Very hard time coming up with Adventures...

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Alrighty, so, starting off, I'd like to describe first what I've done as a DM. I started DMing nearly 7 years ago in 3.5, back when me and friends didn't really have a clue what we were doing. I had an extremely vague overarching storyline, which was simply to collect a bunch of crystal shards scattered across the world. We played for 8 levels, and the whole entire time was mostly just me throwing in random little quests as they kinda traveled with no direction or reason, and eventually I moved out of state. 

I then ran another campaign in 3.5, this time with knowledge of the rules, and ran a campaign from level 1 to 18th, and while it had a vague overarching storyline as well, it was an amalgamation of multiple pre-made adventures chopped up and names changed to make the campaign. It was memorable, but still...

Fast forward to nowadays, I've ran maybe 1 original 4E adventure. Other than that, it's all been premades for nearly 3 years now, and premades that I've leveled up to higher levels, or re typed up for different settings. Also, all I've experienced as a 4E player has been premades.

I love the idea of creating my own adventures, but I can never get a big enough story arc for an entire 1 level adventure. I have ideas here and there for encounters, maybe locations I'd like the PCs to visit, but I can never think of plots to connect them all to save my life. Unfortunately I have this same problem in another aspect of my life, all I want to do is be a singer in a band, but I cannot come up with lyrics... yeah..

So anyways, does anyone have any advice for this? For example, I wanted to make an adventure based around The Dragon's Altar, and the Altar Skulkers in Dark Sun, but aside from that sentence, I have no clue where to go from there. ... ... :/
Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun!
There are lots of approaches you can take to break this.

I feel you may be filtering ideas too soon, and at too fine a level of detail, before they have a chance to become anything. Perhaps also you expect a lot from your first attempts.

Letting go a little, accepting what comes out as your best effort, and ad-libbing with the materials to hand would all be useful.

The following works for anything written:

1) Write the whole thing, from beginning to end (no, I don't mean write a railroad adventure, I mean write what you are going to write, whether it's text for a small adventure, or lyrics for a song). Make no attempt at any quality at all (e.g. for song lyrics, no need to rhyme or scan), just make it say what you want to say, and to get from beginning to end.

2) Refine it. Pass through it and try to improve each bit in some small way. Sometimes this leads to new ideas or other radical changes. Just go with it and keep writing.

3) Repeat stage 2 until you are happy enough to use it.

 . . . my favourite campaigns never had anything "over-arching" beyond a general feel, and write-ups for the world. All the story came from the sessions and what the DM and Players did together, not just out of the DM's own imaginings.
Well that's the problem the writing what I want to write. At this point for example, I know I want to run it in Dark Sun, and I have a location I want them to visit with a tribe in the area. I believe I want them to be taken there as sacrifices.

Any ideas or personal experiences on abducting players, them taking them with other captives to a location? With it being a pivotal plot point, do you just throw an unwinnable encounter at them and strip them of gear (and give it back later?). 

And as for my players, they seem to prefer linear, railroady adventures. So, I'm used to my players not really making dynamic decisions or anything, they seem to just want to go where the adventure's supposed to go next. Like I said, our whole group is pretty much exclusively centered around premade modules. That said, once I come up with plot, it seems like it's easy to go from there, just coming up woth plot is the difficult part.
Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun!
Other problem is, whenever I start to try and think of an idea, it simply only becomes me thinking back on a premade that's done it better, and wanting to convert it level and campaign specific-wise... :/. 
Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun!
Well that's the problem the writing what I want to write. At this point for example, I know I want to run it in Dark Sun, and I have a location I want them to visit with a tribe in the area. I believe I want them to be taken there as sacrifices.



There, you've done part 1 - well, nearly, you need the resolution to them escaping and what they win.

Part 1 of writing the adventure is: PCs are captured and taken somewhere to be sacrificed. They escape and foil the plot.

That's it. That's all it needs to be,

Now refine it. You can start by asking "who, what, where, why, how" of each part, so your second version might look like this:

PCs are captured by evil cultists whilst travelling through wilderness, attacked in the night whilst they are least prepared, by overwhelming numbers. They are tied up and taken to the top of a nearby volcano, thrown in to appease the fire demons that live there. Left for dead, the PCs in fact have an opportunity to escape and ascend back up, fighting their way out and eventually confronting their captors and stopping their evil rule.

 . . . I'm not claiming it is even a good idea. I'm just trying to show you the process. You literally go through this expanding process dozens of times, concentrating on adding and improving each time. You'll end up at some stages reading through what you've made and perhaps disliking some part of it -  it's not a problem, just change things.

