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I am a pretty new DM, running Waterdeep: Dragon Heist for a group of also pretty new players. I am trying to expend the world of the campaign (especially since they are near the end of it) to also be outside Waterdeep. In the same time, I want to work on my world-building and adventure-building skills, with my main obstacle at the moment being creating my own dungeons and quests that are interesting for the players.

How could I work on my creativity and such to be able to create more interesting stories for my players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You have two very different questions here - one how to create plot hooks, another one how to create dungeons and qeusts. Which one is it? Also be aware this site is not doing idea generation (but we maybe can share best practices on how to do this). \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28 at 12:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Designing my own D&D Adventure (4th Edition) \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28 at 12:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not sure if this site will help, but The Alexandrian has a lot of good DMing advice which includes his caution about assuming that a plot is necessary. The key is to focus on an objective, and obstacles/conflict that must be resolved or overcome in a variety of ways. Why is a plot, in your view, necessary? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28 at 12:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin I would even argue there is a 3rd question here "What interesting things are outside of Waterdeep?". The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide might be a good resource here. And perhaps even a 4th one "What can I play with my players after we finish Dragon Heist?" Dungeon of the Mad Mage would be a suggestion here. Though if they are working on their adventure building skills, they probably wouldn't want to run another module. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned Yes, indeed. W:DoTMM is what we did after W:DH \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28 at 14:28

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Use published adventures, feel free to modify

You can give yourself a "soft launch" by using published adventures, and modifying where it suits you.

For instance, perhaps you decide to use Candlekeep Mysteries. You can easily create a encounter, town, dungeon, or full adventure on the road to Candlekeep.

This might be the best of both worlds -- you get experience building stuff, and also you get the benefit of reading and playing through published adventures. If you're like almost anyone I've ever talked to, there will be things in the published adventures you think are really great, and other things where you wonder what the writers were thinking.

Use published settings

You've experienced Waterdeep. That is the tip of the Forgotten Realms iceberg. You can easily use the setting, but create your own towns and adventures. There's a lot to be said for this. The Forgotten Realms is quite extensive, and there's a lot of great material there.

There are other published settings. My group's current game is set in Eberron. I can't believe I didn't really appreciate Eberron before now. It is really a great setting, and it's ready-made for DMs to create their own adventures in it. The 5e book, Eberron, Rising from the Last War, has a chapter on building Eberron adventures, and includes a ready-built adventure for 1st level characters.

Use other WotC resources

First and foremost, the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. They will not specifically give you plot hooks, but the more you know them, the better off you are. And there are many other 5e resources that are super-helpful for the newly-aspiring world- and adventure-building DM; Tasha's and Xanathar's come to mind, but really, just about everything.

Look to fiction

So much of D&D was originally inspired by fantasy fiction. It's very easy to adapt what you've read into a D&D setting or adventure. Did you like a telepathic cat in a story you read? Or did you enjoy a book about a youth who finds a sword? Use them!

Look to the internet

I won't even begin to try to list resources for new DMs. If you spend a few minutes searching, you'll find a ton.

Just start

You don't need an elaborate setting to get going. Take the most basic ideas (again, feel free to steal from fiction), like an inn at a crossroads, and just ask yourself, who lives there? What's nearby? Why would adventurers be there? And before you know it, you have a setting where you can start an adventure, and the hooks for your adventurers to explore nearby ruins.

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Here is my process

For a bit of background, I am doing very much the same thing as you are. I started out by sending my group to WaterDeep, and then we played Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Since then, it's been all stuff I've made up. And here is now I do it.

  1. Read, listen, and watch stuff until I get inspired. For me, it was: the first season of Critical Role, A web-novel called Mother of Learning, a podcast called Authors and Dragons, and some old 3.5e homebrew magic items from an old website.
  2. Now that you have an idea of what you want, decide where you want to focus your energy. It is way too much work to create everything you need for your campaign, especially when you're a new DM. Decide to do the things that are fun for you and focus on those things. The plan will be to borrow everything else.
  3. Make an outline (or other organizing document). This is a place where you can organize your ideas so you don't forget all the great creative stuff you come up with. This helps me to be flexible when my players do something I don't expect, as I can just skip around to different parts of the story. If they don't want to track down the vampires, maybe they want to investigate monster attacks, or rescue some noble's sister. Being able to dangle several plot hooks at the same time will relieve the pressure on you to make them interesting.
  4. Integrate the story with my characters. Look at the backstories of your characters, their bonds, flaws, etc. Those are the things that make great hooks to engage them. Then you say something like "Oh, you recognize this vampire as the person who killed a member of your family (though you didn't know they were a vampire before now)." or "This person has come to collect on your massive gambling debt, but you know through gossip that their sister has been missing for several weeks, maybe you can come to some sort of arrangement." It doesn't have to be a creative hook for it to be interesting and effective, it just has to be engaging with the characters.
  5. Don't prepare much more than the next game session. Your long term plans will not survive your player's decisions. Also, if there's a part of the preparation you don't like, just borrow elements from other sources. Plagiarism does not really apply to things you say at home around a table.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I loved Mother of Learning! \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 29 at 9:13
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Prepared adventures

