Choose Your Own Adventure novels (or pick a path novels) allow you to make a choice at the end of a section and they tell you which page to turn to. These books take what was once a simple story and give the reader some agency over what happens next. While they may not seem directly applicable to Dungeons & Dragons, pick a path adventures hold foundational information that can help you plan sessions, campaigns, and even your whole world.
How Choose Your Own Adventures Relate to DnD
Choose Your Own Adventure stories are typically written in second person. The reader takes on the point of view of the character in the story. This is unusual for a novel, as second person is one of the least used points of view in writing for literature. This is similar to your DnD campaigns where you narrate to your players while they take on a second person point of view.
Like the DnD adventures you run, the pick a path story also ends up relying heavily on a descriptive narrative that dives deep into the five sense. Lots of description is more important here than in many other forms of writing because you are giving the reader the information they need to make decisions. These decisions are tied to the descriptions of the scenario so tightly that poor descriptions may leave the reader feeling like they didn’t get the information they needed to act appropriately.
While all of this underlines the similarities in the adventure process, what is less obvious here is how a Choose Your Own Adventure book is constructed and planned out much in the same way that an campaign setting is. The book is a collection of scenes and locations tied together by the actions the reader takes, guiding them along this narrative. There are only so many scenes and only so many options.
While you might argue the options players can take in DnD are endless, if they want to stay on the main questline there’s only a handful of options they can take at any given point. This is the key lesson you can take away from these novels and use to make better DnD campaigns.
Choose Your Scenes
When writing up any plotline for a DnD session you’ve only got so much time to write and only so many things you can plan. Typically, you’ll map out the general story that you plan on taking your players through and break it into scenes. While you might not think of them as scenes, the individual plot points along the path of the story, no matter how loose they are, constitute an expected state in which your players will exist.
As an example, you might have a simple “rescue the royal” situation where someone’s been kidnapped and you players have to go get them back. The general scenes in this are the introduction to the quest, the search for the royal, the rescue mission, some sort of boss fight, and return/reward. These scenes are the linear path your players can take to complete the questline. They are not all of the scenes, but you will have some combination of these scenes in a successful quest.
Every other scene you plan is a step off this main path, but not necessarily off the story. Players could skip searching for clues and pay someone to investigate for them. That’s another scene. Players might try stealth instead of combat for the main boss fight. That’s another scene. Each one of these options will require some planning on your part. You can prepare some descriptions for the scene and your players move from one scene to another depending on the choices their characters make.
When you look at encounter design from the point of view of a pick a path adventure you can see some ways to trim down your planning and be more efficient. Let’s look at some ways to improve your session preparation based on the principles of pick a path adventure novels.
Principles of Choose Your Own Adventure Novels and How to Use them to Prepare a Session
Every Choose Your Own Adventure Novel adheres to a few principles:
- There is only space for so many scenes
- There are only so many locations
- There are limited reasonable option
- There are limited endings
- Narrative dead ends should lead back into the story in some way
As you can likely see, these principles are all limits on the design space. When you write up a session, you can think of it like a choose your own adventure novel and get remarkably far before you need to sprinkle in actual DnD rules.
Start with the Plot
Your plot is the basic story you want to tell. Write up a one paragraph synopsis of what has already happened to set up the quest and a one paragraph synopsis of what you expect to happen. You might think it’s hard to get your whole quest into these confines, but you’re just trying to keep it short and focus on the main beats. Once you have this you can bullet out the main story points for reference as you move along in development.
Continue with Location
While the number of scenes are limited, the number of locations should be even more restricted. Different things can happen at any key location depending on how the adventures enter it, but the total setting only covers so many places. At this point, create a list of areas that are necessary to tell the story. Anything not on this list is a U-turn location, or a place that dead ends and encourages your players to get back on track when they are not fully abandoning the quest.
Your list of locations should not be too long, but it can vary based on the story you’re trying to tell. Some stories have players running all over, but each new location will add new ways for your players to get lost or off the main plot. Just be prepared for this if you make a longer set of locations.
