Making the adventure
Many DM's would argue that the adventures are the core of a gaming session. Without the perils and thrills of an adventurer everything else falls flat and I can see the merit to such a claim. The growth of power is rewarding because it assumes you will want to use that power in an adventure, the vast majority of class features are geared towards using in an adventure, and D20 economy is based on the assumption that you will buy yourself newer better gear to go kill newer bigger enemies. (And I'll be thoroughly covering the 3.P economy later) What this leads us to is the idea that everything in a standard roleplaying game typically hinges on having many a good adventure to hold a campaign together. So what do we need for a good adventure? Five simple things.
Purpose: What is the purpose of the adventure? It seems like a fairly simple question, but really it's actually two questions. The first is "Why do the characters want to or have to do this adventure?" For some groups the idea can be as simple as money, other times the characters are fighting for survival, while others still they are seeking something special. Knowing why the characters set foot in a dungeon gives you a major tool for manipulating events, designing encounters, and for conveying the theme of the adventure, which we'll get to under conveyance. The other thing to consider is "What does this adventure do for my campaign as a whole?" This is something that often gets left on the wayside in many games. A simple setup of "Go into dungeon for gold, get gold, leave" is fine for some groups, but it doesn't progress the campaign anywhere. Consider ideas like "This adventure establishes the villains motivation" or "This adventure shows the heroes they can overcome deadly obstacles" or "This adventure furthers the plot by giving the players the artefact they need.". For me, every adventure should have some purpose for being there, and once you know the purpose you can ensure you have the right style of illustration and you can carefully fine tune the challenge.
Challenge: What is the challenge of the adventure. This is asking not just "what CR are the monsters" but it's also saying "What sorts of adversity will the players and their characters face.". This is a very important question and it forms the core of the adventure itself. An adventure where the challenge is "Deadly monsters" is really about "Overcoming life or death situations" And the threats the players face should emphasize that. It should have a focus on big, hard to kill monsters, lingering status conditions, and pouring on as much damage as the players can stand. But an adventure where the challenge is "Accepting the clashing alignments of the party". Can be built differently. It can include things like weaker monsters, some of whom may even surrender, treasure placed on sacred alters, and traps that force the party to decide who gets put in harms way. It's a very different experience. A challenge like "Dealing with racism" could begin with an easy stomp through a minimally challenging dungeon, only to find guards or a mob waiting outside the dungeon to take the spoils from the races they're prejudice against, or even locking the party up and forcing them to escape a real dungeon. These challenges can also be geared towards the players rather than characters. Something like "Not being able to rely on your usual abilities" Could create a dungeon with narrow corridors where the greataxe wielding barbarian needs to change weapons, could include monsters with blind sight that thwart the Rogue's stealth, and monsters with spell resistance or immunity for the wizard, all in the same dungeon or even, the same encounter. The challenges chosen can be a huge part of illustration and they allow you to choose methods of conveyance.
Conveyance: This aspect is often overlooked or assumed in a regular adventure, it is the idea of "How do the players win?" as well as "How do I tell them this?". In some cases it can be as simple as "Beat the monsters" and "Monsters try to kill you", but a setup like that is akin to saying "Be lucky" Which is not something you should require of your players. A goal and direction like "Have well built characters" and "Tell players the dungeon is hard" Is likewise not ideal because it's not something that can be easily adjusted in the dungeon and you aren't conveying anything to the players. Having a more precise idea can be much more helpful in designing the encounters. Consider something like "Fight with clever tactical thinking". This lets you design different kinds of encounters with more strategic options. But how do we convey this to the players? Give them the opportunity to plan ahead. Find a way, in the adventure, for the players to know exactly what they face and what the battlefield looks like beforehand, give them the opportunity to choose when and how to engage the enemy. A idea of "Use the environment to your benefit" can be stimulated and conveyed by showing the players how useful or dangerous the environment is. Showing them dead enemies that have fallen into fire pits tells them that those fire pits are deadly, letting them notice a marker for traps gives them the chance to tell where a trap will be and force an enemy into it. Even something as simple as "Solve the riddles" Can be made more clear by illustrating that using brute force is a bad idea, or by making the riddles easier or providing hints in the environment. Players often pick the path of least resistance, so if your riddle is harder than finding a way to blast through the obstacle it likely won't get addressed. For each encounter you design, consider "how can the players overcome this?" and "How do I tell them that?" But never become so married to one idea that you punish them for finding another way. Sometimes players have their own ways of solving these problems, and that's okay too. Conveyance can be used not just to help players beat their challenges, but also to convey what you're trying to illustrate in the adventure.
Illustration: If you want a message to stick then remember "Show, don't tell". Illustration is how your adventure serves it's purpose, what the challenges exist for, and what your adventure makes the players feel. It's the point you are trying to get across, and how you do that. If you want to drive home how evil a villain is, then your challenges should have horrific mutations, or brainwashed slaves or other equally distasteful threats, and these things can convey what you're getting across. However, you can also illustrate the same thing through the way their dungeon looks and smells, through the corpses they leave behind, or through the rewards the players acquire. If your goal is to illustrate how powerful the players are then you can do that by calling on old enemies who are now laughably weak, by using obstacles they can traverse safely thanks to their abilities, and by having people they meet already know of their deeds and exploits. Illustration can come in nearly any form, but you want to keep all of it as consistent as possible. If the people they meet are constantly extolling the virtues of the party and their glory, but every monsters and trap nearly kills them it creates a contrast that can muddy the message. Illustration ties into everything, and should be present from the reason for the adventure, to the rewards at the end.
Reward: What do the players and their characters get out of the adventure? Most adventures end in piles of gold, some magic items and a bunch of XP, but there's a lot more to it than that. The rewards the players acquire should fulfill the purpose of the adventure, it should reach a resolution to the challenge that the adventure was based around, and it should convey what you're trying to illustrate one last time. An adventure set up to learn more about an evil blackguard, where one is challenged by facing increasingly moral enemies who may not be evil begins to tell of an enemy with a once glorious past, and can require players to make tough moral choices along the way. When this adventure culminate in the location of the blackguard's father's sacred tomb the players can are rewarded taking the holy sword that dwells within, and they have gained a deeper understanding of the foe they face and are now armed with the knowledge that this blackguard was once a great hero of noble lineage. If the players met the theme of moral choices by allowing the less evil or goodly opposition they faced live they may also be rewarded with allies who want to see the blackguard brought to justice, or even saved.
In the end all of these aspects tie together to make a full and complete adventure and they cover everything you need to perfectly place this exciting series of events in your campaign as a whole. If you want to see how to mechanically build an encounter then keep your eyes peeled for my next article. Thanks for reading, and have a great game!