If you have difficulty coming up with your own adventures, you do not have to. You also can use prepared adventure modules, for example Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage picks up right where Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ends, and can carry your group all the way up to level 20. These usually come with their own proposed plot hooks to bring the players in. But if you want to invent your own adventures, here are some hints.

Writing your own adventures

Where you take the inspiration from is up to you. It can be books you read, dreams you had, computer games you played, movies you saw from which you take elements. You can use the tables in the DMG and other sources to generate random dungeons or encounters procedurally, and then work out for yourself how they fit into a larger story.

Plot, plot hooks and player agency

Plot hooks are more of a problem for generic adventure writers that write for others, and do not know your group and its history. In your case, you know what the players are interested in and to what your characters likely will react, so use that. For example, if the players are greedy murder-hobos, have them learn about some attractive treasure being hidden where you want them to go. If they are honorable defenders of the helpless, a plea for help from the downtrodden will work great. And so on.

It also helps to have a rough idea or red thread of the main adventures you have planned to play over the next few weeks or months. That way, you can foreshadow and put clues into the adventure you are currently playing. For example you have designed a haunted castle; in that case, you can have people tell stories about it at the inn, you can have them find a treasure map, showing the way there, etc. When they do not go there themselves, you can nudge them into that direction by having someone offer a reward for going there, to clear it out, to fetch something they need from there, etc.

One important thing to avoid is railroading the players to follow your predefined plot. Be prepared that they often will do something entirely unexpected, different from what you had planned. In such a case, improvise something, and don't let them be the wiser. You can flesh it out later and put additional hints in there about the area you want them to go. Most importantly, listen to them. If they are really not interested in the kind of adventure you planned, then play something else.

Description Economy

If you create your own adventures, I want to provide some practical advice on how much and how to prep your own notes economically, so you do not spend all your time fleshing out stuff that will never be played.

Especially if you are writing adventures for yourself, there is no need to have long descriptions in the adventure. The wall of text makes it hard to find what you need. If you spend your time reading and searching through adventure notes, your players get bored. All you need is something to jog your memory. These are elements that allow you to prepare and run dynamic adventures with limited effort in preparation:

  • An information packed floor plan, overland map or town map
  • A minimalistic key of monsters, treasure, NPCs, traps, magic items, etc.
  • A random encounter table to procedurally generate a dynamic environment
  • A short list of secrets the players could discover next session
  • A rumor list (creating leads and hooks)
  • A faction list of main acting groups, their goals, and how they stand towards each other

There is a reason that the original dungeon levels of Gary Gygax consisted only of the map and a single page with notes about the monsters and treasures to be found -- this way he saw everything he needed at a glance, and he could improvise to flesh things out (he was good at inventing colorful detail on the spot). In my own experience too, the best adventures are those that you riff from minimal notes. Use concise descriptions, just an evocative line or two to get your imagination going and help you make up the rest. The primary goal of your notes is to stimulate your imagination for improvisation.

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Steal!
Straight up plagiarize your favorite media. Take all the cool parts from movies/video games/books you've read and mash them together and combine them. The current antagonist in my campaign is just Eveline from Resident Evil 7 meets Pride from Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Take something cool and build off it, mess around with it. That's creative.

Another thing I do is whenever I happen across a fun/cool piece of art, tumblr/twitter post, etc, I save it to my D&D materials. Then I use that for NPCs, enemies, etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I prefer to use the phrase "Draw Inspiration from other sources". But, otherwise, this is a great answer for private, non-profit games, especially for a beginner. Variations of Drizzt Do'urden and Geralt of Rivia have appeared in many games I've run and I may have had a campaign that was basically the plot of The Crystal Shard among others... \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 29 at 15:50
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Frame challenge!

