the pyramid. Side chambers hold decaying furniture and rotten food. Beyond a stone door is a decorated chamber housing Khayu’s royal barge. Slumped over the oars are the desiccated bodies of Khayu’s slaves. These corpses are a diversion. The real trap is the painted figures on the friezes. The painted soldiers are Pharaoh’s guardians, who step out of the walls when the door to Khayu’s crypt is opened.
Beyond the barge chamber lies the crypt of Pharaoh Khayu. Within the ornate stone sarcophagus is Khayu’s mummified body. Around his neck is the powerful Ankh of the Earth.
Merely opening the outer sarcophagus triggers the hazard that forms the climax to this dungeon. Disturbing the body of Khayu invokes ancient pacts that reclaim the Ankh for the Lords of Earth. The entire pyramid begins to sink back into the sand. This process causes ceiling stones to crash down. The greater threat is from the sand cascading into the pyramid.
The explorers must open the second stone sarcophagus and claim the Ankh of the Earth before the burial chamber fills with sand. Then they must make a desperate run up through the sinking pyramid before the whole structure is claimed by the earth.
If they can escape, the heroes now have the legendary Ankh, plus any other treasure they looted from the tomb. The Ankh will stop the spell cast by the Cabal.
Enraged by the continual success of the PCs, the Elemental Lords unleash their final vengeance by attacking the Royal Palace directly. Just as the King is holding a ball to honour the heroes, and perhaps hand out a few patents of nobility, the Lord of Fire unleashes a firestorm on the building, setting alight the entire Royal Palace.
This climax to the Elemental Dungeons pentalogy applies the hazard of fire to all five parts of the adventure. Jesse did not describe fire in the article, but this hazard is commonly described in most rules. Along with the risk of burn damage, this hazard also involves choking smoke and waves of heat.
In this dungeon the palace is not just on fire, it is also collapsing as it burns. This related hazard is also present throughout this plot. Jesse describes collapsing buildings as follows:
Collapsing buildings Might contain half-fallen support beams, collapsing walls, building bricks or stones, bones, discarded clothing, broken furniture, and more.
The heroes are waiting for an audience with the King when the ceiling collapses and burning timbers set the room alight. A cackling fire elemental leaps down from the room above and attacks the PCs. As it fights, the elemental taunts the heroes with the plan to kill the royal family.
During the fight, more of the room catches light, increasing the fire hazard. The ceiling continues to fall down, adding to the dangerous environment.
Once the initial fire elemental is killed, it is clear the Royal Family is in mortal danger and need rescuing. The adjacent throne room is filled with thick smoke and the bodies of courtiers.
The heroes need to find the scattered members of the Royal Family in the smoke-filled palace. The PCs are likely to know some areas of the palace, but the King’s private chambers will be unfamiliar. This is a large palace, with many rampaging fire elementals. How can the heroes find the King in time?
Just as the heroes learn to cope with the heat and the smoke, the situation worsens. They are close to the King now, but the fire has taken a strong hold on the palace, which is now collapsing fast. Invoke all of Jesse’s hazards as the PCs near the King. They might also meet an occasional fire elemental as they search the royal chambers, but it is the collapsing palace that offers the greatest threat to their safety.
At last, the PCs reach the King and the remains of his personal guard in an upper chamber of the private quarters. The King has been cornered by a band of fire elementals who gleefully close in for the kill.
This climactic fight involves dodging falling timbers and jumping from beam to beam as the floor progressively burns away. Gouts of flame shoot up from the raging inferno below. The powerful fire elementals are outnumbered, but they are fighting in their native environment.
Conspicuous displays of bravery and heroism protecting the person of the King will bring great reward. Titles, lands, and perhaps marriage into the Royal Family are all possible if the PCs can save the King from the final vengeance of the Elemental Lords.
Or do the Cabal have another dastardly plot waiting for the newly ennobled characters?
Summary of the Grand Plan
As a reference, here is a brief summary of the campaign arc featuring these five dungeon plans. The Cabal of Elemental Lords seek to conquer the kingdom. Their plans play out in the following sequence:
- Environmental conquest, by plunging the kingdom into eternal winter.
