Horror’s Harvest: Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D (Campaign Diary)

Chris Perkins wasn’t always a professional game designer working on Dungeons & Dragons for Wizards of the Coast. Once upon a time, he was just a player and Dungeon Master, not unlike you and me, and way back in those dreamy halcyon days of AD&D Second Edition, he used to submit adventure modules to Dungeon magazine. And his modules took no prisoners.

For about eight months I’ve been running Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) at my FLGS. I have a party of 6 PCs (two mages, two thieves, a cleric, and a fighter) and their pet bird-person (which is a long story I’ll get into in Part 2). They are currently travelling through my campaign setting, en route to a large city where they hope to sell all the random loot they found in the first adventure. (Old-School D&D awards XP for treature, but they can’t get the XP until they convert the statues, fine goods, and other valuable loot into gold pieces.)

They were nearing a small town at a crossroads, and as they had been on the road for a while, having a series of random encounters, I thought I’d put something interesting in this town. A problem to solve, a monster to kill, a group of innocent villagers to rescue from the clutches of evil. Enter Chris Perkins and Dungeon magazine #38 (November/December 1992).

Originally designed for the Ravenloft setting, this module, titled Horror’s Harvest, is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D. The PCs come to a small village (called Delmunster in the original module) to investigate a meteorite. It turns out the meteorite was the seed of a doppelganger plant which is slowly taking over the town, turning the villagers into mind-controlled podlings.

I’ve wanted to run this module since I first read it. I love the eerie atmosphere, the mystery (and the fact that the players have to roleplay to solve it), and the unapologetic deadliness. Perkins is no lightweight. If you run this module (and I think you should), be prepared for character death, possibly a TPK (even in 5E), and make sure your players are too. Having cautious, tactical players who don’t take “encounter balance” for granted will really help keep the body count low.

How I seeded the module

Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to seed the module, as the party were going to pass through the village anyway (it’s on the main road). I did, however, give them some general knowledge about the place, such as anyone might know (there are no knowledge checks in Old-School D&D, so you can just tell players things you want them to know).

The village is called Trifurc (literally “three-fork”), because it is located where three major roads meet. It is famous for its claret wine. It’s technically in a forest, but the villagers cut back the trees to make room for their grapes.

I had thought about having them see the “falling star” during their journey (they usually set a watch at night), but they were actually clearing out a ghoul lair on the relevant night. During that particular adventure, the party’s Paladin fell to a ghast wielding an apparently magic warhammer. The player rolled up a new character (3d6 down the line) and got a cleric. He chose to be a cleric of Vecna.

I decided this was a good opportunity to seed the meteorite, so I asked the player if he’d like to be investigating the falling star. It would give his character a reason to be in the area and to be travelling to Trifurc. The player agreed, but being a follower of Vecna (god of secrets), chose to keep the info and his true affiliation to himself. Little did he know, he was already sowing the seeds of paranoia and mistrust that would spell doom for the entire party.

What I changed

I have never run someone else’s module exactly as written. I’m not really sure you’re supposed to (though if you do, I’m sure that’s fine too). Like many Gamemasters, I freely adapt any and all material to suit my players, my setting, and my own tastes.

I’ve already pointed out that I changed the village name, and I’m not running the Ravenloft setting, but rather my own homebrew world, which is more traditional faux-medieval-European. The area the players are exploring is loosely inspired by post-Roman empire Italy: the distant memory of a fallen empire, no real unified “kingdom”, but lots of competing city-states, mostly run by rich, powerful families, and a highly organized religion whose clergy is nearly as rich and powerful as any of the secular rulers.

The party is ultimately headed to the city of Bard’s Gate (whose name is taken from Frog God Games’ Lost Lands setting, though in my world it’s kind of a stand-in for Medieval Florence), and Trifurc is located in a disputed area which is claimed by both the rulers of Worms (inspired by the Burgundian kingdom in the Nibelungenlied) and those of Eastwych (also taken from the Lost Lands).

So the first thing I had to do was change the NPC names in the original module from the Eastern European style of Ravenloft to something Medieval Italian. (Rewriting all those names, btw, was a much bigger endeavour than I anticipated). I also removed the module’s original hook: a random NPC wizard who offers to pay the PCs to recover the crashed “comet”. As the party was going to pass through Trifurc anyway, I figured all I really had to do was make the place seem “odd” enough that they may be inspired to stop there long enough to investigate.

