Need a jump-start on adventure writing? Start with a legend

Yesterday’s post at the RPG Athenaeum delved into the topic of creating Dungeons & Dragons adventures or campaigns around in-game prophecies. Of course, prophecies are not the only way a dungeon master (DM) can use campaign lore to draw heroes into adventure; a similar technique involves using the use of legends, on a local or global scope, as adventure hooks.

Although they often don’t carry as much dramatic weight as prophecies, legends can create a colorful background for a D&D adventure, with the added advantage that, unlike prophecies, player actions can’t oppose or invalidate legends, unless the DM so chooses. In addition, the use of legends establishes a level of expectation in the players’ minds about what is to come. Even a false legend can heighten drama and suspense in an adventure if it involves something truly dreadful.

This posting will explore two approaches to creating legends for a D&D game, labeled “story first” and “result first” for ease of reference. A list of ways through which legends from either approach can lead to adventure will follow explanations and examples of the approaches.

The “Story First” Approach


This approach to legend design is best expressed through the following formula:

Legend = Accurate Events + Time

Thus, the DM begins with a true story, then allows for portions of it to be misrepresented, either accidentally or intentionally, until the tale becomes legendary with the passage of time.

For example, consider a young couple that settles in a borderland cottage just after their wedding. Four days after the ceremony, the wife returns to the nearest town alone, reporting that her new husband was slain by wild creatures in the forest. A guard patrol was sent to the area to investigate; it discovered that the husband’s body was nearly picked clean, but it was clear from examining the skull that a great claw had gouged out that portion of the face containing both eyes. The wife was so distraught by the experience that she devoted her life to a church and planned to live out her days in a convent. The cottage was abandoned. Two years later, a hunter came to town, stating that he had seen a humanoid figure stumbling through the wood in the vicinity of the cottage, with its hands covering its eyes. When the locals added the hunter’s story to the wife’s story, it was apparent to everyone that the husband’s spirit was haunting the area, looking for his lost eyes so he may journey on to the Afterlife. When the local priest suggested that any pair of eyes would help the spirit on its way, people began to give the cottage a wide berth, afraid that the ghost may trap them and take their eyes. The whole town was closed up two hours before sundown on the anniversary of the husband’s death, as some folk suggested that the ghost may have more power on that night and might be able to reach the town.

By the time the D&D campaign begins – 20 years after the husband’s death – the husband’s ghost is as real as any non-player character in the game, if one measures a thing’s “reality” based upon its impact on the behavior of common folk. Whether or not a ghost really exists is the DM’s decision, but the legend makes the campaign world more realistic to the players just by hearing the story at the local inn. Some heroes may even be inspired to visit the wife at the convent, even though she is now advanced in age, to glean some insight into the legend.

This example shows how the bare, accurate facts of a natural event – a man killed by beasts in the wood – can take on the elements of a legend through circumstance and time. Other natural (as opposed to supernatural) tales that make effective story first legends include:

  • Evil figures who were driven off, but may not be truly gone;
  • Lost items or people, whose whereabouts are still unknown; or
  • Tragic events, such as plague, suicide, sacrifices, murders, or pacts with infernal forces.

The “Result First” Approach

Unlike the story first approach, which begins with historical truth that deteriorates as time moves toward the present, the result first approach begins with measurable, physical evidence of a supernatural event, the apparent origins of which deteriorate as one looks backward in time.

Consider a patch of ground, situated in the middle of a fertile, well-watered valley, with a strange, ancient dolmen at its center. No vegetation will grow within a bowshot of the dolmen in any direction. No one knows what tribe of ancients constructed the dolmen, why it was built, or what transpired in or upon it. What people do know is that the very land about the structure has died, and local shepherds won’t even let their flocks graze near it. A few generations ago, the grandparents of the nearest village elder were involved in rooting out a primordial cult that performed sacrificial rites at the dolmen, but the land was dead long before those heinous crimes. 

In this case, the strength of the legend isn’t knowledge of what happened; it’s the fear of what may have happened that grips people, and what will attract heroes to the site.

Unusual or supernatural conditions that could spawn a result first legend include:

  • Curious landforms, such as odd rock formations or dried-up river beds;
  • Unexplained interruptions in nature’s cycle, like areas that don’t thaw after winter;
  • Apparently random magical effects;
  • Natural disasters, like floods, earthquakes and wildfires; or
  • Monster sightings.