- Military conquest, second stage of the grand invasion is to simply march in with a conquering army and a mighty siege engine.
- Revenge on the heroes. Furious at being defeated, the Lords take direct revenge on the heroes.
- Magical assault. The final attempt to conquer the kingdom involves an arcane ritual, but the heroes seek an ancient solution in a lost tomb.
- Burn the King. With plans for conquest thwarted, the Lords resort to a final act of petty revenge.
Use this campaign arc in its entirety, or simply pick and choose those elements which appeal to you.
There are many ways to weave a hazard into the structure of a Five Room Dungeon. I showed you ways to incorporate one of Jesse’s hazards into almost any part of the dungeon, or even as a running theme throughout the dungeon.
Which hazards will you throw at your players?
Brief Word From Johnn
FAQ About the Adventure Building Workshop
A number of subscribers have written in with good questions about the Adventure Building Workshop. If one person has a question, chances are others have it too. So here is a copy and paste of some email Q&A done over the weekend with quick edits done for brevity.
RPT Reader: Really want to do this! I will be in Mexico City for most of July though. Is there a way I can do this still?
Johnn: You bet. The whole thing will be packaged up into a download – the videos, extras, the module. Also, you’ll have lifetime access to the forum. So you can catch-up on discussions when you’re back, drop in to lurk anytime in the future, etc.
RPT Reader: I just received the Adventure Building Workshop email und I have to say I’m quite interested. But before I subscribe I want to ask a few questions:
- Is the Workshop for a specific system? Or system independent?
- I’m not the kind of guy who likes to participate in forum discussions and so on. I just want to see your videos and how you do things and then use this for my own inspiration and preparation. Is this course suitable for me?
Johnn: I will build the adventure using a basic one-line fantasy stat block for creatures. That’s simple enough to give folks an idea of the nature of monsters/NPCs while keeping the D&D-centricity to the minimum. It is also like a Rosetta Stone for translation to other systems like Fate, 5E, etc.
You’ll need to register and log into the forum to watch the videos. However, I’ll have the videos stickied/bookmarked to making finding them fast and easy.
After the workshop, I’ll be making all the videos and materials available as a download for your permanent, offline access.
There will be polls and brainstorming sessions, but they are not required in any way.
I also stand by my Critical Miss refund policy. If the workshop is not to your liking, I will return your money. The integrity of Roleplaying Tips is important to me.
RPT Reader A: Hi Johnn!
As you might expect, I’m look forward to adding your adventure design course to my growing library of Johnn Four/RPT goodies.
I did have one question though. Having got a lot out of your MyInfo course, I’m curious about why you are switching to Evernote?
I love Evernote and have used it for years, but I felt that its limited ability to nest folders/notebooks made MyInfo a better choice.
Are you using Evernote because people can get it for free, or is there a solid reason why you are now using it instead of MyInfo?
RPT Reader B: I just have one question Johnn, I purchased MyInfo (based on a previous course that you made) and I have found it very useful. It’s already my GM tool #1
Does Evernote have better qualities or capacities than MyInfo?
That’s a great question. Another smart GM just asked me that too.
I switched to Mac two years ago. I can run MyInfo under Wine/emulation, but it’s painful. I contacted Petko, the guy who runs MyInfo, and he’s working on a Mac/app version but there’s no ETA.
I love MyInfo. As soon as it’s native to Mac, it’s going on my machine.
Meantime, I also love Evernote. And I want to show folks how to use it as an alternative GM tool.
When MyInfo hits my Mac, I’ll also keep using Evernote. The two tools complement each other nicely.
For the workshop, I’ll be translating the conceptual campaign buckets from the MyInfo course to Evernote and showing folks how to do that in Evernote. It does not matter what tool you use for the workshop though – OneNote, RealmWorks, NotePad, etc. The workshop is not about the technology, it’s about game design. Technically, you could do the entire workshop with pen and notebook!
