“I only have 30 minutes to prepare for a game” What do you do?

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0642

A Brief Word From Johnn

Roleplaying Tips State of the Union 2015

I posted an epic ramble 38 minutes long for Roleplaying Tips Patrons on the current state of things with Roleplaying Tips.

The news and announcements were for Patrons, but as a subscriber you might be interested too.

I show some behind-the-scenes stuff about producing the newsletter. I also talk about upcoming topics that will appear in newsletters. And I also reveal near the end something crazy called the Adamantine level for Patrons.

Here’s the link if you have 38 minutes to kill or if you are having trouble getting to sleep:

Click here to read update on Roleplaying Tips

Want More Sub-Races?

What did you think of the 20 elf sub-races table from Jesse Cohoon last issue?

I’m wondering if I should ask Jesse to turn it into a series.

Would you like to see more? If so, what race types?

Get some gaming done this week. We are set to play our 5E game again on Friday. Woohoo!


“I only have 30 minutes to prepare for a game” What do you do?

Below are tips and ideas on how to panic and get ready for a game with only 30 minutes to prepare.

I’m going to assume you don’t just wing it 100%. That requires no prep time except to go to the store to buy snacks. 🙂

Instead, I’m going to say you GM like me, where you want some ideas, notes, and rough plans, because you like a safety net and enjoy having at least some material to riff off of during the session.

Before I dig into general tips and some advice from a G+ thread I started on the topic, here’s exactly what I’d do with my 30 minutes:

Johnn’s 30 Minute Panic Attack

Pick A Setting

If the game does not already have a place, I make the setting a small village.

Villages in the wilderness reduce the amount of world details needed and questions players might have.

For example, if you put the PCs in a city, they will want to know the names of businesses, districts, streets, and more. In a village, there’s a dozen buildings, no districts, no street names. Simplicity rules the day and makes my life easier.

I could throw the PCs naked in a dungeon and be done with it. But I likes me my NPCs as supporting cast. A village lets me introduce all kinds of NPCs – locals and strangers. So all options remain open here.

Finally, I don’t know what kind of adventure the players want. In a village I can offer roleplay, nearby dungeons, and wilderness. Plus, the village usually becomes the default home base, giving some stability and recurring people and places to make life easier during the game.

Create Two Villains

The party needs a focus. An easy focus is an enemy doing something bad the PCs need to stop.

I’d create two villains.

Do you know what a bolo is? The weapon with a rock tied to either end of a cord you throw to tangle someone’s legs up?

I want the bolo effect on the party.

With two villains, I get an instant dynamic. There’s enough complexity to get the players scratching their heads and thinking, while two is simple enough to GM without much prep. Also, the villains can oppose each other and sometimes help each other, while the PCs get caught in the middle.

Give Villain #1 a goal. Let’s say he’s the Baron’s son who’s in love with the tavern waitress, but she thinks he’s a cruel jerk, which he is.

Give Villain #2 a different goal. Let’s say it’s an evil dragon getting tormented by knights on a crusade.

Next, create the cord – tie the villains together. Just a single, tentative strand is enough for now. Gameplay will strengthen the cord if by no other means than the PCs’ presence.

Let’s say the Baron has hired the knights to kill the dragon because the lizard is killing his villagers and destroying crops. That ties the dragon indirectly to the Baron’s son.

Before I leave this step, I start thinking of a twist. Just let it run in the back of your mind as you plan and game. A twist idea might never appear, that’s ok. But if a twist does come to mind, then you’ve got a cool story angle ready.

Figure Out Encounter Inventory

In your games right now, note how long on average it takes to run a combat, a roleplaying encounter, and a 5 Room Dungeon or small dungeon.

For us, combats take about 30 minutes, roleplaying encounters take 10, and small dungeons take a couple hours.

With 30 minutes to prep, I’d estimate session length. Say, 5 hours.

Then I’d create a bullet list of encounter types I’d like to see. Say, 6 combats, 6 roleplaying encounters, a small dungeon. That’s 3 hours (6 x 30 mins) + 1 hour (6 x 10 minutes) + 2 hours for the dungeon. A total of 6 hours.

Wait, that’s too much. My budget is 5 hours. And gameplay always offers more encounters than you plan for. So, let’s tweak our encounters to 4 combats, 4 roleplaying encounters, 1 dungeon. 2 hours + 40 minutes + 2 hours. That’s still too many, but it at least gives us a framework.

