How to Create a Bad Ass Adventure in 30 Minutes or Less | DM’s Workshop

Recently, my Saturday group hit the infamous level 11, placing them in the third tier. What does third tier mean in D&D?

In the third tier (levels 11-16) characters have reached a level of power that sets them high above the ordinary populace and makes them special even among adventurers. At 11th level, many spellcasters gain access to 6th-level spells, some of which create effects previously impossible for player characters to achieve. Other characters gain features that allow them to make more attacks or do more impressive things with those attacks. These might adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents.

We get to have some fun! I need to create an adventure for them. But I decided that I would do nearly all of this using random charts. Insane, you say? Probably. But you’ll quickly see how easy it is to just the dice take the wheel and run the game for you.

Plus, I’ll show you some other nifty random generators that I use to help me create cool stuff.


Spoilers: by the way, if you’re one of my players, you probably won’t want to read this article. You’ve been warned.


Building an Adventure on a Budget

Some folks ask me about how to balance encounters and adventures. I thought I might share some insight into how I do it on here.

First, I consider the amount of XP that’s needed before the group hits its next level. As of this writing, they’re all half-way to level 12 (92,500 XP). That means they have to gain 7,500 XP in order to hit 12th level.

Ideally, that should happen in a single adventuring day for the group. At 11th level, a character can handle 10,500 adjusted XP per day (DMG p85). Keep in mind that adjusted challenges aren’t the same thing as actual experience.

That’s going to be roughly 6 – 8 Medium and/or Hard challenges in that day.

There are five characters in the group accompanied by a shield guardian sidekick. While the sidekick doesn’t take XP, it does push the encounter XP modifiers up (it makes the part 6 instead of 5), so my multipliers all move down a level. This means that the party can handle one CR 17 challenge as a Medium challenge (or one CR 22 as a Deadly challenge).

Told you that 11th level was fun!

Coming up with the rough concept.

Now that I know what I can work with, I’ll develop the theme a little. I know it will be set in the Forgotten Realms town of Leilon. In my campaign, Leilon was destroyed recently by marauding gnolls. Now, there are factions coming in to reclaim and build the town (mostly to take control of its local mines) so the PC’s have been invited to handle the situation.

This gives me lots of good hooks:

  • The factions themselves could be challenges. In fact, I’m definitely thinking about bringing in the Dragon Cult since the Mere of Dead Men to the south is known to have some nasty black dragons lurking in it.
  • The mines make for a cool opportunity for adventure. Southkrypt is an ancient dwarven mine where a group called the Swords of Leilon adventured.
  • With all the dead people in town, there could be a big undead presence. I haven’t really done a ghost story yet.
  • Leilon had a wizard tower at the center of it that was supposed to be guarded by magical wards and fearsome monsters.

With these ideas in mind, I thought I might also turn to the DMG’s random tables for adventure creation. Surprisingly, it usually gives me some pretty cool hooks (I’ve used it a few times with The Secret of Forsaken Peak).

1. Identify the Party’s Goals

First up, I need to create a goal for the Leilon adventure. There are three types of goal charts offered on page 72: Dungeon, Wilderness, and Other. I’m going to select other.

d12 roll: 1

Seize control of a fortified location such as a fortress, town, or ship.

Cool! So their mission (should they choose to accept it) is to take control of Leilon. As it stands, they’re currently members of the Lord’s Alliance and Harpers, so that’d be some good hooks to get the place squared away.

“Go fix this place, and we’ll give you money to fix Phandalin,” sounds like it could work.

2. Identify Important NPCs

Next, we need to come up with a cool NPC (or four). We start with the adventure villain:

d20 roll: 11

Humanoid conqueror

Interesting! And not what I expected. I’ll have to flesh out this conqueror a little more to see how he fits into this story.

Next, I need to come up with some allies. I’ll roll two.

d12 rolls: 3, 11

Enthusiastic commoner and disguised monster.

Oh, that’s fun. I already know that I want my enthusiastic commoner to be one of the dwarves that let them know about the issues in Leilon. The other ally I’ll have to decide as I go, but that seems like a ton of fun.

Finally, I need a patron.

d20 roll: 5

Military officer

Another interesting character. Why would a military officer be the PC’s patron? Maybe it’s a member of the Lord’s Alliance? Or someone else that’s interested in Leilon.

3. Flesh Out the Location Details

I know that most of the adventure is going to take place in Leilon. Fortunately, I’ve already done a little research and created a pretty cool map using existing information on Leilon.

leilon
Made using Photoshop and Watabou.itch.io’s Fantasy City Map Generator

Believe it or not, I created this map using a random map generator. All I did was click refresh a few times ’til it fit roughly the description of Leilon (road going through the middle, near the water, wall around it) and presto. Then, I stuck on a few labels using Photoshop and presto. Took me no more than 10 minutes (okay, yes, I’m a card-carrying Photoshop Expert, but I digress).

