Roll an Adventure Using the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide — Part I

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Rollin'

Earlier this week, I wrote about the newly released 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and how much I had enjoyed reading through it and uncovering some great tools for creating custom campaigns and adventures.

Well… it’s time to put the book to the test. And have some fun, obviously.

Back during my AD&D days, I was always creating adventures for my players. Frequently, we wouldn’t have all that much time to play, so I often found myself creating short adventures that could be completed in 2-3 hours or over just a couple of sessions. (I wasn’t really know for season-spanning campaign-style adventures that would go on and on… and I don’t think my players had the attention span for that either.)

After finishing up with the 5e DMG, I thought it might be fun to try and create a mini-adventure using the new book’s content. Any experienced DM will tell you, however, that a good adventure will often require some (or a LOT of) tinkering once you’ve created the skeleton framework. My goal here is to create that framework and try to avoid going too deep into the nitty-gritty details that can either be made on-the-fly during gameplay or after the framework has “stewed” a little in my head.

If you’ve examined the new DMG, you know there are some really amazing tables in the book that use random die rolls for certain decisions — villains, NPCs, and even dungeon layouts can all be created somewhat using nothing more than a die roll consulting a table. But rolling dice isn’t going to give you a complete, out-of-the-box gaming experience. Any DM who has tried to craft a random dungeon or adventure knows that you often have to ignore the dice and go with what’s favorable for the developing story. So, that said, what you’ll find below is my attempt at creating a simple little adventure using (as often as possible) the new 5e DMG tables and charts… and deviating where I find a dice roll doesn’t make sense. In those instances, I’ll let you know when I’ve decided to ignore the dice and making a non-random decision. I’ll still pull as much as possible from the offerings of the DMG, so even if I ignore a random roll I’ll still select from the other options in a table unless it just plain doesn’t make sense.

So, where to start?

I’m making the assumption that you (and I) have already created the “world” our players’ characters will inhabit based on info found in Chapter 1… and you’ve defined the style of play and fantasy setting (see pages 34-41 for these types of discussion) and maybe even walked your way through the tables that help setup some cataclysmic event and the key players (good and bad) that will make up your campaigns’ ultimate story arc. I haven’t actually done all that… yet. Instead, I’m wanting to create a mini-quest… a small adventure that I could possibly insert into a larger campaign. This could be when a player is absent and the group wishes to not proceed with the larger story. It could also be an opportunity for XP to help level up a new player or give the DM a great way to drop a useful (or necessary) magic item into a storyline without it feeling too forced or convenient.

I’m also always looking for new and interesting places for my adventurers to find their next quest, and I do my absolute best to avoid the “You’re in a tavern” trope. I’ve started adventure during a prison break (with all the adventurers finding themselves incarcerated and now free but on the run) and even one where they were trapped in a burning library. Nothing like starting an adventure by putting your players’ characters in immediate jeopardy.

So, I’m going to be starting in Chapter 3 Creating Adventures, and I’ll be picking and choosing, going back and forth here and there. I’ll reference page #s and charts as much as possible. If you’ve already read through Chapter 3 (and later chapters), then you probably know that there isn’t any hard and fast place to start. For me, I’m just going to dive in and start by looking at page X… I’m going to roll a 20 and see what happens for the Dungeon Goals table on page 73.

I rolled a 3: Destroy a magical threat inside the dungeon. Not too shabby a start. There are 18 other options (roll a 20 and you have to re-roll twice!), but I’m going to try and stick to randomness as much as possible.

I could add a secondary goal (but not one that’s required for success). Page 74 has the Other Goals table — roll a d12 and get something like Break a prisoner out of a jail or prison camp. Okay, almost everything in that list is really almost a mini-quest in itself. If you’re wanting to create a longer adventure (maybe more than two hours or so), this could be a great table for finding a sub-quest.

On page 74 is the Adventure Villains table… let’s grab one. I roll a d20 and get a 13: Humanoid seeking revenge. I can probably work with that…

Now let’s toss in an ally for our party members — the Adventure Allies table (page 74) uses a d12. I rolled a 5 — Priest. Let’s keep going.

Keep in mind that I’ve skipped a few tables here and there — page 73 also has a Wilderness Goals table, but I’m going for a dungeon crawl so I chose the Dungeon Goals table instead. Page 74 also has a table I’m skipping — Adventure Patrons. Page 74 does have one final table, however, that sounds useful — Adventure Introduction. I rolled a d12 and got an 11: One night the characters all dream about entering the adventure location.

