So you want to write a 5E D&D adventure? I'm glad you're here, because in this article, I'll teach you how to do that step-by-step.
My name is Kelsey Dionne, and I’m a full-time adventure writer and publisher who got started in all this by googling “how to write a DnD adventure” (the results I got in 2016 made me wish someone had written this article).
These days, I write D&D adventures for a living. I’ve faced the gauntlet of hundreds of public critiques here, here, and here (to name just a few), and even Wizards of the Coast recommended my material during their Stay At Home, Play At Home series. I've muddled my way through this process enough times to make it repeatable, and now I want to pass along some of my learning to you.
So if you’re still with me, read on for the method I've developed over the years for writing an action-packed D&D adventure with as little friction as possible.
(Just as an aside, I used this exact method to write The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse. At the time of writing this blog post, it's the #1 highest rated adventure on the DMs Guild of all time with more than 350 five-star reviews and 100,000+ downloads.)
So how do you get started? You need to follow seven steps in order, which I’ll go over in detail.
First, let me square with you. Writing a D&D adventure does take a fair amount of work. But if you’ve ever written a term paper, finished a school project, or studied for and passed a test, you have the level of dedication and follow-through it takes to do this, too. So commit to seeing it through, and you’ll look back and wonder why you didn’t start sooner.
Now, about those seven steps! Here they are:
Develop an adventure idea that's good enough to write
Come up with killer hooks
Outline the steps of the adventure as if you were playing it
Design a great map
Turn your outline into DM-friendly writing
Lay out your document and add art
Include the right legal stuff at the end
Sounds pretty direct, right? If you tackle each step at a time, it will be. So let's dive right in.
1. Develop an adventure idea that's good enough to write
How do you come up with an idea worth writing?
All you need is an urgent problem that only the characters can solve with their special skills.
The key part here is urgent problem. In order for an adventure to be compelling, it needs to insist the characters act! For example, a compelling problem would be the characters sitting inside a tavern that suddenly ignites in roaring flames. This situation forces the characters to act and use their heroic skills to do things like 1. put out the blaze, 2. save bystanders, 3. track down and apprehend the culprit.
In other words, the characters are doing something exciting and dramatic that ordinary people can't or won't do.
Now, lots of adventures make the mistake of presenting a non-compelling problem as its core idea. The most classic example: guard a caravan on its journey to deliver a merchant's goods.
That doesn't demand decisive action. It poses no immediate threat. There is no real problem (except the goblins raiding the caravans... a common, boring occurrence). And it doesn't take a hero to solve that problem —hire some mercenaries!
No, your idea must be worthy of adventurers. Even at low levels, you can give your characters important things to do (see Ghostlight, where 1st-level characters enter the realm of death itself aboard an extra-dimensional ship).
Action Steps: Develop an adventure idea that demands action. If you need help, roll 5 results on the table below (this is a table from my forthcoming old-school D&D book, Shadowdark RPG). Some of the results might be a bit strange and spark unexpected creativity as you try to get things to make sense.
For each result you roll, ask yourself: How will the characters learn about this problem? Try to imagine at least three situations that involve the characters directly. For example, if you get the result "find the thief in the magic library," you could come up with three ways for the characters to learn about this challenge:
A mystical librarian comes to the characters and tells them an important item from the library has been stolen.
The characters see a thief steal something from someone and then dart into an old, crumbling building that turns out to be a magical library.
While in a library, a strange thief steals something incredibly important (a soul, a spell, a magic sword) from the characters and then darts into the magically protected "forbidden" section.
Of those three ideas, the one that demands the most action and most directly involves the characters is....
If you guessed number three, you're right! So that will be our adventure idea.
After you've found your adventure idea and have brought the urgent problem as close to the characters as possible, move on to step 2 where we come up with adventure hooks to pull the characters into the action.
2. Come up with killer hooks
When we're talking about an adventure, what we mean is something a Dungeon Master can run in 1-2 sessions. That pans out to about 4-5 hours of gameplay for most groups, or 6-8 encounters.
Of all those encounters, the most important one is the hook. The hook is what pulls your players into the adventure and kicks off the momentum.
