My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
In early February, I conducted an informal poll among my Twitter followers and people here in R&D. I asked them to list their three favorite D&D adventures. The results were fairly interesting, especially in looking at the top 10 adventures. Most impressive, though, was the sheer dominance of I6: Ravenloft. The gap between that adventure and the 2nd place finisher was as large as the gap between 2nd and 9th place. While there were clearly clusters of votes, Ravenloft stood out in a class by itself. No wonder TSR published an entire setting based around it.
In looking at Ravenloft, I think it helps to look at the other adventures that ranked in the top 10. Here they are:
Red Hand of Doom
Desert of Desolation
Keep on the Borderlands
Night’s Dark Terror
Tomb of Horrors
Village of Hommlet
Against the Giants
Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
Temple of Elemental Evil
A few trends pop up from that list. Most of those adventures have the following:
Ravenloft is a micro-setting, featuring the village of Barovia and the surrounding wilderness for exploration. Castle Ravenloft, home of the vampire Strahd, looms over the entire place, casting a shadow over everything the characters do. The adventure creates a sense of place and community, building up a location that the characters can use as a home base for the duration of the adventure. This approach gives a context for the narrative and allows for as much (or as little) roleplaying as the group wants.
Freedom: While Ravenloft suggests a plot, it doesn’t dictate one. A draw of the cards determines key elements of the adventure, but the manuscript avoids setting specific events or timelines in place. The players are free to roleplay, explore, or fight monsters as they see fit. The DM has the freedom to run the adventure how he or she wishes. Many of these adventures simple present a situation or a place. Specific advice on how to deal with events is usually broad and directional. For example, the DM might be told that the giants (in Against the Giants, of course) rally in the main hall and form search parties to find intruders, as opposed to an adventure that lays out specific actions for each giant. The DM is free to improvise within that direction.
Good Maps: In both the visual design and as interesting places to explore, Ravenloft’s maps score high grades. These adventures generally eschew linear maps, where the characters start at area 1 and move through areas 2, 3, 4, and 5 before fighting the boss monster at area 6. In many ways, these adventures avoid trying to create a specific story or sequence of events via the map. The DM through planning or improvisation, or the players through their choices, determines how things play out.
A Unique Hook: Finally, most of the adventures on that list have a clearly defined trait that makes them unique. Ravenloft is D&D’s definitive vampire adventure. Tomb of Horrors is one of the deadliest adventures ever designed for D&D. A good hook is what pulls you into an adventure. It’s what pushes a DM to turn it from a set of pages and stat blocks into a game of D&D.
It’s All about Choice
When I write these columns, I usually have only the barest idea where I’m going to end up. In this case, I’m not surprised to see that freedom of choice, both for DMs and players, comes up again and again in these adventures. A really compelling story can overcome that, but even within the bounds of a plot, players still want choice. Red Hand of Doom has a focus on a specific chain of events, but within that story there is plenty of room to maneuver.
In looking at the four traits I highlighted, three of them speak specifically to choice. A setting by its nature gives you lots of options and possibilities. A good map has plenty of branches, turns, sub-locations, and other areas to explore. And, obviously, one of the traits is freedom for the DM and the players to explore the adventure as they wish. In many ways, the best adventures shift themselves to match what the group wants from it. They don’t dictate anything. Instead, they’re easy to bend, fold, and alter as the group plays through them.
Around the office we talk a lot about how we currently format adventures. In some ways, the delve format might work against the traits noted above. When each dungeon area receives a page or two of detailed description, that puts a lot of pressure on the designer to ensure it sees play. More importantly, that approach limits the total number of chambers, areas, or other spots the characters can explore. It’s possible it works against what I see as the most important element of an adventure, meaningful choice.
On the other hand, the delve format is easy to reference and use at the table. You don’t need to look up rules, and it’s great for running material on the fly. It takes a lot of busy work off the DM’s plate. You can argue that a DM who buys an adventure wants convenience rather than flexibility.
What do you think of the delve format used in 4E adventures? Head to the forums or drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and give us the thinking behind your vote or tell us what you think makes for a great adventure.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.