Thanks for asking about this. I’m going to make a note to comment on this in Roleplaying Tips in case others are wondering too.
RPT Reader: Sounds fascinating – although I’ve never loved online learning in the past! Before I commit myself though, please can I ask how D&D specific it will be (i.e., how transferable is it to Traveller), and would I be allowed to participate with Traveller activities?
Johnn: I’ll be producing a fantasy module using a basic fantasy stat block. That’s basically 1 line of stats for monsters, traps, and things.
Where I get into monster/foe design and other crunchy things will be more at the game design level. So not about calculating challenge ratings and hit points, but how to decide what’s fun, what kind of challenge is appropriate at what place in the adventure, how flavour/detail are more important than stats, and design points like that.
Unfortunately, you’d need to translate all my fantasy language into sci-fi. And I will be using D&D tropes because it’s a fairly common language (hit points, classes, party of adventurers, spells, etc.). But if you don’t mind translating, I can confirm it will be translatable.
And you can most definitely follow along with your Traveller adventure. In fact, I should call that out to folks in the forum – they can create adventures in their system of choice.
If you have any questions about the Adventure Building Workshop, just hit reply. The questions above were good and a couple made me pause and think, which resulted in some tweaks to the workshop (thanks!).
The Adventure Checklist Part III
The purpose of the checklist is to review it against your session planning. Use the checklist so you don’t forget any important elements or get caught mid-session in a gaffe you could have spotted beforehand with a quick pre-flight check. Also use the checklist if you have some polishing time and are wondering what elements to look at for improvement.
Let’s explore the rest of the Adventure Design Checklist now.
Here’s the checklist again. We got up to Spotlights last week:
|Adventure Checklist||What Else Will Affect Adventure Design|
Cool Magic Treasure
Last session my players found a +1 longsword. Their first magic weapon treasure of the campaign. However, the sword had a special quality. To unlock its powers, the wielder must change his name to Muirakaska. There was great table roleplaying over this. Who was willing to change their name? Why did the sword need this – what else might it require in the future? Who is Muirakaska and what’s his story?
One simple tweak and the boring magic weapon became an instrument of roleplay, debate, plot hook, and characterization.
So as you sprinkle magic into your adventure, look for ways to make it special.
One great way to add interesting qualities to magic items fast is to use NPC traits. There are lots of those lists and generators around. Here’s a PDF of non-standard flaws and traits for non-typical magic item inspiration.
Interesting Mundane Treasure
As with magic treasure, enhance mundane treasure when possible:
- Interesting backstories
- Strange qualities
- Made from unusual materials
- Unknown functions (google strange tools or items from history)
- Masterwork quality
Another approach is to give out skill booster or character enhancing tools. Bonus points for single-use items so you can continue giving out such coveted rewards.
And double-bonus points if you combo character enhancing mundane treasure with interesting qualities. In addition to the ideas above:
- Stolen property and owners want it back (the item’s uniqueness will make it hard to disprove identity)
- Inscription (plot hook inside™!)
- Secret special property or function waiting to be discovered
- Personality or trait (it squeaks, it’s stylish)
Many game masters start adventure design with the map. I do often.
There are several kinds of maps. Ensure you’ve got what you need before adventure kick-off:
- World Map
- Region Map
- Adventure Region Maps
- Combat Battlemaps
- Special Encounter Maps
- Player Maps
For large region maps, such as a world map, you might want this if your PCs can travel large distances fast. “I teleport to Kathar and find the legendary library there to research this puzzle.”
Encounters might need special maps to help you envision complicated layouts or 3D environments.
Player maps speed up exploration and also help communicate tricky areas fast and easy (a picture is worth a 1000 words).
Review battlemaps to ensure their combat environments are interactive, have interesting tactical opportunities, and contain fun hazards.
What’s the backstory of the adventure? The greatest flaw I see in adventure design is the background is not relevant. Long backgrounds are killer because they tend to add too many details to keep straight (simplicity is key and helps avoid railroading). But long backgrounds that have no relevance to gameplay? Stab me with a d20.