Remember in step 1 when I said a good adventure idea needs to demand urgent action from the characters? This is where that comes into play.
Your hook should connect to the characters as closely as possible. It's always better to have something happen to the characters (or around them) rather than off-screen where they can neither see nor care about it.
So we want to pull in the characters, yes. But hold on. When you're writing the hook, it's very important for you to consider that the hook is actually for the players, not the characters.
That's right! You're trying to convince the people playing the game to take the hook, not the imaginary folks inside the game world! The players are the ones who must feel motivated to send their characters on the adventure.
Players are generally enticed by three things: reward (something to make their characters stronger), heroism (the ability to right wrongs and gain esteem for their characters), and discovery (the chance to learn secrets about a problem, location, person, object, etc.).
Finally, know that the hook is the one time where you're allowed to be a bit heavy-handed with making a big change to the game world's status quo (within reason).
For example, normally during an adventure, you wouldn't want to just announce that the characters' ship hit a bad storm and sank without giving them the chance to save the ship (likely in the form of an encounter). But with a hook, you do have that bit of leeway, as long as you aren't too crazy (don't murder someone's favorite NPC or make rocks fall and kill everyone).
Action Steps: Time to come up with your hook. Make sure it contains these two elements:
It involves the characters in the problem as urgently as possible, preferably with an action scene or something notable happening.
It appeals to the players' desire for reward, heroism, or discovery (more than one is always better)!
For example, using our "find the thief in the magic library" idea, our hook would be the thief appearing and snatching something of immeasurable value from the characters before darting off into the forbidden section of the library!
This appeals to the players' desire to get their item back (reward), right a wrong (theft), and discover why the thief stole the object and what's hidden inside the magic library (discovery).
After you have your hook, let's go to the bulk of the work: step 3.
Quick breather to mention that you can join The Arcane Library's newsletter for a free 1st-level 5E adventure, plus more in-depth articles like this one!
3. Outline the steps of the adventure as if you were playing it
We're about to begin planning the rest of the adventure's encounters. But before we do that, we need to know the second most important part of the adventure besides the hook: the final encounter.
We have to understand what the "end game" is, and how we'll know whether the characters have succeeded or failed at our adventure. Note that we need to allow for both success or failure — no adventure should ever guarantee one or the other, or it's not an adventure, it's a narration!
So your task is to imagine what the world would look like if the characters solve the problem you came up with in step 1, and what the world would look like if they fail.
In our example of a thief and magical library, the solution would be the characters getting the item back and escaping the magical library.
Failure would be the characters never getting the item back, dying, or giving up.
So the encounter to determine that situation is going to be our last encounter. Usually this will be a big moment, like a combat or a tense negotiation. I love boss battles, so I'm going to make a big fight the last encounter for our example adventure!
To develop the rest of the encounters after the hook, you can use a trick I often employ called "hurdles-based design."
Imagine for a moment that you're playing in your own adventure. Your character accepts one of the hooks, and... what do they do next?
Think of the two or three most likely thing your character will do all the way until they hit a roadblock.
For example, let's say my character Thelonius (goblin wizard extraordinaire) just had his glorious, tricorn hat of disguise stolen by a thief who then escaped into a magical library.
Thelonius would do one of two things: run into the library in pursuit, or cast locate object and begin methodically trailing the thief with murderous intent.
And so those are Thelonius's next hurdles. Notice how both options hit a roadblock pertinent to the adventure's problem: He's is trying to find or catch the thief, and we don't know if he'll be successful.
An example of a next action that does not contain a roadblock is Thelonius wandering around looking at the books in the library. Yes, that is something he might do, but it's not relevant to solving the adventure's problem.
Sometimes, it's easy as new adventure writers to get overwhelmed with the idea that you need to account for everything that might happen. What if the characters look under that table? What if they decide to take a nap? What if they walk out of the library and talk to someone?
When deciding whether to include an encounter or explanation in your adventure, ask yourself: Does what I'm describing help move the characters closer to the adventure's solution?
