In July, I gave myself a new challenge. I enrolled in a course hosted by the RPG Writer Workshop called “Write Your First Adventure.” The course was structured to guide you through the creative process of writing and publishing a short RPG adventure, and I thought it was time I gave something like that a shot.
I grew up playing board games, and this love of tabletop games evolved into a passion for tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons. But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I first started playing D&D—I always wanted to try it out but never knew anyone who played.
I still remember my first D&D session: A group of my high school friends got together during a break between college semesters, and we started to sketch out D&D 3.5e characters. We met up in my friend’s basement and sat around a low table, where we spread out huge sketched maps, wrinkly character sheets, and plenty of snacks. I’m sure it took a while for us to figure out the various rules and mechanics, but ultimately, I recall having a crazy amount of fun.
We were a creative group, always writing stories, playing music, or filming home movies together, and the atmosphere of D&D let our imaginations run wild and take shape in a completely new, interactive form. It was unlike anything we experienced before.
Over the years, we kept playing, and when we couldn’t meet up, we’d meet virtually on Roll20. It’s been a consistent source of joy for me. We eventually moved on from 3.5e, dabbling in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and coming round full circle back to D&D 5e.
I have taken on the mantle of Dungeon Master a few times, and I’ve been running a full homebrew campaign for about a year now. But even though I love writing, whether on Couch Bandits or just for fun, I never sat down and experimented with designing a D&D adventure for others to play.
When my friend (who you may know *cough, Nick Snow, cough*) shared the RPG Writer Workshop course with me, I knew this was my opportunity to apply myself. The goal was to create a one-shot (or single session) RPG adventure about 3,500 words in length in one month. It sounded very reasonable to me, and I also wanted to challenge myself to write something that short in length (I tend to write a LOT—I’m currently working on a novel that started as a short story…).
So, I signed up. Now, the month is over, and I am happy to say I accomplished my goal: I completed a short D&D adventure called “The Last Fire Giant of Mount Dwenendor” and published it on DMs Guild, a site for community-created content. But I thought it would be cool to document what the experience was like and how I arrived at the final product.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the creative process behind designing a D&D adventure.
(Note: If you plan on experiencing this adventure as a player, stop reading here! There will be spoilers. If you’d like to read the adventure for context, you can download it for FREE here.)
Planning: Where to Start?
Having played D&D for a decade, I knew a few things I wanted to achieve in my adventure right off the bat, and it boiled down to the following:
- Tell a complete story. In my experience, I’ve played a lot of campaigns—long, extended adventures that take many, many sessions to complete. While fun, campaigns can get a little boring, so I wanted to create a short, cohesive adventure that could be introduced in the middle of a campaign without disrupting the events of that story line, almost like a mini side quest to take the players’ minds off the monumental task at hand and get them fired up again. But I also wanted something flexible enough to be used as a starting adventure for a group of new players, so it had to have potential to continue on in the future, similar to the first book in a series.
- Create an atmospheric environment. Even if I created the most compelling story ever, the players wouldn’t remember it if it wasn’t grounded in an interesting setting. If you think about it, many of the official D&D books are focused on fleshing out really unique, weird settings—in fact, their upcoming book is Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, which is dripping in atmosphere in the product description alone. With this in mind, I wanted a dynamic setting that would affect the players, their progression, and the creatures living within it.
- Focus on choice. D&D is a game of choice at its core. Players tend to have the most fun when they are presented with a choice to make, and those choices have to matter. Bad choices should have consequences, and good choices should be rewarded. So I knew I had to balance telling a complete story in a short amount of time with giving the players enough choices to avoid railroading the whole thing, which isn’t easy. You have to provide structure in a way that the players still feel like they are driving the narrative and have control over the outcome.
I had all these thoughts in my head from the very start, and honestly, it was intimidating. I was also quickly realizing that writing an adventure was different than just planning a session as a DM.
When writing an adventure for others to use, you have to think through every choice and outcome and write it down in detail, whereas when you’re DMing, you can keep a lot of the details in your head and make it up on the fly. You also want to give agency to the DM who will be running the game, so they can take their own creative liberties. It’s a lot to keep straight!
I really didn’t know where or how to start. I wanted to create something that achieved all these things, so I could proudly stand by it in the end, but it is much easier said than done. I was so worried about failure that I found myself procrastinating. I kept pushing off time to brainstorm and couldn’t settle on a singular idea.
Then, I decided to sit down and flip through the Monster Manual.
Actually, let’s back up a bit. Just before that, I was thinking through the setting for this adventure. I really wanted to create a one-shot that any DM could pick up and introduce into their game, like a plug-and-play adventure. But what setting would be the most appropriate? Forgotten Realms?
