When we last left off, you had barely escaped with your lives as the ambush of goblins was too overwhelming. The retreat brought you deeper into the cave system and into foreign territory. You went beyond your map’s edge hours ago, and now exploring without much focus until a prominent landmark is found. Your torch is growing dim; you have perhaps another hour before you’ll be in total darkness. But up ahead there is the sound of rushing water.
Often I find creating entire campaigns a bit daunting. I may have a surge of inspiration or a concept that is burning my fingers to write down, but it doesn’t take long before that energy is spent and the general idea is created before I feel overwhelmed at filling out the remaining 100 pages’ worth of material. And this is the case so often with many GMs, even the seasoned ones. Writing lengthy material is exhausting to say the least. It taxes our minds. And world building is even more time consuming although it can be a wonderful daily exercise for aspiring writers or GMs.
I prefer to take small bites. It’s healthier. A writing exercise I enjoy when I am bored or feeling inspired is to create either one-page adventures or world build a single small structure such as a home, barracks, or lighthouse. The goal is to flesh out whatever the subject is as much as possible, keeping a restriction on the word count. It provides two results. It forces the writer to be more selective on their words to be more efficient. It also offers a comfort zone with being but a single page to prevent any anxiety of having to fill tons of pages. When it comes down to it, everyone who has the ability to write can write a single page of something.
I am going to begin a short series spanning a few episodes demonstrating the operation I go through in order to create a short scenario. This will be kept fairly simple; it will involve a single, simple structure (no castles or other complex buildings). I’ll provide the breakdown of each area I focus on and explain my thinking of each idea. By the end of the series, there should be a complete scenario capable of being adopted into most role playing game settings.
Since it is my favorite part, I will begin the series with the structure itself. That article will contain the concept, history, and general interest of it. I’ll list information for dimensions, building materials, and any hidden information not privy to the average passerby. Dimensions are generally most important for casters or those with area-effect abilities, but sometimes it can come in handy for visualization. Typically I see a generalized list of building materials for a structure or area such as a dungeon having all stone doors. However, some GMs like to have more detailed environments. Knowing the furniture is made out of a deep, rich mahogany wood instead of a dry white birch may be useful. Gary Gygax once told me that the reason he put in so much seemingly meaningless information throughout his work was because a GM can remove things easier than creating things to put in (in his Castle Zygag stint, one of the city’s shops had a very detailed and accurate account of wooden ladders for sale, specific to what lengths would be typical for that era).
The second part will be the creation of the non-player characters or NPC. These will be the fuel of the plot and point of the scenario’s creation. They should not simply be stat blocks, but I feel that sometimes adventure modules get carried away with fleshing out noteworthy NPCs, especially when they are only going to be around for the one adventure. One example that comes to mind is Paizo’s Adventure Paths. Often a particular “big” NPC will have two full pages of background information on them, when they last one-night’s gaming session. So let’s keep things nice, clean and short. Really a GM should only need to know the NPC’s motivation, general personality, and any unusual quirks or behaviors that might set them apart. The rest will naturally be filled in on-the-fly as the GM is roleplaying the character to the players.
The final part in the series will be the point of the scenario’s existence. Why did I bother to create this bit of work? The plot or at least points of interest will be fleshed out just enough for anyone to be able to read it or at least skim through it and have a basic understanding of how to run the adventure. It should contain the secrets that will be uncovered by the players, any plot twists, any side rewards to be acquired, perhaps alternative endings, and a list of key moments that are affected and not affected by the players. I like to approach these types of projects from angles that I am not used to viewing it. Consider instead of a tavern at a crossroads, the tavern is buried underground and accessible only through a secret entrance by invitation only. It will result in rejuvenating concepts that have been run to death in your past game sessions. With all of the information broken down and fleshed out, the layout will be created so that only the information that is most important will be added and the filler will be left out. If enough material is created that is cut out, an Appendix can be created, but it should only be another one page document with an abridged format.
The goal of this entire exercise is to provide those looking for methods of tackling the art of world building or adventure writing, or perhaps hoping to take their first step in breaking away from published modules and going independent. Even though I have been running role playing games for 22 years now, these simple procedures can keep creativity and imagination vivid and rich. So stick around and hopefully you find inspiration, ideas, or successfully kill your boredom.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.