Adventure creation: It is simultaneously one of the greatest joys and the most stressful parts of being a Gamemaster. It is wonderful in that, at least for us, it is a powerful expression of our creativity. Personally, I am no artist. My pottery is miraculous if it actually holds water and I screw up drawing stick figures. I have played enough music to know that I am never going to be a musician. I am a passable fiction writer, but I hold no illusions of being a New York Times Bestselling Author. But storytelling has always resonated with me. And there is something truly powerful about the idea of group storytelling where the role of the Gamemaster is to facilitate and weave the threads of the story that the Players provide in with their own to create something truly beautiful and exciting.
Conversely, adventure creation can be stressful. The vast majority of the Gamemasters that I have spoken with over my life struggle with expectation. They worry about the expectation of their players, both with a story and the level of storytelling, as well as their expectation of having fun in a game session. If this weren’t enough, most Gamemasters heap expectations on themselves. The most basic of these is usually rules knowledge, to which often gets added storytelling expectations of their own (though these are more often based in worldbuilding), skill use such as voice acting, props, or player time balancing, and more.
What, then, is to be done? How does one overcome such stresses and focus on the living energy of the adventure and the session and the story that is waiting to come to life? In over 25 years of Gamemastering, the advice I have is this: Realize that the preparation that you do for an adventure is for you, and only for you. The military has an axiom that is often quoted: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. This can be translated into gaming fairly faithfully. Most adventure plans do not survive first contact with players. And if you wish to avoid causing the players to feel railroaded, I recommend not forcing them into your plans.
So why prepare? The act of preparation causes you as the Gamemaster to have your nerves settle. You have put in effort, you have done your best to think of how the players will react. You have put some things in place to help you. At that point, all you can do is press ‘PLAY’ on the story and see what happens. So how should you prepare? Well, over the course of my time running games, the ‘how’ of how I prepare has changed quite a bit. When I started, most of the time I was making my own adventures, and I put way too much time building things that the players never actually saw. It was fun, but inevitably the parts that the players actually interacted with felt underdeveloped.
What do I do now? I wanted to expound a bit on the previous post I made on this subject because I see it come up over and over in the social media circles I travel in. First, I have learned some valuable lessons from my wife. In a previous blog post, she talked a lot about lists. Then I discovered decks, and immediately fell in love with the quick, spontaneous nature of giving the Gamemaster help at the table in the moment it’s needed. Ultimately, my focus on preparing for a session has shifted away some from pre-session prep and more toward arming myself with tools for reacting to player choice in-session.
The first thing I do before a session now is to review the Character Arcs and Character Bonds along side my notes of what happened last session. There’s lots of ways to take notes for your games. Do what works for you, but I highly encourage you to take them somehow/some way. Look at what the players said that they wanted their characters to focus on and what their goals were, then come up with opportunities that your players can latch on to that allow them to do those things. You can create an outline if you want, but in my recent experience, this typically works only in more structured games (particularly ones that are time-bound) such as convention games. For these, take a couple of notes on big scenes. This is not so much so that everything is pre-planned out, but to make sure that you as the Gamemaster have a vivid image in your head that you can describe to your players to set as the backdrop for their actions.
Next I think about the goals for the scene(s). These are usually intermediate goals that lie along the paths of the Character Arcs. The relative size of the goal doesn’t matter, but understanding them does. Not because you are trying to force them to do anything, but so that you can, in your role of pacesetter, help them to remember where they had already stated their characters were going to focus and what they were going to plan on doing. This helps keep the focus on the action instead of getting bogged down in things that don’t matter to the characters. That is not to say that the focus cannot and will not ever change, but that should be a deliberate choice on the part of the players, not one born of indecision or information confusion from overload.
At this point, you may consider putting together maps as a visual aid for you, your players or both. This is not to say that you need to be an expert cartographer or anything, it is for a visual cue. If you do not wish to draw maps, there are thousands of free maps on the internet. For fantasy, I wholeheartedly recommend Dyson Logos. I love his maps so much. But there are more and in many different styles. Pinterest is another great resource for that. If it is not so much a map that you want but a cue for you as the Gamemaster to understand relative positioning of locations, Chris Kutalik discusses a particular type of “map” called the Pointcrawl in his blog post, Crawling Without Hexes: The Pointcrawl. There are lots of ways to do this, so do not feel like you are stuck figuring out how to learn to draw good maps freehand or using one of the many cartography suites available.
The next things to think about are non-player characters (NPCs) and monsters. In a previous post, we discussed both of these, so I won’t rehash that information except to say that the key here is making both NPCs and monsters relevant to the goals of the characters. Much like it doesn’t make much sense to put hill-giants in the third sublevel of your fantasy dungeon, it doesn’t make much sense to be writing about a government conspiracy involving nuclear energy and then drop undead circus clowns from an interdimensional Barnum & Bailey circus there for them to fight.
Going along with lists, one of the lists I try to think of now, particularly in the Cypher System games that I run are Gamemaster Intrusions. Not so much coming up with a list of random ones (I have a deck for that), but coming up with meaningful ones. In other words, think about some exciting ways that the story could shift and be more complicated for the players. Remember that this is the primary way for the characters to get immediate experience points that allow them to do things like reroll in a tough spot or use player intrusions to shift the story as well. In the Cypher System, XP is the currency of excitement, so don’t be stingy. Target at a minimum 1/hour on top of any natural 1’s rolled. For inspiration, look at the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, p. 408 – 411 (the last page has several lists of GMI examples for different types of situations).
Finally, as a sanity check, I will typically finish by looking at the ideas that I have put together and asking myself if I have given each of my players ways to shine. One of the expectations, and a valid one, is that the players are playing to have a good time. It is harder to have a good time if one is not participating, so create opportunities for everyone to do so whenever possible. They may not always take them, or do what you think they are going to do, but focusing on your players reminds you of the fun which is why you are all there to begin with.
In summary, good adventure preparation is not in the details, it is in getting a clear image of the big picture in your head and then arming yourself with the tools that give you personally the greatest chance of being able to adapt to what the players actually do. I am always looking for new and better ways to improve my craft because I try and have a Continual Improvement mindset. I want to recommend again looking at some of those resources with an eye toward adventure preparation, particularly the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Your Best Game Ever (Chapter 10). Do not look at these as touting any one system or type of game, but look at them for general principles that can apply across systems and genres. When you do, you’ll find a vast wealth of knowledge and hopefully, ways to ease some of the stress of adventure creation as a Gamemaster. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles
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