If not, do not write it. Trust that most DMs will be able to improvise when their players go off-script, and know that it is not your task to design the whole world; you're writing about one problem and its solution (AKA, an adventure)!
Alright, back to outlining.
We now need to come up with our next hurdle and imagine how we would address it if we were playing the adventure. In fact, we'll need to come up with 8 hurdles in total for the 8 encounters we want to write (about 4-5 hours of gameplay)!
We already know the last encounter, so this is what our outline currently looks like:
Follow the thief (navigation)
Final fight with thief and his friends (combat)
Now, you must bridge the gaps between 1 and 8 with encounters that fit the theme of your adventure, give the characters variety, and move it toward the final confrontation.
By variety, I mean different types of encounters. In D&D, we have three broad encounter options: combat, NPC interaction, and exploration (traps, puzzles, navigation). The goal is to make sure you don't have too much of the same stuff back-to-back.
Now, I admit, we can't guess the exact order the characters will go through the adventure (especially with a well-designed map, which we'll discuss later on), but we can estimate a rough path.
So we might decide the rough order of encounters is something like this: navigation, trap, combat, NPC interaction, combat, puzzle, NPC interaction, combat.
Notice how there weren't two encounters of the same type back-to-back. Variety!
Now let's make this even better. We want to make sure there's a cool thing for each broad character type to do (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard). So try to assign at least one of these encounters to each character type and think about how you can design it around that character's abilities. It won't be the only way to overcome the encounter, of course, but it'll be giving each character an opportunity to shine.
Here's my updated outline following those principles:
Follow the thief (navigation, rogue > find the thief's trail)
Have some circular room connections for the characters to choose various paths through the adventure.
Make sure there are fun things in each room for characters to interact with as they explore.
Avoid tons of empty, 30 x 30 foot rooms. It happens more than you'd think.
Long, meandering hallways can be fun, but they're also easy to overdo.
Perfect realism is not necessary — this is a fantasy game! You don't need a full kitchen, the privies, and every walk-in closet unless there's a good reason.
Changes in elevation are great to include.
If a combat is likely to take place in a room, do a mental test run to make sure the room works well for the kind of fight you're designing. How far would the PCs move in on their first turn? Whom would they attack first? What terrain and hazards exist? Would afireball instantly decimate all the enemies?
If you're looking to take this adventure to publication, you'll definitely want a professional-looking map that can be used in a virtual tabletop program like Roll20 or Owlbear Rodeo. There are three routes here:
You can commission a pro cartographer to take your pencil map (plus your descriptions) and render a really cool final result.
You can use a map that comes with a commercial license (much like stock art) by creators such as CzePeku or my wife, Lantern's Light Maps (we design her maps together so they hit all the above tips I mentioned). These creators allow you to use their maps in published adventures, but make sure to read their rules surrounding how you credit them and what's okay/not okay to do.
Create the map yourself using Inkarnate or other mapmaking softwares (just make sure the map assets include a commercial license if you're planning to publish your adventure).
Here's an example sketch of what I might do for the magical library. I added a few non-encounter rooms and secret areas to give the characters fun exploration options and places to regroup:
Action Steps: Follow your outline and create a connected series of rooms to match each encounter. Then move on to step 5!
5. Turn your outline into DM-friendly writing
This is the part people think is the hardest, but it's actually going to be a breeze because you've already done all your difficult thinking and planning!
Here, we take the outline and start crafting full sentences and descriptions to make each encounter come to life.
A few guiding principles:
You are writing for the Dungeon Master, not the players. Remember to make the information easy and fast for the DM to read.
An adventure is reference material, not a novel. The DM will be using this live at the table to run games. Split your information out into bullet points and lists, use bolding, get to the point as fast as you can, and cut anything that doesn't matter to the here-and-now (do not explain the history of each room).
In the words of a revered adventure reviewer who probably holds the world record for number of adventures critiqued: "Imagine first, design second." Imagine the thing you want to describe in your mind, and write down what the characters see, feel, hear, and smell. That doesn't necessarily mean what is actually there, by the way! Your goal is to entice the characters into poking, prodding, exploring, and asking questions. "There's script carved on the door? What does it say?" That back-and-forth between the DM and players is what D&D is all about.