Introduction

Matching up to that previous table is the Adventure Climax — roll another d12. I rolled a 4, and check this out: The adventurers race to the site where the villain is bringing a master plan to its conclusion, arriving just as that plan is about the be completed.

Where is this site? Time to jump to page 99 (Chapter 5 Adventure Environments). I’ll be using the Dungeon Location and a d100! I rolled a 9… Beneath a farmhouse. Hmm…. the next option (13-16) is Beneath a graveyard. That sounds more ominous — I don’t have to honor my roll and could easily just choose that option. BUT it also sounds a little cliche. I’ll stick my random roll — farmhouse it is.

Location

Exploring Chapter 5 a bit more, I turn the page to 100 and find another useful table: Dungeon Creator. I roll a d20 and get 14: Humans (roll on the NPC Alignment and NPC Class tables to determine specifics). Okay. The NPC Alignment (d20 — rolled a 9) gets me a Lawful Neutral dungeon creator and the NPC Class table (page 101, d20 — rolled a 6) gets me a Fighter. These are the kinds of details that will most likely help me create the backstory (if one is even needed).

Oooh… a Dungeon Purpose table. Why not? I roll a d20 and get a 15: Temple or shrine. And the very next table, Dungeon History… another d20 and a roll of 11 gets me Creators destroyed by discovery made within the site. That has a LOT of potential.

History

There are a lot of details about this adventure to track, so let’s summarize so far:

The adventure will take place beneath a farmhouse. The characters have all dreamed of this location. The ally will be a priest (NPC) — maybe they meet this priest at the location? The DM could send the priest along on the adventure if a cleric isn’t available or make the priest old and feeble and unable to participate if a cleric character is present. The characters are there to destroy a magical threat, and they will discover a temple/shrine hidden underneath a farmhouse. When the adventure is close to ending, a fight will ensue with the humanoid villain who is seeking revenge and is finishing up a plan that the players must foil. The site must be dangerous, because the original creator (a fighter) was killed by a mysterious discovery during the temple/shrine’s construction.

Not too shabby a framework, but the DMG offers up some more help with providing even more details. First, I want to get some more details about this priest/ally, and Chapter 4 Creating Nonplayer Characters can help.

Page 89 offers NPC Appearance (d20) and NPC Abilities (d6) charts. My rolls tell me he has a Pronounced Scar (6) and that he has high Charisma (6) and low Dexterity (2). The NPC Talents table (d20 – I roll twice) tells me he Paints beautifully and Speaks several languages fluently. Many more tables exist (pages 90-91) that can provide ideals, flaws, bonds and mannerisms… I can use or ignore these depending on how much time I have to create the adventure. These details may or may not come into play with the final adventure, but I think you can see knowing details about strong and weak abilities, talents, and personal motives can help flesh out an otherwise boring NPC.

Now let’s tackle that villain. My original roll labeled him simply as Humanoid. Unless I completely missed it, there’s not a table to randomly generate the race of the villain. Here, I’ll simply make a decision — human. Maybe a little boring, but because I don’t know the mix of my players’ races or where this adventure might take place, it’s often safe to assume the adventure could be near a human population (town, city) and modify the race only if some unusual circumstances puts the party in traditionally non-human territory.

Chapter 4 has a lot of tables that can help flesh out the villain, so let’s start with the Villain’s Scheme table on page 94. First you roll a d8 to get an overall objective, and then you roll a d4 or d6 to get the more detailed scheme. Rather than roll a d8, I already know my human is seeking revenge (from the page 74 Adventure Villains table) which corresponds to a roll of 7. Underneath that Revenge objective are four schemes — I roll a d4 and get a 1: Avenge a past humiliation or insult.

Schemes

I’m going to skip page 95’s Villain’s Methods table (which is more for a larger campaign-style villain and includes twenty different methods such as defamation, vice, and politics) and jump to page 97 where I can use the Villain’s Weakness table. A d8 roll nets me a 3… The villain is weakened in the presence of a particular artifact. 

This adventure is REALLY starting to write itself — the Dungeon Goal table tells me the adventure is all about destroying a magical threat in the dungeon — that could easily be the villain, and since I haven’t identified the villain’s class yet… let’s make him a wizard. No… let’s make her a Neutral Evil warlock with a vendetta against a nearby village that discovered her strange research, ran her out of town, and burned down her library. (This will require consultation of the 5e Player’s Handbook to flesh out the villain with a proper level, spells, HP, etc.)

