by Mark Whitley
This article is intended for anyone who is a GM / DM or wants to try
their hand at it. It's a culmination of various things I've read and
personal experience from GMing lo, these many years. It is doubtless
chronically incomplete, I encourage folks to add their 2 cents and help
flesh it out.
Sources of inspiration:
Part 1: Theme
Most successful board games feature some kind of theme that masks the
otherwise abstract game mechanics. Examples:
- Settlers of Catan has the theme of building a community on an island
that competes / trades with neighboring communities for resources.
- Battleship has a theme of naval combat
- Ticket to Ride features railroad building as its theme
- Magic the Gathering uses the premise of two (or more) wizards engaged
in a magical duel
A theme makes a game more interesting and gives the players something to
relate it to. It both provides a model and begins to tell the story (as the
players play the game, they will complete the story). Even chess, with it's
mostly abstract nature, features a theme of battle between two opposing
armies. Without a them a game becomes an abstract game like checkers,
connect-four, go, mancala or Blokus. While interesting, these games don't
tell any kind of story and RPGs are, in large part, about storytelling.
So, a good way to get the creative juices flowing is to just think of
some kind of theme that the adventure will have. The theme you pick will
determine the setting, mood, ambiance, backdrop and visual elements.
Additionally, choosing a theme will often suggest villains, locations and
- Gothic Horror (haunted houses, vampires, lighting storms)
- Ancient Egypt (pyramids, desert, mummies, tomb loot)
- Urban (town square, street market, local police, street thugs)
- Swamp (lizard-men, sinkholes, mosquitos)
- Jungle (trees, vines, humidity, gorillas, tigers, temples to ancient
- Cloud City (giants, eagles, beanstalks, Bespin)
Part 2: Adventure Elements
Cooking recipes always list the ingredients first before describing how
to assemble them. Similarly, you can pick your adventure elements before
you try to solve the problem of how to string them all together. We're
solving this design problem one layer at a time.
Objective: Determine the "bone of contention" that the
players are fighting for (aka "The MacGuffin"). The following is a list of
examples with references to stories where this objective was used.
- Item (Holy Grail, The One Ring)
- Person (Willow, The Golden Child)
- Creature (Star Wars - R2D2 was the MacGuffin)
- Information (Sneakers)
- Alliance / Cooperation (Babylon 5, Deep Space 9)
- Town / Village (Seven Samurai)
- Fortress, e.g. outpost, castle (Helm's Deep, Minas Tirith)
- Choke point, e.g. bridge, mountain pass (Bridge on the River Kwai,
- Survival (Robinson Crusoe, Die Hard)
- Escape (Apocalypto)
Antagonist: These are the "dogs in the fight" (along
with the PCs). Typically, you pick from one or more mutually exclusive
- Impersonal (natural disaster, flood, fire, disease, planar rift,
- Personal: some bad guy(s) who need to be combated
- One villain (e.g. Jack the Ripper) vs. Small Gang (shipful of
pirates) vs. Big Army (Bavmorda's soldiers)
- Chaotic (The Joker) vs. Organized (The Empire in Star Wars, Nazis
in Indiana Jones)
Villainous Motivations: If the antagonist is impersonal
(e.g. a spreading plague) it has no grand designs and this section can be
skipped. Most often, however, the antagonist is an intelligent creature
with some nefarious motive. The core distinctions between a villainous and
heroic motives are: villains are selfish (a hero acts for the good of
others), and they don't care who gets hurt along the way (a hero seeks to
protect innocent bystanders).
- Discord: Spread hatred, fear, chaos, etc. There may have been a
villainous hand behind an otherwise impersonal antagonist (e.g. in 12
Monkeys, the red-haired scientist released a plague that wiped out 95% of
the Earth's inhabitants).
- Destruction: There's something the villain doesn't like and he wants
it gone. Hopefully this is something the PCs care about saving.
- Control / rule over people: The classic "rule the world" (or part
thereof) motivation, enslave people, make them addicted to something only
he can provide, corrupt the local authorities, control their children,
- Personal gain: just money, some magical item (e.g. in "The Last
Crusade", Donovan didn't care about the Nazi's agenda, he just wanted the
Grail so he could gain eternal life), personal power (e.g. in Aladin,
Jafar wanted the kind of power the genie had)
- Regain something lost: The flipside of 'personal gain', they had
something, but now it's gone, and they want it back. Bad.
