I’ve had a lot of experience running campaigns (both of the GURPS and non-GURPS variety) and have spent the better part of 28 years being a GM to a variety of groups in a variety of ways. After all this time I’ve learned a lot – which means I messed up a lot. No one does it perfect out of the gate except for weird savants who are just destined to do the right thing no matter what. For the rest of us schlubs, it takes work. It takes practice. It takes making those mistakes. (There is nothing wrong with either way, talent can matter as much as experience.)
Regardless, here’s how I create an adventure for my players:
Step 0: Take Stock
You’re ready to create! You’ve got your tunes, fired up your machine, the ground around you is littered with rulebooks, and you’ve been psyching yourself up all day. You’re ready. Good. Now ignore all of that. You are not ready yet. You must take stock. You must inventory your assets first – even if it’s only a wheelbarrow. At least that would be something. No, you need to begin at the beginning. (I know, I know, how many Princess Bride references can this guy pull? ALL OF THEM. Every single one.) You need to take stock of the player characters, the non-player characters, and the previous actions of both – basically, the adventures done before. Why? Because it will inform you of what the PCs might do in similar situations and how you should have the NPCs react. Now this is less important for campaigns that are … I don’t want to say “simpler” because that would do disservice to games like Dungeon Fantasy or Monster Hunters. Let’s call them “basic and purposeful” games aka beer and pretzels. In such games you can get away with just knowing your PCs and doing improv for the rest, but for campaigns where things are supposed to link up in some way or do callbacks you need to think a bit more. That’s why the first step before all others (the one that is so integral it’s literally step zero), is to know thy players and thy setting. All other steps rely on this most foundational of information. Things you should consider for characters is their personality and how they react to things, their basic combat ability, noteworthy talents or features, and the ties they have to NPCs, PCs, and previous adventures. NPCs do the same thing, but for PCs, and previous adventures should have their high notes listed (“We killed Vizzini!”). Once you have all this, proceed to step 1.
Step 1: The Brain Barrage
Ok. Now psych yourself up because here comes the creative part. The active part about brainstorming (e.g., the brain barrage) varies from person to person, but the way I handle it is as follows:
- I open four to six random documents, books, files, etc. and flip them to a random page. I do this with webpages too.
- I open a random movie, music, or other video and put it in the background.
- I settle in to my workspace by feeding the cats, getting snacks and drinks ready, and otherwise making it so I don’t need to leave the keys for a bit.
- I have a document open for the campaign to reference from Step 0.
- I have open a notepad app for random ideas that are not put directly into the main document.
- I use either a word processor app (e.g., Microsoft Word) or a mind-mapper app (e.g., Scapple)
Once these six things are done I (and this is important) don’t force it. If you force creativity you get bad creations. Now you can encourage creativity and even put it on a schedule, but if the ink isn’t flowing don’t force it because all you’ll do is get blood all over your creation. (Ideas are easy – you’re in the easy part right now – formulation (see Step 2) is hard.) Just wait. Look over the random materials. Listen to your favorite tunes. Listen to new tunes. Meditate (no, seriously, this can help). Think of something else. The spark will come. It always comes to those who wait and listen. Boom! Like lightning there it is. Write it all down. Sketch it if you can do that. Write fast and make notes if you need to so you don’t forget parts of it. Don’t worry about spelling or getting it right. Get it down. That is what is important. That is what is needed right now and nothing else. Be free in this moment. It’s the best part. Enjoy it. Not all creation is grueling and painful. Art (and make no mistake about it, what you are doing right now is art) doesn’t need to have its creator suffer. (My personal mix is something between Zen meditation, anger-chained-to-passion, and sometimes things from my nightmares.)
But what if you didn’t? What if it doesn’t come? First, you’re stressing it and that means you’re forcing it. You can’t force it. You ever heard the term blood from a stone? You squeeze the stone till it bleeds and…that’s not what’s happening. Yeah, you’re squeezing the stone, but the blood is yours. Being in a good creative mood is a lot like sex. You need to be loose, a bit juicy, and open to trying things. Of course, lack of creative intent is also a lot like sex (and air) – it only matters when you’re not getting any. So how do you solve this problem? Well, the yips can happen to anyone and it takes all kinds to try and get back to shape. My only advice is to go do something else. Having the creative yips is your brain’s way of telling you it’s not yet ready. Listen to it. Go play with your pets. Bake a cake. Play a videogame. Do something with your hands that will also not occupy your mind. Let it wanders until your ready and then get back to your workspace and kill it, queen.
Step 2: The Formulation
Whew! That’s done. You’ve got a a boatload of information about your campaign’s next adventure, maybe some drawings, and a whole lot of ideas you want to implement. Now it’s time to turn them into something you can use. There are two ways you can go about this and I’m wholly for one over the other:
- Generic Implementation: You can organize your adventure notes as if you were an author writing for others. This is the high-energy option. This means seriously sitting down and doing an outline. It means taking avenues to places your players probably won’t go. It means writing up potentially throwaway NPCs. In short, it means work and the more you sweat here the less you sweat when the PCs do something unexpected because you’ve already thought of it. This is my preferred method for a lot of reasons, mostly because it lets me practice writing in a safe environment with the ability to go back and see where I failed, where I succeeded, and where I could have done better.
- Specific Implementation: You organize your adventure’s notes exactly for an audience of one: you. This is the low-energy option and is often the default mode for many GMs. They just prepare what they need and that’s it. They can wing the rest.
So now you’ve decided on your implementation and you’re off to the races. You can note information however you think is best, but I like to have “clusters” of notes so that everything needed for a scene appears close or next to each other so that it can be easily followed or understood. In general I like to do something like this:
- Overview: A short synopsis of what is going on.
- Pre-Adventure Information: Stuff about why the PCs might go on the adventure, what it means to get them there, and so on.
- Cast of Characters: With PCs and NPCs having separate headings and listed with a blurb of how they’re interacting with the adventure. Stats are important for NPCs, but I use abbreviated stats for all other NPCs.
- Adventure Parts: I like to go for a three act phase – beginning, middle, and end. Note all pertient information to the adventure and how it connects.
- Cartographs: Optional, but if you have a map make sure you make two – one to show the players and one for you.
- Events/Timeline: This one is important. Adventures don’t happen in a vacuum. The world will go on with or without the player characters and having a timeline for things to happen makes GMing that much easier.
- The Plot: The plot of what’s going on and how the PCs can influence it one way or another.
- Aftermath: Wrapping up the adventure. This is an ending and endings are hard.
Step 3: The Finish
Now that you’ve got a good bit on implementation for your adventure go back over it and pay special attention to the parts you know your players are going to interact with the most. If you have a chance for an NPC to be adopted by PCs who like to adopt characters, stat that NPC out. If your PCs like to shop in town, note what is available. And so on. Polishing up your notes – even if they are only a few hundred words is almost always going to pay off for you as the GM.
Picking Over the Bones
Take every single thing I just said with a grain of salt – creative processes vary from person to person. I do, however, hope that this window into mine is somewhat helpful to others. It’s taken me a long time to get here and this is what works for me.