I won’t need to generate a lot of details for Leilon since it’s already established in the Lore. Plus, it’s more or less a ghost town at the moment. However, I might create some random encounter tables for monsters lurking inside the town. And if I needed to name some random buildings, I could do that using the random buildings charts on page 113 of the DMG. There’s no need to do all of that now, though.

Here’s a good rule: never make more than you need to for an adventure/campaign. You might burn yourself out! Sometimes, I don’t even have dungeons planned. I just download a map from one of my favorite cartographers and quickly come up with stuff on the fly. You have to be a pretty experienced DM to do that, though.

4. Find the Ideal Introduction

I kinda already did this, but maybe I can morph it a little. Let’s see what the random tables come up with.

d12 roll: 2

While traveling in the wilderness, the characters notice the entrance to the adventure location.

Yawn. Well, that’s not very exciting. I think I’ll leave it with what I had, where they were tasked by their patrons/allies to figure out what all the fuss is about in Leilon.

5. Consider the Ideal Climax

Finally, how do we want the adventure to end? Again, I’ll roll on the random table.

d12 roll: 11

The adventurers must choose whether to pursue the fleeing main villain or save an NPC they care about or a group of innocents.

Sounds good to me! I could see our enthusiastic dwarf friend tied up with some sort of danger coming (maybe a bunch of zombies?) while the villain–our conquering humanoid–got away.

6. Plan Encounters

Okay, so now I just need to tie encounters to it. The players have to seize control of Leilon from invaders–I’m thinking cult of the dragon. They’re lead by a big-time big bad cult of the dragon guy. I need a good name? For this, I’ll turn to another random generator, this time donjon’s Fantasy Name Generator. I like the first name, Rewill. Kinda weird! But I dig it. I’ll use the second name the generator came up with Birstio for his surname. Rewill Birstio, a human conquerer.

Since we have our main villain for this adventure figured out, I should flesh him out a little.

Who is Rewill Birstio?

Turning to page 94 of the DMG, we’ll see what the tables say:

First, what is Rewill Birstio’s scheme?

d8 and a d4 roll: 8 + 4

Wealth: steal land, goods, or money

Yo, I don’t think this could have been more perfect if I tried. Rewill wants to take over Leilon on behalf of the Cult of the Dragon. That villain!

But what’s Rewill’s method?

d20 and a d6 roll: 20 + 3

Warfare: massacre

So mean ol’ Rewill wants to massacre people there. Perhaps some friendly monsters in disguise are trying to quietly rebuild the town. And he’s come in by force with his meano cultists to bully them around?

I could give Rewill a weakness, but most of those seem to pertain to liches and other supernatural beings. Rewill is just a powerful warlord. In fact, I’ll probably even use the warlord stat block for him (it’s in Volo’s). So he’s a CR 12 bad guy.

What I can do is give him some interesting traits, though. More random tables! Here’s what I rolled for Rewill.

Rewill Birstio is a formal lord, wearing clean, fine clothing. He is perceptive, spiritual and insightful but has a sickly pallor about him (he’s suffering from a ghoul bite he contracted a few days ago… he isn’t showing symptoms yet, but will soon). He grew up poor, so he knows thieves’ cant. In order to ignore his poor roots, he now uses flower speech and long words. Despite being cruel and evil, he comes across as very friendly in the way he talks. Rewill’s greatest ideal is might above all other; he believes he has the right to conquer those weaker than he. He is extremely loyal to Tiamat, who has given him the opportunity go far within the Cult of the Dragon. His one weakness? Rewill enjoys decadent pleasures, a costly habit that often gets him into trouble.

Keep in mind that all of this came from just a few dice rolls.

So the first encounter I’ll plan will be the BBEG Rewill encounter. I want to make it a Deadly encounter (no need to be epic), and with six combatants in the party, I need to make sure that the entire encounter coughs up a total of 21,600 experience. At only half his normal price (thanks to there being more than five characters) Rewill will only eat up 4,200 of that himself. So I need some underlings.

What sort of henchmen will Rewill surround himself with? How about a couple guard drakes (his pets) some sort of magic user (his counsel) and a few underlings. I’m seeing five creatures in all.

Encounter #1 – Rewill Encounter (19,425 adjusted XP):

  • Rewill Birstio is a chaotic evil human warlord (Volo’s).
  • Two black guard drakes named Myli and Artere (Volo’s).
  • A chaotic evil halfling mage named Alter.
  • Three cult fanatics.

I’ll want to make this sort of interesting, too, so I might put Rewill and his guards up in a guard tower on the palisade or in a place that it’s hard for the PCs to immediately get to.