What this process avoids is trying to output a high quality stream of almost-ready content, which is often a massive barrier to creativity.


With it being a pivotal plot point, do you just throw an unwinnable encounter at them and strip them of gear (and give it back later?). 



You need assistance from another poster, that's not the way I play.


And as for my players, they seem to prefer linear, railroady adventures. So, I'm used to my players not really making dynamic decisions or anything, they seem to just want to go where the adventure's supposed to go next. Like I said, our whole group is pretty much exclusively centered around premade modules. That said, once I come up with plot, it seems like it's easy to go from there, just coming up woth plot is the difficult part.



It seems the players would be quite happy to play pre-mades, and not really notice the effort you put in - so what are you wanting to get out of this?
First, I advise against using an "unwinnable" encounter. You'd be amazed how resourceful PCs can be. I would suggest doing it as a cut scene. No map, no minis. This lets the players know that it's not a standard encounter and that there are more plot-relevant forces in play.

The best advice is to take things one step at a time. I would suggest looking through the monster books at what monsters exist that are appropriate for combat encounters with the PCs (factoring in level). Then consider the ecology of those monsters, as well as behavior and all that. Use that to rule out monsters that just don't fit what you feel like doing (be it monsters that would be particularly out of place, or just monsters you don't really like).

Once you have that, try to come up with a reason why the PCs would end up clashing with those types of monsters. Orcs or Goblins may be ransacking trade caravans. Reptiles may be invading settled lands at the behest of a new, powerful leader. This is essentially the plot hook.

After you come up with your antagonists and your plot hook, then you need to develop a general plot for your adventure. Do the PCs encounter the monsters directly? Are they hired to address the issue by locals? Do they at first only hear rumors, and investigate? These all matter, as they affect how your PCs will approach the story, and PC motivations are important to consider.

There's really nothing wrong with using pre-mades. LFR has some great pre-made adventures (CALI3-1 thru 3-3 are a good, challenging, heroic tier adventure that take place in the desert lands in Forgotten Realms, for instance). Also you can use this penchant for thinking of other modules to combine multiple, smaller mods into a larger story, so that the PCs have more room to play, and you have more to work with.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing ideas for your story from other stories. It's quite common, and all it takes is one good plot twist, setting change, or extra plot hook to make the difference between a standard story and an awesome adventure. 

"Not only are you wrong, but I even created an Excel spreadsheet to show you how wrong you are." --James Wyatt, May 2006

Dilige, et quod vis fac

I can say from my own personal experience, that easing into it works well.  I wanted to write my own adventures to make it all "mine" rather than using other people's adventures the whole time (it felt kinda like a copout), but I just didn't really have an idea how to build an adventure.  So here's what I did:

I started with prebuilt adventures.
Then I started tweaking bits of the adventures (change an encounter here to a different one, take a combat and turn it into an RP encounter instead, etc).
Once I'd done that some, I felt emboldened to start mix/matching...taking pieces of different adventures, relevelling them and recombining them.
Then I started writing my own, but using a trap I saw here, with a refluffed monster I saw there.  I'm building the story myself, but not being overwhelmed with creating EVERYTHING by myself.

If you ease yourself into it, you start feeling more and more comfortable with doing further and further changes, until suddenly you realize you've been able to create something all on your own.

As for plot ideas, try watching some movies, especially not fantasy movies, and seeing if you can get inspired to change them to a D&D setting.  Moves like Die Hard (sneak into the heavily defended compound to defeat the bad guys and free the hostages), Dark Knight (stop the criminal mastermind with his bands of goons, make hard choices when you can't save everyone, good NPC becomes bad NPC), Lion King (displaced king to be has to take his lands back from an usurper...if he can be convinced that he should in the first place), and Aliens (PCs have to escape an area completely crawling with an overwhelming force of evil) could be made into great adventures.  Movies can give you some ideas as to how the flow of a whole adventure can go and how different encounters can be tied into a whole.
So I've been doing much contemplation on what I'm going to do, and I think I've come to find some inspiration amongst one of my player's backstory. A very basic jist is that he has recently came into possession of a mysterious, questionable sword (Scarblade), and I would like for my upcoming plot to be based on them discovering the origin of the sword, but be pestered by other orginizations that want the sword/knowledge of it's origin (for some reason). 

I want to do a kind of flashback style campaign as well. I want the sword to have been created during a great war about 50 years back, but it's creation to have been kept secret. The sword hidden, unused in the war for an unknown reason after it's creation.

 His backstory is that he was sent to retrieve the sword in the current day after it's very recent discovery. Once he grasped it, he blacked out, then awoke about 80 miles south being cared for by refugees traveling across the plains. Once back in civilized lands he found that a wave of destruction had been caused by him, murdering many, and is now a wanted man.