Let’s now find this artifact that can be helpful to the players in vanquishing this evil warlock. Some tables in the DMG can be re-purposed if you get a little creative. For example, on pages 144-149 you’ll find a number of tables to randomly generate discovered magic items. Let’s just use one to identify the TYPE of artifact. I’ll use Magic Item Table B on page 144 that uses a d100. I rolled a 91 — Lantern of Revealing. And that becomes just a basic lantern. For now.

Artifact

Flipping back a few pages to 142 gives me four tables (!) that can help me further explain this magic lantern’s purpose. First, the Who Created It Or Was Intended To Use It table (d20) gives me Dwarf: The item is durable and has Dwarves runes worked into its design. It might be associate with a clan that would like to see it returned to their ancestral halls. COOL! Let’s keep going…

The only other table I’m interested in (for now) is on page 143 – What Minor Property Does It Have (d20). I rolled a 6 — Guardian: The item whispers warnings to its bearer, granting a +2 bonus to initiative if the bearer isn’t incapacitated. Nice. But that still doesn’t explain how this artifact could be a weapon against the warlock/villain… for that, I’ll just have to improvise and add another minor ability. For purposes of this adventure, I’ll give this lantern the ability to shed light up to 20′ and dispel magic on any creature of evil alignment that falls within that light. I’ll call it Shord’s Lantern of Blessing (I’ll leave it up to the adventurers to discover that ability or I can use the priest/ally to relay this information if I feel the players might not request – and make – an Arcana or History check roll.)

At this point, I should point out that all the details related to creating this adventure have taken less than an hour. Total time (to this point) is probably actually less than 30 minutes, but I’ve been writing this post as I’m rolling dice and consulting tables. My point is this — the details of this adventure have taken less than 30 minutes to generate, and the story that’s developing here is pretty slick. It’ll require a short backstory to be written, of course, but any creative DM will be able to whip that up quick.

So, what’s left? Well, let’s make a list:

* The actual dungeon — Once the players find the entrance, they’ll actually need a dungeon to explore — a location to find the artifact, some rooms to explore and possibly fight off some random encounters, and then the final temple fight with the warlock. Many DMs at this point would pull out some paper/graph paper and start mapping out a basic layout. Rather than do it, I’ll be using the 5e DMG and its tables to create a dungeon at random (or as close to it as possible, with some tweaks here and there to fit the quest). I’ll be sharing that process in a follow-up post shortly.

* The warlock NPC — She’s got some motives and a weakness, but I need to develop this NPC, so I’ll be reaching for the Player’s Handbook to get her HP, AC, and spells list together. Keep in mind that it’s perfectly find for a DM to tweak an NPC to have access to spells (existing or completely new ones) and abilities that might not be available to PCs.

* The XP and Treasure details — There are some useful tables in the DMG that will help me fine-tune the XP, and I’ll need to pay attention to the Challenge Rating of any monsters I choose to list as potential wandering encounters or as guaranteed encounters. Again, the DMG offers up some advice in this area, and I’ll address this in the follow-up post.

* Complete adventure details, story and all — When all is said and done, I should end up with a collection of documents that include a backstory for the adventurers, some details on this dream they all share, the dialogue that’s possible with the priest they encounter at the farmhouse, details about that farmhouse (abandoned? inhabited?) and the entrance to the dungeon, the map of the dungeon, descriptions/names of the artifact, warlock, priest, farmhouse owners (?), and probably the temple itself. I’ll need to identify what signifies a successful completion of the adventure (warlock dead? captured?) and possibly some treasure/magic item distribution along with XP.

As you can see, the random adventure isn’t quite done… but it’s close. Some DMs will spend hours, days… maybe even weeks developing a campaign and a series of long-running adventures. But should you find you need to create a stand-alone adventure or something to fit into an existing campaign, I hope you’re beginning to see that you can easily expect to spend an hour or two (probably 3-4 is more reasonable) on even the simplest of adventure designs. Cut corners or even create it as you go with the players sitting around the table and you flipping to charts and rolling dice, and you risk inflicting boredom and inconsistent details… and ultimately reducing the fun for your players.

Stick with me… I’ll be doing a follow-up post soon detailing how the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide can be used to create an actual dungeon crawl experience. More to come…

Read Part II here!!

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