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D&D adventures have been a part of the game since its inception, but adventures have changed a lot over the years. Looking at the evolution of adventures can provide valuable insight into creating great adventures of your own.
How do you create a great D&D adventure? The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide spends an entire chapter on that topic. It highlights many sorts of adventures—including location-based dungeon crawls, event-based scenarios, and plot-heavy mysteries and intrigue—all of which derive from D&D’s long history.
When it first appeared, D&D bore many of the hallmarks of a competitive game—thanks in large part to its origins in the field of miniatures wargaming. As a result, the earliest adventures were built to support a Dungeon Master actively opposing players with traps, tricks, monsters, and every other challenge imaginable.
The Tomb of Horrors (1978) is one of the most iconic examples of this early type of adventure—a dungeon crawl scenario full of death traps that would seem entirely unfair to today’s players. If you passed through the wrong mysterious portal or touched the wrong magical relic, you were dead faster than you could say, “Acererak.” Gary Gygax was very up front about the raw competitiveness of this style of adventure, talking about how one of his goals with the tomb was to foil Rob Kuntz’s powerful character Robilar, and Ernie Gygax’s character Tenser. In its earliest days, D&D was often about the DM beating the players.
This early adventure style can also be found in the competitive D&D tournaments that appeared at gaming conventions. The Tomb of Horrors actually started life as one such tournament at Origins 1 in 1975. Many other competitive tournaments also became early D&D adventures, including the “G series” of giant adventure modules and the follow-up “D series” of underground adventures (both from 1978), the “A series” slave lords adventures (1980–1981), and the long-running “C series” of adventures (1981–1987) drawn from tournament competition scenarios. These adventures highlighted a game where the players and the DM were arrayed against each other—though by the time the C series ended, it was the last gasp of a dying form of play.
What would be left in its wake was the other major element of early D&D play.
THE AGE OF EXPLORATION
From the day Dave Arneson first sent his players into the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor, D&D has been about exploration—called “location-based adventuring” in the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. The original D&D box set detailed such play in the booklet The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, and the competitive adventures of the 1970s included plenty of exploration. However, in the 1980s, two things pushed exploration to the forefront of D&D play.
First, highly competitive play started to die out, likely as a result of the mass-market growth of the game. The first Dungeons & Dragons basic box set—released in 1977 and edited by J. Eric Holmes—brought a surge of new, younger players to the game. These new players were unfamiliar with the competitive nature of miniatures wargaming, and many of them had never heard of conventions or tournaments. As a result, they were interested in playing more cooperative games.
Second, the first D&D Expert Set—released in 1981 and edited by David “Zeb” Cook—returned the basic D&D game to the roots of the original box set by reintroducing wilderness exploration as an option for play. The Isle of Dread was the first expert-set adventure module, and remains a classic example of 1980s exploration play. It details one of the first “sandbox” environments—a hex crawl where players can wander about with no preconceived goals, exploring as they see fit.
The Isle of Dread was followed by many other “X series” expert adventures from 1981 to 1987, most of which included wilderness environments of their own. Meanwhile, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line (running parallel to but independent of the basic and expert rules) also featured wilderness exploration in adventure modules such as The Secret of Bone Hill (1981) and the popular Dragonlance series of adventures (1984–1986).
Dungeon exploration also reached a peak in the 1980s. The Keep on the Borderlands (1980), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980), and the “campaign adventure” The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985) are some of the best-known releases from this era. These adventures showed that “dungeon” exploration could be set in remote caverns, occupied structures, or even a spaceship. All that was truly required was a framework for allowing characters to delve into a mysterious and unknown locale.
Meanwhile, some of these same adventures were beginning to feature a design element that would be increasingly important in the next decade: plot.
Tracy and Laura Hickman are usually named as the designers whose ideas transformed the old-school adventures of the 1970s and 1980s into the event-based epic stories of the 1990s. Though you can see the origins of this adventure style in the Desert of Desolation trilogy (1982–1983), it really came into its full form in the Dragonlance saga (1984–1986), which told an intricate story of warfare and upheaval in the land of Krynn, spread out over twelve adventures! Meanwhile, the designers behind the “UK series” of adventures (1983–1985) were crafting intricate plots of their own, beginning with Beyond the Crystal Cave.
