I’ve been asked in the past about what creative process I use in developing adventures and TTRPG products. Here’s a shortened version of an article I originally wrote for my Shotglass Rounds #11: Duumhaven adventure (available on DrivethruRPG). Hopefully it answers some of your questions.
Please note that my process can vary from product to product and is not always representative of the one outlined below – not just because I like variety but because the way I approach the creative process also depends on the type of product I’m making.
SR#11 and other Laidback DM Products are available at https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/13989/
Duumhaven Design Notes
Tropes & Turnarounds
This project was a bit of an experiment for me – I wanted to do a crossover, old school-style dungeon crawl adventure that leaned heavily into the tropes of those games I played in my youth, but with a modern feel. Yes, there would be some hard encounters; yes, the players might need to occasionally run away. Some of the tropes would include traditional old school clichés like the ‘troll under the bridge’, except this time, how about we give the troll a dog and make him a bit nicer (after all, you shouldn’t have to fight all the time). I also wanted to capture the feel of old school village settings like Village of Homlett or Orlane in Against the Cult of the Reptile God (two AD&D adventures from the distant 1980’s).
The Creative Process
When I design an adventure, I always start with a map and an overarching idea (probably because I love drawing maps and tend to draw a LOT of them). In this case, I had hand-drawn several maps of an underground dwarven city over a year before. The scans of the original paper maps had been sitting on my drive for a while, and one day I decided to digitally color one. It looked so cool, it fired me up and became the map for the upcoming Shotglass Rounds#12: The Goblin Jarl (note: SR#12 was released in October ’22).
Originally, the project was meant to be a series of roughly connected One-Shot dungeon crawls. But as with all things, I had more ideas: DMs would need a wilderness area to feed into the locations. Better put a village in there. How about a massive crack in the earth, caused by a recent quake. The quake was caused by a massive creature. How about various cults and monsters helping the massive creature to escape. The dwarven city could be the original birthplace of the Five Swords (which I created for FiveE Magazine). Okay, the big monster is a Burned One! They originally enslaved the world thousands of years ago, so this one is trapped as penance for its crimes…and so on. And yes, there are a few fantasy clichés in there (why not kill the Burned One all those years ago? Because they felt trapping it forever was punishment enough. Realistically, they probably would have killed it – it slaughtered a whole city of dwarves, after all – but if it’s alive, then it becomes a damn fine campaign Big Bad).
As with any creative process, it’s the little things that draw out more ideas, some interesting and others more mundane: there’s a spy in Duumhaven who will follow the PCs into the dungeon; the troll has family he’s looking for down below; one of the NPCs wants a rare flower for her lover, found only in dank, underground places; etc.
And so, Duumhaven evolved from a little one-shot dungeon crawl to a small regional setting and introductory 1st-level adventure that would serve as the launching point and home base for the PCs throughout an 8-adventure mini-campaign.
Encounters & Maps
I wanted the wilderness region to be cozy – just big enough to include the village of Duumhaven and its surrounds so it wouldn’t take the PCs forever to get to encounter locations. I drew the map specifically for Virtual Tabletop (VTT) (but made it useable in a face-to-face gaming session), allowing for the DM to manage wandering monsters and wilderness encounters on a single wilderness map without the need for additional mapped locations.
The dungeon itself was for 1st-level characters, which are generally a bit…squishy – even more so when taking into account old school PCs. The disused mine under the village (the reason for Duumhaven’s remote location) was deliberately small, to encourage its use as a one-shot (after all, the Shotglass Rounds series is all about one-shots) – a short adventure that could be played in a single session. I created custom monsters for the adventure, as the one-shot’s concept was original and no existing monsters served its purpose. I used a free-flowing encounter structure, unlinked to chambers, allowing the PCs to experience rooms in any order prior to facing off against the one-shot’s big bad (not the Burning One I mentioned previously – he’s for the climax of the series). It was a fun and challenging dungeon, as play testing with two groups proved (I included an amusing memorial listing in the module and it has now become a regular part of the series).
Why Old School Essentials?
The decision to make an Old School Essentials (OSE) version of the adventure was something I had been considering for some time. Previously all my products had been either 5e or system-neutral or included short OSR-conversion guidelines. Now was the time to make the move and embrace the old school renaissance by using the original old school rules (which for me was Basic D&D).
Using a different system adds its own pitfalls – increased development time, added playtesting, more writing and editing time.
