Last time, we figured out what elements we wanted to include in our D&D adventure by using cards from a Magic deck. Now it’s time to organize it into something coherent. We can start in one of two ways: by building our map first, or by establishing our timeline first.


Let’s start by making a map. A good way to do this is by drawing a general layout, then gradually narrowing your focus on each area.

The Layout

One way to build a layout is to spread out your cards out on the table to form different “rooms” – these may not be literal rooms, mind you: they might be a cavern, a clearing, an island, or whatever is appropriate for your terrain. When you’re getting started, they won’t be much more than a cluster of loose details tied together.

Magic cards grouped into rough circles, connected by lines to form a rough web or map.

Our first “room” is a narrow trail that runs along the mountainside. We’ve included a Searing Blaze jutting out of the ground as a potential hazard, as well as a goblin who may offer to guide the party along a safer route.

The next “room” is a rain of fire falling from the sky, along with a spike of lava jutting up from the ground. We decided last time that the Lava Spike may represent fire elementals, so this could be a combat encounter. If there’s fire falling from the sky, it’s probably somewhere outside and exposed.

From here the path splits in three directions: The party could go forward toward the floating vortex of fire, or they may go left toward the ruins of an ancient monastery. A third, hidden path sits to the right; this one is concealed by a large cracked stone, which the party would have to smash to gain entry.

These three routes all converge on the entrance to a crypt, where the party will meet a lizard pyromancer. From the looks of that Searing Blood, they’re probably performing a ritual of some sort.


From this outline, it’s time to start filling in the details. Think of this as “zooming in” on each room. Pick an area and think about what would make sense to be there. What does the place look like in general? Are there any strange sounds or smells here? What do you expect the players to do when they arrive? Feel free to use your cards as a source of inspiration: what do the artwork, abilities and flavour text on them tell you about what you can find in this location? Jot down a few ideas. If you get stuck, don’t worry. Move on to the next room and come back to this one later.

Looking at the artwork of Goblin Guide, there’s a long, rickety bridge that spans a chasm. It’s probably safe, right? And even if it isn’t, is there even another way to cross?

Looking at our layout, Molten Rain is right next to Goblin Guide, so maybe it starts raining fire as the party is crossing the chasm? We talked about fire elementals attacking, too; it sure would be dangerous to fight them on an old wooden bridge, wouldn’t it?

Battle Map

Once you’ve got a brief overview of each area, pick a couple areas to “zoom in” even further. Take some time to draw a detailed map of these key locations, even if it’s just a rough sketch on some graph paper. If you’re worried that you’re “not an artist” and “can’t draw,” don’t worry. This map is entirely for your reference, and you’re under no obligation to show it to anyone.

I once drew an entire dungeon map on the back of old receipts that I taped together. The whole thing was quickly scrawled with a ballpoint pen. It was ugly as sin, but it gave me something concrete I could describe to my players. I just made sure to keep it hidden behind the DM screen!

If you need inspiration for your layout, there are plenty of pre-published maps and tiles you can pull from, like the Pathfinder Flip-Tile series. You can also do a basic Google image search for something like “building floorplan” – it’ll yield plenty of useful blueprints that you can steal… er… borrow.

If you want something that looks a bit more professional than a doodle on a napkin, Inkarnate has served me quite well recently. The free version includes easy-to-use assets that yield nice results in very little time. The maps I’ve created with it are maybe a bit simplistic, but they’re tidy and do a good job getting my point across to the players.

A map. The ground is a dull brown, with grey stones littered about. A dark chasm cuts diagonally across the center of the map, with a series of rickety wooden bridges crossing it vertically.

Your goblin guide has led the party north to a wide chasm. A long wooden bridge spans it, swaying slightly in the breeze. It’s certainly seen better days, but looks like it could hold your weight. To the east is another, shorter bridge that looks to be in worse condition; several slats are missing, and the rope looks frayed. Far to the northwest you can just make out the dangling remains of a third bridge. 

As you approach the edge of the chasm, a strong smell of sulfur hits your nose. Your guide assures you it’s safe to cross here, but the smoke billowing out of the cracked earth gives you pause. So does the scorch mark on the dead tree beside you….

It’s worth noting that you don’t need a detailed map of every part of your adventure, only key locations. Focus on the areas where the players will be spending most of their time, whether they’re solving a puzzle, searching for clues or engaging in combat. Whatever they’re up to, they’re sure to have a lot of questions. How big is that rock formation? How far is it to the other side of the chasm? Are there any trees we can cut down? If you were to write out every possible question your players could ask, it would take you forever. If you have a map at the ready, you’ll actually end up answering a lot more of them than you might realize. Having a detailed reference at your fingertips will save you from having to make up you answers on the spot, and will give you something to work off of when you’re inevitably asked something unexpected.

Your battle map may also help inform some of your decisions about how to set up the encounter. If it’s a puzzle, you may decide to add or change elements once you’ve seen the room laid out. If it’s a combat, you might decide to replace your monsters with ones that can better use the terrain.