- "It's personal": The villain seeks revenge on someone who wronged him
(e.g. Khan) or wants to ruin someone by destroying their reputation,
driving them insane, etc.
- Warped heroic goal: "just doing my duty" / "I'm just trying to win
this war" (but they're loyal to an evil leader), "I'll do whatever it
takes to make the world a better place" (The Operative in Serenity), save
humanity (Ozymandias in Watchmen), "In order for humanity to evolve,
things have to be stirred up a bit" (The Shadows in Babylon 5)
- The reluctant villain: Some NPC is
desperately needed for some power / information he possesses, but doesn't
want to get involved and will lash out at those who bother him.
Alternatively, he just wants to go about his daily routine but said
routine causes damage to innocent bystanders (e.g. Galactus innocently
For a much more extensive list, see:
A Guide to Villainous Motivations
Welfare: For whose benefit is the objective
- Our own (PCs)
- Somebody else's (NPCs) - if it's NPCs, the PCs have to care about
- Both (e.g. in the movie 'Speed' the heroes have to save themselves
plus other passengers on the bus)
Where: Pick the location of the action:
- Right here: The adversaries are invading the home town (Helm's Deep),
the contest is happening in our own backyard (Goblet of Fire)
- Over there: This is the typical case and typically involves some kind
of journey (e.g. the One Ring must be taken to Mt. Doom). Additional
concerns here are: how far away is it, how are we going to get there,
(and possibly) how are we going to get back?
When: At what time does the action occur:
- Going to happen: PCs have been warned that something will happen.
When will it happen? Can they prevent it from occuring? (E.g. the
"ticking time bomb" scenario)
- Happening right now: PCs either hear about or witness the
crime-in-progress and have to act quickly.
- Already happened: The damage has been done, the PCs need to figure
out what happened (e.g Sherlock Holmes), try to repair the damages,
Terrain: One of the reasons why people play RPGs is so
they can go someplace new and see something different. The theme you picked
in Part 1 should inform the kind of terrain you choose. Successfully
navigating through terrain under various weather conditions typically
requires some use / expenditure of the PCs equipment as well as some skill
rolls. It is highly likely that your adventure will include several
different land features; the following is not a mutually-exclusive
- Natural: mountains, desert, jungle, swamp, aquatic, plains, moors,
ice / snow, natural caves
- Man-Made: city streets, marketplace, tavern, outpost / tower, keep,
castle, bridge, hewn caverns, catacombs, pyramid, mausoleum
- Combination: Elven / Ewok tree village, half-natural / half-hewn
- Planar: These may have some magical or paranormal features that defy
typical notions of natural vs. man-made (e.g. a a valley of gears on the
Plane of Mechanus, or a labyrinth of spiderwebs in the Demonweb
- Enclosed: Meaning there are finite boundaries to the terrain. This is
almost always the case for man-made structures, but can also be the case
for some natural structures (e.g. natural caves, a lake, etc.)
- Open: No significant borders to the terrain. Typically the case for
natural land features or planes. Because this incurs a heavier management
load on the DM, it's not uncommon to simply divide the otherwise open
terrain into "regions", at which point it effectively becomes a "bounded"
enclosure insofar as the game mechanics are concerned.
Choice: By whose volition are the PCs brought into the
- Voluntary: The PCs choose to take the quest. This is the most common
- Involuntary: The adventure is thrust upon the PCs by someone else. A
villain may be driving the action by threatening the PCs with: blackmail,
revenge, ransom, imprisonment, etc. Alternatively, the PCs may be part of
a group that gets called on to save the day: police cops, army, part of
the rebel alliance, etc. If the bat-signal goes up, Batman's gotta
Rewards for success: What can the PCs expect for
- Magic Items (or technological goodies)
- Level up!
- Renown / Reputation
- (More) information
Consequence of failure: What's at stake if the PCs
don't successfully accomplish their objective?
- Death (their own, some important NPC)
- Loss (of a plot item, existing treasure, expected treasure)
- Destruction (e.g. of a valuable resource like a silvermine, HQ,
- Disolution (of an alliance, fellowship, etc.)
article on adventure design addresses many / most of these elements.
Part 3: The Hook
This is the "introduction" to an adventure; it's the piece of
information that the DM feeds the PCs to establish the story and get the
action started. (Cooperative players should obligingly "play along" because
hey, we came here to game and this is what the DM prepared, okay?)