Then there were a few random additions. Firstly, I didn’t settle on running Horror’s Harvest until I had begun designing Trifurc, and I preserved some of my original features. Using the random tables in Matt Finch’s excellent Tome of Adventure Design, I was creating a place famous for its wine (as mentioned above), and for a breeding a strange milkable hybrid horse-cow, which I dubbed the equibous. To tie into Lazy Litch’s Woodfall setting, which I’m hoping to run soon-ish, I had the town lit by special lanterns, inside of which were trapped fairies.

Most of my work regarding the layout and districts ended up going out the window when I chose to run Horror’s Harvest, because I simply substituted the original map of Delmunster. I opted to keep the fairy lights, because the exploitation of fairies as a free light source is linked to the royal house of Worms (the “kingdom” antagonist for Woodfall), and is both a red herring (it has nothing to do with the doppelganger plant) and a seed to get the party to explore Woodfall. If they survive. The equiboi became a mere bit of “flavour” (and thoroughly disgusted my players, when they learned of it).

Day 1: Let the nightmare begin

The party rolled into Trifurc at about mid-day. They were travelling with a caravan, and technically serving as its armed guards.

The first thing they noticed was that Trifurc is much smaller than they expected (indeed, my original design was for a larger town; the Delmunster of the original module is really a mere hamlet). I handed them the map – Perkins’ original map, with a few mark-ups.

They wanted to head for an inn first.  In the module, the inn was called the Giggling Gargoyle, but I renamed it The Mare and Goblin, as denoted by a painted wooden sign showing a small green humanoid milking what appears to be a claret-coloured horse.

Inside the inn, they encountered the corrupt staff (basically as Perkins wrote them, but with changed names). The casual species-ism (humans looking down on non-humans) exhibited by Francesco, the main proprietor prompted the party’s halfling thief to gift a dose of poison he had crafted from ghoul livers (idea taken from The Black Hack Second Edition btw) to Stump, the Inn’s halfling serving lad and whipping boy, in case he wanted to “teach Francesco a lesson”.

Meanwhile, the cleric of Vecna went to talk to the Ludovico brothers (two teen rapscallions who fancy themselves monster hunters). He paid them a few gold pieces for information regarding the meteorite, and they promised to return the next morning to give him a full report.

Then the party met Ludo, the travelling musician, and the first podling (person enslaved by the doppelganger plant) to cross their path. They were thoroughly creeped out by his demeanour. Altogether we got more than an hour’s worth of solid roleplay, during which time the party learned:

  • There was either a lightning storm or an isolated boom (depending who you ask) ten days ago.
  • One villager died of a mysterious disease about a week ago.
  • Another villager, a little girl, seems to have the same disease, and others may be affected.
  • No one is tending the grape vines (viticulture is one of the most labour-intensive forms of agriculture, but the vineyards are empty).
  • A rival caravan pulled into the village a few days ago, but disappeared mysteriously in the night.

They also learned from the halfling that the innkeepers are crooks who rob their clients, that the townmaster is a snobby recluse who rarely comes out of his manor house, and that he has the same servants as his father and grandfather before him.

The party also met “Mad” Rupert Morteni, who screamed about werewolves and then ran around the village, shouting “They’re here already!” (a quote from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, intended as a clue). Part of the original module, Rupert is another red herring, and, as the party soon learned, has been shouting this nonsense for years and years (he was cursed by fairies while hunting them for lamp fuel when he was a teenager, and it serves him right).

The party wanted to stock up on some road supplies, but didn’t want to roleplay a shopping trip, so they each coughed up 5 gold pieces and sent their two hirelings, Mutt and Jeff, to Volpone’s Emporium. Then they took a walk around the village, after securing rooms and asking Stump to make sure Francesco didn’t steal from them.

The party’s dwarf fighter was formerly a baker. She had collected some elderberries from an animated elderberry bush (the berries were actually used as missile weapons against the party), and stayed behind to bake a pie. Francesco actually agreed to this, because the village’s current baker is terrible. Her baking is known as “the bane of Trifurc”, and she once accidentally gave her husband food poisoning (or was it an accident?), a detail from the original module.

As the party toured the village, they found it suspiciously quiet, apart from Rupert’s shouting, and they began to wonder if everyone was dead. The dark elf thief decided to peak through a randomly chosen window – and found himself face-to-face with the village gossip, Ezra Kourkouas, who gave them all quite an earful. This altercation attracted the attention of a small group of soldiers, led by Sir Alexander Sosius.

