Writing For Yourself

Module addiction. It can happen to anyone! It starts with running Isle of Dread with your friends, and before you know it, your wife catches you at 3 a.m. with Web of Illusion, playing with yourself. It is then that it finally sinks in, you’ve hit rock bottom.

It’s not too late! Anybody can heal from module addiction! You just have to have faith in your abilities and learn how to best manage your time, and then you too will be freed from the money hungry slavers at Wizards of the Coast.

Okay, all kidding aside, modules do serve a purpose; the most important is that they offer a shared experience with everyone in the gaming community. Players who’ve never met before can discuss the Tomb of Horrors. They also serve as teaching points for DMs, and offer maps and ideas that one can drop into their own campaign. We all run them from time to time, but to be honest, I myself spend more time fixing them than I do writing my own stuff!

Not sold yet? Well here is a more startling fact: Groups are more likely to stay together when the DM writes his own stuff.

The most common DM whine about writing is “I don’t have time!” Well, I’m telling you, it takes less time to write then you think. Maybe you tried writing before and found it too time consuming. Maybe that is because you wrote another module! That is why it took so long! We are going to get away from over preparing and recognize over writing as the sin that it is! But how?
We are going to slow everything down. We are going to do just as much as we have to, and no more.


They have to be. Modules are expressing ideas that aren’t yours. They are also forcing decisions upon you and your players, if you get frustrated because you put so much work into writing a story, only to feel that the players are screwing it up, then you have to understand one of the great Taos of the game, WE CAN’T CONTROL PEOPLE! We can’t write them in, we can only control ourselves (and our monsters). Once we get that into our heads (and it does take time), we can simplify what we are doing.


When we write in general terms, it creates an environment that reacts to what your players are doing instead of the other way around. Instead of having a goblin cooking in a kitchen for all time, like some robot that does nothing until a player opens the door, we can move him around the dungeon, to investigate and make his own decisions. We can do all of this on Gameday. All we need to know is that he is usually there.
Instead of being a control freak, we are going to let our games flow naturally. If we want the party to interact with NPCs, write up a quick list of names with what they do, and a section for what the villagers know. If you want an NPC to know something special, or purposefully misdirect the party, you can write how they’ll try and do just that. DONE!!!! We want to write down stuff that we don’t want to have to come up with on gameday, and that is it.


We aren’t going to be writing entire stories in one shot. When we plan too far ahead we are unintentionally setting limitations on ourselves and our players. We are going to keep things general and let the complete story flow naturally through loosely written scenarios that are designed to accomplish the goals that we set.

What do we think that we can get done? What do we want to do on gameday? Do we want to focus on action, role-playing, puzzle solving, or what? Instead of rushing our players from one scenario to the next, we are going to be slowing them down. If you feel that the pace of the game demands it, you can still have an action scene or two during days you focus on role-play, if we keep the game flow smooth and the PCs involved we are doing it right. We aren’t writing what happens, the players are. We just dangle carrots and answer their questions in mysterious ways that when they ask the right one, only brings about a different set of questions.

Once we have a major goal (something that once accomplished moves the story along), it is nice to know where you are going with this session. We want to know something, but only major details. We also have to make room for failure. We shouldn’t stop that from happening either. Now I’m not talking about TOTAL PARTY KILL! There are little failures that would, under module guidelines, create a major setback. We can anticipate some calamities, such as getting themselves arrested, failing to save an important NPC before they can give them their clue, failures happen, and should happen! That is what makes this game so damned fun!

The less we plan, the more the players get too. They find it more satisfying to purchase a map of a thieves guild, look at it and they can sit there and plan how to get in or out. While they are doing it, listen to them, and figure out how you NPCs will react. We are going to get better ideas from them, then we will when we’re sitting all by ourselves with a keyboard.


We do want to know a thing or two about the antagonists plan. With the thieves guild above, they are going to have a standard protocol. They know that undesirables are going to find their way in, and they’ll have a system set up which eliminates them quickly and efficiently. If the PC’s try the direct approach, and just walk into the front door, making demands like they own the place, they are going to set off a horrible and deadly chain of events. We need to know what these events are and make sure that they are deadly.

We write important characters, be them antagonists or victims. We can also, once we get going, collect a database. Thinking up names on demand is tough, and can lead to a confusing continuity error later. While initially time consuming, if we write fun characters onto a note-card we can use them again at any time and typically nobody will notice.

I love zombie films! They are a good example of doing only what you need to do. Makeup people don’t give all of the extras awesome make-ups, they just give a few; these are heroes and all of the others are back ground. Write your heroes well, and have just general ideas for people who aren’t. That will also keep gameday fun for you. While we need to know the personality of the hero NPCs, we don’t need to know the personality of the Sword Smith, so we can generate it randomly by using the DMG.


Restrictions are necessary, your players know this, but restrictions shouldn’t restrict the story. Restrictions are set by what we are willing to prep for. I like to have things on maps sometimes that I’ll develop later, instead of doing it now, I’ll put a locked door that will only open with a specific key, which the characters will have once I’m ready to develop that area. I’ll be honest with the players about it if they just won’t let the door alone, but for the most part, my restrictions make sense. They serve the story. A restriction usually isn’t, “No, you can’t go there.” Typically it is set by the story itself: A boat at sea is a perfect example. We will have stuff to do on the ship, but nobody is leaving the ship. I can use the restriction to my purposes by putting a killer on the ship. Everybody is contained.

A word of warning, the more restricted a scenario, the more you’ll have to write. If you’ve only got a few NPCs to interact with, you need to know these guys really well, and let them have their own goals which may or may not jive well with the goals of the party.