Any number of leads might be included in the hook, probably drawn from
the list of structure elements in Part 2. A good artist conceals more than
he reveals, so too a good hook will divulge some - but not all - of the
information the PCs need for their quest. For example:
- The objective; why the task needs to be done
- The antagonist(s)
- Where they have to go
- Some of the obstacles that they might encounter
- Timetable: when do they have to start, how quick do they need to
accomplish the task (e.g. is there a ticking time bomb or similar)
- The payment the characters can expect to receive (gold, treasure,
magic items, etc.)
- Hint at what a successful conclusion might look like
- The dire perils that will ensue if they don't succeed
Keep in mind that when a player gets fed a hook, the question going
through their mind is "What will be my reward for biting at this hook?" The
information you give them should speak to that question.
As for how the PCs receive the hook, there are numerous approaches:
- The PCs meet in a tavern and someone walks up to them offering them a
quest: It's the oldest trope in the book, but it's practical, plausible
and convenient, and that's why it's in the book.
- Some important NPC summons them for a task:
The prince regent needs your help with a royal matter, the constable has
a crime they need help solving, the local clergy needs a religious
artifact recovered, the boss of the trade guild needs them to accompany a
caravan, so on, so forth.
- An NPC races into the town square grabbing
people and yelling "Please, can't someone help me!"
- The local soothsayer has a vision of an impending doom!
- A dying messenger clutching a note stumbles into town: I love this
- The adventurers see a quest posted on a bulletin board in town. Don't
laugh, it works.
- And many, many more.
A common practice is to have a "hook layer" and a "core layer" in an
adventure. This means that there's information divulged in the hook that
pulls the PCs in, but when they get there, they find that the real story is
bigger or different than they expected. One such twist can make for an
interesting story. More than one such twist will tax the patience of the
Part 4: Types of Encounters
Every adventure is made up of several encounters. A long run of only one
type of encounter (e.g. combat, combat, combat) can become a little
monotonous for the players. The following are examples of encounters and
ways you can jazz them up.
This is a catch-all that refers to all of the movements and interactions
necessary to move the story along. It could include any / all of the
- Getting the hook
- Gathering more information (based on hints dropped in the hook)
- Buying equipment
- Travel / exploring terrain (more of a "transition" than an
"encounter", but still)
- Reporting to the quest-giver at the end
Free-Form RP: Interacting with NPCs is an important
part of "plot" encounters. Typically, free-form RP with a quest-giver is
where an adventure begins. Occasionally, you'll have a setting where some
important NPCs reside that will serve as a "home base" throughout the
adventure: it's the place where the hook gets dropped; if the adventurers
have questions along the way, they can come back here; it can act as a
"safe place" if they need to heal up; and it will probably be the site of
the denouement when the adventure wraps up. A good setting for free-form RP
is one where there are lots of interesting NPCs to interact with. The sites
mentioned in "The Hook" (tavern, royal court, town square, guild hall) are
PCs will naturally "attract" certain types of NPCs based on their common
characteristics. Said NPCs will usually provide a specific type of
information based on the circles in which they run. Examples:
- Occupation / Class: Rogues will probably want to go sit with other
rogues and talk about the latest heist, mages will want to go con-fab
with other mages and talk about recent magical events, etc.
- Social Standing: Higher-class characters (e.g. royalty) will
typically know more about matters of state, while lower-class characters
(e.g. "the help") can give the "unofficial" account of things. The
worm's-eye view of a humble beggar can, in some cases, be more valuable
than the nobleman's.
- Merchant: The twin concerns of needing to purchase some equipment and
gain some useful information are both embodied in this type of
- Bartender / Barmaid: Because they were going to meet in a tavern,
This is the classic encounter, and the bread-and-butter of many a
roleplaying system. The party could encounter the villains, some of her
mooks, creatures in the wild, or irate business owners from whom they just
stole. The possibilities are limitless.
Good combat encounters typically have some / all of the following
- Room to move around (e.g. a big room or an open area)
- Interesting / colorful terrain features. These might hint at other
things to be found in this room: treasure, traps, etc.