Rewill will inform the PC’s that he’s got a host of hostages that are trapped somewhere. He’ll have Alter use sending to tell them where the hostages are as long as Rewill and his group are allowed to escape.

That leads to my next encounter. Saving the hostages from monsters!

From the lore, I know that there’s a place called Manyclaws alley that’s been haunted for years by huecuva. Unfortunately, huecuva haven’t made it into Fifth Edition yet. Normally, I’d just cook up the stats myself, but instead, I’ll just substitute another type of monster.

What is huecuva?

A huecuva is a skeletal humanoid, a priest cursed by its god to spend its existence as an undead creature.

Cool! So here comes these undead priests ready to eat the faces off the power townspeople. What can I sub out for an undead priest?

I know I want it to be a horde of them surrounding. I want this to be a Medium challenge, meaning its total adjusted XP will be around 9,600. I want there to be at least 10 of whatever creature it is. 10 creatures normally adds a multiplier of 2.5, but since there’s six good guys, that multiplier drops down to 2. Doing some quick math, that means I can have 10 creatures worth 480 XP. I know from memory that’s roughly CR 2.

So what kind of undead monsters are CR 2?

Ghasts, minotaur skeletons, poltergeists, and will-o-wisps. Ghasts could work! Plus, this encounter is not so much about beating the monsters, but saving the poor villages before they get eaten.

Encounter #1 – Save the Townsfolk from Ghasts Encounter (9,000 adjusted XP):

  • 10 ghasts trying to eat 30 commoners

To step things up, I’ll give bonus XP for each of the commoners that the PCs manage to save.

So far, we’ve got 28,425 experience used. My PCs can handle 63,000 before they need a long rest. So we’re about halfway there. Time for some easier encounters.

All right, moving on to the next encounter, it’s doubtful that Rewill Birstio will have just himself and a few men. So he’ll need some more henchmen around the town. I think two easy encounters and one Medium encounter should work. We’ll have some guards standing at one of the gates.

They’ve been ordering people to go the long way around Leilon due to the invasion (really, they’re hiding their goings-on within the town). Each gate probably needs these. So that’s two encounters right there.

An easy encounter for my 11th levels is worth 4,800 XP. I want there to be five people for the PC’s to deal with, so just like before I’ll reverse engineer what type of bad guys I can use in this encounter. The multiplier will be 1.5, and with five bad guys that’s 640 XP each. That’s nearly CR 3. That’s a little higher than I’d like, so I’ll adjust down.

I think I might make one of the five into a “boss” sargeant type. That’ll help eat up a bunch of the XP budget, too. A gladiator should work well. With the 1.5 modifiers, the gladiator will take 2,700 of the 4,800 budget for each of these easy encounters. Now that leaves me with 350 for each of the other creatures. Again, I’ll use cult fanatics, and I’ll even put the whole group on horses.

Encounters #3 and #4 – North and South Gate Encounters (5,400 adjusted XP x2):

  • One gladiator sergeant mounted on a warhorse.
  • Four cult fanatics mounted on warhorses.

That puts us at 39,225 adjusted XP, giving me 23,775 more to work with.

I could do one more Deadly encounter, a Hard encounter, and an Easy encounter, or two Medium encounters.

I think I’ll go for the two medium encounters. I probably need one more “thematic” encounter incorporating the Cult of the Dragon. And then something random.

For the final thematic encounter, I’ve got a Medium encounter budget of 9,600 to work with. I’d kinda like a different type of bad guy here, sort of a “mini-boss” with a couple of henchmen. With three bad guys, that’s a multiplier of 1.5, so I have an adjusted 6,400 experience to work with. I want the mini-boss to eat up around 50% of that, so he/she needs to be around CR 7 – 8. The mini-boss’s two lackeys will be close to 1,500 XP each, so they can be either CR 4 or 5. Cult of the Dragon? How about a dragon or an Abishai? Black Abishai are perfect at CR 7, so that’s the mini-boss.

The Abishai will represent Tiamat’s interests in the world and act as Rewill’s chief assassin, keeping things quiet about their presence in the realm. Accompanying Abishai are a pair of mezzoloths hired by the Abishai to act as its brute force.

Encounter #5 – Abishai encounter (9,750 adjusted XP):

  • One black Abishai
  • Two mezzoloths

Finally, it’s always good to toss in a random encounter not related to what’s going on. It changes things up a bit and makes for a more interesting overall adventure. Again, I have roughly 9,600 experience to work with. I could throw one CR 17 monster with that, two CR 9s, three CR 6s, four CR 5s, five or six CR 4’s, seven or eight CR 3’s, nine or ten CR 2’s, 11 CR 1’s, up to fourteen CR 1/2’s, and like, any number of weenies below CR 1/2.