That chasm is pretty wide. Maybe we should add a flying creature to this combat….

Once you’ve got your key locations fleshed out, you’re pretty much ready to go. You can always add extra details, but as long as you have your major rooms sorted out, you should have enough to run your adventure. My DMing style is fairly improvisational, so I like keeping the edges of my map a bit fuzzy; this lets me change things on the fly if I need to, but I always want to have a general layout on hand to keep me grounded.


A map-based approach is best if you’re looking to build a sandbox for the players to roam and explore. Multiple branching paths with hidden treasures and traps can be a lot of fun, and the players will often end up following a logical sequence from room A to room B. From there a narrative can take shape.

Sometimes, though, the narrative is more important. Events need to happen in a certain order for things to make sense, but the exact location of these events is mutable. In these instances you’ll often want to start by building your timeline first and then building your map accordingly. This approach can be tricky, and it’s easy to fall into a rigid, railroaded structure; it’s important to think of this more like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, where the players still have agency in the outcome. They should still be free to do what they want, even if it means you have to completely upend your epic finale.

Line It Up

You can use a similar approach to organizing your plot-first structure as the map layout described earlier: start with a series of broad story beats that you want to hit, and lay them out sequentially. If you’re using Magic cards, arrange them in a row on the table to form a timeline.

Magic cards arranged in a row to form a timeline. The timeline splits into three in the middle before regrouping at the end.

Try to include some branching narrative points; it’s ok for some things to always happen, but plan for your players to make different decisions.

Unlike the key areas of your map, you’ll want to keep most of these events fairly vague to give you more flexibility to react to the players’ decisions. You may want some concrete events that will occur no matter what, though. It’s worth breaking down the events of your timeline into two categories:

Events That Are out of the Players’ Control

Examples include: natural disasters, stellar phenomena, some NPC behaviour, or any actions that were already set in motion.

These events can be the most restricting for players, so try to structure them as jumping-off points. Think about how the players might react to these events, and avoid anything that forces the players into a single course of action. Ask yourself some questions: What options does this present? What impact will it have on the story? Were there warning signs that this would happen, and could the players have avoided it? Does this event compliment or overshadow the decisions made up to this point? If it trivializes the players’ actions, cut it.

The adventure begins along a narrow trail in the mountains. As they walk, the ground around the party will erupt with lava. Regardless of what trail they take, they will encounter a nimble goblin who will offer to guide them.

Later in the day, molten rain will fall from the sky. Scattered embers might drift down earlier as a warning sign. If the party is paying attention, they may know to seek shelter.

Eventually, the players will find their way to the entrance of the crypt. The exact route may vary, but they’ll get there. Unless something strange happens, they’ll likely walk in on the lizardman’s fiery blood ritual.

Events That Are Dependent on the Players’ Actions

Examples include initiating combat, rescuing or talking to a specific NPC, finding a hidden clue, or taking a certain route.

These events are the bread and butter of a good adventure. They give players agency, and make it so even you, the DM, don’t know how things will turn out. The more important these actions are to the overall plot, however, the more important it is that you guide the players to them. Ask yourself some questions: What motivation do the characters have to take this action? Is this absolutely necessary to advance the plot, or can another action be taken in its place? Does this have to take place in a specific location, or can it happen anywhere? If this event provides the party with vital information or resources, can it be given to them in a different way? If the players do something different, what impact will that have on future events?

The party might decline the Goblin Guide‘s offer and decide to strike out on their own. Without the guide they may never make it to the bridge, and will end up finding a different path across the chasm. They might still encounter the fire elementals, but perhaps how the combat will take place in a narrow tunnel!

In our timeline we had the path split after the Molten Rain. This is our biggest decision point: will the players attempt to navigate the roiling vortex of fire, or will they explore the ruins of the ancient monastery? What about the hidden passage behind the stone?

Imagine that the players need to stop the ritual started by the lizardman pyromancer. The key could be hidden along any of the three routes: In the ruined monastery, a young monk will tell them how to stop it if she can be bested in combat. Meanwhile, if the party chooses to walk through the vortex, the flames will move in a particular pattern that hints at the solution. The answer will also be carved into the wall of the secret passage for anyone to see. Regardless of which route the players take, they’ll get the information they need. It’ll just take on a different form based on their decisions.

Of course, when all is said and done, your players may decide to upend all of your carefully crafted plans. Your rooms will go unexplored, and your stories will go untold. If this happens it can sometimes feel like you wasted your time doing all that prep work, but don’t stress out! Save those intricately detailed battle maps and puzzles for future use. After all, if the players never saw your map the first time, it’ll feel brand new to them the next time you dig it out.

As for our adventure, I’m leaving the rest of the details up to you. What does the Roiling Vortex look like from the inside? Why does the pyromancer need to perform this ritual in front of the crypt? Can the Goblin Guide really be trusted?

You decide!

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