The soldiers were from Worms, and are not normally stationed in Trifurc, nor were they planning to stay long. The Signeur of Worms (who secrectly styles himself King), sent them here to “show the rabble to whom they really owe allegiance”.

Through good roleplaying, the party manage to talk their way out of trouble (aided by a good reaction roll and the fact that the soldiers don’t particularly like the Trifurc villagers). Unfortunately Sir Alexander hasn’t been in town long enough or paid enough attention to be of any real help, so the party moved on to visit the sick girl, Lotta Gravidius.

The original module makes it clear that Cure Light Wounds won’t heal podlings. However, I ruled that, though it wouldn’t break the doppelganger plant’s Mind Bondage, it would heal lost hit points. The plant would then continue devouring its podling immediately. In this way, the plant could “double-dip” on its feeding. My my real motivation for the change is exemplified by how the scene played out.

When the party called on Lotta, she had 1 hit point left and was unconscious. The cleric healed her back to full, at which point she woke up and immediately began exhibiting the unnervingly flat, emotionless, yet peculiarly optimistic demeanour that the party was already learning to fear.

Attempts to interrogate her were futile. She declared she wasn’t sick and that nothing odd was happening in the village. She then repeated the refrain which the players already knew to be the calling card of whatever evil force was taking over the village: “I hope you’ll stay, at least a few days. It’s such a friendly village.” It got to where you could almost see the players shudder when they heard those words.

While “healing” Lotta, they learned that the village Priest, Father Brume, had locked himself in the church and wouldn’t attend to anyone. So the party made the church their next port of call.

In the foyer of the church they found the body of Umburrow, the first podling, who had attacked the priest’s acolyte with a shovel (he was formerly the gravedigger). The priest clubbed him to death and then locked the church doors. All this happened a week ago.

While examining the body, it collapsed like a deflated balloon, long sucked dry of all its internal organs. I had the players make saving throws, and only the dark elf succeeded. Everyone else ran screaming into the village, unable to face their horrific discovery for the next hour.

This attracted the soldiers again. They investigated and also failed their horror saves. It was at this moment that Rupert returned, pointed a finger at the PCs, and screamed “Murderers! Assassins! You’re next!” Then he ran off again. The players now really hate Rupert.

Tune in next time to see how a simple passeggiata causes all hell to break loose.

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Homebrew doesn’t mean making everything up from scratch

One of the things I am is a Medievalist, which is probably why I like Fantasy Roleplaying Games (they’re usually at least “pseudo-medieval”). And one of the interesting things about the Middle Ages is their attitudes to what we would call “authorship”.

In our era, the “author” of a text is the person who made it up out of their own knowledge and imagination. But that was only one of four Medieval ways of “making a book”.

If you composed an original work based on your own ideas, using your own words, you were an auctor (the Medieval Latin root of our word “author”).

But perhaps you were just the person who transcribed the words (the auctor may not have bothered to write their composition down, and certainly wouldn’t have made every copy of it). Then you were the scriptor, or “scribe”. And before you dismiss these folks, know that Medieval scribes regularly made a lot of “helpful corrections” to the texts they copied, sometimes considerably altering the meaning of the work in the process.

Because Medieval scholars valued works from the past (especially religious writings), their work often consisted of writing interpretative commentaries on these works. In which case you were a commentator.

And finally, if you pieced a number of related works into one larger work, you were a compilator, or “compiler”, and this is the kind of author that best sums up the Homebrew Gamemaster.

Building and running an entire world is a big ask. Most people just can’t do it alone. Sure, there are famous exceptions: Tolkien’s Middle Earth; Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. You know what these authors have in common? They are (or were) hella old men who had decades to work on their fantasy worlds. And even so, if you scratch the surface, you’ll find they were compilers too. The basis of Tolkien’s work was language, and his elf languages were derived from Finnish (for Quenya) and Welsh (for Sindarin). He took the dwarf names from Old Norse. And if you’ve read Medieval literature or studied Medieval history, you’ll know where George R. R. Martin drew much of his inspiration.

But there’s an even better reason to be compiler than merely decreasing your workload, and that’s the sheer bulk of amazing material that already exists out there.

