Design & Development09/30/2005

RPG Design Test

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

Previously, we’ve given players the chance to take the developer test for fun. This time, Christopher Perkins offers the design test – to take for real. In the following article, Chris details what goes into a quality adventure... and at the same time, extends the invitation to submit yours to Wizards of the Coast.

Interested to write for Dungeons & Dragons?

Wizards of the Coast, Inc. is searching for talented freelance writers to help design roleplaying game (RPG) supplements and adventures. If you haven’t worked with us before and would like to be considered for freelance design work, please complete this design test and submit your finished work, in hard copy, to:

RPG Design Test
c/o Gwendolyn Kestrel, RPG R&D
Wizards of the Coast, Inc.
1600 Lind Ave SW, Ste 400
Renton, WA 98055

You do not need to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your test. Once we’ve evaluated the test, we will contact you via email.

The test is straightforward: Design a 2,500- to 4,000-word D&D adventure, then design a specific game element (feat, spell, or magic item) to accompany it.

Please see recent Wizards of the Coast published adventures, recent issues of Dungeon Magazine, or adventures published on this, the official D&D website for examples of properly formatted D&D adventures.

Deadline: We will be considering submissions on an ongoing basis.

1. Write A Short Adventure

On the first page of your adventure, include your name, mailing address, email address, and phone number. Also include the title of the adventure, the adventure level, and the total word count. For example:

Gwendolyn Kestrel
1600 Lind Ave SW, Ste 400
Renton, WA 98055
[email address]
[phone number]

“Ambush at Zephyr Ridge”
A D&D adventure for 6th-level characters
2,789 words

Adventure Level

You choose the level of your adventure, but do not submit an adventure for characters higher than 20th level.


Your adventure must include one or more encounters or areas to explore.

Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide discusses how to create appropriately challenging encounters and assign appropriate amounts of treasure per encounter. Please use it as your guide when writing the adventure.

Reference Materials

The adventure should be playable using just the three core rulebooks (Player’s Handbook v.3.5, Dungeon Master’s Guide v.3.5, and Monster Manual v.3.5) and D&D Miniatures. The adventure should not require a DM to own or reference materials other than those mentioned here.

Adventure Elements

A couple things to keep in mind as you sit down to write your adventure:

  • NPCs and creatures with class levels, advanced Hit Dice, or templates take up more room than generic creatures straight out of the Monster Manual. If your adventure has lots of classed NPCs or advanced monsters, you need to reduce the number of encounters to compensate for the increased word count.
  • Stat blocks for monsters and NPCs have a considerable “footprint” when it comes to word count. An average NPC stat block can run well over 300 words on its own.

Here are the specific elements that comprise the adventure:

Introduction (Mandatory)
The adventure’s introduction should begin with a “teaser,” a short paragraph that summarizes the theme and plot of your adventure and serves as a hook to catch the reader’s interest. Think of the teaser as your best chance to catch a DM’s eye, and come up with something representative of your adventure that encourages the reader to read the rest of it.

The second paragraph should indicate what level of characters the adventure is designed for. In addition, it tells DMs what books they need (in this case, the three core rulebooks) and provides up-front advice on how to run the adventure.

Adventure Background (Mandatory)
This section provides the DM with a clear summary of events leading up to the adventure, including any pertinent historical details and villainous machinations. The main thing to keep an eye on in this section is length. If you can’t present your adventure background in 500 words, it’s probably too complex and should be simplified.

Adventure Synopsis (Mandatory)
This section provides a clear, concise summary of the adventure for the DM. Outline surprises and plot twists here, rather than revealing them only during the course of the adventure. Introduce key NPCs here, indicate both what the central conflict of the adventure is, and detail the most likely way the PCs can resolve this conflict.

