Howdy! DM Daniel here helping you create a custom mission for your new homebrew campaign. Writing a campaign is a huge thing, but it often pays to not be incredibly specific at the outset, especially if you aren’t sure what the characters will do, or you’re creating an ‘adventure & exploration!’ campaign.
So, your characters are finally ready to tackle that Temple of Doom location. How do you plan it? Read on to find out!
So in writing my first adventure, I did what all good Dungeon Masters do (I suppose!?) which is, look at what other people have done! My first was not 100% original and homebrew, more like 80%. Which is fine – it makes my life easier, and it is easier as the DM to lean on some NPCs and other common elements to help build your mission / dungeon / adventure, etc.
My first custom mission is a take on Wyvern Tor. A ‘non mission’ with no map, and few enemies from the Starter Set, I wanted it to be much more complex and challenging (also I needed another dungeon for my new players to break in).
So let’s walk through the key parts.
Hooks: How will the characters learn about this mission / ruin / challenge? What hooks will you provide? Sometimes, one hook is enough. Other times, you need several. In this mission, I designed three distinct hooks. Two from different parts of Phandalin, one from right outside Wyvern Tor. Each one is desired to appeal to different characters.
Some groups need the clues to stack up – the note in the pocket of the slain orc, the shard from the Temple of Zumash embedded in the armor of the Redbrand officer, etc. Peppering them in throughout ensures that perhaps at least ONE person in the group naturally wants to explore your mission. If not, then a direct appeal from an NPC is needed.
In mine, Sister Garaele and the Druid Reidoth provide a direct NPC appeal with missions and small, if indirect, rewards. A secondary hook is the “Archaeologist” Hamun Kost (secretly a Necromancer), at the entrance site to Wyvern Tor, providing much more monetary incentive, but also a conflict of interest.
I typed these into a google doc, after I’d handwritten the entire thing. I included the location of the NPC, and their allegiance. A better player than I could easily create NPC cards with this information. I used bullet points to summarize what they could say about the mission to convince characters. Is this a lot of work? Yes, but I can use this mission again in the future just by trading out NPCs and names of locations.
Maps: Unless you’re really handy at drawing maps on the computer or on paper, I’d explore the internet to find a map. I’m already in love with Dyson Logos Shrine of Bones map (which was used for this mission) and he offered hundreds of others for free usage. Remember that, simply by turning it around and changing a few things, you can easily use a map several time over a campaign. You’ll need a DM map at bare minimum, and a player map if you want to give it to them.
Alternatively they can create their own map of the location (always a good challenge and a good skill to build). I roleplayed getting the map – characters would have to charm or talk with Hamun Kost outside and gain his trust to gain his map. In the act of giving them the map, he would reveal some ….creepy…tendencies (the map literally peels off his arm, ensuring it wouldn’t be discovered if he is killed). You’ll see I also hid a map further in the cave, rewarding fully exploring the cave. You can see the physical map I printed out (and burned the edges, I was having a bit too much fun) for the players.
The DM Map would be similar, but with rooms labeled, traps and treasure chests identified (or whatever you wish to have labeled).
Descriptions: I went through room by room and wrote up a brief description of the room. It is important to keep it short, but also informative. You can always ad-lib additional details later, but the key things you want players to notice should be included. Remember Smells, Light, and Sounds are part of the description.
I organized them in the manner you see above. Location, Description, Enemies / NPCs / Traps and treasure. The location includes room number (later on). I used bold words to describe critical characters, items, and monsters. I included DCs for various things here, they may or may not be useful for you. I’m a fan of not having to make it up on the spot, so I included them.
Enemies and Traps
Dungeons don’t necessarily need to be full of monsters or traps. It is always smart to have a few rooms completely empty or with nothing of value. As many other (much better) DMs note – you don’t necessarily want your characters doing investigation / perception checks in every room just out of rote to find gold. Sometimes there should be nothing to find.
I included a few traps to help add some excitement to the various hallways. Also it helps slow the group that is simply making a run for the main chamber.
I made sure my enemies were a good match for my group. The hardest monsters are naturally in the deepest rooms, but smart PCs have ways to bypass or treat with them without conflict. In the first run through of the mission, the PCs fought none of the major monsters because they used their Role Playing skills.
Not too much, not too little, some that is precious, some mundane. I hid two treasure chests, but the PCs may not find one and the other is guarded. Some of the treasure may be too valuable to take, so decide what is critical and what is not. How does the treasure work into a larger context? If the PCs take the Star of Zumash, will the trickster god curse them later? The high priestess’ banshee seems to think so, but do the characters?
If you’re a big fan, like me, of a consistently increasing chance of encounter to build anxiety and speed up gameplay and discussion. I created a list of some optional encounters that could be used. By considering the options beforehand, I avoid making the encounters too random, too powerful, or too useless. Remember that not all encounters require a monster or attack. They are also great opportunities for additional story hooks or adventures.
Bringing it All Together
Now that you’ve managed to format and formulate ideas, enemies, NPCs, and treasures, you’re on your way to making your first mission! Remember that you don’t need a five hour long dungeon crawl, and that the PCs won’t always do what you expect them to do. Sometimes all your work will be for naught, but you can easily reuse parts in other places. My PCs didn’t use half the rooms, discover half the monsters, or face some of the traps I had prepared, which means that I can use them again! (or with a different group).
Finally, good design is no replacement for thinking on the fly. You can (and should) adjust how the mission is going based on how well the PCs are roleplaying, fighting, and the group members (The test group didn’t have a full healer or cleric, so the fact they avoided fights was a pretty good choice).
So that’s it! You can get my first mission – Wyvern Tor, Revisited – here! (Upgraded, 2021, with all new maps, NPCs, Magic items, and more!)