As a case in point, I dislike High Fantasy, High Magic settings, so I’ve never been interested in most of the official adventures for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. But I love Gothic Horror, and I was already a fan of the original Ravenloft module, so I bought a copy of Curse of Strahd and decided that Barovia would be a part of my world. To stop it jarring completely with the Early Middle Ages feel of my starting area, I put it on the far side of a divisive mountain range, reachable only through a dangerous mountain pass called the Bjorgir Pass (inspired by the Borgo Pass, as mentioned in Dracula), which is full of monsters. The adventure hook is that the creatures who live in that pass have been venturing out, into the Northern part of the world, and some adventurers are needed to investigate it (as detailed in my post on running Curse of Strahd for my kids). Of course, when they do, they get trapped in Barovia by the mists and have to remain until they defeat Strahd.

The upshot of this is that, if my players are successful, they will effectively open the Bjorgir pass for trade, creating a direct link through the mountains to the mysterious east. So by importing someone else’s material into my setting, I got a fully fleshed-out adventure region, a compelling adventure quest, with any number of side quests, and a long-term consequence for the world as a whole. All because I think vampires are cool.

I have also found places in my world for Chult, the Temple of the Frog, the Tomb of Horrors, and Rappan Athuk. And this is in addition to the homebrew areas and adventures I have created from scratch. So my world is really a pastiche of things I’ve made myself, supplemented with my favourite material from D&D’s past and present. It saves me work and gives my players a chance to experience some of the classic modules, like the Temple of Elemental Evil or the Keep on the Borderlands (neither of which I’ve used yet, but definitely plan to).

The reason to start homebrewing is because you have your own ideas. But others have good ideas too, and if you like them, use them. Sew them into your own world. You’ll only be making it richer.

Just do it: how I started homebrewing D&D (and how you can too)

The first time I ever played D&D was as a dungeon master, and I was running a completely homebrew adventure in a completely homebrew world. Yay me, right?

Wrong, because it’s actually not that hard. If you’re reading this, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you can start homebrewing too. So roll percentile dice!

In gaming terms, homebrew is anything you create yourself, either alone or with your group or other amateurs. It can be a setting (as large as a complete world or as small as a village where the party can rest before exploring the next adventure site), a new in new game mechanic such as a class, race, feat, weapon, or spell, an adventure, or even a whole campaign. Tal’Dorei is Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting (though if I bought it and used it, it wouldn’t be mine).

There are three DMs everyone goes to for advice on gaming: the aforementioned Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Matt Colville. Mercer obvs homebrews both his adventures and game world, but the other two don’t.

Chris Perkins is probably my favourite adventure designer in the history of the game, and definitely my favourite of the current WOTC staff. But as far as I know, he has never run a homebrew setting. He once tweeted that it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than to build your own. And he’s right.

By contrast, Matt Colville runs in a completely homebrew world but, regardless of how much he tweaks and alters them, exclusively runs pre-written adventures. He once said in a video that there are enough good pre-written adventures out there for you to play D&D for four hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, and never run out of adventures to run. And he, too, is right.

So why homebrew at all?

Homebrew is cheap. Homebrewing something costs you time and effort, but tends not to cost money. This is a great advantage if you haven’t got a lot of money to spend, or you’re new to the hobby and aren’t sure you’re ready to commit a lot of financial resources to it.

Homebrew is your fantasy. If you think back to when you first heard about D&D and decided you waned to play it, you probably had a mental picture of how the fantasy world would “look”, what kind of things you’d find there, what kind of adventures would happen. If that metal picture matches up well enough with the official setting, (currently the Forgotten Realms), then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t, then homebrew is your chance to make a world that does.

This applies to any aspect of the game. For example, I love the idea behind the Tyranny of Dragons series: a dragon cult is attempting to bring Tiamat into the Material Plane? Awesome! Unfortunately, those adventures suck. They’re railroady, they fail to make good use of dragons and draconic monsters, and the final fight with Tiamat is underwhelming. Pretty much anyone could steal the idea and make a better adventure, which is precisely what I recommend you do.

Homebrew is easier to run. The art of gamemastering is the art of improvisation. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare, you will at least occasionally have to improvise when the players do something you didn’t expect. But it’s a lot easier to improvise when it’s your content to begin with. Even if you haven’t built the area the PCs are trying to explore, you probably have a rough idea of what you would have put there. If the players try a tactic against your Big Bad that you didn’t expect, you probably have a good idea of how they would react, because they’re your creation. You don’t have to re-read their description in the overlong tome that is most published adventures, at least in 5e.

