Tips For New GMs Creating Campaign Outlines For The First Time

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0680

A Brief Word From Johnn

How I Like To GM

Been thinking about how I’d describe my GMing style. I’m sure my players will give you a different version than me. 🙂

Last night, after the game, I realized what I’ve been saying in the newsletter and what I’ve been doing at the game table are two different things. Let’s rectify that.

When I GM, based on reflection of actual gameplay, it’s a non-stop, pounding-ahead, game as fast as possible event.

I don’t take breaks, unless it’s to get another beer from the D&D beer fridge. I probably should rest, but our sessions are only about five hours long, and I don’t want to stop playing until the clock demands it and we’ve reached a good session end point.

I hate anything that delays the game. This is the biggest reason I have trouble GMing long-form published adventures. Modules with only brief descriptions, backgrounds, and details serve me well. But hit me with paragraphs of text in an encounter and I’ll fail to follow the script. And that means the adventure is off the rails – not because of my players, funnily enough, but because I don’t like to stop and read to study an adventure and glean its dependencies, transitions, and plot points.

What I should do is go through adventures ahead of time, like I’ve written about in the past, and highlight the important bits. I have done this. I’ve used Post-It Notes, Evernote, MyInfo, and index cards to “process” modules. Yet, I still seem to GM myself into a corner when the scripts present me with a specific plot chain I need to follow.


A pic from last session. The PCs are trying to rescue Kriv’s mother. The red die is a Flaming Orb. The green poker chips are additional trees. The blue tray on the right holds numbered chips to track foe wounds.

I seem to do best with Lego pieces, sandbox, a rough plot outline, and some Loopy Planning. This stuff I have talked about in RPT and actually do. Hey, waddyaknow, talking and walking the same thing! 🙂

Last session the custom campaign finally merged with the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure from Wizards that I’ve been prepping. I’ve been merging my plots with the adventure’s, tying PC details with adventure details, and embedding the module’s NPCs into my setting for the last three sessions.

Within the first hour of the session, I was already off-script. The adventure is sandboxy, definitely not a linear sequence of encounters. But I was adding details and extemporizing things mid-encounter. I was off-book within the first few pages, and I needed to bind what I was GMing back to the adventure at least twice.

One of my biggest GMing goals and pleasures is to make things interesting for my players. I do that a little through encounter design – though I need a lot of improvement there – and mostly through an evolving plot. So I’m happier reacting to player actions and GMing the consequences than trying to constantly wed what just happened to what needs to happen for a prefabricated adventure.

I don’t think this is the best way to GM or the poorest. It’s just understanding my preferences, how I think and do, and then working to those preferences in future games. Navel gazing is a worthy exercise. 🙂

How about you? Do you prefer a good, solid script to guide your GMing, or do you like more of an ad hoc approach? Drop me a note and let me know.

Murder Hobos S2E6: The Fall Of Feathergale Tower

Last session Kriv finally found his enslaved mother. However, it turned out not to be her, but someone who was her spitting image. The game ended with the party clearing Fort Frostfell and resting.

Session 6, which is #21 for the campaign as a whole, begins with the PCs giving chase to the orc they thought was Kriv’s ma. After running her down and taking her prisoner, they learn she’s the mother’s twin sister and she has Kriv’s actual mom in a nearby camp.


The group heads to the camp, which is near the edge of the Kryptgarden Forest and about a two hour walk from the fort.

While en route, the group witnesses something strange in the sky. Four warriors riding huge buzzards fly towards the party. They seem to be fleeing something. Then, from the treeline appears a large round shape flying after the buzzards. Riding what can now be seen as a zombie beholder is none other than Gar. (He’s the dead paladin’s former goblin squire transformed by prophecy into a demon hunter.) Gar points his sword and gives a battlecry. His sword spits a long line of dripping flame and singes a buzzard’s tail feathers.

As Gar flies over the Hobos he gives them a friendly wave and yells hi. Then he’s gone, diving and weaving into the distance with his chase.

Cloned Again

Bemused, the group enters the nearby Kryptgarden Forest and tracks down the camp. They see Kriv’s mother tied up near the fire guarded by three mercenaries – a dwarf death priest, a human thug, and a noble wearing a bird mask. The Hobos attack and get a few shots in. Then the man in the mask casts fireball on the party. Oh no! But then Six the wizard counterspells the fireball. Aha! But then the man in the mask counterspells Six’s counterspell! It’s total mayhem and the players are cursing their bad luck that the NPC wizard had a counterspell.