As for the storyline, I want to have a main "current plot" that covers their characters going from location to location researching the origin of the sword, it's creation, purpose, and reason for it's hiding. And as they get to key locations, they'll trigger flashbacks where they take temporary control of a group of NPCs during the war, in some "sub-storyline" that over the course of multiple flashbacks describing the origin of the sword.

So, I want them to start the main storyline, somehow, provoking the players to go to location A to start research.

Followed by them playing/experienceing the history lesson firsthand of the war, revealing a secret related to the sword that points them to a different city/location for the next chunk of reseach.

And as they travel from location to location they are attacked by a group that does not want them to discern the truth of the sword/take it back.


What would be a good event to start with to provoke the players to go to a location to begin the research? Any ideas for the background of the sword? And actions the players could experieince as side characters in the war that could reveal key plot points? And like what? 
Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun! Dark Sun!
Three things:

First:
Start them at location A, but they don't really realize it - so as they just sort of explore the immediate vicinity, they will stumble across the research.  Since they don't really know much yet, don't try to get them to decide to research the sword - simply put it promptly in there path so they can't avoid it.  (Perhaps the refugees take shelter in an abandoned temple dedicated to the cult of Scarblade).

Second: 
Don't center it on one character.  Make sure everyone is a primary hero, not just the guy with the sword.  Perhaps make it the Scarweapons that were created, of which the Scarblade is simply one out of 50; all the other people trying to figure out what's going on are trying to do so in order to gather up all these 50 weapons (and that way the other party members can get them too, and become the Scar band!  Well that's a silly name, but something like that, so that they are all the main heroes - he just happens to be the first one.  Talk to the player in question though and make sure he won't get annoyed by this).

Third:
When doing flashback scenes, I would suggest not giving them NPC's more than once.  Part of the joy of D&D is playing YOUR character - not some other key person in the story.  So perhaps do scenes where they are fighting ancient undead or constructs who suddenly reshape reality around the party, and they find themselves literally back in the historical war, fighting a key encounter - and so they learn the history, but throught the eyes of their own characters - then they warp back to their own time, and they have to decide 'holy smokes, that fight our side won was really a terrible tragedy that our side re-wrote!  how do we reveal this to the people?'.  Or whatever they learned whether or not it actually makes a big difference.

Further to that, I'd be totally willing to help you out with more concrete details but I don't really know how much you want exactly.  I can walk you through how I would make a world - but it would be that, how I (not nescessarily you) make a world.  So.. ask away, and I'll see what I can suggest!  (As I'm sure quite a few others on here will do as well!) 
I would say not to write too far ahead because if your players have an opportunity to affect things (and they should), you will be wasting a lot of time and effort if they change your story or its focus.  Just this last week, I had to come up with an NPC name on the fly, the only NPC I hadn't named in an RP encounter.  However, it was the one character that one of my players focused on, so I had to come up with a name and relationships to existing characters I had established.  This one character also created some really fun and interesting roleplay, enough that I now need to develop her background a little bit more actively and think about using quests involving her.  This just illustrates that no matter how much time you put into your writing, your players may end up providing unexpected momentum and ideas you can use.

I like starting with a few overarching themes, a major villain, some memorable henchmen, and good locations.  Some of the themes will be easily seen early on in the adventure, while others are later on.  The major villain may be known from the beginning, or they may be a puppeteer, pulling strings from the background.  Borrow liberally from your player's most memorable actions as inspiration for future adventures.  Borrow from their character background, as you're doing with the sword. 

As for the storyline you're working on now, I agree that you should start with location A.  When possible, it's a good idea to start your adventure on the cusp of action or events.  If I were you, I would start your characters at location A, tell them that they've come there for a particular reason, and get them into combat early with some cultists or with others who are trying to obtain the sword.  You could have one of them surrender and give up some information, or you can leave a note on their corpses that will provide a nice starting point for researching or learning more about the origins of Scarblade.  Those are very basic ways to provoke characters to travel in a certain direction for an adventure, but you can be as creative you want. 
Steal, er, borrow from television, books, and movies. The plots and scenes are there. Change names. Throw in twists.
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Steal, er, borrow from television, books, and movies. The plots and scenes are there. Change names. Throw in twists.



This, but try to stick to more "one-off" episodes (ie- the kind that don't involve any larger story arc).

"Not only are you wrong, but I even created an Excel spreadsheet to show you how wrong you are." --James Wyatt, May 2006

Dilige, et quod vis fac

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