Homebrew is easier to write than you think it is. I was really nervous, making up my first adventure, especially because I had never even played before. But having done it, and succeeded at it, I’m convinced this is something basically anyone can do.

In the first ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax wrote that “your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors” to building a campaign. Time is something we all must struggle with, but the fact that you are interested in playing a tabletop RPG at all indicates you have enough imagination. So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk about how I cooked up an adventure as a rank amateur, and give some advice on how you can do the same.

1) Steal!

Ever since the Romantic Period, we’ve had this idea that everything has to be “original”, but before the early 19th Century, originality was not a criterion of good art. Homer didn’t “make up” the Odyssey; it was a traditional tale, as was the Iliad. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And every one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, not to mention Gandalf himself, comes from the Norse Eddas.

And these are great works of literature. But a D&D game is not meant to be a great work of literature. It’s meant to be a fun game to play with your friends.

If you want to be really clever, steal from sources you know or suspect your players won’t know. But don’t feel self-conscious about stealing something obvious if you have to. Sure, your players may realize your adventure is just The Hobbit, but think about it: here’s their chance to find out what would have happened if the party went North around Mirkwood instead of through it. And they’ll be ripping their characters off from Lord of the Rings no matter what you run.

When I created my first adventure hook, I ripped off Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: a young peasant asks the party to help defend her village from brigands. Other encounters and areas were inspired by the Norse sagas, a book called The Satanic Mill that I read in middle school, and even an old D&D module called Temple of the Frog, which I hadn’t read at the time, but knew featured a swamp and giant frogs.

And you can steal more than just stories. I used the free visitors’ map of my city’s botanical gardens to run my Haunted Forest. It was a mini hex crawl, so the players never saw the map. Points of interest were already numbered, so I just populated them with encounters.

My whole campaign setting is an amalgam of Beowulf and the film Dragonslayer. NPCs can be based on characters from films, books, comics, whatever. Anything you need to run the game, you can probably borrow from somewhere. There’s no copyright at the gaming table (unless you plan to stream it).

My only caveat is to steal from sources you already know and love. It’s too much investment to check out a new film or novel on the off-chance it could prove useful. You might he hate it, in which case you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Don’t write a script. Another way homebrewing is not like writing a novel is that you are not in control of the protagonists. This is one of the most important lessons of DMing. Player choice and player agency are the main selling points of the game. As soon as players feel they have no choice, or that their choices don’t matter to the story, they still disengage and get bored.

So if you catch yourself thinking “and then the PCs will do this”, stop. You don’t know what the PCs will do.

Many great adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, but the trick is not to make the next segment of the adventure depend on one course of action or one outcome.

For example, in my first adventure, I took what I later realized was a big risk with my adventure hook. The PCs were supposed to stop the town drunk from beating up the locals on market day. This display of prowess would prompt the peasant girl to ask them to come defend her village. But what if the PCs chose not to fight the bully? What if they lost?

An issue like this can be fixed any number of ways. The easiest is probably to make sure more than one NPC can give the adventure hook. They might give it a different spin or flavour, but the essential information is the same: where the party needs to go, what they need to do, and how much money is involved.

Almost any element of your adventure should have more than one potential connection to the rest of the adventure. This sounds complicated, but there’s a “zen” shortcut: don’t plan a linear adventure. Your beginning (the adventure hook) and final boss fight will be special, pretty much necessary bookends, but instead of designing a logical series of steps to connect them, just think of a bunch of cool stuff that you might like to see happen (or better yet, that your players might like, if you know them well enough), and stick them in wherever they fit. As you’re fleshing them out, you can think about ways they might lead to other parts of the story, but the exact path the PCs take through your adventure is ultimately not up to you.

3) Don’t write a novel. If you’ve read a published adventure, but haven’t written one yet, you may well assume your homebrew adventure has to read just like the professional ones do. But unless you are planning to publish it, there’s absolutely no reason to be that wordy. Don’t write pages of , lore and backstory, unless you need it to run the game, and never write more than you absolutely need.

My first adventure took the party from 1st to 5th level (I knew that Lost Mines of Phandelver did that, so I assumed that was a normal thing). It started with unarmed combat, featured two sections of overland travel (one through a swamp and one through a forest), a home base and two small villages which were adventure sites, two additional wilderness adventure sites (ruins and a bog), an optional side-quest dungeon, and a final, 3-level dungeon featuring an adult red dragon.

