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What makes a classic adventure?

A few weeks ago I was reviewing my notes on what key elements make a great adventure. There are many, I suppose, that work together to create a whole that someone might define as a classic.

  • Evocative artwork. People judge books (and adventures) by their covers. Your art should reflect the mood without giving too much away.
  • Good organization. Flipping pages is not fun. Flipping tables in taverns is fun.
  • Challenging encounters. Sometimes you have to break a few skulls to make an adventure.
  • Interesting magic items. It’s not just a +1 sword. It’s the heirloom of the Branstanovich noble family, and key to the throne.
  • Locations that fit the theme and story. Does it makes sense that the characters are here? Bait and switch doesn’t work in advertising or adventures.
  • Loathsome villains. Are the players stoked when they take down the bad guy?
  • Choices that matter. Most of the time players are reacting to the dungeon. An adventures in which players make no crucial decisions is a railroad. Players like to feel in control, so give them frequent opportunities to make choices, especially when they know the outcome is life or death, all or nothing. They don’t all have to be good choices. Sometimes choosing between a rock and a hard place is the most memorable moment of the dungeon.

All these things, and more, help create an adventure worth writing, and worth playing.

As I was working on the maps for the adventure The Vault of Pasha Kalthraga (free with a pledge to The Zine Vault), I sketched and re-sketched locations that I hoped weren’t the standard hole in the ground filled with loot. I’ve played dozens of adventures over the years, so I’ve seen just about every sort of dungeon there is. I kept asking, “How do I make this different?”

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A work-in-progress map for The Vault of Pasha Kalthraga

But the locations don’t need to be entirely different. In fact, the familiar dungeons of the past rekindle the delving of our youth. More important, I believe, is that the adventure conveys a sense of “We’re not supposed to be here.” Every step of the journey, every staircase further underground, should remind the players (and their characters) that this place is off-limits, forbidden, and full of the unknown.

Some of this can be accomplished through boxed-text in the adventure, but I think it comes down to the enthusiasm of the person behind the screen. The adventure is just a tool, like a paintbrush, or a piano. The art comes from the person using it.

What are your classic adventures, and why are they on your list?

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