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Designing Battle for the Undercity a D&D 5E Adventure

Posted on February 19, 2016 by Monica Valentinelli

Battle for the Undercity 5E Cover

Over the years, I’ve worked on (and have played) a lot of games with folks from every corner of the industry, but I’ve never had the opportunity to write for Dungeons and Dragons. Battle for the Undercity (5E) is a release that changed all that thanks to Today, I’d like to share with you my process for designing this adventure.

The first thing I did was review the adventure structure. Having played D&D 5E, I understood how important that was but, at the same time, I wanted to put my own twist on it. After I read the DMs Guild Creator Adventure Template and refreshed my memory by referencing Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, I came up with a plan. I wanted to design a location and fitting monster variants that could be used in any Forgotten Realms campaign, in part because of my own experiences playing D&D. By tapping into the two elements every city tends to have which, in this case, was the undercity (sewers, worked tunnels, etc.) and a tavern, I felt DMs could use Battle for the Undercity as a break between campaigns or intense sessions.

As soon as I had the basic idea for the adventure, I focused on finding an appropriate map in the DM’s Guild Creator Resources Adventure Map Pack. Without a decent map, I knew my concept would fall apart and I’d have to go in a different direction. Thankfully, I did find a great candidate that I wanted to enhance to make it unique. Once I had the map, I then referenced the Monster Manual and cooked up my three monster variants: goblin beast-masters, dirty thieves, and a malevolent ancient revenant. While I could have stuck to pre-existing monsters, it’s my philosophy that if someone is paying for my work, I want to provide value. Of course, I was also hoping for an “Oh, crap!” moment where the players aren’t sure which monster they’re facing. After all, if you’re underground what could be scarier than hearing eerie moans and seeing a goblin riding a giant spider?

At this stage in my process I had the map, the monster variants, the location, and the basic structure for the adventure. There was one last thing I needed to do before I wrote it, and that was to devise where the factions would be located. Once I started placing my goblins and thieves in different areas, I came up with additional elements to flesh out the adventure and give the players more opportunities to be heroes: hostages and loot. Why hostages? I felt that a rescue would make a great hook, and add a human touch–perfect for nobles and clerics. The loot, on the other hand, I chose existing items rather than creating new MacGuffins.

With all of these elements in mind, I was ready to write! Since I write full-time, I’m aware of my good (and bad) habits and, in this case, the pieces were in perfect alignment. Knowing what I’m going to write about tends to speed up my process considerably, and I felt the adventure format combined with the established style and voice cleared up a lot of unknowns on my end. With several decisions knocked out of the way, I concentrated on fleshing out the rest of the details to ensure that each monster variant stood on its own. Then, I worked my way through the outline I devised, section by section, until I figured out how to drop in some adventure seeds that might work for a longer campaign. After finishing my draft, I sent it over to Scott who edited the adventure and double-checked the rules.

While the draft was being edited, I started working on the elements required for layout. First, I double-checked to make sure I could buy stock art from to enhance the presentation. Once I got the green light, I reviewed the images until I found art that fit and designed the basic cover. This was the hardest part for me, because while there is a great collection of high quality pieces, I felt the diversity of characters wasn’t ideal for my tastes. I really wanted to find a kick-ass female adventurer in realistic armor for the cover, but the female characters I did find felt dated and incapable. I’m happy I could find high quality illustrations that did work, and I’m hoping that the artists will expand their portfolios to include a wider range of characters to incorporate different genders, body types, and ethnicity. Luckily, I didn’t have a problem finding monsters, the right logos, or a cover template.

Overall, the process to design and produce the Battle for the Undercity (5E) from start to finish was really smooth. I hope you’ve enjoyed a look into my process, and encourage you to check it out!

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