And to run all this I used 22 pages of handwritten A5 in a notebook. Sounds like a lot, but Lost Mines of Phandelver is 64 pages of printed A4.

I didn’t write any lore. I just knew it, because I’m the one who made it up. I didn’t write down villain motivations for the same reason. I didn’t have any “boxed text” descriptions of rooms or areas. I just ad-libbed it. Because I could. I was my world. I already knew it all. I didn’t write down monster stats unless I changed them from the standard version, and even then I only wrote down what was different.

Not everyone will need the same kind of notes. If you aren’t good at ad-libbing descriptions or villain monologues, go ahead and write them out. Just don’t write anything you don’t need. You will save time, effort, and space. The beauty of a homebrew adventure is it’s lean. Trim all the fat!

4) Play to your strengths. We all have skills and aptitudes in real life. Find ways to use yours to enhance your game. If you’re naturally artistic or good at crafts, augment your game with custom maps, miniatures, sculpted terrain. If you’re a good artist, draw the locations, NPCs, and monsters, so the players can literally see them. These touches can transform what looks like a pretty standard dungeon-crawl into a memorable experience your players will be talking about for a long time.

I suck at art. Absolutely suck at it. So I focus on story, structure, character and motivation, etc. I have also read a lot of medieval heroic literature, and I have a good memory, so I have a big pool of obscure fantasy content to draw from. I would love to add some visual flair to my games, but until I can afford to get someone else to do it for me, that’s just not going to happen. So I focus on what I can do well.

5) Play to your tastes. Everyone at the table needs to enjoy the game, but you’re justified in prioritizing your own tastes a little higher than everyone else’s, because of the amount of work you are doing. I find it takes 2-3 times as long to prep a game as it takes to play. So if you’re planning a 4-hour session, you can probably expect to spend 8-12 hours prepping it. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do all that work, let alone to sell the game to your players at the table, if you yourself are not into it.

That’s why I run a homebrew world in the first place. I tried running in the Forgotten Realms once, but I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm I needed to run the game if it was going to take place in that world.

Of course, you can homebrew an adventure in an existing world, but taste applies here too. The classic monster choice for low-level parties is goblins or kobolds. Personally, I prefer undead, so I use zombies and skeletons. And because I like my minions to match their boss, I tend to have necromancers or greater undead like liches as my Final Boss. But that’s my game. Use what you like. Your game has to excite your players, yes, but it has to excite you a little more, because you’re doing all the work. And if you’re excited, it will be easier to get them excited.

6) Let the rules inspire you. The reason I put two overland travel sections in my first adventure was because I loved the Movement and terrain rules, and wanted to try them out in my game. That was also why I made one of the travel sections a swamp: it’s difficult terrain, and movement is restricted. The forest, though “haunted”, was inhabited, and had some usable paths, so terrain was not as difficult, but it had a higher likelihood of random encounters.

When you’re reading the rules (especially the monsters), pick out the things you definitely want to use, and find a way to use them. Design encounters with opportunities for cover, or use monster that grapple, if you like tactical combat. Write an adventure that focuses on oozes, if you think those are super-cool (one independent game designer has actually done this). Do you like the rules on encumbrance? Put them in your game. Like skill checks? How about a whole section full of physical and mental obstacles. No monsters, just skill challenges. Using your favourite monsters and mechanics will make your adventure unique, and keep you engaged while writing it and running it.

And, finally,

7) Give your players what they want. This would seem to contradict some of my earlier advice on following your own preferences, but you do have to balance your taste with your players’ expectations. The game, after all, belongs to all of you.

I never would have made a dragon my final boss, at least not my first time out, but it was requested by a player (and the player was my daughter).

It’s easy to forget, but you should try to make time for a conversation about the kind of game everyone wants to play. What experiences they want to have, what monsters they want to fight, high or low fantasy, how deadly they want it to be. You won’t be able to please everybody all the time, but having these things on your radar will help steer you. And sometimes working that player-requested monster in leads you to a cool adventure you wouldn’t have written of your own accord.

This advice isn’t complete, and it focusses mainly on writing a homebrew adventure for personal use (not for publication), but when I think back to how, as a first-time player, I managed to run four PCs from 1st to 5th level without cracking a single punished module, this is what I got.

I may write about my experiences with other aspects of homebrewing (monsters, settings, entire campaigns) in the future.