The rest of the combat is quick. The thug goes down first. Then the death priest, who it turns out is a member of the Red Brands mercenary group that was harassing honest folk back in Phandalin. Finally, the masked man is slain by Roscoe’s legendary Kill Shot(tm).

Then, while searching bodies, the group discovers the man in the mask is another clone of the party’s wizard Six! No wonder the wizards had the same counter spells.

A Terrible Plot

The Murder Hobos bring the rescued orc (yup, the barbarian’s mom is an orc) back to Fort Frostfell to recover. She tells them a sad tale of betrayal. Her sister, Pitguriat, had tracked her down in Triboar and purchased her from the slave market. Not to free her though, but to instead use her as a sacrifice. Pitguriat seeks a powerful lord of some kind named The Yan. Apparently, The Yan is amassing a great hoard of treasure and magic through his evil minions. And The Yan will be sharing portions of his hoard to his most loyal followers.

So, Pitguriat figured she’d bring Kriv’s mom to The Yan and slay her, thus proving her loyalty and becoming a rich minion. Even the Murder Hobos are repelled by the evil plot.

Further conversation reveals Pitguriat was headed to a place called Feathergale Tower not too far from Fort Frostfell where she was going to going to meet The Yan.

The Hobos decide to pay this tower a visit.

Cart Trouble

Along the way, the group comes upon a farmer and his son trying to repair a broken cart. This brings back uncomfortable memories of weeks ago when Malchor murdered the last farmer whose cart was stuck in the mud. Hoping to redeem himself, Malchor – and the others – lend a hand. However, it’s a trap. The farmer and son turn into cambion demons.

The demons attempt to befriend Six and Malchor. But both Hobos shake off the magical compulsion and attack. The “farmer’s nag” turns out to be a nightmare. It rushes up to the demons, opens a planar gate, and the demons fly into the ethereal. As the PCs look around wondering what just happened, the demons emerge from the ethereal and shoot four rays of fire at the surprised Six. The wizard is badly burned. The party reacts, but the demons disappear again. Moments later, Malchor is struck by rays of fire, as the demons and nightmare emerge yet again.

This time, one cambion demands to know where Gar is. (Last session, the PCs were attacked by chasme demons looking to find the demon-hunting goblin, as well.) Roscoe tells them about the flyover, when it happened, and the last known direction the zombie beholder was flying in. Satisfied, the cambions depart, leaving the broken cart as treasure.

Feathergale Tower


Buzzard riders patrolling Feathergale Tower.
Source: Princes of the Apocalypse by Wizards

At dusk the Hobos finally see the object of their quest in the distance. But before they can reach the tower the buzzard riders are back. They fly in circles over the group, and the party ponders uneasily what to do. Then Six stands up and flashes the secret hand signal he learned from Kriv’s mom. Great thinking! This draws the knights to ground. They dismount and approach cautiously, returning the hand signal and asking what the PCs’ business is in this area.

The group replies they want to serve The Yan. Roscoe offers three cheap gold rings as the intended gift for the lord. The knights bristle in offense, so the rogue pulls out a valuable signet ring taken from Pitguriat bearing a symbolized version of the secret signal. This satisfies the knights who agree to let the group into the tower.

At dawn, the Hobos gird loins and approach the tower. A drawbridge is lowered across a chasm, allowing passage. However, Six reads the minds of their guard escorts and learns the group is being lead into a trap. This is all the Hobos need to justify murder, and they seize the initiative.

Tower Assault

Feathergale Tower is four stories tall. Using magic, the group climbs quickly up the sides of the tower instead of going through the front gates. The Hobos pour into the windows on the third level and begin butchering.

After a long assault, the tower is full of bodies.

And the Hobos rejoice.

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We end the session there, with much looting.

The Yan is nowhere to be found, and four buzzard riders managed to escape.

The Yan will not be pleased.

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RPT Turns 16

LinkedIn reminded me Roleplaying Tips’ birthday is this month. I started grinding out the weekly newsletter November 1999. The first issue was RPT#1: Mapping Dilemma – How To Stop Your Players From Yawning.

I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d make it to RPT#680. But because of you, I did, and the newsletter is still going strong! Thanks to your tips, feedback, ideas, criticisms, and support over the years, RPT and you have helped hundreds of thousands of GMs!

According to Google Analytics, the website in the last year alone was visited by 255,964 different people. Multiply that by 16 years, and then account for gamers who visit for several years, and I’m not sure – maybe a million gamers served by my tips and yours? That’s pretty awesome.

