Adventure preparation done right

It’s RPG blog carnival time again, this time at the Questing GM, and the topic is “how to be a better Games Master.” There’s lots of good advice – I like what Carl at Back Screen Pass has to say, though I’m dubious about any claim that I have any strengths except my ability to describe stuff – and I think Geek Ken is right to say that you should try to play often if you’re going to DM, because I don’t think I play enough and I sometimes forget what works and what doesn’t for players.

So, Carl’s advice is to play to your strengths, and I think my main strength is the ability to describe stuff. I think my DMing style is often based on building up a strong picture of things and letting the players enjoy the action that follows even if the details – the combat and skill resolution, for example – are clunky or not entirely satisfactory. The fun is in the experience, not necessarily the details of how it panned out, and provided everyone is able to see the vision, everyone gets to enjoy it.

The problem then is getting ideas to describe, from the very broad vision of worlds through the narrower vision of particular characters and scenarios, to the momentary vision of what happens from point to point in an adventure or scene. My solution to this is simple – I steal stuff outrageously from as many cultural sources as I can. I lift from music, novels, comics, movies, literature, my day-to-day experiences, anything I can get my hands on. It’s unlikely that (outside of the Lord of the Rings and Buffy) my players have seen much of what I’ve lifted, so occasionally someone will notice I’m copying but in general they won’t see a pattern. And of course even if they do, I just have to leaven it a bit with something novel, and they’ll never know. After a few campaigns all the players change and I can steal from myself too, it’s perfect. As Chumbawumba said (and they said it first!!!), there is nothing new under the sun, so why be ashamed? Things I’ve stolen include…

  • Magua from The Last of the Mohicans, who I stole wholesale and dumped straight into my last campaign, name, manners, speech patterns and all
  • Dragon-hunting from Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a beautiful moment in science fiction history (and I really want to steal the title at some point too)(and I’ve stolen this idea twice)
  • Ship names from Iain M. Banks
  • Ideas for spells, schools of magic and famous magicians from English literary genres (Romantics, Regency novelists, etc.)
  • Settings for adventures from, for example Ocean Thermal Energy Convertors (there was a ghost in the top room)
  • Monsters and equipment from role-playing settings as diverse as Dark Space, Shadowrun, Talislanta, Skyrealms of Jorune, and Traveller:2300
  • Adventure locations from real life – Tottori Castle and Lundy Island, Devon spring to mind but there have been many others

One big benefit of this is that the players are provided with something they know (except, obviously, in the case of Talislanta) and this gives them something to hang their own imagination onto. For example, a spell system based on existing literary genres made it very easy for the player playing a Priest to just make up new spells, and some of them were doozies – Suffer Not a Witch was a type of Dispel Magic, and Reveal the Spirit was a kind of Fascinate spell that worked really nicely into the narrative of the story. It’s easy for everyone to both invent the spell and visualise the effect when it’s tied to something they know, and gives everyone a grounding from which to develop a shared vision of the campaign. This is probably why I largely set my campaigns on Earth, with real historical or possible future scenarios to hold them together.

The forces of evolution, tectonic plates, and 500 years of English creative history trump any crap I’ve got to offer, so I just steal shamelessly from the lot, and serve up to my characters a smorgasboard of rebranded ideas that I’ve tried to stuff together into a coherent framework. Don’t be shy! No-one’s going to sue you, and if you describe it well, the players won’t even notice…