Shorter adventures break up the campaign story into chunks that are easy for the Dungeon Master to run and easy for the players to understand.
My first experience with Dungeons and Dragons 4e was as a player in Demon Queen’s Enclave. One of my buddies had picked up the adventure, and he wanted to give a shot at DMing a paragon tier adventure. Two years and three more levels of twice-a-month gaming later, we had vanquished the evil drow queen and what seemed likely to be every other drow within a five hundred mile radius. The adventure was fun, and it served its role well as a stand-alone paragon mini-campaign. Outside of that context, I would have hated it.
This is not a review of Demon Queen’s Enclave, nor is this a criticism of my friend’s DMing skills, which were solid. This is a critique of the long adventure as a tool that is frequently used by both game designers and game masters.
The adventure is probably the core trope of swords & sorcery style games. Heroes get a quest, go on the adventure, and then come back home with loot in hand and experience under their belts. It is classic, and it provides a solid narrative framework on which to hang the story. Problems can arise, however, as stories grow more complex.
At its core, Demon Queen’s Enclave is a neat story about warring factions within a drow city. The heroes travel through the underdark to the city, explore the city, and then navigate another plane in their quest to destroy the drow matron. Along the way, the heroes must negotiate or fight with the different factions who wish to use them as pawns. By itself, this is not a problem – it is, in fact, a pretty solid adventure concept. The problem lies in the details, and the details are what made this adventure worth three levels of encounters.
When in Doubt, Cut it Out
Typical of many adventures, Demon Queen’s Enclave was rife with encounters that contributed little to the story. Fighting spiders on a bridge over a chasm was certainly heroic, and it was a fun encounter, but at the end of the battle we had progressed the story no further than simply conquering another challenge. The encounter itself was story-neutral. This was true for many of the encounters. Truthfully, these encounters often did reveal some small bit of culture or interesting flavor, but these bits could have been communicated just as easily through narration or a briefer exploration segment.
Taking this lesson to our own tables, it is important that we look at each encounter we design and consider if it is really necessary. Some adventures need a few filler encounters to make the challenge sufficient for the players. In long, complex adventures, however, filler encounters rarely help things. Instead, they just take time away from the real meat of the story.
Make it Fast and Difficult
As GMs, we should look for ways to make our adventures exciting and challenging. No one gets upset that an adventure only has three encounters if they are three great encounters that leave the party hanging by a thread at the end. Players appreciate a story that is told with brief, meaningful, powerful segments.
The mid-heroic climax adventure for one of the parties in my campaign had only four encounters:
- A battle between the elven army of Rhuobhe Manslayer and the army of men under the PCs
- A large combat encounter where the heroes began isolated from each other and engaged with elven skirmishers and soldiers
- A skill challenge to represent the heroes lead their army into the elven tree city
- The climactic battle between the Manslayer and the heroes’ mentor in the narrow walkways and rope bridges of the tree city, where the heroes had to use that distraction to accomplish another goal
Two encounters, an army-scale battle (using house rules), and a skill challenge – that is it. I told my entire story in two game sessions and with roughly half a level’s worth of experience award. The action was fast and furious, and then it was over.
The big advantage of this strategy is time. The group had plenty of time for role-playing, debating strategies, and doing all sorts of things besides the “required content”. They players got a full narrative arc in a brief period of time, and they could easily follow the story through the adventure.
Dealing with Complexity
Not all stories can be easily crammed into a single adventure of four challenges. Most good stories need much more time and complexity to be addressed in a meaningful way. How can we tell complex stories using shorter adventures? The answer is chapters.
While each adventure should be a full narrative arc n its own right, those arcs can be assembled into a larger picture. The adventure I describe above was the climactic chapter in a story that lasted over many adventures. The players got to make difficult choices, plan out long-term strategies, and explore the world while still knowing that any given story chunk would remain a digestible size. Authors use this technique in novels and in plays; we should do the same in our games.
More recent “super-adventures” published by Wizards of the Coast follow this strategy. The most recent iteration of the Tomb of Horrors provides for several adventures that move its plot forward, with space available in between for the DM to add in custom campaign content. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is similar, but it goes one step further and weaves a framework where there is no one set path to the conclusion – adventures can be accomplished in different orders and with different approaches.
Breaking up stories into multiple adventures makes the entire structure easier for the players to wrap their brains around. It helps avoid the feeling of, “Are we still in this dungeon?” Most importantly, it pushes the DM to craft scenarios whose challenge takes place in a limited, more intense range, which is more fun for everyone.
How do you craft adventures in your home game? Is there a certain number of encounters that you find to be ideal? What has your experience been with pacing when running published adventures?