Adventure Hooks (Mandatory)
This section helps DMs lead the PCs into the adventure. Although it’s fine to structure the adventure so that one of these hooks is the preferred way to start the adventure, all adventures need at least three different hooks. At least one hook should be simple and straightforward (“Deliver this message to the high priest in Lathamere”). Others can exploit alignment, class, race, or society. Hooks should not presume anything about the PCs’ actions, nor should they follow the standard adventure hook that presumes they are mercenaries available to the highest bidder. The hooks don’t need to be associated with the adventure’s plot. Adventures for 1st-level characters should include some hooks that assume the PCs don’t yet know each other.

You should avoid hooks that rely on the coincidence of the PCs’ presence in the area for the adventure to start. The party should always have a reason to go on an adventure.

Encounters (Mandatory)
At the start of the adventure’s encounters, you can include additional sections that detail rumors, background information the players can uncover with research or by using bardic knowledge, the time of year the adventure takes place in, and other relevant bits. If the adventure is for higher-level characters, include information that can be learned by divination spells as appropriate.

The adventure itself consists of a series of planned encounters keyed to a map, a timeline, or both.

Each encounter can include any or all of the following sections: Read-aloud Text, General Description, Creature(s), Tactics, Trap(s), Treasure, Development, and Ad Hoc XP Adjustment. Do not include sections that are unnecessary for a given encounter. For instance, an area devoid of traps does not require a Trap section.

Each encounter should be rated with an Encounter Level (EL #) in the main encounter header, allowing the DM to quickly assess the possible threat to his or her PCs. The EL is the properly calculated CRs of all creatures and traps in a particular encounter (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide). A sample encounter header would appear thus:

3. Bugbears’ Cave (EL 7)

Certain encounters are structured so that the threats are not felt simultaneously. It’s one thing if the pit trap is in the center of the room and the hill giant keeps bull rushing its enemies into the pit—calculating the total EL by using the CRs of the monster and trap is expected. But if the trap is on a chest hidden in a closet and never makes itself felt during a fight, then reasonably that trap’s CR should not be figured into the EL (unless its CR is higher than the monster’s CR, in which case the reverse holds true). Likewise, if an encounter is designed such that NPCs initially encountered are friendly, but on a repeat visit are revealed as a threat, the EL in the encounter’s main header should not give the EL based on the second visit, because it is not true for the first visit to the encounter.

Dungeon Features (Optional)
Some dungeons (or wilderness regions, or demiplanes, and so on) have features that are common throughout. How high are the ceilings? How are rooms illuminated? What types of doors are prevalent? (This includes such information as door thickness and the material doors are composed of, which has rule-specific implications for hit points and hardness.) What about wandering monsters? Rather than repeat these details throughout the adventure, keep the information in this section.

Read-Aloud Text (Optional)
This section generally precedes the other entries of an encounter, although part of the general description might precede it if it’s important to the encounter. The read-aloud text is meant to be read or paraphrased aloud to the players at an opportune time. It also provides the DM with a description of the room and its contents. Read-aloud text provides a bare bones description of the encounter area; it does not make any reference to the viewer. Avoid phrases such as “you see,” “as you enter the room,” or other phrases that assume any action whatsoever on behalf of the players. Also avoid including descriptions of any creatures in the room, since their activities and positions in the room often depend on multiple factors (such as if they hear the PCs coming, if it’s night or day, and so on).

Read-aloud text for an encounter should rarely run more than a few sentences. (For reasons why, you might consider our recent Design & Development column, Undercover at Gen Con, Part 1.)

General Description (Optional)
This section provides the DM with information on interesting features, creatures, traps, and other specifics of the encounter that play off the read-aloud text. Unusual magical or environmental effects, the room’s purpose (if not obvious from the read-aloud text), explanatory text about unusual features described in the read-aloud text, and statistics for objects found in the room that are likely to be broken out into this section.

Creature(s) (Optional)
Any creature the PCs might encounter is described here. Provide a physical description of the monster or NPC, as well as general motivations and background info. If the creature has information to impart to the characters, include that information here, along with the creature’s starting attitude and what happens if the PCs use Diplomacy, Intimidate, or magic to alter its attitude.