Now that I know my encounter types and quantity, I make that bullet list:

  • Roleplay:
  • Roleplay:
  • Roleplay:
  • Roleplay:
  • Combat:
  • Combat:
  • Combat:
  • Combat:
  • Dungeon:

Inventory is ready for details.

Create Encounter One-Liners

Now I take my encounter inventory and write a one-line hook for each.

I already have my place: a village. That helps a lot. It gives me an idea of the general area and possibilities. It also helped me figure out appropriate villains for by bad guy bolo.

So now I mine any details I’ve come up with for hooks. That will fill in some encounters right away, leaving me with just a few others to figure out.

The first thing we do is make a one-line encounter for each villain:

  • Dragon
  • Baron’s son

Our story also contains three other characters so far. Let’s use them all:

  • Tavern waitress
  • Baron
  • Knights on crusade bugging dragon

Now let’s consider the dungeon. It strikes me there’s an obvious one here: the dragon’s lair.

But wait. I just had a funny thought. What if the dragon was in the Baron’s keep and the Baron didn’t know it?

How could that be possible?

Well, let’s say underneath the keep are caverns, and the exit the dragon uses is a few hundred yards down a tunnel into the forest.

Great, the dungeon has a location. Pieces are starting to fall into place.

Even if no clever ideas are coming to you at this point, you’ve still got your encounter list. Players will likely hypothesize some good twists during the session. Steal one of those.

Meantime, we always want to introduce the conflicts to the PCs as soon as possible. I prefer to do this directly in encounters.

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Villain #1

Conflict #1 is the Baron’s son harassing the waitress. That sounds like a great roleplay encounter. And a great way to kick off the session.

But what if the PCs attack? Ok, let’s give the jerk a few henchmen. The Baron’s son will try to flee. If the PCs capture him, what then?

Well, what has the party got, really? A guy with bad manners. Not much else. So I’m not going to spend any time on this possibility.

What if the PCs kill the jerk? Well now, that’s an interesting development. Hmmm. I’d say we escalate to the Baron. He’ll have feelings on the matter. He’s also paying a band of knights. Even if that serendipitous option wasn’t available, I’d give the Baron some guards who would become Spotlight NPCs now, chasing after the PCs and bringing them to justice.

Ok, I’ve got my opener. It introduces a villain and his conflict. And I’ve thought of a couple predictable contingencies where murder hobo PCs are concerned.

Hey, I just thought of another idea. What if the waitress falls in love with a PC? Or the knight leader? Interesting! I’ll keep that in my back pocket for now.

Villain #2

For villain #2, I also want to introduce that conflict right away through an encounter. I could have the dragon attack the PCs. Or have a parley. But instead, I want to keep that confrontation for later, to build up the drama.

So I need to introduce the conflict of the dragon doing evil things to the village another way.

When you can’t confront something directly, you introduce evidence. So, what evidence would there be of the dragon’s evil activities? Let’s turn that into an encounter.

Perhaps the PCs see a burning farm. A farmer carries an injured boy, screams for help. He’ll tell the PCs all about the dragon attack on him farm, and how his wife died from acid breath, and his youngest son was hit too but needs a healer’s attention.

This sounds like a good roleplaying type encounter. Plus, the farmer can answer the party’s inevitable questions about the area, who’s in charge, what’s been happening lately, and where can you get a good ale around here.

Paired Encounters

Another great thing we can do is have paired encounters. Number one is a roleplaying encounter. Then time passes. Then number two is a combat encounter with the same NPC. This re-uses your NPCs efficiently. It also builds tasty stories. The sequence generates build-up, anticipation, and familiarity. It creates the feeling of depth and immersion when all you’ve done is arrange a paired sequence.

Let’s anticipate a roleplaying encounter with the Baron’s son and then a combat with him and his henchmen. Also, let’s do the same for the knights.

At the least, this gives the party tactical information ahead of time so they can invest session time planning and thinking, if they want. In my games, this often creates great intra-party roleplaying “encounters.