In the 1990s, this style of adventure took over the entire D&D line. Dungeon crawls and hex crawls mostly disappeared, replaced by adventures that told stories of warfare and rebellions, of ancient animosities and battles between bitter foes. Some of these new adventures centered on player exploration or investigation that was occasionally interrupted by events. In others, events took over the spine of the adventure—leading the players from one encounter to another with no need for maps or the other accessories of classic D&D play.
One of the most infamous adventures of this era is 1990’s Vecna Lives!, which put the players in the roles of Greyhawk’s powerful Circle of Eight—and then unceremoniously killed them in a predetermined battle. The adventures supporting the Dark Sun campaign setting are an even better example of the era. Starting with Freedom in 1991, these adventures reinvented how D&D adventures were organized. They were divided into individual scenes, but preserved player choice by giving DMs lots of guidance on how to run each scene, and by permitting players to push the adventure in many different directions.
At their best, plot-based adventures allowed players to take an active part in epic stories that could change the world. However, many of the adventures of the 1990s have achieved something of a reputation for the worst excesses of plot-based play—railroaded scenarios where the players might not get to influence (or even fully understand) the story as it unfolded around them.
Though most plotted adventures were standalone modules, plot also formed the core of the longer-form adventures that would make a splash in the new century.
Continuing adventures have been a part of D&D ever since characters moved on from fighting hill giants to frost giants in the original G series adventures, leading them on a path to descend into the earth and eventually fight Lolth, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits. The groundbreaking Dragonlance series took plot-based play to the next level, shaping a twelve-part adventure that told a complete, coherent story that might take years to play out.
With the launch of third edition D&D in 2000, Wizards of the Coast was inspired to conceive a series of adventures that could be used as the basis of an entire campaign, taking players from 1st level to 20th level. The result was the eight-part “adventure path” series that ran from The Sunless Citadel (2000) to Bastion of Broken Souls (2002). The adventures were only loosely connected, but they gave players a continuing story that could anchor a campaign, with early adventures foreshadowing some of the secrets of the finale. In some ways, the adventure path was just another stage in the evolution of the epic stories of previous decades, but its focus on filling out the entire length of a campaign was something new.
Paizo Publishing—then the caretaker of the D&D magazines, Dragon and Dungeon—adopted the adventure path idea for three Dungeon magazine adventure paths: the Shackled City (2003–2004), Age of Worms (2005–2006), and the Savage Tide (2006–2007). Wizards of the Coast then returned to adventure paths for fourth edition D&D. The “HPE” adventure path (2008–2009) was known by that name because it took characters fully through the heroic, paragon, and epic tiers of D&D 4e, from 1st to 30th level. Simultaneously, Wizards of the Coast published the Scales of War adventure path in the revamped Dungeon magazine, which also took players from 1st level up to the epic limits of D&D play. However, expanding the adventure path wasn’t the only innovation of those early fourth edition adventures.
The advent of fourth edition D&D brought about another new style of play: the episodic encounter-based adventure. Its origins date back to the event-based plots of the 1990s and the late stages of third edition, but D&D 4e spent more effort than ever on showcasing each encounter as a polished gem of game design. Two-page spreads were used to detail everything a DM needed to know about each individual scene, from setup through tactics.
The ultimate expression of these episodic adventures was the D&D Encounters organized play program. Starting with Undermountain: Halaster's Lost Apprentice (2010), players were given the opportunity to visit their favorite game store or gaming center once a week, to play out a D&D session built around a single encounter. However, though encounter-focused play largely defined adventure style throughout the fourth-edition era, it was omitted from the last commercial 4e adventure, Halls of Undermountain (2012). This was a reinvention of the plot-focused adventures of the 1990s, but built into a classic location-based dungeon crawl.
Since 2014, fifth edition D&D adventures such as Hoard of the Dragon Queen, The Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Out of the Abyss have moved away from encounter-based design, and have incorporated a broad range of adventure styles from D&D’s rich history. Will the remainder of the decade see more of a return to old-school adventure design? Time will tell . . .
A WEALTH OF OPTIONS
Though different styles of adventures have moved in and out of favor over the decades, any of these styles can still be the basis for great gaming sessions. Want to go head-to-head with your players or give them great locations to explore? Want to create epic stories or long adventure paths? Want to focus a game on episodic encounters against the most powerful villains? Every one of these styles of adventure is the right sort of adventure! Just look to D&D’s history (whether it be on your own gaming shelf or at DnDClassics.com), and you’ll find many timeless adventures to inspire you.
About the Author
Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.