Inspiration and Designing an Adventure

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, Mike Shea and Wolfgang Baur discuss designing adventures for the DMs Guild on the Tome Show. One of the many interesting comments they made was that there was a need for very short side treks that could be dropped into campaigns.

That was the starting point.

I’ve been interested in writing and publishing my own adventures for a while now, but work on them has been very slow, due to other parts of my life (like my job) getting in the way. However, writing a very short adventure might get me away from the cycle of revisions I’ve been going through on another of my projects. There was just one problem: I didn’t know what the subject of the adventure should be.

That night, I came up with something. A scarecrow that wasn’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about Curse of Strahd and its tone recently (as I’m now running it for our local D&D groups), and so the idea of the party making their way along a rural road and discovering a scarecrow that was actually a young boy left to die seemed a pretty strong start to an adventure. It would immediately set up a mystery with an unsettling theme. Who could do such a horrible act?

I slept on it, and the next morning I bashed out the Very Short Adventure. It consists of three encounters, easily playable in a session. Heck, depending on your group, it might even be playable in an hour or two. It wasn’t long, but what it hit, entirely as I wanted it to, was a sense of horror and tragedy.

If Death in the Cornfields plays like I hope it will, the players don’t come out of the other side happy. They may have salvaged the situation, but they will have seen two families destroyed by evil. I’m not sure if it will play harder for the DM or the players.

One of the things I didn’t want to do with it was overwrite. That episode of the Tome Show also mentioned how many adventures have Too Much Text, something that a few of my reviews have mentioned. So, I tried my best not to over-elaborate on what was going on. This is probably most noticeable in the final text in how I describe the NPCs. I describe the situation they’re in and how they’re feeling, but I allow the DM to fill in the rest of the details as he or she wants. This adventure, much more than anything else I’ve written, is for inspiring the DM.

After I wrote that first draft, which was a spare 2 pages long, I set it aside for a couple of days before returning to it and doing some minor revisions. I then sent it out to a few of my friends in the blogging and podcasting community. The comments I got back were incredibly helpful and supportive – and no-one said “The adventure sucks!” I did need to clarify a few details, which I did, and then I sent it out again to another reader. More comments came back, more revisions followed.

In making the revisions, the adventure slightly lengthened, most of which was added to the back end in a “Expanding the Adventure” section. Death in the Cornfields was very deliberately a simple adventure, focused on the tragedy of the situation. However, it didn’t have to be that way, so I discussed a few ideas that a DM might use for expanding and extending the adventure. I actually moved some of the main text of the adventure into that section, because it got away from the basic concept. I also added a DM note just in case a group found the final encounter too difficult. I didn’t think they would, but it was flagged as potentially a problem, and there can be more variation in the combat effectiveness of groups than you might initially expect, so in it went!

I left the (virtual) manuscript for another couple of days, returned to it and did some more revisions, and then uploaded the result. Four pages of a short adventure – one of which is the cover. It’s now available on the DM’s Guild. My very first commercial adventure!

Death in the Cornfields is a vignette – a short, evocative adventure. I think you’ll find it of most use if you’re running a more horror-themed game, especially one set in Barovia, but I’m sure people will find other ways to use it. If you’d asked me what my first published adventure would be like a month ago, I wouldn’t have even have got close to this one. It’s not a traditional D&D adventure, but it’s one of which I’m intensely proud. I hope you enjoy it!

4 comments

  1. Rick Underwood

    We played this tonight with six 3rd level characters. The party are leisurely doing the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, I just dropped it in instead of a random encounter. It worked really well, it got them talking with each other about what might be happening, guessing right about the gist of the adventure, but also unsure and coming up with other possibilities to explain what was going on. We really liked this. Thanks.

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  2. Tom D.

    I wish I could say I really liked it, but I haven’t played it yet. Though I am very much looking forward to it! These little vignettes are particularly useful when the party decides, to heck with it, we’re done with the heavy lifting, we’re going to go out here into this cornfield instead. It helps as a side adventure or to help my players regain focus.
    What really intrigued me though was your blog describing your epiphany and your creative process. I should be so imaginative and talented to recognize something as simple as a scarecrow in a cornfield as a segue to a DnD adventure. Well done.
    Cheers. I look forward to your next release, where ever it may lead us. And heartfelt congratulations!

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  3. Rob

    Congratulations on getting mentioned in the Dungeon Master’s Guild inaugural newsletter! This adventure is one of three pieces they describe as “items that have caught our eye.”

    Your site has been very helpful as I develop my own DM skills and style and I was glad to see you and your adventure getting recognition on that short list.

    Like

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