Behind the DM Screen: Crafting an original D&D adventure

Players fight through the castle in our homebrew adventure, “Xander’s Lost Orb.”

I’ve played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition: I playtested D&D Next, participated in some Adventurer’s League and began DMing the Starter Set box’s adventure, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver.”

I even picked up the two-part Tyranny of Dragons adventures.

I’ve dug it all, but coming up with a consistent story and a consistent gaming group since the new edition’s launch has been difficult. Starting the Phandelver module, for example, was a blast, but trying to weave that adventure (lvls 1-5) in with the Tyranny of Dragons adventures (lvls 1-15) was tough. (I did find a way, and I’ll have a post on that forthcoming.)

In the end, I decided to come up with something on my own.

Armed with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook, I created “Xander’s Lost Orb.”

Creating the adventure

I began with a simple idea: The players would raid a castle or a fort looking for an artifact.

But doing a dungeon crawl was too simple. I also wanted them to have some social interaction and incorporate some fun sequences beyond just battle.

First, I designed the artifact. Using the extensive magic items list and magic item creation list in the DMG, I created Xander’s Orb, an artifact lost when King Xander died in a cave-in.

Next, I worked on the backstory. Since I wanted our experienced gaming group to start off beyond level 1, I started at level 3. And instead of meeting in a tavern, they would meet when they were tasked by the current king to find the orb in order to help fight off the hordes of advancing orc tribes.

Similar to how Pathfinder offers character backgrounds for its adventure paths, I also offered several backgrounds that would help the players flesh out their characters and give them a reason to get hired by the king.

From there, I crafted three parts of the adventure: Securing the job from the king, finding the orb and – the big finale – chasing the owner of the orb through a series of sewer tunnels.

To make getting the job more than just a Persuasion check, I had the King’s sergeant test the party in either their archery or sword skills by taking on one of the King’s soldiers.

Finding the orb was a combination of speaking to the king, exploring a ruined temple (and fighting orcs), random encounters while they traversed the countryside and interrogating people at a tavern and a Thieves Guild hideout. Eventually, they would find the castle fort where the orb was being held – my original big setpiece idea – and fight their way to the orb’s owner.

Then, using the DMG once again, I created a sewer chase that ended in a drain out over a cliffside. I even made my own sewer-friendly list of chase complications including wild dogs, rats, broken pipes and slick floors.

DMing the adventure

I had my adventure. But writing the thing and running the thing aren’t the same.

I optimized the adventure to accommodate five 3rd-level adventurers. My gaming group is pretty large, so I thought I’d add a few extra monsters should extra players arrive. (More on that below.)

First, I prepared the gaming table. I play with maps and miniatures, so I needed to find maps for my major battle areas: the ruined temple, the castle and the sewers. I had a temple map, but it was up to me to construct the others according to the adventure’s specifications, so I busted out my D&D Dungeon Tiles and went to town.

Then I waited for everyone to arrive.

The three adventurers, a gold-loving thief, surly dwarf and surlier drow, get surprised by a bugbear.
The three adventurers, a gold-loving thief, surly dwarf and surlier drow, get surprised by a bugbear.

We started in disarray. Only three of the players arrived, but we decided to soldier on. Also, due to a technical error on my part, none of the players had read or chosen a background to get them into the game.

And then the party was pretty wild: a surly dwarf, a money-grubbing thief and a drow ranger. At least the adventure’s storyline allowed for just about anyone to be thrown into this thing together.

The adventurers threw a few wrenches my way early on (mostly by insulting the King early and often) but they quickly jumped into the task at hand. They tracked down the ruined temple, battled an owlbear on the way and busted up some orcs.

With only three PCs, all my math and optimization didn’t help much. I quickly realized they’d be overwhelmed even by the few the orcs searching through the temple. I had to do some fixing on the fly in almost every one of the combat encounters. Some monster abilities were turned into 4e-style “encounter” powers that could only be used once during combat. I also reduced the number of monsters in most encounters.

It worked. (Phew. *wipes sweat from brow*)

The PCs got hit hard a few times and had to decide how to use their healing powers and hit dice. I hoped to give them a mix of encounters and experiences, and it appeared they had a mix of easy, medium and hard combat and a mix of combat and roleplay.

The fort was filled with Zhentarim soldiers as well as some hired guns including goblins, bugbears and a half dragon. The adventurers made their way through the fort without attracting too much attention.

The man with the orb escapes down a ladder into the sewers.
The man with the orb escapes down a ladder into the sewers.

And then came the chase.

I crafted the chase to be about 400 feet of sewers with chase complications rolled on a random table. The guy with the orb ran fast, but he wasn’t much of a match for the drow ranger’s longbow. He got hit a lot – enough times to take him down – but I wanted that final showdown at the end of the sewer, so I used DM’s Discretion (as I call it) to let him keep going.

In the end, they took the guy down and secured the orb. I kind of hoped for someone to go over the edge, but it didn’t happen.

Players chase down the guy who stole the orb.
Players chase down the guy who stole the orb.

Now the PCs have the orb, and due to the social and roleplay parts of the adventure, a few different bidders who want the orb for various purposes. I’ve already begun crafting the next adventure.

I feel it went well. It was a challenge for the players. It gave them more to do than fight. Everyone was engaged in the story. The characters roleplayed their characters.

And most importantly: The players had a good time.

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Have you crafted a 5th edition adventure or homebrew campaign? Tell us about it in the comments.

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