Include the creature’s abbreviated statistics if it appears in the adventure almost exactly as it does in the Monster Manual. In this case, include only the number of creatures appearing, hit points, and special equipment, as well as a Monster Manual page number for easy reference. For example:

Bugbears (4): hp 16 each; MM 29.

Full statistics for creatures should only be included if the creature is significantly nonstandard from the way it appears in the Monster Manual (for example, it has class levels or advanced Hit Dice). Unique NPCs almost always require a full stat block.

Please use antagonists that can be represented by official D&D miniatures.

Tactics (Optional)
Use this section to describe specific and unique tactics the creatures take in combat. Even unintelligent monsters can take advantage of terrain in combat. If an NPC uses magic to enhance his statistics, indicate what spells and items he uses to prepare for combat, and show how those effects modify his statistics.

Reactions to the sound of combat from other creatures nearby should be noted in this section, as well as conditions that might lead the creatures to surrender or flee the encounter.

Trap(s) (Optional)
This section describes any traps that the PCs might trigger in the encounter. The section ends with a trap stat block (see Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for sample trap stat blocks) for all traps found in the encounter. If the creatures use the traps in some way against intruders, you should detail those actions in the Tactics section but refer to those tactics here.

Treasure (Optional)
Any treasure the PCs can find during the encounter is described here, above and beyond any possessions owned by the creatures in the room (a creature’s possessions are detailed in that creature’s stat block).

Remember, the total treasure available for the PCs to find in an adventure should be reflected in the adventure’s level. Make sure to use the Dungeon Master’s Guide v.3.5 to determine how much treasure to include in the adventure, and remember that NPC gear counts as well as treasure detailed in this section when determining totals. You don’t need to adhere exactly to the totals given in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but you should stay as close as you can.

Some adventures feature a large number of magic items that normally cannot be used by PCs. Other adventures include creatures with Improved Sunder or other attacks that can ruin magic items. In adventures like these, it’s okay to give out higher amounts of treasure, since the PCs likely lose more of their gear than normal during the course of the adventure. Also, adventures with lots of NPCs tend to have a lot of treasure in the form of gear and equipment, and as a result should have a proportionally lower amount of treasure in these sections.

Avoid petty treasures, such as pouches of a dozen silver coins in a high-level adventure. Keeping track of minuscule amounts of treasure isn’t worth the time and effort, and only slows down the game. Give individual creatures worthwhile treasures or give them nothing.

Remember, if you want to give a specific encounter a larger amount of treasure, you can compensate by not giving out treasure in other encounters.

Development (Optional)
Sometimes the PCs’ actions can have unusual ramifications or affect later encounters. The PCs may find things have changed the second or third time they pass through the purple worm’s lair after they kill the monster the first time through, for example. This section details how the encounter “evolves” once the PCs finish it, and how this evolution can affect other encounters in the adventure.

Ad Hoc XP Adjustment (Optional)
As per the Dungeon Master’s Guide, certain encounters can place the creatures at a tactical advantage or disadvantage. In these cases, you may judge that the PCs deserve extra (or fewer) XP for overcoming a situation in which they have a disadvantage (or advantage) over the creature. Use this subhead in your encounter to note the XP adjustment for the encounter.

Likewise, not every encounter in your adventure should involve killing monsters or overcoming traps. Some encounters may be puzzles, mysteries, diplomatic situations, or roleplaying opportunities. A distraught merchant might have his business revitalized by a group of PCs using Perform to attract more customers. A green and blue crystal door might open only after a spellcaster has channeled twenty levels of spells into its glowing facets. A huge library might require several Knowledge checks and Search checks to fully explore and uncover hidden clues. The PCs should gain experience for completing any encounter that advances the plot of the adventure, and you can use this section to indicate what sort of XP award the DM should give the PCs for its successful completion.