Here’s our encounter inventory fleshed out a bit (note, the order does not matter right now, we just want encounter ideas and enough ideas to fill a session):

  • Roleplay: Farmer attacked by dragon, son needs healing, farmer tells of dragon
  • Roleplay: Baron’s son harasses waitress with henchmen egging him on
  • Roleplay: Knights
  • Roleplay:
  • Combat: Knights
  • Combat: Baron’s son
  • Combat:
  • Combat:
  • Dungeon: Dragon’s lair

Our inventory is filling up!

Adding More Details

We’ve got Villain #1 – the Baron’s son – doing bad things to Victim #1. But the PCs have not yet interacted much with Victim #1, they’ve just intervened or not. So, let’s create a private roleplaying encounter with the waitress. She can fill the PCs on backstory about the Baron’s son and any other details we might want, such as another plot hook.

Keeping things simple and our core self-generating gameplay, let’s have the waitress have another problem, apart from unwanted overtures, and she’ll ask the PCs for help.

Villages have trails or roads leading to them. Using my free ebook for RPT subscribers, 1,372 Roadside Encounter Ideas, I randomly pick one idea:

#113 On a bridge, the PCs hear the roar of water much louder than the river they cross. Then the river level drops. Sounds of combat upstream reach the PCs’ ears. At the battle site, mercenaries are trying to capture a water elemental. The elemental is good-aligned and will appeal to the party for help. The mercenaries, if aided, will not split their bounty from the wizard who hired them. The elemental, if rescued, will reward the party with random treasures from the river bottom, but the PCs acquire the enmity of the wizard who posted the bounty.

Now I need to connect this with the waitress. Ok, instead of mercenaries, it’s her older brother and a few other village youths.

Always Pick A Leader

Every group needs a leader. So when I read “mercenaries” I ask, who’s the leader? And in this case, it’s not mercenaries but a group of village boys. So I ask, who’s the leader?

It could be the brother. But I like to stir the plot. So instead, the group is lead by the brother’s best friend because I have an idea the best friend is in love with the waitress too, and that gives us a great motive for this situation.

Always Create Love Triangles

Back to our idea, we know the leader, now we ask Why? The idea gives us one answer: treasure. But that’s shallow, pun intended. Here’s a better idea: the leader wants to prove himself to the waitress. Anytime I see romance in a plot, I create a triangle. Now we’ve got our triangle:

Brother’s Best Friend < => Waitress < => Baron’s Son

Now, how do we hook the PCs? Well, the waitress wants to save her brother’s life because the fool is off to fight a water elemental. Unless the PCs do something to lose her trust, they’ll be the only people she can turn to because….

Hmmm, good question. Well, there’s urgency. She could try to round up a bunch of locals, but the PCs are right there, armed, in a group. Let’s go with that and adapt during the game if this does not prove out.

Beginning, Middle, End

Every encounter has a beginning, middle, and end. When the PCs hear about the water elemental and treasure, the roleplaying encounter with the waitress will likely end. So we don’t want to introduce that right away, or our roleplaying encounter will be over in five seconds. We need a beginning and middle for a good few minutes of roleplaying.

Likely a PC will approach her after the encounter with the jerk. If not, she’ll serve the PCs their drinks (on the house) and strike up a conversation. Let’s give her some gossip to share and tease out during the encounter. If the players roleplay well, they get some juicy details.

Make Gossip

Gossip should always involve our existing cast of characters. Pick any two characters and create a true or false connection. For example, knight leader and Baron. What secret might they have? I write some ideas down, not caring about true/false right now. If stuck, use Tarot cards or a tool like Rory’s Story Cubes or an online generator. Here’s a few single word possibilities: lovers, robbery, bastard.

I pick two other characters. The Brother’s Best Friend and the Farmer. More words: sheep, murder, feud.

However, the smart money is on the PCs asking about known major characters and taking a keen interest in them. I can’t know who the PCs will have met in advance for the waitress to gossip about, so I just create three lines of three words to use ad hoc during the session:

  • Gossip seeds #1: betrayal, fear of snakes, property deed
  • Gossip seeds #2: rival, cheating, infection
  • Gossip seeds #3: impotent, card game, ogre

Here’s our updated encounter inventory:

  • Roleplay: Farmer attacked by dragon, son needs healing, farmer tells of dragon
  • Roleplay: Baron’s son harasses waitress with henchmen egging him on
  • Roleplay: Knights
  • Roleplay: Waitress needs PCs to save brother from water elemental
  • Combat: Knights
  • Combat: Baron’s son
  • Combat: Water elemental vs. village boys
  • Combat:
  • Dungeon: Dragon’s lair

Just one combat hook left to create.