Don't try to create an interesting story. Try to create interesting situations and let the story unfold! This may seem challenging, but in the end is easier to run.

Justin Alexander has excellent articles on this, like Don't Prep Plots and Don’t Prep Plots – Tools, Not Contingencies

Speaking of Justin, while I haven't finished reading it, his book, SO YOU WANT TO BE A GAMEMASTER comes highly recommended and includes this and much more!

- I am not a paid endorser, but over the years, JA has improved my game!

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A DM Spectrum

Consider two contrasting approaches: totally planned and totally unplanned. The extreme of planned is to be an author; the extreme of unplanned is an improv actor. DMs lie somewhere between, and do some of each. Neither is right or wrong, and both are necessary.

Planned

This is the kind of thing you get when you use a module. The DM knows ahead of time roughly what will happen and why. The players have at least somewhat limited agency, in that the DM will push back to ensure the plot unfolds more or less as intended.

Example: a friend ran the same game for two different groups. The city was the same for both groups, as was the overall plot:

  • They were to form a guild
  • Grow the guild
  • Get involved in politics with other prominent guilds
  • Eventually save the city

The two parties varied greatly in how and why they approached problems, and their guilds had very different focuses. As a result, their relationships to other guilds were very different and the stories significantly diverged.

Done well, this approach allows for a slow build. Weird things that happened in the first few sessions have clear reasons in retrospect. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion with few to no loose ends.

Done poorly, this is railroading. The players want to do something that breaks the DM's carefully crafted plans, and the DM bends the entire world to stop the players from doing that, which can be infuriating for some player types.

Unplanned

This is more of a fluid DM style. There are a few reasonably well defined movers and shakers in the world, and they react to each other and the players according to some kind of rationale. The DM does not know what the resolution to the story will be, but likely has two or three likely scenarios in mind.

Example: another friend ran the same starting situation with at least ten different three-player groups. The players weren't even necessarily a party; they were just in the same area at the same time. There was a haunted house to investigate, with about a dozen different people or groups that had some interest in it.

  • One group wanted to keep people away for their own safety
  • A family wanted to find their missing daughter
  • Villains wanted to get an artifact rumored to be in the house
  • The ghost wanted to get out

As each of the parties interacted with various groups, they learned different information about the house, artifact, ghost, and other groups. This led to very different stories.

Done well, this is a very fluid and sensible play style. Things that happen tend to have clear causes. Players can take logical and creative approaches to solving problems.

Done poorly, this is just chaos. Characters and plots are entirely forgotten from one session to the next, and nothing is ever really resolved. The DM tends to hand wave away things that should happen because the players were uninterested and wandered off to do something else.

Advice

The goal is fun for you and your players, so pick the style that you think will be the most fun but dabble in the other style. There are tons of DM resources out there for both.

For Planned, I recommend just using a D&D Dungeon Master's Guide. There are several versions of this book, and at least D&D versions 3.5, 4, and 5 (I haven't read any others) have detailed advice on building a world, dungeons, and encounters. You can also look at published modules and use as much or as little as you like from them. You seem familiar with this approach, so I'll stop there.

For Unplanned, I recommend looking at a game called Dungeon World, and in particular its Fronts system. The basic outline is to define an ongoing threat, determine two or three ways it's dangerous, decide on how they will be apparent to the players, and decide on two or three things will happen in sequence if the players ignore the dangers.

It could be an obvious danger like an orc horde.
Threat: orc raids
Dangers: attacking villages; using defensive resources
Apparent: rumors of disappearances; refugees in town
Sequences:
raids on farms -> raids on towns -> towns destroyed
draft militia -> farmer fields go fallow -> food shortages

It could be less obvious as well
Threat: court intrigue
Dangers: plot against the king; petty bureaucrats; corruption
Apparent: tense infighting; obtuse turf wars; gross inefficiency
Sequences:
rumor mongering -> failed assassination -> successful assassination
formal petitions -> mutual obstruction -> a great house falls
guards shake down citizens for cash -> bribes for favors -> bribes for doing job at all

The idea with these is to provide some reason why things might happen and to plan out possible consequences if left unchecked. You're only planning just enough to run the next session or two at a time, so you haven't invested yourself in a particular outcome. Between sessions, you can flesh out new Fronts or edit existing ones. You can also take inspiration from the players - because the whole group is more clever and creative than just the DM.

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