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Dispelling Shadows

The D&D Adventurers League (DnDAL) is starting up in earnest at Gen Con 2014, and it’s doing so with an interesting mix of ideas carefully crafted to enrapture a new crop of gamers while reusing some comforting old familiars for those that have participated in the Organized Play campaigns of the past. I was one of the people asked to write one of the adventures for the premier of the campaign (Shadows Over the Moonsea). This occurred before I was later asked to take up the mantle of Associate Resource Manager, so I have had the opportunity to see the campaign take shape from multiple angles before many in the public had the chance to see it. I thought it might be interesting to tell you what happens behind the scenes in order to prepare an adventure for the DnDAL.


While the next edition of D&D may have been coming for a while, work on the adventures for Gen Con began with meetings and picking writers at Winter Fantasy 2014. This was done even before any of the Admins were picked because everyone knew that without quality adventures, the launch of any new campaign would suffer. Shawn Merwin, Teos Abadia, Pieter Sleijpen, and I were chosen. All of us were part of the alpha playtesting for the new edition so we were versed in the 5e rule system and all of us had written several adventures for multiple campaigns so we were familiar with the general process and the need to meet deadlines. The last part is especially important and I will revisit it later.

The next step is called Concepting and the authors are not part of it. Normally this would be done by the Admins, but since there weren’t any Admins in place yet, the concepts for the Gen Con adventures were completed by the D&D Program Manager Chris Tulach and the WOTC staff. Concepting involves the creation of the title and blurb, along with a very short paragraph (usually less than four sentences) that suggests generically what the adventure is about, how it fits into the campaign plot, and details any specific NPCs, locations or treasure that must be used. It is VERY open-ended so as to not constrain the author too much, but has just enough detail to make sure that we following the overall plot. How do the Admins know what the overall plot is? Wizards of the Coast (WotC) shared a story bible with the Admins that explains the highlights of the plot for the entire Tyranny of Dragons story arc for products, media, video games, everything… The Admins were then told where their corner of the story is, and with some guidance and oversight, they are allowed to do anything in that corner that furthers the overall plot. The Admins worked together to craft a campaign plot that furthers the overall plot, and that plan for the campaign was shared with WotC so it could potentially be incorporated into other areas of the overall plot. The concept for each adventure advances the campaign plot, which in turn is a part of the overall story arc you will see in all the products put out during the arc. It’s a very excited opportunity to be part of the D&D.

After Concepting comes Outlining. At this point the author is given the concept, some background material, an adventure template, and a writer’s guide. They do not get to see the story bible, that’s only for the Admins with signed agreements allowing them to see it. Don’t ask them what’s in it, they can’t tell you. For me the concept I was handed was an interesting story and it seemed pretty straightforward, so I wrote up an outline and sent it in thinking all was right with the world. Outlining is the first time in the process where new authors often become frustrated. Authors are told to write anything they like within a semi-defined box and so they come up with what they think is a great idea and some get possessive of that idea. Unfortunately, one needs to be willing to give up on an idea pretty quickly. I received feedback from the other Admins (who had been chosen by this point) and Chris Tulach that my idea was awfully similar to two of the other four adventures at Gen Con and we really needed something else. Back to the drawing board (with some guidance from the Admins and Chris). It’s here that I had an advantage that other writers might not. As an Admin I went and read the other concepts and outlines for adventures at Gen Con so I could craft an adventure that is part of cohesive story, but still unique on its own. You might ask, “Why not put all the authors together and come up with one idea broken into four parts?” It was done on purpose. We wanted to see what individual authors come up on their own without being tainted by other folks’ ideas of what might be right, hoping to strike gold and knowing that anything could always be changed before the writing started. In my case it turns out that I had accidentally written about the same general theme that two of the other Gen Con authors had. This normally wouldn’t happen since several adventures do not premier at the same time (except for Gen Con and Winter Fantasy). For that reason, I needed to cheat the process a little in order to see what others were doing, in order to know what needed to be different.