As far as NPCs go, less information is more. You want to give a description of what that NPC looks like, a mannerism or two for the characters to latch onto, and something deeper that makes the NPC interesting, like a motivation or secret. I know I've been redirecting you to a lot of my other articles, but this is one of my best: How To Create Compelling NPCs in Seconds.
Action Steps: Take it one room at a time, and try to spend no more than one page explaining the entire room and the important things that happen in it. Start with what the characters notice when they enter, and then give the DM brief updates underneath that about hidden details and developments. Remember not to give away too much in each opening description so the players are enticed into asking questions and exploring the area.
Once you're through that, it's time for step 6!
6. Lay out your document and add art
Congratulations, you are ready to make your adventure look fancy!
When I first started publishing adventures, I did all my layouts in Apple Pages. Yes, you heard right. A word processor. And there's nothing wrong with that!
These days, word processors are really powerful and useful. You can put art into documents, move things around, format the text in all sorts of ways, and export your document into the all-encompassing PDF format.
There are lots of Microsoft Word and Apple Pages adventure templates out there, and I'd recommending starting with one. This one in particular is a Mithral bestseller on DMs Guild, which means it has a lot going for it.
When laying out your adventure, I'd strongly encourage you to keep each section or encounter to one page at most. That makes the Dungeon Master's life so much easier. Doing this takes refining and cutting and paring down of your writing, but it will make your adventure that much better.
As Bruce Lee said: "In building a statue, a sculptor doesn't keep adding clay to his subject. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the nonessentials until the truth of his creation is revealed without obstruction."
Now, where to find art?
These days, excellent fantasy stock art is abundant on places like shutterstock.com (search terms "fantasy" or "magic") and drivethrurpg.com (include "stock art" in your search terms). Many writers, myself included, leverage stock art to allow us to publish material faster and give us more budget for things like custom cartography.
For your interior and cover art, the plain truth is that color art tends to look more polished and pull more eyes to your work. If possible, I'd try to avoid mixing-and-matching color and black-and-white art, and I'd try to keep the style of the art you use as internally consistent as possible.
And definitely use your coolest piece of art for your cover. A great cover is the best way to pique interest!
Just a quick note: It is not okay to grab art off of Google searches or from places where artists post their work, like Instagram, Imgur, or DeviantArt. When you publish an adventure, even for free, you must have to have the rights to share the art included in it.
Finally, wherever you get your art, make absolutely sure to follow the attribution rules. On that note, let's go to the final step about legal stuff!
7. Include the right legal stuff at the end
Ah, legal stuff! This is the most exciting part of adventure writing because it means you're almost ready to publish.
First of all, you must include an attribution and link for every piece of art you use. Include the artist's name, even if you got the art from a stock website. Doing so will ensure you're being respectful and abiding by best practices.
As far as publishing outlets go, you have two broad options:
If you used material in your adventure that is not included in the Systems Reference Document, such as beholders or spells like Mordenkainen's Sword, then it is only legal for you to publish it on DMs Guild.
If you used material only from the Systems Reference Document or published under the Open Game License, you can publish your adventure on your own website or third-party places like drivethrurpg.com.
If all of that sounds like mystical babbling, you are not the first to think so. In fact, this was one of the most confusing parts of adventure publishing to the point that I wrote the most in-depth article I could possibly manage on how to use and understand all the D&D licensing.
Action Steps: Read that article I linked to know exactly what you need to do with all the licensing stuff. Implement the information in it step-by-step and you'll glide right through all the licensing shenanigans.
Wow, if you made it this far, congratulations are in order! You now have actionable steps and my best tips to take you from no adventure idea to a publishable work.
I hope this article sets you on the right path and saves you the years of flailing and making mistakes that I went through to get proficient with this process.
If you write an adventure with the help of this article, I'd love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or message on social media and let me know.
Thanks for reading. Now go forth and write! Happy adventuring!
Want to see me use this process myself to write a 5E adventure from scratch? Check out the first video below in my adventure writing series on YouTube (more videos coming soon)!