So you’re in love with D&D 5e. You’ve got all the books, the dice, plenty of minis, and you’ve watched/listen to every episode of Critical Role. Only trouble is that you’re not sure how to write a good D&D 5e adventure. Fortunately, this article will show you exactly how to write D&D 5e adventure that your players love.
What will this post teach me about good D&D 5e adventures?
I don’t want to hit you with a firehose of information. That’s why this post will teach you the basics of writing a good D&D 5e adventure. In fact, you’ll learn everything you need to know to crank out a good D&D 5e adventure in a matter of minutes. That way, you can focus on what’s important: playing the game.
Here’s how I’ll break down D&D 5e adventure writing in just 4 simple steps:
- Come up with a hook to get the characters involved.
- Determine the adventure’s location.
- Design the adventure’s encounters.
- Reward character prizes.
Step 1. Come up with the hook to get the characters involved.
First thing’s first. The characters need a reason to care. What is it that motivates them grab their sword/spellbook/lute and fight monsters? Why should they risk their necks in trap-laden dungeons filled with unspeakable horrors?
Fortunately, the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a few hooks to help you write a good adventure. These hooks are in Chapter 3 of the DMG. First, on page 73, there’s the Dungeon, Wilderness, and Other Goals tables. These three tables offer 52 excellent reasons (one for each day of the week?) to get your characters off their butts and into trouble. And if you’re looking for something a little simpler, the side quests table on page 81 gives some pretty basic quest hooks. In fact, you probably recognize a few of these from popular video games.
Once you know your hook, it’s easy to introduce it. Simply have an NPC introduce the hook.
“Dear adventurers! Please help the people of my village (find a specific item rumored to be in the area.) Do this and we will pay you 500 gp.”
Step 2. Determine the adventure’s location.
After you know adventure’s “why”, you need to determine the “where.” This is the place the adventure takes place. There are a variety of ways you can choose the adventure’s location. First, you can pick a map that you like from one of your creators. I recommend Tom Cartos, Cze & Peku, Tim Hartin, or Dyson Logos. From there, it’s just a matter of filling the space with your imagination. Alternatively, you can pick the type of place you need then find or create a map that fits the concept. Not an artist? No problem! Tools like Inkarnate and DungeonDraft allow you to create the maps of your dreams.
Remember: a good map is the backbone of a good D&D 5e adventure.
Step 3. Design the adventure’s encounters.
Next, fill your rooms with encounters worthy of the characters. If you want a simple adventure that fills a single session’s worth of play, try not to have more than 3-4 combat encounters. If you’re just starting out, try not to overthink the game’s combat balance system. Instead, challenge your characters with a mix of each of the following encounter types:
- One or two encounters that features a monster whose CR is equal to the party’s average level. For example, four characters with an average party level of 3 can fight a minotaur (CR 3).
- One or two encounter that features two monsters each with a CR that’s two steps below the party’s average level. For example, four characters with an average party level of 6 can fight two banshees (CR 4).
- One or two encounters that features three monsters each with a CR that’s three steps below the party’s average level. For example, four characters with an average party level of 1 can fight three guards (CR 1/8).
- Finally, challenge the party with one creature whose CR is one or two steps above the party’s average level. This will be the “boss.” For example, four character with an average level of 5 can fight one CR 7 creature.
If you want to learn more about combat balance, be sure to check out my article on combat balance in Fifth Edition. It’s not necessary to learn to start, but it will definitely help you write a good D&D 5e adventure in the future.
Step 4. Reward character prizes.
Last but definitely not least, determine the rewards the characters receive for completing the adventure. Rewards usually come in one of two forms. First, there are experience rewards. All of the monsters featured in the monster manual give experience rewards based on their challenge rating. And if you and your characters don’t want to deal with all the accounting involved in experience points, use milestones instead. Milestones promote characters when the players complete sessions. This encourages the party to make choices that don’t solely involve combat. Assuming the average game session lasts 3-4 hours, the basic milestone progression works like so:
- Promote 1st-level characters to the 2nd-level after they complete their first session.
- Then, promote 2nd-level character to the 3rd-level after they complete their second session.
- Once the 3rd-level characters complete their third and fourth sessions, promote them to level 4.
- After the party reaches 4th-level, they must complete a minimum of three sessions to advance to the next level.
Second, there are treasure rewards. The Dungeon Master’s Guide goes into detail on how to appropriate award players based on their current level. But a good rule of thumb is to award characters treasure valued at approximately 2,000 gp per the party’s average level.
Starting writing your D&D 5e adventure, now!
Now that you understand the basics of writing a good D&D 5e adventure, start putting these steps to the test. Of course, there’s no shame in using preset adventures. In fact, DMDave’s Patreon offers over 100 professionally written D&D 5e adventures, including a wide variety of free adventures for you to sample. All of these adventures are written with the “weekend DM” in mind. That means all you need to do is skim the document, plug the maps into your favorite VTT or dry-erase map, and run the adventure.
Got any ideas for good D&D 5e adventures? Let me know down in the comments below!