Alright, same concept, new outline; approved! Onto the first draft. Writing is likely more involved than you might expect. You cannot just write a story and toss in a collection of stat blocks to fill your adventure out. There is a template, an adventure design guide, an IP guide, a D&D house style guide, an FR style guide, as well as formatting guides for stat blocks and magic items. It’s a lot of structure that needs to be followed or your adventure will not look like other DnDAL adventures and it will be hard for the DM to run. A good part of writing is not only coming up with a creative and fun adventure, but learning to carefully adhere to all the rules in these guides. If you are new to writing, the Admins are there to help and you should never be afraid to ask. It is much easier to correct a mistake at the beginning of the process than to have to search through a completed adventure and redo portions of it.

A side note about deadlines: They are never as far away as you wish they were. They are strict. They are a harsh and cruel mistress. They are necessary. The process of writing is collaborative and everyone has a job to do, but no one can do their part until the person before them finishes their job. If you are late, the person after you will either be late or be forced to do an incomplete rushed job. This means that eventually, either the adventure is late (which cannot happen as we have set premier dates) or the adventure is not as good as it could have been (which should never happen, even though it will be given out for free we want to make the best product possible). Don’t be late. Take my case for example. My job had sent me to Europe for most of the period I was given to write the adventure and eventually we had a free day in Milan. While my coworkers were exploring city, what was I doing? I was sitting on a hotel balcony writing the adventure you will play at Gen Con. If you have fun, it was worth it.

So what happens once you have a draft? You might try playtesting it, but this isn’t necessary to do before you turn over the adventure. There is lots of playtesting built into the process and there is a good chance that the adventure might change from what you turned in once editing is complete. In my case I do it anyway; usually because reading boxed text out loud helps me find typos and my local veteran players often come with creative solutions to challenges that I like to incorporate into the draft I submit. For this adventure, the authors had an incomplete Monster Manual to work from and the final challenge ratings were not yet determined. I wanted to make sure that the monsters I had picked were exactly the right power level for the level span I was to cover.

Once your draft is submitted it will go through Editing by one or more Admins (sometimes as many as three or four, but always at least one of the Content Managers). During this part of the process there is a good chance your adventure will change. Monsters may be swapped out because a creature is being overused in DnDAL adventures. An encounter might be added to tie the story to the campaign plot. An NPC might be completely changed to ensure that they are portrayed the same as they were in a previous adventure. Critical events collected for an adventure that has just premiered may necessitate changing something in your adventure to account for the actions of the players in this living campaign. New authors need to be understanding of this, and accept that the adventure is not theirs. They were paid to write a first draft. The editors are there to clean it up and make sure it fits with the plot. In my case very little changed in the story, though plenty of typos were found. A few of the monsters were changed. Some I took no issue with. One I thought was an improvement, and another caused both balance and narrative issues that I foresaw due to playtesting and I was able to point that out for the betterment of the adventure in the end. As an author, you can always make suggestions or ask for clarification about an edit, but you do not have the final say. That’s something that is initially hard to stomach (your name is on the adventure after all), but it’s needed because a single author doesn’t have the whole campaign vision in sight. You get used to it.

Okay now you have an edited draft, next comes the real Playtesting. The Resource Managers will contact established groups to playtest the adventures. Some of the Admins may playtest your adventure as well. We are looking for everything. Does the adventure make sense? Is it fun? Is it fair? What works and what doesn’t? What was a challenge and what needs improvement? How would you fix it if it was you? Again, playtesting is part of a collaborative process that no one person controls, but the Content Manager gets the final say. In the end, even they have to answer to the D&D Program Manager.

After playtesting is finished, the adventure is edited again, accounting for the playtest feedback and anything the Admins know about other adventures that are in the pipeline. For example, while the first three Expedition adventures and the first Epic are yet to premier at Gen Con this August, we are working on writing the tenth adventure and the concepts are going through the approval process for the next four. This means we are we are currently working on adventures for April next year. Because we continue to incorporate critical events, playtest feedback, and refine the DnDAL adventures, it means an adventure is never complete until the adventure is sent out to the premier convention. For my adventure DDEX1-3 Shadows Over the Moonsea, we are only a few days before it will be sent to the DMs for Gen Con. By the time you read this that may already have happened. Don’t worry, I’m already working on the next one.


Greg Marks
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Author: Greg Marks

Greg Marks is an evil mastermind directing his criminal army of precocious felines from the birthplace of gaming: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He and his cat minions have worked on products for multiple editions of Dungeons and Dragons including Complete Scoundrel, City of Stormreach and Dragon Magic.

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