Once your list is ready, you can write up your basic descriptions for each area. This might be a general description of a town or the grounds of a castle. Remember that the inside and outside of buildings and floors in a dungeon are separate locations and should get their own brief descriptions.
Tying Locations Together
You can make a flowchart showing how all of your locations are connected. This tells you what areas players have to travel through to get to each new location and can help ensure you don’t miss scenes or jump around, especially with larger location sets. Your flow chart doesn’t need to be anything special either, it’s just a helpful guide to show the relatedness of areas.
Creating Scenes and Tying them to Locations
Every scene needs a setting. And now that you have them all mapped out you can walk through your list and itemize the different scenes you need to create at each location. Let’s say our example “rescue a royal” quest starts and ends in a castle. That takes care of the setting for two scenes. You’ll also want to plan a scene for if you players return before the end of the quest to get help or report findings.
You can step through these in different ways, either by location or by plot points. The important thing is to ensure you get the main scenes for the basic plot mapped out on your locations. You don’t even need to write up the scenes yet, just figure out where they all basically take place.
Using Common Sense to Write Out Decisions
At any scene and any location your players need to make choices about what to do next. It’s nice to think that you could guess what they might do in any situation, but that’s not a safe assumption – players can be perplexing at times. To map out additional scenes you’ll need to think through the general options your players might take that lead them to their next scene.
If in our starting scene they are given the quest to go look for the missing person, you can logically assume they will plan where they want to start the search. Some players might want to search the nearby town, others might want to ask around where the missing person was last seen, and some might want to ask potential witnesses questions.
All of these are valid, sensible options for players to take, so it’s best to start planning with the sensible ones. So for the three options we mentioned above, you have locations and actions the players could be planning to take. We can refer back to our locations list and add additional scenes we did not account for in our first pass. We also learn at this point if we need to create NPCs at certain locations. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
This process now is iterative. Add potential scenes to new locations, figure out the decisions you expect could come from each scene, add new scenes, rinse and repeat. If you ever get to the end of a chain, you can cut back to the beginning and go down another path.
Writing out these scenes for even the most modest plot lines can balloon very quickly. This is definitely one of the more thorough methods of session preparation you can do, but don’t feel the need to create every scene. If you write 100 scenes, your player’s might trigger 10 of them. So when you’re mapping them out you’re not writing a whole book for each scene, just filling them out with the most basic information you need at first. If you can get away with it, start with just a scene title and move on.
Creating Dead End Scenes and U-Turn Locations
Once you have all your basic, reasonable scenes in place, you’ll want to figure out what to do with bad decisions or missteps along the story. Players might choose to go places you didn’t mention, try things you didn’t think of, or even make pit stops you didn’t plan for. To handle these things you need a few dead end scenes and U-turn locations.
Dead end scenes are ones that didn’t yield results. If your players are looking for clues to a missing person’s whereabouts then any scene that doesn’t have any clues is a dead end. There are likely going to be a few times where NPCs don’t have helpful information, a location has no clues, or the players aren’t doing something relevant to the plot. Allow your players to do all these things, but you’ll need to map out decisions that would lead to a dead end as well and figure out how to tell your players that this is not the path for the quest.
In many cases it’s just telling them flat out that they don’t find any clues or that they’ve come up with no relevant leads. This is the place where you can say to your players something like “You don’t think there’s anything relevant here. Consider retracing your steps.” As the DM you can give the players gentle nudges like this that help them know there’s nothing more for them to do at that point.
U-Turn locations are general catch-alls off the beaten path of the quest and are often the scene locations for dead ends. A U-turn location is something that should be descriptively uninteresting.
Don’t give your players things to use here and let the description hint that they’ve gone off the main plot. If the nearby town is bordered by a forest where nothing happens for the story, going to the forest should not lead to other locations, just back to town. They shouldn’t find relevant information there and spending time there should be purely recreational, moving nothing in the plot. If you give your players even a scrap of detail they could misinterpret, they can get sidetracked for much longer than you expect.