I waffled on this for a bit, even considering different planes, but ultimately, I decided to create a neutral setting. In other words, it doesn’t matter what setting your game is in—you can simply add this singular location to that setting, and it’s not tied to any lore.
This took a huge burden off me, because there is so much history in D&D settings, and I was worried about getting lore wrong or creating a game in a location the players may have already been to/explored.
With that decided, I just needed to think of a cool location, but I was still having trouble picking one. Eventually, I said to myself: “Maybe I should flip through the Monster Manual and see what creatures stand out. What would be fun to fight as a player?”
That’s when I came across the fire giant. I actually had an unpainted miniature of a fire giant that I’d been meaning to sit down and paint for a few weeks, but I’d never gotten around to it, so when I saw it in the book, I stopped and thought: that might be cool. Who doesn’t want to interact with a fire giant? There’s one on the cover of the Player’s Handbook after all!
The fire giant entry has a lot of depth to it, as well, so I began to read through it, and I was immediately fascinated. I learned that fire giants were battle-hardened warriors but also master craftsmen and that they built fortresses in mountainsides and volcanoes.
And there was the inspiration I was looking for: a volcano!
How cool would it be to explore a fortress built into an active volcano? With that thought in mind, I continued looking through the book and picked out other fire-themed creatures that might dwell in a mountain, and suddenly, my setting was taking shape.
Shaping the Story: The Introduction
The setting I chose became the foundation upon which everything else was built. It was like the floodgates opened—I started getting ideas left and right.
Now, I knew the majority of the one-shot would be focused on exploring the volcanic fire giant fortress, and this would take up the “middle” portion of the story. So, I decided to leave that be for the moment and began to brainstorm an introduction and a conclusion to shape the story.
Once again, my primary focus heading into development was to tell a complete story. Good stories typically start with a compelling inciting incident—something that brings the party of adventurers together.
Creating an exciting introduction was going to be difficult, because I needed something that could happen anywhere at any time, so DMs could randomly introduce the mission regardless of setting.
I also wanted to create an event that would bring people together, without falling into a cliche D&D introduction (e.g., your party is at a tavern and is drawn into a quest with no real explanation of how you know the other characters/why you’re working together). Not only does the introduction have to be flexible enough to be randomly introduced regardless of location, but it also has to be interesting enough to corral a group of adventurers and align them with a singular goal.
The first thing that came to my mind? A teleportation mishap.
Why? I have no idea, but I thought it would be funny if a wizard tried to cast teleport and ended up having a bit of a mishap, sending him sprawling through the sky nowhere near the destination he was aiming for.
Due to the nature of the spell, this worked perfectly—you can end up pretty much anywhere with a teleport mishap.
Just imagine you’re an adventurer at an outdoor market, minding your own business, when you hear the sound of someone screaming from above you. It’s a startling event you wouldn’t forget anytime soon, and it would get everyone’s attention in the area. Even if adventurers were inside a building, the shouting would be loud enough to create a commotion that would bring people to the area to see what happened.
From there, I started mulling over the motivations of the character who would cast teleport. If you’re not familiar, the spell is pretty high level, so it couldn’t just be anyone—it had to be someone fairly capable. I thought it would make sense if the person who cast it was under some type of duress that caused them to cast it in haste, resulting in the mishap.
I actually took inspiration from a character I’m playing in a campaign named Theren Brightwood. He is a half-elf wizard who looks like your typical wizard (think: Gandalf) but a little goofier, and he grew up as a cloistered scholar who set off on an adventure to solve a mystery. He’s read a LOT of books, but this is his first time experiencing a real adventure. I imagined what he would be like as a level 13 wizard and used that concept as the basis of a new NPC, called Elkas the Blue, who would become the quest giver in this adventure.
At this point, I was feeling good about the idea. It felt realistic, and better yet, teleport allows the user to take up to 8 creatures with them, which factored in larger parties. It also gave the group of adventurers a chance to gather their things and prepare for the side quest, as Elkas would need to take a long rest before he could cast teleport again. And it incorporated the idea of “choice” right off the bat—the adventurers would immediately get the chance to react to the situation. Would they try to help the wizard? Would they ignore him?
With that figured out, I now had my beginning: A wizard wearing regal-blue robes would appear out of nowhere, ask for help on a quest, and had a way to transport the group to the location and back again. Perfect!
Shaping the Story: The Conclusion
The next step was designing an ending. I needed to define the quest objective, so I asked myself: “What would this wizard be doing all by himself at a fire giant fortress within an active volcano?” It seemed like a terrible idea for him to be doing that, so I started playing around with the idea of an abandoned fortress.
The RPG Writer Workshop had a lesson about setting that described some interesting concepts around environment. One of the suggestions was to have an environment that changes state. Immediately, this inspired me to have the volcano start dormant and become active in the course of the adventure.