Let’s just generate a random one. We can work out how to integrate it during gameplay. It’s a floater game piece.

I get “Giant Bee”. Great. Done.

5 Room Dungeon

With just half an hour to get ready, I’ll use the 5 Room Dungeon template to quickly make the dragon’s lair:


We know the entrance is a tunnel hidden in the forest. A sneaky dragon would arrange a dangerous beast to live nearby, one that would be no threat to the dragon but would be to nosy villagers. I grab my monster book and pick a critter.

Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge

The tunnel is trapped. The dragon knows what spots to avoid the pit trap and poisoned darts. Hey, let’s throw in a giant stone rolling ball. The PCs can use the pit trap to escape injury.


The dragon can seal the opening to his cavern. If the dragon is in when the PCs arrive, he can seal himself in his cave. If the dragon is out, he’ll be coming back just around the time the PCs enter the cavern….


Dragon fight!

Reward/Plot Twist

This one’s easy. The twist is the lair is under the Baron’s keep. I’ll add a secret passage from the dragon’s lair to the keep to make that fact discoverable. I’ll also add a bit of long-forgotten treasure here – some gold, a couple potions, and something wondrous, draped on the skeleton of the person trapped in the passage for reasons unknown (I’ll roll randomly for treasure during the session).

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With all the major pieces in place, start fleshing out the details until you run out of time.

You might start with the stuff that gives you the most problems. For example, you might struggle with drawing maps on-the-fly. Or with NPC personalities. Or with combat.

Me? I’ll start with the encounter that will trigger first. I’ll make sure I feel confident about that. Great session starts make the rest of the night go smoother for me.

Also, the first encounter is the only encounter I control. After it triggers, the PCs choose what to do next. So time spent here will for sure be well-spent in-game.

First encounters also set the hook, tone, and anticipation. They are like concierges. So if I get encounter #1 GM’d right, my other work is more likely to pay off.

Then I’d touch each encounter in my inventory. Flesh it out a bit. Generate NPCs, monsters, items as needed. Add a couple details to each encounter and move to the next.

I keep cycling through my encounter inventory, adding new details until time ran out.

Wrapping Up

This sounds like a bit of work and would not fit within 30 minutes. But that’s because I’ve probably over-explained a few things.

Start with setting. That’s your snow globe for the adventure. Stay inside the glass.

Then figure out how many encounters you’ll likely need for the session.

Then use encounter development to develop your plot at the same time.

As you add more details, you spot more connections you can make to close loops and make things tighter. But these are just bonuses.

Ok, here are a few more tips from me and other fine GMs.

Get Your Spheres Set Up Before You Get Stuck For Time

When you have the campaign and game world planning already done, you can then just focus on the upcoming encounters for each session.

This cuts drastically down on your prep time, even if you are a detail-oriented GM.

Using my 5 Buckets Model, get your Cast of Characters, Quartermaster, and Gazetteer fleshed out as much as you can as soon as you can.

You can then draw on these details anytime for faster encounter ideas and Loopy Planning.

Another useful tool here is 9 Spheres Of Influence – My Broad RPG Planning Checklist.

Get the first 7 spheres of your 9 spheres of influence dealt with before campaign start to speed up session prep.

Plan Just What You Need

In the perfect GMing world, you plan only what you need for next session. If you have extra time, great, flesh out the adventure, campaign, or game world a bit, or do some inspirational reading.

Depending on the directions your PCs can choose to go, planning specific encounters further in advance increases the risk of wasted time. Things change over time – NPCs, PCs, locations, plots, challenge levels, capabilities – and the older an unused encounter is, the greater the chance it’ll need updating or need to be written off completely.

Dungeon crawls and other fixed location-based encounters are an exception. Even then, you’re better off planning the environment and content inventory, rather than specific situations, unless each encounter is somehow firewalled from PC decisions and actions.

For example, the PCs could raise the alarm, in which case it would have been better planning who dwells in the dungeon and might respond, instead of planning the exact situation of every room in advance, many of which will now be empty or in an alert state.

Planning just what you need is an old tip from Dragon’s Dungeoncraft column, but it’s a good one.