Concluding the Adventure (Mandatory)
Describe the possible consequences resulting from the adventure’s success or failure, including rewards, punishments, and spin-off adventures for later gaming sessions. Most groups roleplay the consequences of a successful (or failed) adventure, and they should be provided with tools in this section to do just that.

Make the players feel as if they’ve accomplished something (or that their failures have had repercussions beyond their own damaged reputations).

Showing Your Work

When you include full stat blocks for NPCs and advanced monsters, you should indicate how you calculated skill point totals, and how a creature’s Armor Class, saving throws, and attack rolls are calculated. This explanatory text does not count against the adventure’s total word count.

It’s generally best to change the color of the text of your work so it’s obvious what’s a stat block and what’s behind-the-scenes-math.

There might be other occasions that also require you to show your work, though that is up to your discretion (only you know what sort of calculation went into a particular creation—if you’d rather demonstrate that your choice wasn’t based on simple fancy, then showing your work is a good idea).

Using Traps

Be careful about traps. If you sprinkle in traps randomly, the smart PC response is to take every room or area slowly and cautiously. That might be smart, but it’s boring. Some hint that the characters are entering a trapped area helps the players slow down and be cautious when they need to without slowing the whole game to a crawl.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has more information about creating and using traps.

Things to Explore

Here are some things to explore when building encounters:

  • Tactical positioning of PCs/NPCs
  • Encounters you can “outsmart” (and possibly bypass)
  • Encounters that reward good planning
  • Roleplaying encounters (“Let’s make a deal…”)
  • Sonic attacks (for bard to counter)
  • Area attacks (so rogues and monks can use evasion)
  • Encounters where PCs should have to use abilities of their level (5th-level PCs can probably use magic to fly, so encounters should assume that at least one PC can fly)
  • Climbing, falling, and doing stuff in high places
  • Aerial attacks
  • Fear (so the paladin can shine)
  • Undead (for the cleric)
  • Traps (for the rogue)
  • Locked doors (for the rogue)
  • Secret doors (for elves and the rogue)
  • Normal animals (so the druid or ranger can use her wild empathy and animal-based spells)
  • Environmental hazards (darkness, fog, lava, and so forth)
  • Use of cover and concealment
  • Nonlethal damage
  • Situations in which skills and feats are more applicable than spells and items
  • Grappling
  • Counterspelling
  • Alliances (PCs with NPCs, PCs with monsters, NPCs with monsters, monsters with monsters, and so on)
  • NPCs that think like PCs
  • Multiclass/prestige classes
  • Monsters with class levels, or advanced monsters
  • Poison and disease
  • Gaze attacks
  • Spell enhancement (pre-cast spells on creatures)

Things to Avoid

Avoid stereotypical material. We’re looking for new ideas or fresh approaches to old ideas. Even the most tired cliché can work with a clever twist. Here are some stereotypical adventure ideas; think twice about using them unless you have a particularly good twist in mind.

  • Rescue someone’s kidnapped daughter
  • Solve a murder perpetrated by a doppelganger.
  • Retrieve an ancient artifact.
  • Battle a deranged wizard or sorcerer.
  • Repel a simple humanoid infestation.
  • Defeat an undead army.

The above list is not all-inclusive.

Do not write an adventure designed for evil characters or an adventure aimed at player character races other than those described in the Player’s Handbook.

Avoid excessively linear plots that force the story toward an inevitable conclusion or “railroad” the actions of the PCs. The adventure should be flexible enough for PCs to make choices and decisions that could affect the outcome of the story. Avoid rigid timelines.

Remember that the PCs are the protagonists and central figures of the adventure. Do not use NPCs to step in and eliminate all opposition to the PCs, lead the PC party, and accomplish the PCs’ goals for them. Set up the adventure to challenge the PCs, and let them make it on their own.