Other examples of U-turn locations might be upper floors of a castle when the players need to descend into a dungeon, or a tavern without any patrons. These should be plain and clearly wrong turns.
In dead ends and U-turn you may have combination pit stop areas. These are points where characters will rest, shop, eat, or otherwise resupply. Plan on a few of these. Players often ask if there are shops in a town or safe places to camp if on a quest. Be sure to make these locations and map out when and where they become accessible to your players.
Planning for Failure
There is one thing we missed in our first pass of quest mapping: defeat. What happens when you party refuses the quest? Defeat, move to an end scene. What happens if they fail a combat? Defeat, move to an end scene. The hostage dies? Defeat, move to an end scene.
These are not things that you expect or want to happen, but you need to know how to move the story along in the case of bad outcomes. These fail scenes are essentially worst case scenarios for the plot. While you don’t want your players to fail, the possibility of getting a bad ending is part of DnD and should be mapped out in your scenes.
Moving from Planning to Writing
Everything we’ve done to this point is creating a connected outline, essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure path for your players to walk down. Even if you do no additional writing after this you’ll have a good outline to improvise off of when you run your session. In full honestly, this is a lot of work already and not something we often undertake for a single session. But some Dungeon Masters are not as comfortable with improvising and this type of planning can help create a solid framework to build from during a session.
If you want to further reduce the amount of improvisation that you have to do, you’ll want to transition from the planning stage into the writing stage. This is when you build out more of the components of each scene and give depth to the scenarios you’ve mapped out. You’ll take stock of the characters present in each scene, write out talking points, list out notes or pieces of knowledge NPCs might have, and detail clues that your players could discover or things they can interact with.
Each scene should have a “scripted” path with everything you need to run it. If there aren’t NPCs in a scene you’ll need to prepare a more detailed description of the area and highlight the interactable objects in the scene. If you describe a room with a bookcase and a desk in it, players will consider these objects interactable and will search them for clues. If you don’t want your players to interact with something give it less description or make it obvious that it’s set dressing.
In scenes where you have NPCs you’ll need to make a note sheet for the NPCs present as well as write out some dialogue notes. Even if you just script the notable things they might say you’ll get more than enough talking points. If you want your NPCs to seem more real have them ask the players questions.
If you want to really cement the quest you can create questions that ask your players to reflect on their actions and take stock of the scenario. This tells you if your players get what is going on and helps you understand if you need to be more obvious with what they are supposed to do next.
How Much Should I Write?
Deciding when you’ have enough notes to run a session is a very personal choice. I typically prepare very light notes because I like improvising general sessions. But for plot heavy dungeons or complex mysteries I might write 10-20 pages worth of material before a session. It’s important that you think about what you need to be able to keep the game moving and keep your players engaged. The actual amount that you need to prepare is going to be different for you than for any other Dungeon Master.
Dry Run Your Adventure
You’ve done a lot of planning to get to this point and it would be terrible if it were to all fall apart because of a simple omission. To prevent disastrous situations, the pick a path planning gives you the ability to walk through the scenes you’ve created very quickly and make sure you’ve got what you need. You essentially created a Choose Your Own Adventure for yourself at this point so you can test it out as much as you like.
In real pick a path novels there’s a lot of planning and organizational preparation, but it all boils down to testing it out. You might not get everything right on your first pass, but because of the planning inherent in the process, you can easily run through and spot issues and plot holes. This is what makes this kind of work useful.
Choose Your Own Adventure Preparation
We hope these ideas were helpful for your session preparation process. While the Choose Your Own Adventure novel inspiration is a great fit for Dungeons & Dragons planning, it’s a lot more work than most of the other types of session preparation we talk about on the blog. We recommend you give it a try if you’re going to make complex scenarios that have a lot of branching paths.
If you’re building something more linear, you can likely get away with less involved types of session preparation. To give this method a try, open a blank document. To try another method of session prep, turn to the blog.