Game Master, Story Writer and World Builder

I’m taking some extra time between game sessions this week to evaluate where we’ve come thus far.  In my last post I listed a few items I needed to work on, such as awarding character points for the first two sessions, preparing reference sheets and other game aids, and becoming more familiar with the rules such as combat.  I also mentioned the need to develop more details regarding the campaign background, and that is what I would like to write about in today’s post.

Without some sort of underlying story, an RPG game is simply a set of encounters, most likely unrelated to one another.  An example would be the old school D&D modules, the classic “dungeon crawls”.  Not a lot of role playing was required.  Player characters would spend each session exploring a maze of corridors and rooms, avoiding traps, solving seemingly random puzzles, all for the sake of aquiring mountains of treasure and experience points, in order to improve their characters so they could go back and do it all over again, facing greater challenges than before.  Don’t get me wrong, these type of adventures can be a lot of fun.  I spent my years as a teenager playing such games with my friends, and we had a blast.  But an underlying plot can give the game purpose and meaning, engaging the player’s imaginations, drawing them into the story.  It’s like reading a good novel that keeps you up at night, turning “just one more page” to see what happens next.

My original plan with our current campaign was to do a simple conversion of an old D&D module, rewriting it for the GURPS ruleset.  I soon realized, however, that my players and I both wanted more roleplaying and less traditional dungeon crawl.  That meant enhancing the story background and coming up with a setting for the adventure to take place in.  The module as it was originally written included a brief background story to give some purpose to the adventure, but it was weak, in my opinion.  I needed a stronger story, including a town for my players to start in, a story hook to pull them in, and a wilderness in which to travel.

World building can be overwhelming.  There are many, many details to include: geography, sentient races, nations with political structure, and a history to pull it all together, just to name a few.  It could easily take years to fully develop a game world.  But it doesn’t all need to be done at once, just enough to give the illusion it’s all there.

Start with a few simple ideas.  Sit yourself down and brainstorm, jotting things down as the come to mind.  It doesn’t matter if you integrate every idea into the campaign; it’s probably better if you don’t.  You also shouldn’t concern yourself with weeding out the good from the bad.  Your goal should be getting as many ideas down as you can.  Later, as you go back over the list you have made, you will find that an earlier thought leads to new ideas, and soon you’ve discovered a great plot hook, a tricky puzzle, or a sinister villian.

For some people this process will come naturally, but for others, it is a bit of a chore.  I fall closer to that second category.  The important thing, however, is to exercise your brain.  Creativity is a skill that can be learned, and like most skills, the more you practice, the better you get.  Sometimes a little inspiration can help.  This can come from novels, movies, friends.  Just don’t spend so much time reading and watching movies that you don’t get anything done at all!

Just recently I’ve been working on some ideas for our next session.  While I cannot share any plot details (my players are probably reading this!), I can describe the process I went through.  I had an idea for an encounter, but it was very basic.  I could have kept it simple, but I wanted to tie it into the main story, maybe even provide for the possibility of a side quest.  So I just started writing whatever came to mind.  I tried to envision how it would play out, occassionally including greater detail, other times inserting a note such as “figure out why this works” or “determine how that can happen.”  I wouldn’t stop and worry too much about continuity or plausibility.

After getting down a rough draft, I went back and reread what I had just written.  I clarified a few things, changed some others, corrected several spelling errors.  Then I asked a friend to read through it.  He gave me some more ideas, but more importantly, asked some questions I hadn’t thought of, like “Why does this happen?”  Then I went back through it all again, incorporating new ideas and removing some that obviously wouldn’t work.  Also, don’t forget to take breaks.  A good night’s sleep can bring about a fresh start the next day.

I encourage anyone developing a campaign setting, or any other sort of creative writing, to practice.  It will get easier, and your ideas will get better, and there will be a sense of satisfaction as your fictional world comes to life.

Until next time, happy gaming!

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