So thank you again for reading. And for sharing. You really are making a difference to our hobby and helping GMs have more fun at every game.

Need Village Plots? Get’em Here

Last week I started a quick thread with Patrons about what kinds of shenanigans villagers could get up to. Check out the conversation to get some great plot ideas for your next village encounters.

Get your village plots here — Patron Brainstorm: Village Plots

Ok. It’s time to dig into this week’s GMing tips. Have a great week. This is issue #4 of the month, so RPT#681 will hit your inbox December 7. See you again then.


Thanks to this month’s awesome new Roleplaying Tips Patrons: Brakeing Down Security Podcast, Levi Snow, Devin Parker, John Easley, Fredrik Rosberg, Taran, robert richards, Matt Ashcraft, Allan Kapkowski, Garry Gullett, Frivalszky Péter, Chuck Dee, Dom, Devon Apple, Jon, and Jared Griffith!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

New GM Tips

From Bill Collins

Regarding campaign outlines, I’m probably the worst possible person to ask because I don’t do this. I just set up a sandbox and run with it. Usually I have a clear idea of some events I would like to happen and who the PCs will encounter along the way.

I sat down and thought about what worked for me as a starting GM. Mind you, I started around 1981 with B1: Caves of Chaos. Here’s what I’d suggest:

Run A Starter Campaign

Like a starter home, you design a short series of adventures for X players that will last Y sessions. I suggest four players for the best interactions, five for when a friend wants to show and you would like more laughs, and enough of an adventure that it feels like a movie when you look at the outline.

“We go kill orcs now and take their stuff!” is a fun session.

“We go and find out who is stopping the caravans from reaching town!” is like a TV episode.

“We went in search of the caravan bandits. We found orcs guarding an ancient and terrible secret. We stopped them on the edge of town by the skin of our teeth with a great plan. Sadly, we lost Giles and Seth. The Aldermen gave us each the town’s highest award, and a feast in our honor.” That’s a movie.

Embrace The Unexpected

Players will come up with all sorts of things no GM can anticipate. This is part of the fun! You get to create a spontaneous story.

So when they say “Can I do…this?”, think about it. Will it break anything fundamental about your Universe? If they want to Summon Galactus when they’re in a fantasy universe, or Get Help From Dumbledore when on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, yes, that’s breaking something fundamental. Short of that, will what they want to do make sense, fit within the game, and be fun or cool? If so go for it.

Rally When Challenged

New GMs need to get experience somewhere. They run games to get it. Players will challenge a new GM with something out of the blue. Typically an odd interpretation of a rule to be able to do something that benefits them in that moment.

A fair response is “I’ll look it up.” Take a couple minutes no more. If it’s too hard to find, move on to a good response.

A good response is, “Here’s what you can do. After play ends, I’ll look this up and rule on how it’s going to be in the future.”

A great response comes when you know the exact rules in question and you can answer with sharpness and precision. Play moves on!

Finish Your Starter Campaign

Take notes if you’re a note taker. Or start a notebook full of ideas. Both if it suits.

If the game ends and at least one player wants more, you did well. That means take on the bigger ideas that occurred while you ran this game. You can run game after game after game over 30 years and always find something better to do.

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Creating A Campaign Outline

From Jeremy Brown

For me, the best way is to find the central theme and pivot point for the campaign first. It might be as simple as yuan-ti overrunning an empire and subtly manipulating things from behind the scenes (my last campaign) to as complex as a vampire scion of an ancient dynasty seizing the throne and destroying artifacts to transform the kingdom into a realm of undead (a fantasy game I ran years ago).

In both cases, I had either the villain and the primary plot, or I had a thematic monster. Imagining how the villain would reach his or her goal or imagining how the thematic monster would infiltrate the campaign gives me a lot of starting off places. This goes nicely with your start small and simple suggestion that you already gave as you don’t have to have every step worked out.

After I have my pivot point, or my theme, I look at possible modules I want to run, or I think about possible ideas I have for adventures. Do I want to run an adventure set in a giant iceberg? How’s that tie in to my villain’s plots or my thematic monster? If it doesn’t tie in, I keep it as a possible module anyway just to break up the theme. Then I continue on.

Once I have the first five or six adventure sites/plots together and have a starting point, I begin building those. Often, things that come up in the design of those adventures suggest other places to go. Is there a cursed item? How does that curse serve the villain or thematic monsters? Is there a big dam that keeps getting mentioned? Could my bad guys blow up the dam? These sorts of considerations drive a lot of the idea.