Who’s Attending?

It’s important to know who’s showing up next game session when building encounters. I’ll often hook or hinge an encounter on one or more PCs or players, and if key players are absent, those encounters don’t live up to their potential. I’d rather spend more planning time on characters with attending players.

Knowing who’ll be at the game table helps me plan more efficiently, and ensures encounter planning time is spent to best in-game effect.

If an encounter goes unused, I’ll go over it again before the next session it’s to be triggered, and add in stuff as needed for players not previously factored into the planning.

I rarely take planned elements out because of unexpected game table vacancies – the player just gets to hear about their character’s spotlight time and awesome moments from the others next session. 🙂

Determine Special Cases For Next Session

What are likely admin, accounting, shopping, treasure management, level-up, and other non-core adventure activities likely to occur next game?

How long, in your experience, will these administrivia things take?

For example, if last session ended with finding a treasure horde, you know it’s going to take at least a quarter hour to examine, bicker, and divvy up the loot.

Use these types of situations to do a bit of bonus planning mid-game. It’s like free time for you to work on your own stuff while the players do their thing.

Another special case is the puzzle encounter. It might be an actual dungeon puzzle, or it could take the form of group discussion how to assault the bandit leader’s hideout.

Puzzle encounters give you free time to get extra planning and brainstorming done. You can also use in-game time to connect lose ends that just came up during play, to extend them into new encounters. Use Loopy Planning for this.

You should also have an idea whether you overestimate or underestimate encounter times. I tend to underestimate – encounters often take longer to play out than I anticipated – which I think is better than overestimating and getting caught unprepared.

The best way to find this out is to actually start timing your encounters. Keep a simple log in your notes:

  • Bugbears: 17 mins
  • Tavern chat: 6 mins
  • Farmer’s cart: 32 mins

After the session, categorize the encounters:

  • [Combat] Bugbears: 17 mins
  • [RP] Tavern chat: 6 mins
  • [RP] Farmer’s cart: 32 mins

Once you’ve got 30 or so encounters timed and categorized, go back and calculate averages. Now you’ve got a data-based assessment to use when you’ve only got half an hour to prep a session.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

From Bryan Natoli

Find my old random charts and start rolling for everything: location, weather, time, NPC, monsters, and possible story lines.

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From Kyle Maxwell

Make sure donjon is up. 🙂

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From John McMullen

Figure out what the conflict is…usually what the villain wants. Throw some pregen villain characters or a villains book in my bag, in case I can use one of them. The conflict could be the root of the whole thing, or just enough to get them involved. In the latter case, they will probably invent the rest. Whenever they say, “I hope that x isn’t the case,” I see if I can make x the case.

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From Michael Barry

Given that I’m winging it in many games to some degree, since we don’t know who can make it each session, people might find our system of some benefit.

There are always two or three story threads available to the players each time, with flexibility in which to choose (even to the extent of flashback or, rarely, flash forward). Start with synopsis of last session, then Retconning from those who weren’t present last session (e.g., “I recovered the supplies from the citadel, then caught up with you.”)

We borrow the system of Interludes from Savage Worlds, where the PCs have a “campfire chat” drawing a card. The suit indicates what type of backstory they tell for their character. For example, Clubs = violence; one of the characters attacked, perhaps even killed, a childhood friend and fled the consequences.

By this stage, I’ve had some time to plan adjacent areas and the characters have indicated a few adventure triggers and rough preferences for the direction in which to go. Past retconning, interludes and the overall sweep of the campaign usually leave us in agreement on where to go next.

Finally, failing all else, there’s the Mickey Spillane method for averting writers’ block: “A guy walks in, holding a gun…

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From Niko Abeler

Pull up some old town map or find one online. Sketch up 5-10 NPCs. Find some plot to keep the party in town.

Example: Your old friend A was killed. His wife B and children C and D want you to find the killer (E).

Make up the rest on the fly.

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From Michael Lawrence

Think and write down a small paragraph descriptor for what the session will be.

Example: “Long ago a wizard lived in a tower outside a sleepy little town. She went mad for an unknown reason, and the townsfolk rebelled, found her, and killed her after many townsfolk lost their lives. All was thought to be well, and the tower lay abandoned for decades…until now.” Something like that.