The Writing Process
I always write four drafts. The first draft is fine but tends to not include the more specific features beginner DMs might like and may have some sloppy grammar and word usage. The second draft cleans it up a bit. The third draft includes changes from playtesting. Along the way I tend to rewrite passages over and over again because I become a bit pedantic with my writing (read: never happy).
The final draft is the one that is completed after editing and proof reading. I have a proofreader I use and I also proofread the copy myself just to be doubly sure. The final edits complete the file. Then, once it has been released, I spot a mistake I missed and scream.
This happens every single time. It is as inevitable as the sun is hot and the sky is blue. Oh well, nothing and nobody is perfect. I’m gradually learning to accept this.
Layout & Art
I’ve always been good at layout, ever since I first learned how to do it in Adobe Pagemaker, what seems like centuries ago. I like exciting and interesting pages. Lines and lines of text tend to bore me. I use Adobe Creative Suite’s Indesign for layout and Photoshop and Illustrator for maps and art, as well as Procreate on iPad Pro for maps and painting.
Good art makes a difference, and I use purchased and licensed art (and some copyright free/public domain art supplied in previous Kickstarter projects I’ve supported) re-purposing them to fit my aesthetic. I also draw and paint, but I normally limit my stuff to spot art and small features.
Good layout takes a long time but is worth the investment. Tweaks and changes are constant during the development process. I’m one of those naughty people who writes my drafts directly in Indesign (frowned upon by editors everywhere). Why? So, I can make layout changes on the fly and see them with actual text (as opposed to placeholder text, which is how most would work) in real time. Note that you need to have a powerful computer for this, as Indesign may crash (and has) when it feels it can’t handle the pressure anymore.
Changes from the Original Version
The keen observers among you may have noticed that the PDF featured in the Kickstarter campaign grew somewhat from its original 50 pages. I decided to make some changes, which included:
* I originally ran the OSE version with OSE monsters but with 5e encounter descriptions. To make it easier for new DMs, I included system-specific text blocks. They are clearly denoted as ‘5e’ and ‘OSE’, so you can see at a glance which section you need, no matter what game system you run.
* I expanded the How Do I Run Duumhaven section at the start of the module to make it easier for new DMs. I rewrote and expanded the whole section on using the adventure with OSR systems.
* I added more full color art as the PDF expanded.
* I added a broad overview of the Dungeon Duumhaven campaign, as I know there are some people who like to know the over-arching story up front, rather than getting pleasantly surprised along the way as I preferred to do with my Kal-Zar’s Bane series.
* I designed new and old school top-down versions of the map as some of my players found the original isometric map difficult to deal with when running the game via VTT (the fact that my particular VTT subscription didn’t support VTT grids didn’t help). Realizing this might be an issue for others, I made one of the new maps the main map and left the isometric map in as a bonus map – you can use which ever you prefer.
* I added some new monsters because using some of the old originals was a bit TOO clichéd. The ‘gray ooze in the rock pool’ was far too mundane. The Jak Reach’r (see below) was named that way because of my fondness for silly puns.
* I expanded the lore section to make referencing various elements of the game world a little easier.
* I added two pieces of original monster art by me (see above). I hadn’t drawn a picture in a long time. I’d hand drawn maps, done some painting and some spot images, but nothing significant. I decided the purchased art I had for the Darg Tree and Jak Reach’r monsters were a bit… boring. So, it was time to break out the iPad and Procreate and give it a whirl. The resulting images turned out okay. I may just get back into drawing regularly again.
* I added these developer notes as a stretch goal, just because I thought there might be someone out there who’d like to read them. If that’s not you, then I assume you skipped this entire section. And that’s okay.
So, there you have it. Some rather scatter-shot design notes for Duumhaven. Once this series is finished, I’ll consider putting all the adventures together into a hardcover. Maybe even add some new content. We’ll see.
For the moment, the Dungeon Duumhaven story arc remains relatively unplanned (adventure titles and a few brief words in the Dungeon Duumhaven intro are NOT a plan). But that’s how I like to fly when I write campaigns – by the seat of my pants. That way I can change things along the way, and even back myself into a corner so I have to force myself to think up a way to get around that unforeseen complication or plot hole. It’s great exercise for the creative brain. It’s also how I write my books (a book of short stories is on the way, hopefully by the end of next year).
Steve, Laidback DM
2 thoughts on “Laidback DM: Notes on the Creative Process”
I also scream at mistakes. I guess you can’t catch ’em all. 😉
If you have editing skills like this, you ought to look into AI art. It’s really improved our products.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sorry, but I say no to AI art. I like a human being paid for their efforts. 😊