Even short backgrounds are wasted words if they make no difference to the adventure.
Here’s a test of your background’s relevance. Delete it from the adventure. Do NPCs remain unaffected? Are PC choices the same? Does the adventure still make sense? If so, it seems you have an irrelevant background.
Next time you craft a history and backstory for your adventure, make sure it’s well-integrated into as many encounters and elements as possible.
The adventure’s gotta start somehow. I understand you want character choice and player freedom. But this is one case where you should dictate the circumstances and create a fixed encounter. Every race has a starting point. Every movie has an opening scene. Your adventure needs a starting encounter that kicks things off with a bang. This is your inciting encounter.
Ensure the inciting encounter hooks players into the adventure, and if possible, hits every character and player (using your Player & Character Kicks Grid). Get everyone involved, get them interacting as soon as possible, and get the party united and moving forward.
The inciting encounter is also a great opportunity to use a bit of the adventure background to provide context and a frame for players to focus on.
Plot twists delight. Players love to get surprised with sudden revelations and unexpected story turns. They especially enjoy twists they could have figured out (this also gets them paying more attention in the future).
There are a few caveats to this, as some surprises are not so nice and aren’t fun. Check your adventure for these types of unfortunate twists and fix them.
I wrote an article on plot twist designs you can use for inspiration.
Props & Handouts
Make the adventure visceral with player aids. Give them something tangible as part of puzzles, to make the game go faster or smoother, or to help them envision the adventure better.
For example, NPC art, item cards, player maps, quest cards.
One RPT reader wrote in and told me they put coloured water into small glass bottles they had lying around. They used these for potions during the game and the players loved them. Such things also make clear who’s holding the important items or treasure.
That’s it for the Adventure Checklist. As you can see, there are many ways you can improve your modules. However, don’t take them all on at once. Decide on just one thing right now for your current adventure and focus on improving that throughout. Get some experience just going through an adventure and making improvement tweaks. Sometimes it’s not as simple as we first think.
Then, if there’s time, tackle another item on your checklist you think will have a big effect on players’ enjoyment. Better NPC personalities, for example. Or maybe drawing maps in-game is a big time waster, so pre-drawing tricky areas might help next session go well.
Do what you can, but please avoid being overly critical. Nothing is perfect. Ever. Just tweak what you can when you have time and then just play.
To finish the checklist off, let’s cover the Encounter Checklist.
The following encounter elements have the biggest effect on your adventures. There are actually more items in an encounter stat block than listed here, but those do not affect things at the adventure level so much. Perhaps in a future RPT I’ll tackle the full Encounter Checklist on its own, because encounters are the containers for actual gameplay, so getting their design right is critical.
A quick summary of what the encounter is about. This helps remind you what you’ve created, and gives you an easy reference in-game when you’re flipping through looking for what should trigger next or how things might be affected by current character actions.
Where is the encounter? Try to make the location intrinsically interesting. Add a few details to give the place personality and atmosphere.
Think about what the location was built for, how it’s being used now, and what furnishings, equipment, storage, and tools might be about.
Also consider lighting (windows, strobe lights), the ground (carpeted, slippery), the ceiling (height, ceiling fans, ducts), and the air (smell, smoky), as a number of examples.
Look at your map and spot what’s around the location. What will happen if combat erupts, voices get raised, something breaks? Or what will happen if there’s a fireball, someone climbs the walls, or there’s retreat?
Think about weather, if applicable. Would certain weather make the location even more interesting? Winds causing shutters to slam open and closed, rain making bad footing, or heat causing discomfort.
Make locations interesting because they act globally upon encounters. A cool location makes the whole encounter a bit cooler.
Features & Hazards
Note special qualities of the location including threats, interactive elements, and opportunities.
For example, some of the PCs might like to climb a lot. Perhaps you move an important clue to the ceiling. It’s obvious to spot but a challenge to reach.
Hazards make combats more interesting. Weak flooring, for example.
And add interesting qualities as opportunities arise. Maybe harsh lighting makes it hard to hide in shadows, or a waterfall sculpture makes it easier to move undetected.