9 Worldbuilding Lessons Learned (So Far)

From James Introcaso

There is no task for a game master more daunting and gratifying than worldbuilding. Creating a universe in which a group of PCs can romp around in is rewarding, but the seemingly Herculean effort it takes to get there can be miserable, especially if you have many life commitments outside of gaming.

For the last decade, I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs in published campaign settings. But it was always a dream of mine to create a new world. I mean a full, rich world with a huge history. We’re talking original rules modules, big honking maps, new monsters, intrigue, dungeons, rivalries, and more open-ended story than the closing chapter of a Goosebumps novel. The kind of thing I had the time to do as a kid but could now tackle with the wisdom of an adult.

Last year I finally embarked on creating that new world. With the impending release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons, I set pen to page and began creating a world from the top down.

With so much going on in my own world and the promise of an Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast, I’m still working on my 300+ page campaign guide for my first self-publishing venture.

I’ve been chronicling my efforts on my blog, World Builder Blog, since January of last year. During that journey, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that can help you build a RPG world of your own, no matter how fleshed out you want your own campaign world to be. Your world might be built top down or bottom up or half off the top of your head and one session at a time.

If your world is an original (or modified from an existing) creation, these tips will help you out. Here they are in no particular order.

Know Your World’s Central Idea

What makes your world special? Does it feel like a Lovecraft story? Is it recovering from a recent war? Is it in the middle of one? Does one oppressive (or benevolent) ruler have absolute power? Do the gods come down in person and give decrees to their worshipers? Is it a whacky place where every natural landform is made of candy?

Your world should have a central idea that sets it apart.

My setting’s central idea is there are unmapped areas of the planet the civilized world is racing to uncover and colonize. I hold onto that idea and wonder how it affects everything else happening in the campaign world.

  • How do the uncivilized peoples react to the colonization of their home?
  • How do competing countries negotiate different land grabs?
  • How will the resources discovered in the new world affect the old?
  • What struggles do the colonists have?

Let your central idea permeate through all aspects of the world. Whenever you’re creating a new place or person within your world, ask yourself how it relates to your central idea.

Have A Map

I’m not an artist, but good lord it helps so much to have a map.

Being able to visualize the world is not just a help to players, but to you as well. Everything becomes so much clearer and the world feels more real once you have a map.

You can start small, just what you need for your first session, or build out your whole world at once. Knowing how close a city is to an ocean or orc infested mountains can help you discover what is unique about that settlement.

If you’re like me and can’t draw freehand I recommend checking out some software.

For free there’s Hexographer (which I use and is worth buying a few extras) and Stone Sword.

Or you could be fancy and buy Fractal Mapper, Campaign Cartographer, or Mapdiva.

Have A Timeline

Even if it’s rough, make a short timeline of your world’s history.

Think about how major events would shape your world and adventure sites. How do these events tie into the central idea of your campaign?

In my world, aberrations used to rule the land before they were wiped out by dragons. Their magic technology can be salvaged within the ruins of their former empire, many of which are hidden deep in the uncharted wilds. These ruins are blank spots within blank spots!

The events of my timeline inform the current world and relate back to the central idea. The rise and fall of nations and rulers, the birth of races, the discovery of new lands, the creation of important technologies, wars, treaties, and the like are the sort of events to consider adding to your timeline.

Take Notes

You are going to have ideas for your campaign. Lots and lots and lots of ideas. They might come at work, during your commute, during dinner, or another time a pen and paper aren’t handy.

If you don’t write ideas down, they’re going to fade away. Your phone is your friend. Most mobile phones, even those of the non-smart variety, have a notepad feature.

So when you get a great idea, jot that sucker down. To backup your ideas, copy and paste them into an email or text message.

When you sit down to flesh out your world you’ll know exactly where to find your awesome ideas.

Steal and Twist

When it comes to stealing ideas for your world, don’t be afraid. Let literature, video games, film, television, art, and other campaign settings inspire you.

When you do steal an idea, go one step further and twist it.

Add something to the idea or turn it on its head and see what happens. That idea is putty. Play with it until you’ve made something you think is interesting and original.

Let’s take the giant spider infested Mirkwood of The Hobbit. Maybe you want to add a similar forest to your realm, but instead of spiders, it’s crawling with giant snakes, undead animals, or enormous bees.