As a newbie GM, I think the best advice is don’t plan your campaign over much. You are overwhelmed by mere running dilemmas. Setting up an over-ambitious story can sometimes handicap you as a new GM. It’s ok to just run an episodic game where the heroes travel from place to place battling evil. If it turns out there is a master villain somewhere back of all this, great! If not, your players will still have fun, and once you are more confident at running, then you can design for the big story.

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Don’t Hit The Panic Button Yet – Tricks To Unstuck Yourself When Improvising

From Aesma Daeva

Having a mental block when GMing can be one of the worst scenarios you can face. There are a lot of articles on how to plan your adventures and how to improve your fast-thinking, but once you are there, many people agree sometimes you just have to hit the panic button and say to your table: “Hey, let me take 15 minutes. I’m stuck, I didn’t expected the events to unfold this way.”

Still, there are a couple of tricks you can pull off to buy time to regain control before doing that. I want to share some of the tricks I pull to conceal to my players I’m improvising or that I have lost almost all control of the game. Having said that, sometimes you have no choice but to smash the red panic button with all the might of your fist.

This article was inspired by Johnn’s 10 Easy Ways To Think On Your Feet Better to help you keep control when the players take you off-guard.

I would be glad to read the techniques you use on your table, because no matter how many years of GMing experience we have, there will always be a time when you will stop, reflect, and accept to yourself with resignation and a cold feeling in your spine, “I’m stuck and am about to panic.”

Slow Down Your Pace

One trick many storytellers use (and I’m not talking only about RPG Storytellers) is to speak slowly to keep attention and build tension. As humans, we want to get information as soon as possible. And when we can’t have it, the narrator will have all of our attention. Think of it as when you are telling gossip with your friends. “Yesterday I witnessed something so horrible that I’m still finding it hard to believe… you wouldn’t guess who was involved.” This will always be more interesting than saying “Yesterday Tim crashed. It was a very showy crash, but he is alright and unscratched.”

Slowing down your pace will make you seem more interesting, and more confident on your descriptions. It will also buy you time to think on your feet when you face an unexpected situation.

Learn To GM On Auto-Pilot

Ok, this one is tricky as you need to already have a considerable amount of experience GMing or at least be a sensitive person when it comes to identify the current energy of your table. Also, this technique won’t function for most groups of newbies.

For many years I always tried to keep the story moving and the action or drama flowing. I used to stop unconstructive discussions right away and tried to knock the players with a plot twist or dramatic event whenever they were getting distracted in irrelevant activities.

That is, until one player told me, “What’s the rush? Sometimes we cannot follow your pace as there are always things happening.” And I answered, “Well, I just keep things moving whenever the game gets stuck or when I feel you are starting to get upset or heated with the discussion.” And she answered, “Yes, but from our perspective we are actually having fun and none of us is getting angry or upset. Sometimes we are so immersed in our characters that it might seem as we are arguing or diverging, but we are actually enjoying every moment.”

From that moment on, I’ve planned my adventures and campaigns the best as I can, but I try to use them just as a back-up plan to unstuck things if the energy at the table drops. Whenever I see players are having fun while deciding what to do next or planning to do something “irrelevant” for what I prepared, I let them take the reins and I ride along with them, just boosting and injecting with energy the same ideas they throw. The things I prepare are just the auto-pilot for when the players have run out of ideas or are getting bored.

Unconsciously, we try to throw everything we prepared for the evening because we don’t like our work to be wasted. But the less we use from our material and use what the players put on the table instead, the less you will have to prepare material for the next session and the more time you can dedicate to adjustments and prepare new and exciting situations.

For this to happen, you have to think in terms of situations, decisions, and dramatic questions rather than plots and stories, but that’s a whole new subject that has already been covered in other sources.

Follow this advice, and you will be able to sit back, watch the show, and use that valuable time to think about your next steps once the energy begins to settle down.

Throw It Back To The Players

I’m going to expand Johnn’s 10 Easy Ways To Think On Your Feet Better Answer Questions With A Question. RPGs are collaborative games. Don’t refrain from letting your players participate in world building as well. When a player throws you a curve, ask him:

What’s your ultimate intention? What do you expect to get with that? What do you expect to find in that building? What kind of person are you looking for?