Everything began to mesh together: We have a curious, competent wizard who loves solving mysteries. There’s a dormant volcano with an abandoned fire giant fortress. Because fire giants are formidable, the people living in the surrounding areas wouldn’t be in any rush to learn why the fire giants left their fortress behind, and the threat of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting during an expedition to learn more was too great a risk to take. Years go by, and the wizard decides he will protect himself against fire and check it out on his own to solve the mystery and record it for history, inspired by his scholarly duties.
Bam. The story had a shape now. But I still needed to fill in some details. There had to be a reason why the fortress was abandoned.
I remembered a section of the fire giant description that mentioned dragons: Fire giants and dragons never get along well. I wanted the adventure to have an epic conclusion, so what about a boss battle against a dragon? The game is literally named after the creature, so it seemed perfect.
I imagined the fire giants spreading too far into the mountain range and disturbing a white dragon in its lair. Not taking kindly to the giants encroaching on its territory, the dragon would swoop in and attack their home, flying through the fortress and freezing the fire giants in a prison of their own making. The power of its ice magic would be strong enough to turn the volcano dormant.
Many years pass by before Elkas explores the ruins, but as he is walking through the supposedly abandoned fortress, there is a single survivor: a lone fire giant who awakes from a great slumber of sorrow. Enraged, the giant attacks Elkas, and in a panic, he teleports out of there.
The pieces were finally falling in place. The short adventure would be an escort mission through an active volcano, which was revived by the fire giant Elkas awoke. The goal: to get Elkas to the fire giant to learn the reason behind his people’s mysterious disappearance. However, when the adventurers finally find the fire giant, the dragon swoops in again to end the last fire giant survivor.
The conclusion was complete, and I was happy with it. The element of choice was still there, even in the conclusion: The players could decide if they should defend the fire giant or not, since his motivations are somewhat ambiguous. Depending on the outcome, the adventure could be continued, as well. I officially had a good shape to the story.
With the beginning and end of the story sketched out, it was time to return to the middle piece: exploring the fire giant fortress. The biggest challenge here was figuring out how long the exploration should go on to keep the entire adventure between 3-6 hours (the typical length of a one-shot/single session).
From my experience as a DM, I knew my players usually got through about 3 maps/encounters in a 3-hour session. (For context, a “map” to me is one area, sometimes even a single, fairly dense room, not a huge dungeon.) The RPG Writer Workshop recommended planning 4 maps in its template, and that felt right to me, too, so that’s what I set out to create.
Going back to my priorities, I knew this is where setting atmosphere would come in. To start, the RPG Writer Workshop suggested creating a moodboard, something I was familiar with but had never really used in my creative writing. I decided to give it a shot, and I found some really cool images of bubbling-hot lava and fortresses weaving in and out of rock.
A moodboard is meant to serve both as inspiration and as a reminder to incorporate certain elements into your setting to create atmosphere, and I found it quite helpful to have a reference to turn to. I wanted my atmosphere to feel alive, and being able to take a look at lava flowing down the side of a mountain really inspired me.
The first map was easy: It had to be an entrance to the fortress. Thinking back on the fire giant description, I wanted the entrance to showcase their craftsmanship, so I came up with the idea of lining the walls with magnificent statues in their likeness. But I also wanted the entrance to feel empty and dilapidated to get across the sense that the place was abandoned, so I sprinkled in some of those details in the read-aloud text.
Next, I decided to jump to the final map. I wanted this one to be distinct. To make the final boss battle epic, the dragon had to be formidable, and there’s nothing more frightening than a dragon in the air, so I set the map outside.
I also started to think about the fire giant’s motivation: What was he doing now that he was awake? And why would he be outside?
I imagined him waking up with a vengeance. He would want revenge against the dragon who killed his people, so he immediately sets off to a forge built into the side of the mountain. With the fire of the volcano powering the forge, he would craft a powerful blade to fight the dragon.
And that decided it: The final map would be an open area, where the fire giant would be forging a blade. The dragon would swoop in to attack, and the players, just exiting the fortress, would have the opportunity to decide what to do before joining the battle.
Plus, this allowed for some environmental effects: Boulders could dot the area for players to hide behind, and the mouth of the volcano would be closer to the action here, so lava could spit out and hit participants in the battle.
Now, I had two more maps to develop. For these, I knew I wanted to incorporate more lava. I loved the idea that the fire giants built their fortress to coexist alongside the lava of the volcano.
For the second room, I created a room with a river of lava running across it horizontally, but due to the neglect of the fortress and the dragon attack, the infrastructure is starting to fail, and the bridge crossing over that river has collapsed.