- Terrain features that create obstacles: a large central fountain, a
staircase / steps
- Terrain features that could be used for tactical advantage: a
slippery spot, an alcove / alley that could be used for ambush, high ground,
- One or a few big baddies (for PCs who deal lots of damage to a single
- Many small baddies (for distraction & area-effect spells /
The formal idea of a skill challenge was introduced in D&D 4e. Its
main goal is to provide a rules-oriented encounter without having to resort
to combat. The players demonstrate their ability to think creatively about
a situation and how they might be able to solve it using the skills in
which their characters are trained rather than using the techniques they
learn for combat. "Uncle Mark's Skill Drill" is a variation on this same
Skill challenges are best used for complicated situations which require
intense or long-term attention, such as research, investigation,
negotiation or performance. Many traps require a skill challenge in order
to deactivate them.
This thread contains some good discussion of skill challenges, as well
An important point brought up is that a typical 4-success skill challenge
lends itself best to a 4-part narrative comprising: introduction, buildup,
climax, and conclusion. Structuring a skill challenge this way turns it
into a little mini-story.
These are obstacles typically found in a natural / outdoor environment.
Nobody purposefully designed these to obstruct the adventurers' path, but
it's in their way and now they have to deal with it. Overcoming a hazard
typically requires some use of equipment, spells / powers, and some skill
rolls. Hazards make great "impersonal" villains in the story. The terrain
you choose will usually determine the kind of hazards it contains. Examples
Natural: Mother nature made these hazards all by her
- Burning forest
"Man-made": Men made some useful structures, but nature
has turned them into hazards.
- Creaky old rope bridge
- Rickety old stairs
- Rotten floorboards
- Burning / crumbling building
- Broken / destroyed bridge
- Narrow path around the mountain
Where hazards are naturally occurring, traps are typically man-made, and
deliberately designed to harm intruders. These are good encounters on their
own, but they can be part of another, larger encounter.
Aspects of a trap:
- Detection: How (easy is it) to spot it?
- Magical or mundane?
- Trigger: What sets it off? (pressure plate, doorknob twist, moving
the treasure chest, etc.)
- Effects: Any number of harmful results: arrows fire, rocks roll,
flames spurt, poison gas fills room, etc. There may be more than one
- Reset: Does the trap reset itself, or does somebody have to manually
reset it / replace parts?
- Bypass: If you've detected it or set it off already, is there anyway
to avoid it in the future?
Places where traps could occur:
- Loot, e.g. the classic poison needle concealed in the lock on the
treasure chest. Be sparing with this one; it can get old fast.
For some inspiration, here's a link to "101 Traps, Puzzles, and
Not to be outdone, here's 1001 traps:
Grimtooth's traps are considered the definitive source for spiteful,
Both traps and hazards threaten the adventurers with some sort of
dangerous consequences if they don't successfully bypass them. Puzzles, on
the other hand, tend to be less dangerous, while still being an obstacle.
Before the magic door will open, or the bridge will extend, or the hidden
room can be found, a puzzle often needs to be solved. Sometimes the
distinction between a puzzle and a trap can become blurred, and there is no
need to un-blur it. Puzzles can offer a small diversion by temporarily
suspending the normal rules of the game in favor of the puzzle's rules.
Playing a bar game at a tavern with the locals or participating in the
town's festival games could be considered types of puzzles.
Examples of puzzles:
- Riddles: Bilbo & Gollum's exchange in the dark is the iconic
- Word puzzles: anagrams, cryptograms / ciphers, word scrambles, word
- Number puzzles: sudoku, magic squares,
- Mechanical puzzles: Rubik's cube, Towers of Hanoi
- Logic puzzles: Knight's tour (chess), Eight Queens (chess), peg
- Mazes: In many ways, the dungeon itself is a type of maze puzzle.
- A word of warning: avoid complicated mazes, particularly if they
serve no other purpose than to provide hours of map-drawing.
- Picture-forming puzzles: jigsaws, tangrams
Examples from literature / media:
- Indiana Jones movies are famous for their puzzles: exchanging the
idol head for the sandbag, figuring out the right length for the staff of
Ra in the Well of Souls, figuring out where the 'X' is in the library,
solving the 3 trials before reaching the grail room.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The series of challenges at
the end of the book leading up to recovering the sorcerer's stone:
fluffy, the chess game, the vines, the flying keys, the mirror.