The player that throws a curve usually has a good idea to where he wants to lead the game. So ask questions to get a clear idea of what he is expecting. Try to flow with him instead of negating his intentions. Include his input in your adventure. You will see that, no matter how weird his intentions might seem, most of the time it is harmless stuff that will make him feel accomplished and will make him participate more in the future.

Example: if he enters a building you hadn’t planned to be important, ask him why he entered there, what does he expect to find. Keep questioning him until you feel comfortable:

“You enter the dusty building. It’s covered in webs and worn out furniture. What else do you find inside? Is it a hospital? Is it a warehouse? You tell me, describe the first hall.” (Meanwhile you give to some of the other players a secret post-it which reads: Write down a hazard).

Don’t worry, you are still the final arbiter to what’s there and what isn’t. So you can stop a player from stating, “I find a coffin with an epic sword of doomsday summoning.”

The same is true with NPCs and situations you didn’t plan. Give that control to the players. You don’t have to play all the NPCs all the time.

“Player 1 will be the king, Player 2 will be the queen, Player 3 will be his evil adviser, Player 4 will be the astrologist and Player 5 will be the cleric that watches for the poor. I’ll pass each of you a post-it with the motivation and goal of each character. You have 5 minutes to prepare yourself to run this scene. If you have any question you can consult me.”

Give Your Players Something To Be Busy

When my players engage in a scene I don’t feel I’m ready to run, I ask them to use minis and props to create the layout for the scene. This brings me some time to order my ideas. If you don’t have props, you can ask them to improvise with whatever they have on the table (bottles, pencils, erasers, paper).

You can also ask them to make drawings. For example, if they enter an antique store you hadn’t planned:

“You enter this flamboyant antiques store. There is a lot of interesting things all around, and each of you finds something unusual. Take a sheet of paper and draw what you find, and then each of you will explain your discovery afterwards.”

You can also ask players to improvise a small stage to one side of the table, to roleplay a particular scene, or to describe the layout for a combat or a chase (in which strategy will be important).

The important thing to take in consideration is that whatever you ask them to do, you will have to give it importance and relevance once you get back to the game. Otherwise, they will feel deceived and will feel their effort was in vain. Include all the details they built into your descriptions or else they will feel reluctant to do what you ask in the future. As always, use this technique with wisdom, because you don’t want to overwhelm your players and constantly stress them by forcing them to think on their feet.

Turn To Slow-Motion

This one is related to “Slow down your pace” but taken to the next level. Once you have learned to slow down your pace, your PCs won’t notice if you are improvising or if you are being dramatic.

Whenever you are facing an unexpected situation, don’t try to hitch the reins back to your comfort zone. Instead, embrace the unexpected and turn to slow motion to adapt to these new circumstances (speak slow, think fast).

For example, if your characters murder someone you never thought they would murder, turn to slow motion and go with the flow. The bomb already exploded, so make it as flashy as possible:

“The NPC opens his eyes wide as he feels your sword traversing his heart. You can see his astonishment and fear as his life slowly escapes from his body. Everything seems slow as in a dream. You hear the cries of some peasants as they realize your deed.”

Describing the scene this way will buy you time to think how to accommodate things.

Trigger Additional Events

If describing the scene in all detail doesn’t give you enough time, then pull some encounters or conflicts. Aside from the characters, locations, hooks, motivations, timelines, and all the things you usually take in consideration when preparing your session, it’s good to have an assortment of interesting events or conflicts that can be triggered anywhere at any time. A volcano erupts, a cart goes out of control amidst the streets, earthquakes, a golem escapes and goes on a rampage.

I know this principle as “When things are stuck, make something explode.” So prepare yourself with some bombs you can trigger when you need time to think.

If you didn’t prepare bombs ahead of time and you can’t think of any, don’t be afraid to use the arsenal you were saving for later (the main villain appears, the magic item finally awakens, the prophecy is fulfilled, the feared army finally attacks). Your only aim should be to keep the game flowing until the end of the session. You will have time later to justify these events, to re-accommodate things, and to create new dangers, hooks, and directions derived from these last happenings.


That you were chosen to be the GM doesn’t mean you have to hold the world on your shoulders. Learn how to delegate some of your work and you will have more time to think on your feet, all while your players feel more engaged with a world that has their ideas, their concepts, and their imagination printed on it.

These aren’t universal formulas. They are just the result of my experience and what I have realized with the tables I have played at. So please feel free to disagree, to comment, or to enrich with your own experience. =) I’d feel so glad to hear from you.