What Makes an Adventure Memorable?

As adventure authors, we all have dreams of writing the next big epic adventure module or campaign that players will be speaking of for years to come, but how do you do this? What makes an adventure fun, or better than another? Are longer ones better? Is it the quality of the illustrations, the skill of the cartographer, or the quality of writing itself? While these might be factors, I would argue that they are not the main considerations when determining what makes an adventure great.

When I think about the most enjoyable game sessions from my youth when Dungeons & Dragons was new, the ones that I recall most fondly have nothing to do with any of these factors. The blue and white maps typically seen in those days were certainly not the fantastic works of art we see nowadays by the hands of talented cartographers such as Jared Blando and Rob Lazareti. Most DMs knew very little about how to effectively tell a story and adventures tended to be simple dungeon crawls filled with generic monsters as a result. Despite this, we had fun; a lot of it. So if it’s not any of these factors, what is it then?

Let’s look at the adventures synopses for a few of the arguably best adventures that have been published over the years and see what they have in common.

  • Ravenloft – A gothic horror adventure in which the players explore a huge maze-like castle to kill a vampire.
  • Queen of the Spiders – An epic length campaign in which the players explore the Underdark and the Demonweb Pits in order to kill Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders.
  • Tomb of Horrors – A sadistic, trap and puzzle-filled dungeon where the players must destroy a demilich.
  • The Temple of Elemental Evil – An intrigue-filled super adventure central to Greyhawk lore in which the players battle the Zuggtmoy, the Demon Queen of Fungi.

When presented in this simple format, it becomes obvious to me that there are three main factors that define an adventure experience and that when combined, generate a strong emotional experience for the player.

These three factors are:

  • They fall under a distinct genre/adventure category (horror, episodic saga, thriller, historical adventure)
  • They take place in a cool and unique setting
  • They contain antagonists with a strong and defining sense of character.

Because it is so important, it bears repeating – the best and most memorable adventures generate a strong and specific emotional experience for the players through a combination of their genre, setting, and characters.

With this in mind, I will be focusing on the first of these two factors over the next couple of Episodes and defer discussion about the villain or antagonist until Phase 2 – Pre-Production when I look at adventure plot.

In the meantime, let me know what you think. Do you agree with this premise or is there some other fundamental factors that I missed?

– Jerett