NPCs & Monsters
The lifeblood of great adventures. Make people and critters interactive, fun to roleplay, and relevant.
The last part is interesting. You don’t have to make every NPC part of the plot. But characters want more than just pieces of the story. They want to buy and sell things, to be respected and praised, to understand the world better. NPCs can offer many things to players and therefore your adventure.
Monsters are fun. Give them personalities to make them memorable, even if they just survive one round. Reskin monsters to make them mysterious. And give monsters special qualities to surprise your group.
Treasure & Reward
We’ve covered this in the Adventure Checklist. You’ll probably have a treasure budget based on campaign balance. You should also ensure all items important to the plot get placed. And also consider the many ways you can reward players and characters, as per your Kicks Grid but also in the various ways people have fun in RPGs in general.
At the encounter level, plan how these rewards will come about. Where are rewards located or how will they get delivered?
As mentioned many times in Roleplaying Tips, you can transform standard kill’em dead encounters by adding objectives and turning encounters into missions.
A bit of overlap here with map planning at the adventure level. But, if an encounter does not inherit a map from the region or larger location, then you should decide if you’ll need one for any particular encounter.
For example, if the PCs explore a mansion, then the floorplan will give you a map for every room encounter. But what if the PCs go outside? Are there encounters there, and if so, would an exterior map help in any way?
Senses & Buildup
Get this right and you’ll save yourself a ton of headaches. Can the characters sense something about an encounter before it triggers? If so, and they don’t get told this, players will get upset? And if it would have made any kind of tactical difference to a battle, then get ready for some player arguments.
Besides, an internally consistent world should take into account what characters and others would perceive from a distance.
For example, there’s 10 orcs in a room. Do they have a light on? Do they stink? Are they on alert and quiet or are they snoring, arguing, and eating loudly?
Another thing you can do to help avoid getting caught off guard is to make a PC Knowledge, Comms & Detection list. Write down all the special ways characters might know things or gain knowledge of things. Detection spells, knowledge skills, certain magical defenses, and languages usually top the list. Magic items and equipment can also grant characters extra or enhanced senses. And don’t forget to note character vision types and ranges.
Then run through this list before each encounter to see if characters would have any kind of sense or forewarning before the encounter triggers. Doing so helps you add these important details to encounter descriptions.
For example, instead of saying 10 orcs wait behind the door, you could say, “Down the corridor you can see a thin yellow flickering line of light. It looks like there’s a door ahead and the space beyond it is lit with torches whose light ekes out from the door’s bottom. As you get closer a terrible smell assaults you. Burnt hair mixed with wet dog mixed with fresh manure.” It’s up to the PCs now if they want to get close enough to listen at the door, barge in, or just avoid the place (in which case the orcs might detect the PCs and track them down later on).
Loop encounters back to the plot to keep the story moving forward.
NPCs and monsters can play key roles. Or you can plant clues. Or you can create obstacles and dilemmas that make the adventure’s outcome uncertain.
Often you will need to draw players to your encounters (pun intended!). While dungeon maps make stringing encounters together easy, other environments and situations will hide encounters and you’ll need to attract the party to them.
For example, the cure for the undead plague might be in a secret crypt somewhere in the wilderness. If the players do not know a) there’s a cure somewhere, and b) there’s a crypt in the wilderness, then you’ll be relying on chance to trigger this encounter. That’s not good.
Instead, use hooks to tease players, get them curious and interested, and make them aware of options to explore or enquire about.
What will happen once the encounter triggers? You need to match up player options to typical character responses to dependencies and consequences.
If the PCs parley, attack, search, or discover, what happens?
Use this to make encounters more robust, to help guide you as the encounter plays out, or to come up with ideas to make encounters more fun.
Whew. That’s a large and thorough checklist. While the adventure sits at the centre, hopefully you can see how campaign and encounter elements can affect the adventure as well.
Know your players and their characters. Make people, places, and things interesting. Create aids to enhance the experience. And look at how things relate. That sums up the Adventure Checklist. I hope it’s useful for you.