So far, we’ve covered the role of action throughout Dungeons & Dragons’ storied history. We’ve seen how it shifted from a heavy emphasis on combat and puzzle solving to one that balances many different kinds of conflict reflecting the enigmatic and intricate ways we as humans come across conflict in our own lives. In this article, we’ll take a look at adventure, the second pillar in my analysis of the Dungeon Master craft.
Building on the pillars of D&D
As a reminder, we’ve defined adventure to be the events and choices that occur between bouts of action, when the characters have a purpose. They have a goal and they must move between challenges set before them in order to accomplish it.
I think, of the three pillars, adventure is the one that has remained the most constant in form and definition throughout the entire lifespan of D&D. After all, adventures are what the chunks of content that DMs prepare are called, whether they’re published or homebrewed. If we look at any adventure, we see a common thread underlying everything: conflict, then resolution of conflict, then progression to the next conflict. And the cycle repeats until the terminal goal of the adventure is reached. Whatever shape or form that conflict takes – however the action is represented as a pillar – there’s always adventure in between when the party learns information or establishes their purpose. And with that information, with that purpose, they must undergo a progression through stages that represent the pillar of adventure.
From first beginnings…
Early editions of D&D assumed many things, one of which was there would be a hex-based map for overland travel the players would adventure through on their way to a dungeon or toward a story goal. The DM was expected to prepare this map in relatively high detail and in large-scale. There were several philosophies for introducing artificial action into the mix, most notably rolling on a random encounter table and throwing a combat at the players. Another was to code each hex with a certain preordained encounter and if the players happened to roll well (or poorly, as the case may have been) they would be thrust into that piece of action.
But regardless of the method, the overarching pillar at work here was adventure. The players were moving over terrain, presumably with some goal in mind, like a dungeon they knew about or a town they knew needed saving, etc.
And what’s reflected here is the mentality that we explored previously: combat is the primary focus of action and the reward structures inherent to the game’s rules are best equipped to handle that. Naturally, this underlying theme informed the way that adventure manifested. The hex crawl was a perfectly reasonable form adventure would take, given the conditions we’ve mentioned. It’s a way to progress through the narrative, toward a goal, while still keeping tensions high with the threat of action ever-looming behind unlucky dice rolls.
That’s about it, though. There’s not much else in the older DM’s guides about what to do when the party is progressing through a piece of content. For that the DM could look to published modules and adventures for inspiration and advice. But even there, the expectation was if the party was undertaking a quest, it would either be in a dungeon (or several), in the wilderness (or across several portions of the wilderness), in a city (or across several inhabited places), or some combination of the three. Which meant? You guessed it. Dungeon maps and hex crawls and random encounters, oh my. Anything else was left to the discretion of the DM. Which is a dangerous prospect, because the prevailing opinion was implicit in the rules as written.
So there wasn’t much room for growth in this vein, unless DMs took it upon themselves to interpret and design solutions.
…to great heights…
The birth of 3.5 D&D and the publishing of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for it saw a shift in philosophy about advice giving to DMs. There’s an entire chapter in the 3.5 DMG about creating content, like adventures, and it spans a solid 60 pages. It discusses motivation for adventures, adventure structure, encounters within adventures (action punctuating adventure, as I’ve indicated in my overall theory), and much more. Here’s an excerpt from the guide to highlight what I mean:
“What is an adventure?…adventures can be so varied that it’s tough to pin down the basics…An adventure starts with some sort of hook, whether it’s a rumor of treasure in an old abandoned monastery, or a plea for help from the queen…adventures are broken down into encounters [which] are typically keyed to areas on a map that you have prepared…the encounters of an adventure are all linked in some way, whether in theme…location…or events.”
Encounters by our analysis would be the action component. But what do we see here for adventure? Once again, maps. Maps are crucial components to the way that adventure was supposed to manifest itself. The characters are traveling. They have a goal in mind, namely to investigate the hook they’ve nibbled on. So they have to explore their starting location and venture beyond until the goal is complete, or until they decide the hook wasn’t worth their time.
But we also see an expansion of what “maps” could mean. They could very well be hex-based, and in fact the majority of the maps we got in published content from TSR and Wizards of the Coast were. But there’s no implication this is the required form they should take. They could be square-based, triangle-based, insert-your-favorite-polygon-here-based. Or they could be hastily drawn scribbles on a piece of printer paper that are for the DM’s eyes only, with labels drawn to indicate potential encounters.
There’s a freedom built into the rules as written that allows DMs to shape the way that adventure takes shape. I’m not saying that freedom wasn’t always there, don’t get me wrong. But the stuff that appears in the material most DMs have read is extremely impactful to the overall philosophy those DMs bring to the table with them when they decide to run a game.
What’s interesting about this development is there’s the potential for theater of the mind, a more open narrative style that hadn’t really been present in the game up until D&D 3.5. There was still an emphasis on using miniatures for combat, but now DMs could structure their narrative in a more freeform way, weaving the adventure into a more imaginative and less plodding fashion than a hexcrawl or some other form of representing travel and exploration.
It’s a small point, but it’s a big step.
And it’s one reemphasized in fourth edition D&D. All the major components of adventure structure remained the same from 3.5: hooks, choices, challenges, encounters, etc. But there was one new component: quests. Just like a video game, there was the inclusion of a mechanical way to give players major and minor quests to complete in pursuance of the ultimate goal of the adventure.
This broadened the scope of adventure as a pillar. Now, players could take on a side quest in the midst of progressing through their main encounters as sources of action. In a sense, adventure became more granular, more refined. Action became more like commas or semicolons, than periods or question marks, if we go with the punctuation analogy.
It was implicit that players would have some desire to explore and take on other challenges while they had a larger task at hand, rather than simply moving from Point A to Point B, or through the Forest of Woe to the Temple of the Three Winds so that they could kill all the monsters inside and take their loot. So action and adventure became more intertwined than they ever had. Simultaneously the breadth and depth of their relationship swelled and created this rich tapestry of interaction that hadn’t been present in this form.
Again, this isn’t to say that the option for this wasn’t available to DMs in previous editions. But with fourth edition D&D it was codified in the DM’s bible, the sturdy reference point from which all interpretation could grow.
And so, inexorably, we come to fifth edition D&D. This is the edition where the interplay between action and adventure takes on its most narratively driven form. Part 2 of the DMG is dedicated to this interaction. But there’s a section that’s quite striking: Creating NPCs. Here the characters with whom the PCs interact are important. And the section’s placement within the overall structure of the DMG indicates those characters are integral parts of the relationship between action and adventure. Those NPCs matter, and they have to be created carefully in order for that relationship to be preserved and perpetuated over the course of a campaign. Their stories matter, and it’s those stories that tend to influence the way PCs handle the interplay between these two pillars.
Fifth edition D&D is marketed as a more narrative-driven experience. It’s a version of the rules that allows for greater freedom on the part of the DM to craft a world and spin a tale inside it with the PCs playing their necessary roles. As such, the mentality we, as DMs, are supposed to approach the game with is one reflecting that. Or at least, that’s what the rules encourage us to do if we read them and take them to heart when we sit down to play.
But the core of adventure remains the same. It’s just the way that the PCs progress through points of action on their way to some predetermined goal. Not much has changed since AD&D. What has changed is the means by which adventure interacts with action and keeps the narrative flowing. Because in modern D&D, it’s the narrative that keeps the players coming back to the table. And it’s the stories we tell after the campaign is over, about how we got from Point A to Point B, that keeps us coming back to the game.
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Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.