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The trip through the hedge maze
and various things encountered along the way. (Sphinx's riddle,
gravity-inverting golden mist, Bogart in the form of a Dementor)
- In the movie Labyrinth, Sarah had to solve various puzzles &
traps as she made her way to the Goblin King's castle. (figuring out that
the walls were illusory, logic puzzle of the two doors, escaping from the
oubliette, "the cleaners", the bog of eternal stench, the false
masquerade party, etc.)
There are a few situations that are not exactly "encounter locations",
but the PCs will run into them along the way.
Looting: An inevitable conclusion to a combat encounter
is picking through the bodies for loot. Some things to consider with
- Players want valuable loot. This ought to go without saying, but loot
the DM has hand-picked with all of the various PCs in mind goes a lot
farther than just random-roll stuff that is useless to the party and
they'll have to hawk later.
- It's better if loot "makes sense". You would expect for a wizard to
have a magic wand, but you wouldn't expect a swarm of rats to have full
- The loot might not be "right there". In "The Hobbit", after the
trolls get turned to stone, the party had to follow their tracks to a
nearby hidey-hole where the trolls had stashed the loot from their
- The loot might be part of the monster. If the party just killed a
dragon, the scales could be used to make armor, the teeth / claws could
be used to make weapons, and the eyes / tongue might be valuable spell
- Not all loot is good. Sometimes loot is poisoned, cursed, or contains
some demonic spirit that wants to possess the owner. Word to the wise: do
this "once in a while" to spice things up, not in every single batch of
loot, which will make the "cursed loot" trope tedious and expected.
Bookwork: Sometimes done at the table, sometimes done
between adventures, bookwork is an inevitable part of the roleplaying
experience. Examples of bookwork include:
- Creating a character
- Buying / selling equipment
- Making a "Wishlist": choosing magic items that the GM can give you
- Leveling up your character
- Looking up rules
- Planning an adventure (if you're the GM)
Part 5: Adventure Structure
From 'The Big List of RPG Plots': "In
particular, don't fuss too much over plot, as many GMs do. All of the plots
here can provide a tried-and-true, simple structure, and structure
is all you need a plot for in a roleplaying game. Remember to play to the
strengths of the medium - most all of which are about character, not plot.
Only in an RPG can you experience a fictional
character on a personal, first-hand level.
Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that contains
more than a basic structure is more likely to pull attention away from
character, and that's burning the bridge for firewood. All you need to do
is be ready to roll with the curves and have fun hamming it up."
With that in mind, I present a list of things that will help you come up
with a structure.
Word to the wise: Keep your story structure simple. Do not complicate it
with lots of extra crap; your players will be more than happy to complicate
it for you.
Elements of Design
Effectively, structuring an
adventure boils down to these decisions:
- Design the "set pieces", i.e. the encounter locations. The two most
important "sets" are:
- The "starting" encounter where the hook is dropped (there can
only be one of these)
- The "ending" encounter where the final, climactic scene will take
place (there should really only be one of these)
- Decide if it will be linear or branching. If branching, decide how
much choice the players will have.
- As a general rule, at any encounter there should only be 1-3
available "exit points" leading to another encounter
- Bear in mind that as P.C.s discover new clues, that might create
- Plan transitions between encounters
- From a literal point of view, this means "how / where will they
travel from one set piece to the next"
- From an outcome-based point of view, this means: if they succeed
in the current encounter, where will that lead them vs. where will a
failed outcome lead them
Part of the reason why dungeoncrawl adventures succeed is because they
present an easy-to-understand structure where the rooms are the encounter
locations, the unopened doors are the choices a player can make, and the
hallways connecting rooms are the transitions. Note that the players
do have choices, but the number of choices is manageably
A Tried-And-True Structure
I've been playing role-playing games for 30 years now. There's a standard adventure structure I typically use when I GM:
- Hook: something's gone awry, we need you guys to fix it
- Legwork: gather info / rumors, figure out where to go
- Travel: usu. involving wilderness survival checks
- Dungeon Entrance: complete with guards / guardians / puzzles / traps
- Dungeoncrawl: spelunk, fight, loot, until they get to...
- Throneroom Battle: showdown with the big baddie
- Return / Denouement: come back to the hook-giver, get your reward
I try to mix it up and try a different structure sometimes, but this one works so well and is so flexible that I just keep coming back to it.
For vastly more detail, see:
Part 6: Player Considerations
You can draft the best adventure in the world but if your players don't
like it, it's a flop. The story should be written not for the delight of
the DM, but for the delight of the players.
