Articles & News >> Lessons Learned: Four Years Designing 5e

Lessons Learned: Four Years Designing 5e

When the Adventurers League launched at Gen Con 2014, in conjunction with the release of the 5th edition of D&D, there were a great many question marks. How would the new edition be received? How strong would sales be? Would the new Living campaign, referred to as the D&D Adventurers League, be a comparable replacement to the Living campaigns of the past? Overall, what did the future hold for D&D in particular and roleplaying games in general?

Four years removed from the launch of 5th edition and the initial release of Adventurers League content, we are starting to get some answers. The new edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game is selling just fine, and the prevalence of game streaming has driven the popularity of RPGs to new, and frankly unprecedented, heights. The game itself is largely responsible for this increased popularity, with its simpler approach and increased focus on storytelling over rules.

Your Job, If You Choose to Accept It

As 2014 crept slowly toward the release of 5e and the introduction of the first Adventurers League content, I was given a unique opportunity to contribute. My experiences with previous editions and Living campaigns led the administrators to ask me to create the first adventure in the Adventurers League offerings: Defiance in Phlan. I have written previously about the many challenges of writing that adventure. What I’d like to do now is perform and in-depth post-mortem on the adventure, focusing on a few important questions:

  • Why was the adventure designed the way it was?
  • What unique qualities of 5e informed the adventure design?
  • What mistakes were made in the design?
  • What lessons can we learn from the design, based on what we know 4 years later about 5e and the new direction and popularity of D&D?


My evaluation will take place over a series of blog posts. I will focus on each of the five mini-adventures separately, making sure to delve carefully and deeply into the lessons we can take away from the design of each. But before we talk about the content of each of the mini-adventures, it is helpful to focus on the design limitations of the adventure as a whole. Form, it is said, must follow function: how something is designed is, wholly or in part, depends on how it is meant to be used. The mandates of design for any project ultimately inform the final product in ways that are generally apparent upon careful analysis.

How Long?!

The most pressing mandate for the design of Defiance in Phlan was that each of the mini-adventures needed to be playable in 1 hour. Not 61 minutes. Not 45 minutes. But as close to an hour as possible. The reason? The schedule for GenCon called for players to wrap up a mini-adventure each hour, and have the DMs ready to take a new table of players immediately. That meant running long was not an option–more players were always waiting with tickets. (In subsequent design of these introductory adventures, this 60-minute stricture was lifted, as conventions started slotting 90 minutes, or even sometimes 2 hours, to run these mini-adventures.)

In addition to this scheduling issue’s impact of design on Defiance in Phlan, one of the design tenets of 5e, as discussed by Mike Mearls at the start of the playtesting of D&D Next, was that the rules should support a DM running a complete game in an hour. That meant complete stories, with beginnings, middles, and endings. That meant a satisfactory goal with an equally satisfying resolution. It meant covering what were then being called the “three pillars” of D&D play: combat, exploration, and roleplaying (which was later changed to “interaction”).

When Mike wrote of the one-hour game in 2012 in a Legends and Lore article for the WotC website, his thoughts drew strong reactions. Many were intrigued and excited by this thought, while others mocked the idea that such a thing was even possible. “It takes me an hour to get through the plot hook” and “if this is the direction 5e will take, I already hate it,” were common replies–as if the game could not support multiple ways to play and enjoy it. I took on this design challenge, hoping to prove that–especially for new players–a one-hour adventure was not just doable, but fun and a tool for player recruitment.

Frame Job!

Another important design mandate was that each of the mini-adventures needed to be playable separately, and out of order. Or they should all be playable as one long adventure. In order to accommodate this design goal, the first thing I had to do was create a frame for the mini-adventures. This frame would need to serve as a very quick introduction for DMs to set the scene, while being loose enough to fit any of the mini-adventures.

In this case I choose the frame to be a place and some NPCs. Madame Freona’s Tea Kettle, a quaint bistro in the city of Phlan, would be the place. Phlan, a rough and tumble, oft-destroyed way station on the inhospitable Moonsea’s north shore, needed something other than the stereotypical dive bar on the docks. The NPCs would be Madame Freona’s daughters, all unique in their attitude and appearance. This could give just enough flavor for each adventure to start in a unique manner, while not eating up valuable play time having to reset scenes and adventure hooks.

Within this simple frame of Madame Freona’s Tea Kettle, a unique place for adventurers to find work, and her daughters, five different NPCs to launch the plot hooks, DMs could quickly get to the meat of the adventure. As will be clear when I talk about each of the mini-adventures, plot hooks in a limited-time game are important. They need to be clear, concise, and easily presented to the players. Each of the five mini-adventures begins the same way, with a short paragraph:

“You were told that Madame Freona’s Tea Kettle was the place where adventurers could find work and avoid the hassle associated with other places in Phlan. So far, that has been true. Madame Freona, a stout and officious halfling who runs the establishment with her five daughters, has proven an excellent hostess.”

Boom! From that point, each of the five mini-adventure diverge into their own plots. But in about 50 words, the players should understand the 5 W’s: who, what, where, when, why. It works whether this is their first time playing one of the mini-adventures, or whether they are on their fifth. DMs with more time and energy can elaborate if they wish, but those who have 45 minutes to get an adventure completed can launch into the meat of the adventure without much fuss.

Form and Function…

On the DM’s Guild, one of the most frequent bits of criticism about this introductory adventure (and others) in the review and discussion areas is that these mini-adventures are short and sparse. And they are. I definitely could have added 1000 words or more to each one, providing more clever and intricate plots hooks. I could have given more description and background information. I could have, as it is with all design, done a lot of things differently.

When you cut away all of the outside factors and design mandates of creating this adventure, one question was the most important: do I underdesign or overdesign? Do I put in more than the DM needs, and let the DM decide what to cut out? If I do that, how often are DMs going to lose track of the 60-minute requirement and run long? Or do I put in exactly the right amount of content to run in 60 minutes, and give hooks that imaginative DMs can add to if they don’t have a 60-minute time limit?

I chose the former, and in retrospect I’m glad I did. I put in easter eggs regarding dragons (for this was the introduction to the “Tyranny of Dragons” season), and each of the plots has something to do with dragons, if tangentially so. I put in NPCs that DMs could flesh out if necessary. But I did not, I believe, overdesign. I could have probably cut out even more than I did, to keep the mini-adventures shorter and tighter. But that is something we can look at in the next blog post, where I will look at the first mini-adventure called “Mission 1: The Meeting at Deepnight.”

Shawn Merwin

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


  • Garrett Crowe23 April 2018

    Great to see how your mind worked and how the AL mandates affected the creation of the property,

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