This is the fourth installment of New Gamemaster Month!
In New Gamemaster Month we’re helping players who feel the urge to run an RPG—to become a GM for the first time—take the plunge. If you’re just joining us, start with the first installment. Then join us every Tuesday and Thursday throughout January, and by the end of the month you’ll be a GM too!
On Tuesday, we started digging into the rules and setting of our games. Developing a basic fluency in these topics—without sweating the details too much—gives you a foundation for keeping your game sessions flowing at a brisk and enjoyable pace, and allows you to form and run with your creative ideas and those of your players without the distraction of wrestling with unfamiliar rules.
So if that’s the foundation, what do we build upon it? The adventure, of course!
What Is an Adventure, Really?
An RPG adventure is a planned series of events that give a backbone to the story you, and especially your players, will unfold around the gaming table. As you develop your skill and experience as a GM, you might take great pleasure in crafting your own adventures. Or you might prefer to save yourself the effort and use the many fun and imaginative adventures already created for your convenience. Many GMs do both—they run published adventures when they have little prep time or are particularly inspired by the adventures’ ideas, and they make their own when they have the time and inspiration to do so.
Creating your own adventures isn’t hard. The amount of work required varies from game system to game system, but generally isn’t insurmountable. It’s a slightly different skill set than GMing in general, though, so it’s outside the scope of the New Gamemaster Month program. We’re going to go with a published adventure, to focus on the actual GMing process rather than the design process.
Before you flip open your adventure, let’s talk a bit about what an adventure consists of. Adventures can be highly detailed, or amount to little more than a few notes, but they all have a few things in common:
- An initial set of circumstances (an isolated village in the wilderness; a caravan encountered on the road; a treasure map that suggests a trip into the mountains). Often, a published adventure will offer a variety of “hooks” for involving player characters (suggestions for why they might come across that isolated village in the wilderness, for example).
- A conflict that compels the players to become involved (villagers have recently been disappearing; the caravan driver offers a big reward to help fend off local marauders; the treasure map hints at great riches).
- An outline of how the adventure’s story is likely to unfold. Sometimes the outline is very linear (event A leads to event B, which leads to event C). Sometimes the outline is “squishier,” with few or no assumptions about the order of events. And sometimes the outline takes the form of a map: The classic D&D dungeon is basically an adventure outline, with the passages and tunnels indicating how the events might connect to each other. The outline might be drawn out like a flow chart (or, again, take the form of a map), or it might just be a list of encounter descriptions. That takes us to:
- A set of encounters, or scenes. An encounter is a point at which something happens, and, typically, where the characters learn or gain something that moves their story forward. Encounters might involve combat, or a trap, or social interaction, a period of exploration, or some sort of environmental challenge.
- Finally, an adventure contains details on creatures, characters, and items the player characters will interact with during their encounters. This might include stats for creatures, descriptions about personality, appearance, and motivation for non-player characters, maps of adventure areas, lists of “loot” and other interesting in-game items the characters interact with, and illustrations of places, characters, or events.
Those are the components of any complete adventure. They might take the form of a 96-page book with thousands of words of detail, along with dozens of maps and images. Or they might amount to a few scribbled notes on a sheet of paper. Either way can suit the purpose just fine.
So if those are the basic ingredients, what does it take to make a really tasty meal out of them? A great adventure:
- Often has an element of mystery, or even a plot twist somewhere in the middle. That initial conflict was compelling, but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg!
- Has some element of story—often a very strong narrative—but doesn’t rely on or expect a specific course of action from the players.
- Usually has a variety of activities in it: Fighting, negotiating, exploring, working out puzzles or mysteries.
- But also plays to the interests of the players and the strengths of the characters. Players who love fast-paced action may become bored by an adventure that’s heavily focused on intrigue and social interaction. And a character that’s great at climbing, crawling, and sneaking around won’t get a chance to shine in an adventure that’s a series of straight-up combat scenes.
It’s time to get to the specifics of your first adventure as a GM.
A Little Reading
Read Taker of Sorrow, on pages 363-375.
A Little Thinking
As you read it, think about the elements discussed above—both the fundamental building blocks, and the factors that make an adventure fun and successful. See if you recognize those elements in the adventure. Maybe you’d like to hop into the New Gamemaster Month Facebook group and talk about them with experienced GMs and other folk, like you, who are exploring GMing for the first time.
And a Little Talking
But that’s not your only activity. As mentioned above, an adventure works best if it plays to the interests and expectations of the players. So have a chat with them. Ask them what they expect and want out of the game. Some players will be happy to go on at length. Others might not really know what they want, or be able to articulate it. In some cases, you may have gamed with the player before, and perhaps already have a good sense of his or her play style. That’s all fine. The goal here is to put yourself in a position in which you can best prepare for a game that everyone will find memorable.
Don’t press your players on this—many gamers don’t really care to think about a game too much before they sit down at the table with a character sheet in front of them. But if you have players who are eager to think ahead about the game to come, you might tell them about shin obligation, and share some of the personal hooks, and other reasons to be involved in the adventure, given on page 365. And of course they aren’t limited to talking to you—they’re welcome to discuss their character ideas with one another beforehand, too.
Let us know how it goes in the New Gamemaster Month Facebook group. And talk to you again on Tuesday!
Throughout this program, we have expert GMs on hand to answer questions and provide general support at the New Gamemaster Month Facebook group. Please drop in, join the group, introduce yourself, and ask any questions you might have. Other new GMs will also be there—it’s a great place to share your experiences and support one another. Hope to see you there!