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Mastering Dungeons: A Team Effort

When you design an adventure for publication, whether it be for D&D or any other RPG system, it is no different than performing any other creative task. You may start with certain design goals, or the traits of the end product may take form through the design process. Either way, the form of the end product is informed by the goals and the process – and if the designer has done her job, that product meets the goals of the design.

In the case of most RPG adventures, the design goals should always keep one important consideration at the forefront: the adventure must be designed for the GM to present an experience. That experience could be drastically different based on the design goals, but it is the GM who creates that experience, not the adventure designer. Even the most linear adventure, or one meant to be easily presented to the players by the GM with little or no preparation, is a team effort. The GM and the adventure designer rely on each other to create an enjoyable experience.

As an example, I wrote about the many design goals that guided me when I created the D&D Adventurers League Expeditions adventure called Defiance in Phlan. This adventure presented many challenges because of the various design goals that went into its creation, and the form, as they say, followed the function.

I received many comments regarding the adventure and its five mini-adventures. As with most creative works, a majority of the comments – whether positive or critical – dealt more with the limitations of the design goals than anything else. An adventure meant to be run in 45 minutes by DMs with little preparation time are not going to have lengthy backstories for all the NPCs. Sub-plots cannot be explored. The quick play is not by-product of any game design genius – it is just what was asked for.

Yet this is a team effort, and where there might be something wanting in the design, there are DMs who were able to bring their own genius to the experience. I watched tables of the adventure run at various places, and I was humbled by the incredibly creative and inventive DMs who could bring the words to life. Brian Benoit of Roving Band of Misfits, as an example, created brilliant terrain for some of the mini-adventures. Several other DMs tweaked the mini-adventures to use them as interludes between the other, longer Expedition adventures.

At PAX East this year, a D&D Coordinator and her team of DMs took things to the next level. She wrote about it in an article on the Adventurers League website. If you are interested in seeing what creative and motivated people can do when given the chance, go read that article. I tip my hat to Lauren Bilanko and the DMs of PAX East. I hope I will forever get the chance to be on their team.

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:


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    Imaginaryfriend19 March 2015

    I really enjoyed running Defiance in Phlan and while I will take your word for it when you say no design genius was involved in the quick play, it was very well executed. The freedom to weave the parts into the all-access track had the additional effect of creating talking points for the DMs. “What order are you using?”, “This makes a great lead in for…” etc. More team building :).

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