The following is a list of player styles articulated in "Robin's Laws of
Good Gamemastering". Ideally, you will learn the styles of the players
around the table, and plan some part of your adventure that will appeal to
- Power Gamer: Likes to min-max characters. Combs through sourcebooks
for any item / power that will give him another +1 to the stat he's
trying to optimize.
- Butt-Kicker: Likes to kick in the door and bash baddies. Uses RPGs as
a way to let off steam. Not as concerned with optimization as the Power
- Tactician: Relishes in battlefield scenarios where he can plan &
carry out attacks.
- Specialist: Always plays the same type of character every time (e.g.
always plays a ninja, always plays a paladin, always plays a
- Method Actor: Loves the expressive / dramatic component of
role-playing. These types of players will occasionally have some kind of
- Story Teller: Favors narrative over all. Wants the adventure to play
out like a well-written book / movie. These often become GMs.
- Casual Gamer: Just there to hang out.
One of the reasons why video games succeed is because video game
designers understand the psychological value of rewarding players for
accomplishments. Such rewards can come in many different flavors: a new
item, a new level, a bonus to a stat, an upgrade, or simply a shiny "You
Win!" screen complete with some multimedia extravaganza. A good adventure,
and one that the players want to play, will similarly reward them, not just
once at the end, but numerous times along the way. "Loot" rewards for the
PCs have already been addressed. The following are rewards for the
Vicarious Thrills: The player will enjoy it when they
see their character:
- Win valuable prizes!
- Experience the thrill of the chase
- Fly by the seat of your pants, throw caution to the wind, and dash in
where angels fear to tread
- See the energy crackle around the Fabulous Magical
- Dazzle the NPCs with your witty banter
- Have some half-baked plan actually work
- See a plan fail in the most entertaining way possible
- Have Princess Leia hang a medal around your neck
- Experience a satisfying conclusion
Dirty little thrills: Only in RPGs do you get a chance
- Break stuff
- Kill monsters
- Inflict collateral damage
- Break into places
- Steal things from people
- Destroy a tavern in a bar brawl
- Win over NPCs with one or more of: charm, threats, bribes,
- See wondrous fairy castles & magical pixie forests… and
burn them to the ground
- Knock off an annoying NPC in one shot by
rolling a nat 20 at just the right moment
- See the hideous face of evil… and ask it if it likes
- Finally getting revenge on that bloody obnoxious NPC
- Embarrass the villain
- Boast at length to gawking NPCs about all your numerous
- Get away with doing all of these nefarious things!
A Chance to Strut Your Stuff: This speaks in large part
to player styles. You need to learn what your players like to do and give
them an opportunity to do it.
- Some people are prima donas that love the spotlight. They love to
dazzle the crowd with their method acting and sparkling wit. Make sure
there are some good free-form RP encounters for them.
- Some people just like to kick in doors and bash skulls. Throw
monsters at them.
- Some people like to solve puzzles. Research a good one for them.
- Some people love to invent grand, strategic plans and watch them come
to fruition (or even spectacularly fail!)
- Every player wants a chance to use those cool powers they picked for
their character. Make the times where they get to use them plentiful and
the times where they can't (or are prohibited to) use them rare.
- Some people like to sit back and watch. Let them be.
J. Michael Straczynski once said: "The purpose of an author is to put
his characters up a tree and throw rocks at them." Funny thing, a DM's job
is about the same.
But therein lies the great contradiction in RPGs: players want to take
their characters adventuring, but adventures are dangerous! How do you show
them a fun time while you're throwing the hideous hordes at them?
Well, as it turns out, people actually enjoy fiction that portrays more
danger than they encounter in their own lives. Put another way, people who
want large doses of reality do not watch shows, read books, or play games.
People like simulated risk because it's exciting, but they can withdraw
from it whenever they want to.
It also turns out that simulated rewards are, at times, more enjoyable
than real-life ones. Magic wands are way cool, but they don't sell 'em at
Home Depot. In the same vein, narrowly slaying that dragon that took your
hit points down to single digits is far more pleasing than narrowly
avoiding getting in a car wreck. As long as you make your players sweat,
but not suffer, they'll know you're really on their side.
So by all means, stick them up a tree and throw rocks at them, but be
sure to leave some gold pieces, healing potions, and magic swords on some
of the branches. Do that, and they'll keep coming back for more.