This gave the room a bit of character—the environment posed a threat by itself, and the adventurers would have to figure out a way to get through without injury.
For the third room, I wanted even more lava. My thoughts wandered to Mustafar, the planet in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. I love the final fight scene in that movie, where the characters are jumping around on bits of metal and stone floating in lava.
I designed the third room to be filled with lava, and there’s nothing but a single bridge with a central platform that has to be crossed to get to the other side safely.
This map also gave me an opportunity to incorporate a cool encounter. I read that the fire giants used hell hounds as guardians, so I stuck a few hell hounds circling this middle platform in the middle of the lava. Now, the room itself was threatening, but there was the added complication of these creatures stalking the players right at the center.
At this point, I felt good about the 4 map concepts, but something was missing. I kept coming back to this idea of “choice.” The path from start to finish felt too straightforward, so to change things up, I added a fifth map.
After the entrance, the players could now choose to go left or right, and each room would present unique challenges. I felt like this added in some flexibility, and even though the rooms were essentially mirrors of each other, they contained slight differences that would shake up the player experience depending on their choice.
I had sketched out these concepts before building the maps themselves, so the next hurdle to overcome was drawing out the maps.
I’m used to creating my own maps from random assets online via Roll20 or just purchasing pre-drawn maps, and I have no artistic talent whatsoever. After some searching online, I discovered a tool called Dungeon Map Doodler. This tool is browser-based and is perfect for very basic map building.
It was super fun to create the maps and realize my vision. The foundation of my adventure was stronger than ever, and the next step was adding in detail to the read-aloud text to convey the mood and tone of the atmosphere. From there, I could focus on building encounters.
My philosophy going into building encounters was: Good choices don’t necessarily need to be rewarded monetarily.
There is a joy unique to DMing, and it comes from designing an encounter that the players never see because of good strategy on their part. For instance, one of the first encounters in my adventure involves a group of stirges hanging from the ceiling. If the players use their skills to search the room for threats, they will spot the stirges fairly easily. If they end up fighting the stirges, the sound of battle will draw more enemies from within the fortress to investigate and join the battle. If the players are clever enough to avoid combat with the stirges, their reward is avoiding reinforcements, and they learn an important lesson to continue using their senses to spot threats moving forward.
I designed a number of encounters revolving around that idea, rewarding players for thinking through various scenarios and choosing actions wisely. This included avoiding surprise attacks, too, as the enemies should be rewarded for their smart thinking, as well—if they get the jump on the players, they should get to attack first.
For the specifics of encounters, I used the suggestions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to calculate one easy, medium, hard, and deadly encounter and divvied them up between the thematic creatures I picked out earlier. It worked out rather nicely, but my only worry was the final battle against the dragon.
To make the story believable, I had to use an adult white dragon, which is quite strong for a party of level 5 characters. On their own, they probably wouldn’t stand a chance, but if they played their cards right, they would have Elkas (a level 13 spellcaster) and the fire giant (a level 9 creature) fighting against the dragon with them.
It took a lot of math to balance that final encounter, and I had to include a number of suggestions to scale depending on the makeup of the DM’s group. The only way I could see how the battle played out would be to test it.
Playtesting, Refining, and Publishing
Heading into my playtest, I was excited. I planned to playtest with the same group of high school friends, with whom I started this D&D obsession a decade ago. It was coming full circle.
Initially, I was nervous, because I hadn’t been the DM for that group in a while, but it went really well. Everyone reacted positively to the session, and the final fight was epic but not impossible. It energized me to make some tweaks and add the finishing touches.
These finishing touches involved filling in some details, like what happened if someone fell in lava during the game and what were the rewards for various outcomes? Really, these changes were simply adding depth to the structure, and it was more fun than anything else.
Finally, it was time to publish. Thankfully, DMs Guild makes it incredibly easy to post your own content. They also have a variety of resources for creators to find the perfect template or format for your content, so it was easy to create something that looked like a legitimate D&D product.
Once I sent the project off into the world, I felt a huge sense of relief. I was obsessed with writing the adventure for the month of July, constantly thinking about cool things I could add in. It was an incredible creative exercise, and I didn’t do it to earn money, so I set the product to “Pay What You Want.” Maybe one day it will turn into something more, but I just enjoyed writing it.
I hope my creative process helps an aspiring creator out there. It’s not as hard as it looks—the key is to take your time and think through the process piece by piece. The RPG Writer Workshop was great for showing newbies how to break down the process step by step, and it inspired me to see the project through to the end.
If you’d like to check out the RPG Writer Workshop courses, you can do so here. They will be offering another month-long “Write Your Own Adventure” course later this year.
And if you’d like to see my completed adventure, “The Last Fire Giant of Mount Dwenendor,” you can download it for free here.