Maybe falling into its rivers and streams doesn’t induce a magical slumber, but rather the waters keep people awake, slowly driving victims insane with deadly exhaustion. Perhaps instead of a forest it’s a desert, swamp, jungle, or arctic wasteland. Stealing is just step one. Challenge yourself and twist the stolen goods. It’s far more rewarding for everyone.

Ask Your Players What They Want

Before you embark on the incredible worldbuilding task before you, ask your players what sort of game they want to play.

I sent my players a brief email querying them about their preferred genre, tone, magic level, intrigue level, and play style for in D&D.

Even though I’ve been playing with my groups for years, some of the feedback was surprising. Have a chat with each of them, give them a quick questionnaire, or lead a more organized group discussion.

It matters what your players want since they’re going to be playing in the world with you. Your gothic horror game could cost you some friends at the table if they’re not really into undead and lycanthropes.

Let Players Do Some Work

Like I wrote above, they’re playing in the world too, so let players shoulder some of the worldbuilding responsibility.

I give my players a basic description of the world and then they create their PC backstories. In the process, they’ve created cities, fantastic locations, artifacts, and even rules modules for the world.

Encourage your players to do the same once they have a good idea of the tone and central idea of your world. Anything they add will just make the game and story richer and more interesting.

Don’t worry. As the GM you reserve the right to nix anything that doesn’t make sense in your world. (e.g. The Kingdom of Bubblegum in your post apocalyptic zombie game.)

Share Your Stuff

Don’t keep all your information too close to the vest, especially if you’re building a world from the top down. Share it with your players and other gamers you trust.

Since a lot of worldbuilding isn’t game rule specific, share the information with people outside of your gaming circle who appreciate fiction. My girlfriend has never played D&D, but she reads a lot of what I create. Having her outside-the-industry perspective is invaluable. All she cares about is story, which should be the focus of a RPG world.

The more input you can get, the better. Just remember, all feedback does not need to be taken to heart. Listen to those who are kind enough to offer feedback, but only implement the ideas they provide that sound good to you. I often link my blog in gaming forums and various social media sites and solicit feedback from strangers. I’ve gotten some of the best insights into my work this way.

Having people provide feedback can also keep your worldbuilding on schedule. It’s my mission to share updates twice a week on my blog, which keeps me writing and worldbuilding. You could keep a similar schedule with whomever you are sharing your world. Maybe it’s the first of each month, or every Wednesday, or every day.

Giving yourself a deadline and having others hold you accountable will keep you writing.

Write Everything You Ever Wanted

Put anything in the world you ever wanted to create. Stuff that thing full of all you ever wanted in a campaign world.

You’re not going to run out of ideas. Take it from a man who has been a GM for 20 years. More ideas will come, so don’t save anything. You might never use it if you keep hanging onto it.

If you write what you want to write the work is worth it. That’s sort of the point, right?

These are games and are supposed to be fun. Let your imagination run wild and get a little crazy.

Happy worldbuilding!

James Introcaso blogs about D&D and other RPGs on World Builder Blog and can be heard hosting various podcasts on The Tome Show.

d20 Partial Success (With Complications)

Sometimes players roll a partial success and we get stuck for what that might mean.

As Christopher Sniezak taught us in RPT#639, you want to Fail Forward. You want to open up more gameplay when PCs fail, instead of railroading.

Here are d20 ideas about how to complicate things to Fail Forward.

  1. Attracts the wrong kind of attention
  2. Breaks a piece off, limiting function a bit or reduces value
  3. Only gets half the job done, and the next check is more difficult
  4. Loses confidence, making future checks more difficult until two successes achieved
  5. Loses grip, or something is dropped and broken or spilled
  6. It moves away, exposing the PC
  7. A force of nature results, like electrical shock, fire, minor explosion
  8. Becomes fatigued
  9. Becomes nauseous or gets sick
  10. Breathes in something dangerous or that makes him cough or sneeze loudly
  11. Trips and falls
  12. Bangs, bruises, or cuts body part
  13. Enemies appear nearby
  14. Gets something in eye causing momentary blindness
  15. Something gets stuck
  16. Something makes a lot of noise from grinding, tearing, scraping
  17. Body part gets pinned or locked in awkward angle
  18. Loses a piece of clothing or equipment
  19. Someone stops trusting or liking the PC
  20. Insects, dangerous liquid, other hazard appears.

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