Checking over the CR 16’s and 17’s, nothing really stuck out as making sense. I liked the idea of a mummy lord in its lair (CR 16), but that’s too much of a BBEG for a random encounter.

Finally, I decided that a group of trolls had wandered into the town and was looking around. The cultists had mostly avoided them (and vice versa), but they see the adventurers as easy targets, potentially even threatening to get notice unless the PC’s pay up with food (preferably a halfling if they’ve got one).

To make things more interesting, I’ll have it so the trolls have been eating some of the ghasts in the town and picked up the ghast’s paralyzing claws. This will give the trolls a chance to paralyze on a DC 16 (8 + troll’s proficiency bonus + troll’s Con modifier) and they also have the stench feature with the same DC.

Encounter #6 – Ghoul troll encounter (10,800 adjusted XP):

  • Four trolls with ghast Stench (DC 16 Con save) and paralyzing touch (DC 16 Con save).

To make things more interesting, I might have the trolls walking around through the sucking mud of The Leilon Stuck.

So the grand total shakes out to be 60,525. We actually came in 2,475 experience under budget. Not bad!

Now that I have an idea for the theme and other happenings in the town of Leilon, I can also kinda guess a series of random encounters in my head should they come up. I know the place has dragon cultists, undead, and scavengers there. That’s probably enough to fill up some interesting encounters.

Quick Recap:

  1. The PCs are tasked by someone (a friendly pair of dwarves) to secure the town of Leilon from Cult of Dragon invaders.
  2. Leilon has been seized by a villain named Rewill Birstio. He’s got guards at both gates, plus some in the town (his own henchmen, plus the Black Abishai).
  3. To thwart the PC’s, he’s taken the villagers hostage (friends of the dwarves who’ve moved into Leilon to reestablish it) and tells them the PC’s that if they don’t allow them to leave peacefully, the villagers will be eaten by ghasts when the sun goes down.
  4. Trolls are wandering around Leilon eating the dead. They’ve developed weird powers because of it.

7. Treasure, loot, rewards!

The story elements have planted a few good ideas for rewards.

  • The dwarves who tasked the PC’s to check out Leilon may have something to reward the PCs with.
  • The PC’s patron (probably a member of the Lord’s Alliance or Harpers) that may have a different agenda. Maybe a McGuffin? Perhaps they’ll help fund the PC’s rebuilding Phandalin project if assistance is given in figuring out what the deal with Leilon is. What might be cool is saying that the Lord’s Alliance knows about the Dragon cultists, but just wants the PC’s to observe and report and not get involved. There are some higher-ups that believe the cultist’s presence there could help flush out some of the bigger cells.
  • Any treasure that’s found in the town. The trolls could have a bag of goodies with them, as would Rewill and his men.

How many rewards do characters get over the course of play?

According to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, between levels 11-16, there should be twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table (p135). That’s two rolls per level. I’ve already hooked up the gang with one treasure hoard this level, I owe them one more before they hit level twelve.

Again, I’ll use the random tables to tell me what to offer:

  • 11,000 gold pieces
  • 1,900 platinum pieces
  • 8 gems worth 1,000 gold pieces
  • 2 potions of superior healing and eyes of minute seeing

Now it’s just a matter of putting those items in locations that make sense. The trolls will have the gems: gathered from a ship that got stuck in the mud (they trolls at the sailors, of course).

The dwarves will offer 2,000gp for helping them save their friends from Rewill.

The Lord’s Alliance (or Harpers) will offer the 1,900 platinum for assistance in rebuilding Phandalin if the PC’s can secure Leilon.

The 2 potions of superior healing is found in a rundown temple near where the civilians are being kept.

Alter, Rewill’s mage will wear the eyes of minute seeing.

The other 9,000 gold pieces will be loaded on Rewill’s horses.

And that’s pretty much it…

With these notes here, I have the makings for an entire adventure with some cool story elements and hooks to keep things moving.  All I have to do is place the encounters in the appropriate locations, give the NPCs some cool quirks, and see what the PC’s want to do.

I personally don’t plan too much more than that. I know the big story points, but it doesn’t silo me or my group into a certain story. They can take any path they want and I roll with it.

For example, they could sneak into the place and immediately run into the trolls. The scuffle brings attention to the cult who prepares in various locations around the town, giving Rewill time to place the villagers in the basement of an old temple where ghast are known to rise at night.

Or the PCs could bust in through the front gates, swords swinging. They’ll face off against the guards there, but again, that’ll give the others time to match ’em.

And if they do get in without causing a disturbance, then they might even be able to get the drop on Rewill.

It’s super flexible this way!

See you next time.

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