Do not submit an adventure involving the destruction of children or helpless persons, cruel mistreatment of animals, excessive gore or violence, descriptions of Satan or Satanism (boo!), or game versions of real-world figures. Explicit sex, the encouragement of substance abuse, offensive language, and bathroom humor should not be used.

2. Design a Map

Your adventure should include at least one original map. Please include hard copies of any maps (and diagrams, if appropriate) that accompany the adventure.

Your map(s) must be clearly and neatly rendered in ink. The map grid should be clearly marked without obstructing the map’s legibility. Scale lines may be used for outdoor maps. Use a straight edge to draw the straight lines, and darken solid areas (such as rock around a dungeon complex). Whenever possible, draw the furnishings or obvious features of an area. Use icons for beds, desks, ladders, trapdoors, statues, curtains, and so forth. Try to make your icons recognizable without a map key. Only use color to indicate important map features where the use of plain ink does not suffice.

Remember internal consistency when designing your map(s). Inhabited areas require provisions for bringing in food, water, light, and heat, a method for disposing of waste materials, and ways for the inhabitants to get around easily. Check your map(s) against the finished text. Make sure you’ve described all relevant areas and have not mislabeled anything.

Your map(s) should include a title, scale, and compass rose. For tactical maps, we strongly suggest that you use a “one square = 5 feet” scale.

3. Design a Game Element

In addition to the adventure, we’d like you to design one of the following:

  • A new feat, or
  • A new spell, or
  • A new magic item

In addition, we’d like you to cleverly work this new game element into the adventure that you’ve created. How you accomplish this is up to you.

We are looking for something that fills an interesting niche in the game. Avoid creating a game element that’s too derivative of something that already exists in the game (for instance, a protective vest that is functionally identical to bracers of armor). Avoid creating a new game element that renders similar game elements obsolete. For instance, a 3rd-level arcane spell that does the same damage as a fireball but deals force damage instead of fire damage is simply more powerful than the fireball spell and should be avoided.

When designing a new feat or spell, follow the feat or spell format given in the Player’s Handbook.

When designing a new magic item, follow the magic item format given in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or use the expanded format introduced in the Dungeon Master’s Guide II (your choice).

Whatever game element you design does not count against the word count of your adventure. The game element you create can be as short or as long as it needs to be.

4. Attach a Standard Disclosure Form

At the end of your design test, please attach a signed copy of the Standard Disclosure Form (which you can download here).

5. Design Test FAQ

1. Does the test have a deadline?

2. How long can the adventure be?
No more than 4,000 words. Page count is irrelevant.

3. In what format should the adventure be written?
Try to mimic the format used in either Dungeon Magazine or adventures published by Wizards of the Coast, Inc. Recent examples of published adventures include Sons of Gruumsh and Grasp of the Emerald Claw.

4. Can the adventure be set in Eberron or the Forgotten Realms?

5. Can I design a prestige class or monster instead of a feat, spell, or magic item?

6. Can two or more writers collaborate and submit one test?
Yes, provided the first page contains contact information for all writers.

7. Do you accept international submissions?
Yes. We are looking for qualified freelancers the world over.

8. May I submit my design test via email?
Writers from countries other than Canada or the U.S. may submit their test via email (to Writers from Canada or the U.S. must submit their test in hard copy.

9. May I submit my adventure to Dungeon Magazine simultaneously?
Yes. That said, we work closely with the editors at Paizo Publishing; if we think your adventure is particularly good, we will submit it to Dungeon Magazine on your behalf.

10. I do not have a copy of one or more of the core rulebooks. Can I use the SRD instead?
We expect potential authors to be invested enough in the game to have (and use) the three core rulebooks.

11. How many times can I try the design test?
That's up to you. Wizards of the Coast will evaluate each design test on its own merits. Multiple submissions will not improve your chances of netting a freelance project, however. We recommend that you submit one test that accurately demonstrates your creativity and writing ability. We may provide feedback in the form of a standard evaluation form, which you may use to shape future design test submissions.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at: We've also set up the following message board thread for this article.

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