Involving the Heroes

Often, simply presenting a legend during a D&D game is inducement enough for the players to investigate it. On those occasions when the players don’t jump at that opportunity, there are numerous ways a DM can use a legend to hook the heroes into an adventure, such as:

  • An “unfinished” legend may require action on the part of mortals to right a wrong or appease a restless ghost. For example, to appease a ghost haunting an area, the heroes may need to do anything from performing a proper burial of the ghost’s earthly form to bringing the ghost’s murderer to justice.
  • A villain may use the fear of a local legend to deter people from investigating her activities. Imagine a warlock who is searching for lost tomb, in a reputedly haunted forest. By taking pains to make the forest seem even “more haunted” to the locals, she can search without interruption.
  • A third party might tamper with a legendary site, triggering or releasing magical effects or monsters. What if that dolmen is actually preventing a blight upon the earth from spreading, and an unknowing party of adventurers accidentally breaks the seal upon the structure? Someone must find a way to contain the blight, or all plant and animal life in the valley will die within a month. Other actions, like construction, excavation, disturbing graves or the theft of items can also trigger a response from this sort of site.
  • Someone wants to prove or debunk a legend, and they hire the heroes as escorts. Consider a “haunted” area. If the heroes’ patron thinks the ghost is there, they want the heroes for protection against the ghost; if they think the haunting is a hoax, they want protection from natural predators in the location. Either way, the heroes end up at the legendary site.

Have you ever employed a legend in your D&D game as a catalyst for adventure? If so, please consider sharing how it went with readers in the comment box below.


10 comments on “Need a jump-start on adventure writing? Start with a legend

  1. jeremysouthard says:

    Very nice ideas! I’m actually going to be using a legend in my upcoming session loosely based on the “Tombs of Deckon Thar” from the Forgotten Realms campaign book (page 147). As the book states:

    Seven wight-haunted tombs shudder in the cold grip of the Mound King, a plaguechanged wight with powers unknown but whispered to be terrible. The tombs were once the secret hoards of bandit lords called the Chieftains in Gold, who dominated the western Nether Mountains centuries ago. They sallied from a great keep and buried their dead in barrows filled with ill-gotten loot. One of the seven tombs was plundered by a
    group of salvagers, and vengeance found them all as they made their way back to their Silverymoon base. In each case, the dismembered corpses were discovered, sans loot and equipment, with the message
    “Disturb not the Mound King” inscribed in their flesh.

    I’m changing up the story a little to better fit with the current story in my campaign but keeping some of the more legendary aspects like the haunted tombs and dismembered corpses with the message torn into the pieces.

    I find these campaign books full of stuff that I can mold and work into my own, which I believe is the point of the books! 🙂

  2. Max.Elliott says:

    The difference between the prophesy and the legend being that the story vaguely describes that has happened as opposed to vaguely describing something that will happen?

  3. Philo Pharynx says:

    I can see this being included with the Basic Character Knowledge Sheets you mentioned about a month ago. Perhaps listing a few hints of legends in some of these would help make it more organic. When you bring a legend out into an established game you run the risk of “Okay, here’s the new adventure backstory.” By making it part of something that’s been around it makes the whole world feel more real. It can be something minor enough as a connection to a name. Perhaps the valley with the dolmen is called “Barren Valley”. It’s quite fertile outside of that area, but the one part has affected the whole name. This is useful, because you can think of interesting names and only bring up the legends as people explore them.

    There is a flaw to brining legends up at the beginning of the campaign – some players may decide to investigate them before you’ve fleshed them out.

  4. Max.Elliott says:

    LOL, no I was really just asking. No sudden insight, just a request for clarification.

  5. ClefJ says:

    I have given a few legends in my game, a couple revolving around a long-ended war where the first “Undead” threat had arisen and caused great catastrophes. We had encountered a planet which was “Protected” by their deities, creating a living legend that had a profound effect on the populace, so far that no one would dare travel to a large crater ringed with stone monoliths, the cite of the city of the gods.

    PC legends had stated that in history after this war, many of these.. Well, closest analogy would be Litch Lords, had broken off from their main force in order to live lives of peace in uncharted regions, never to be heard from again.

    Upon personally investigating this forbidden crate, home to local gods, therein was a small civilization of these highly advanced litch’s who had vowed to protect the planet they had settled on, and have clandestinely posed as these well-known gods. Local legends had merged with foreign legends upon discovery. It all went rather well, especially when people went “OOOH!” when realizing I had used something from game history that they’re actually familiar with.

  6. […] (PC’s) personal background, or having the heroes hear bards and minstrels sing of legends or prophecies related to the site. If the heroes don’t know what happened at a battlefield, […]

  7. […] 3. Explain a legend. Based on how numerous legends are in our own world, imagine how many more there would be in a fantasy world where monsters and magic are real. The RPG Athenaeum has treated this form of adventure design at length with this post. […]

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