December 6, 2023

Foundations From Fast Prep

Last week, the marvelous M.T. Black posted on the social mediaz to ask whether anyone had “a proven formula for creating an enjoyable 2-hour session of #dnd with less than 10 minutes prep?” I responded with the following:

  1. Map of old ruins, five rooms or so. 
  2. Two cool traps or hazards, one placed conspicuously at the entrance. 
  3. Place two easy encounters. 
  4. Have one incorporeal or teleporting hard encounter stalk the characters, then attack just after the second easy fight finishes.

This was an easy response for me because it’s a formula I’ve used a lot — mostly because I really like the kind of focused adventure it creates, not because I’m consistently short of prep time. But in ruminating on why I like this setup and how it works for me, I thought it would be fun to break the formula down a bit and explore what it’s actually doing. Because through that process, we can think about the underlying foundations of each step of the process, and how those steps can create actionable hooks for adventures of all kinds.

1) An Adventure Flowchart

“The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness,” were the words I read in the Holmes blue box version of Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager. “But the few adventurous souls who have descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all.”

And with that, I was hooked. I saw the blue-box rulebook’s Tower of Zenopus in my mind as clearly as any place I’d actually visited in real life, because there’s something so primally attractive about the idea of being brave enough to walk through a site where secrets, history, and danger surround you on all sides.

Dungeons are fun. But they’re more importantly one of the best frameworks for adventure design, as the name of the game has pointed out for nearly fifty years now. A map of a ruined keep, a subterranean temple, a warren of rough-walled caverns, or any other isolated site cut up into a number of distinct locations makes an easy-to-follow flowchart for exploration, intrigue, and adventure. If you don’t have a lot of time to figure out the shape of the adventure you want to run, a dungeon map gives you that shape, creating a literal path that the characters are compelled to follow.

2) Seeing the Unseen

Traps and hazards are one of the most effective ways to remind the players and characters that what they can’t see is potentially as big a threat as what they can see. Traps and hazards help to focus the players on their characters’ surroundings, giving you the opportunity to bring those surroundings fully to life. But one chronic problem of traps and hazards is that when the characters don’t spot them in time, those threats can end up feeling like a sucker punch — a beat of punishment narrative built on failure.

So give the characters an automatic success against unseen environmental threats early on in an adventure to give them a feeling of accomplishment. A trap or hazard that reveals itself easily feels like a victory, and can focus the players right from the start into problem-solving mode as they figure out how to get past the trap or hazard. By establishing early on that the players’ thinking is at least as important to getting past challenges as the characters’ capabilities, you set up a framework to have the players and characters fully engage with their adventuring environment, and that engagement helps bring an adventure to life better than anything else.

3) An Early Win

Easy encounters are the fastest way to turn new or uncertain players into adventure-obsessed veterans. Success in combat spikes a special kind of RPG dopamine straight into the gamer brain. And just as with regular dopamine, once we get that first hit, we want more. As every GM understands, a campaign composed of nothing but easy combat encounters can get stale quickly, but easy encounters are a great tool for a one-shot or a campaign start. Give the characters and players a chance to feel heroic right from the get-go, and they’ll keep coming back for that heroism fix — along with the gradually increasing levels of challenge that make the fix that much sweeter.

4) The Threat That’s Coming

A lot of adventures (especially site-based adventures) set up a kind of rhythm around first seeing monsters, then fighting monsters. It’s a reasonable and logical approach most of the time. But when the characters have very little time between the revelation of a threat and the process of dealing with the threat, the players sometimes don’t have a real opportunity to feel the weight of that threat. That’s where it can be handy to have a formidable foe who can teleport, move through walls, or otherwise reveal themself to the characters, then quickly slip away in a manner that prevents them being followed. 

Playing up a slow-build threat goes hand in hand with the players’ engagement with the environment (which you’ve set up initially by letting them see the unseen). As the characters focus on interacting with what’s around them to stay ahead of unknown dangers, they inevitably end up face to face with the danger that’s watching them, slipping away from them, waiting for them, watching them again. Then when that danger finally strikes, it does so at a point when the feeling of impending threat has been escalated to its highest possible level. The result is an encounter that engages the players fully — because they’ve been engaging with it from way before the encounter even begins.