That is okay! We aren’t wasting our time creating NPCs that the PC is going to ask a question to, and then move on. We are going to need specifics, but we need to know WHEN we need them and why we need them. The more likely the odds of the PC interacting with it, the more we should write.


While most of the information in our game scenarios will be generalized, there are things that we will want to be very specific. Key objects, key people, and key places; these are things that we want to be clearly defined so that we can manage them quickly and effectively come gameday.


Do we need a map? Sure, we may want one, but do we really need one? If we do, this is extra work. Do we need a battlemap? I NEVER go to that unless I really have to. Not that it takes more work, but because my group and I use them so rarely we don’t have those mechanics down yet, and I know as soon as I figure out that I’ve no other choice but to use one, that this is going to slow everything down to a crawl; thus, I have the battlemap represent the smallest area necessary to run the scenario, preferably one room, or a short stretch of road. But I digress, if we need a map, we want it to only be as big as we need it to be.

I also recycle! I never throw maps away. Not ever! Don’t feel like drawing some dungeon up that day? Fine! Go look through your collection of modules, or your stack of old maps and re-key the things. As long as we don’t use Castle Ravenloft for every castle that the PCs go into, then they won’t notice. 

When writing your key, let your creativity flow. Don’t just tell the story that your PCs are telling, think about what this place is used for, is there a secondary story that we can tell here?  We DON’T want huge description boxes! We just need to write reminders for what we are thinking, such as, “Hall has sculpture of Tempus on a pedestal. Door to area 6 is locked (-15% to pick).” The statue tells us about who lives, or once lived here, and the doorlock is a stat that we don’t want to look up. If a character asks if there are any pictures on the walls, we can answer that on gameday.  Don’t do more then you have to. None of that huge half page fluff about some shrine in the house that serves no purpose to the story, just writing a Shrine to Tempus is good enough, chances are the players are going to ignore it anyway and move on. It isn’t hard to come up with specifics that just handle fluff on the fly, who knows, maybe they will move the story into a direction that you never anticipated? That is always fun!

A word of warning in regards to fluff. A player can really ruin your day by collecting all of this stuff. If you have a chalice worth 50gp on the Shrine, you best know about it before hand! Thankfully we have encumbrance rules, and always remember that too much swag makes lots of noise when being quiet is important. Not to say that some player characters aren’t above having a garage sale outside of the Temple of Despair, but I’m sure that you can handle that situation when you get too it. If something is worth money, put it there intentionally and make note of it in your key.  


Before we go too far into the key, we want to know what lives here. If it is a monster, we need to know everything about it. We like using new monsters, or at least monsters new to us. If you are worried about challenge level and killing your party, AD&D has a fast and easy guide to its monsters. Add up all of the hit dice of the party: for instance, If you’ve got 7 players playing first level characters, they can fight one 7HD monster. They may not come out unscathed! This is the ultimate challenge for them, but I love to do it.

Know your monster! Some monsters will require the dungeon to be built around them. How did this thing get here? Can we tell a secondary story here? What clues would it leave behind? Why did it lair where it is? Is that the best place for it, or is there another spot that might be even better? Is there a defensive advantage to it being there? Is there a defensive disadvantage that it doesn’t know about which might allow a character to kill it with one well-placed hit to the environment? It is okay to put a monster that severely over matches the party, as long as we give them a way to win.

With powerful monsters, we also have treasure to consider.


The Monstrous Manual does most of our work for us; like I said above, we want to be specific about treasure. We can generate treasure randomly, which can lead to interesting story possibilities, such as finding an art object worth 9,000gp in a cave out in the middle of nowhere, we’ll want to explain that, we’ll want to name this object and decide how nice we want to be by making the object easy or hard to transport, if we are going to make it easy, then there should be a reason for letting the characters have that much gold, maybe it will cover most of the cost of a magic item they saw in a shop, or, there is always property; whatever it is, when you’re dealing with large chunks of money that is easy to transport, you’ll also need to come up with a couple of ideas to get that money back from them, and even then we won’t tell them how much an item is worth until they can get it appraised, if they have a trusted source. There are lots of evil tricks we can use.

(Ceremonial Wizards Robe: 9000gp/ Can trade it in village for Field Plate, sell at Neverwinter only)

Now, naturally we won’t want to forget this, and we also don’t want the PC to know its exact value, so we’ll have to keep a note of this for later.

Magic Treasure should also be precise: Weapons and armor should all have names, and like objects worth money, we should know precisely where they are at, and have a short little story to go along with the object, just to make it cool. Players will think that you’re a genius, when you only spent a few seconds on the thing. This item will be cool to the player who gets it, and deserves as much work as we can put in to it to make it special. We also don’t want to forget about it, we want to make it important to the ongoing story. If the blade glows when orcs are around, but you never have them fight orcs, then it is kind of pointless that they have it, thus, you may not want to choose a magic item randomly, unless you are willing to live with the consequences.


I am old-school and still use a notebook and folder as my main tools on gameday. In my binder I am going to collect all of my general stats in one place. Use a formula that you like and have memorized for speed, don’t forget to include general NPC stats, for major NPCs I will stat them on notecards, but this way I can quickly look up a fact without having to grab the MM or writing it down elsewhere. When I do place a monster, I just write down the monsters name and hit points on the key itself (or if I want him to float around, on the master monster list). We are only doing this work once, and that saves time!


I don’t know about your group, but we are adults with jobs and responsibilities (ugh), so our playtime is also limited. When we first started, we thought nothing of playing this game for days and days at a time (we didn’t have money to do much else), but now that just isn’t the case. Game time is precious! Random Encounters, while exciting back in the day, are shied away from today. Not to say that I don’t run them from time to time! Let’s just say that they aren’t as random as they used to be.
These things are kind of an after-thought to me. I have spoken to my group, and made the case that since our time is precious, I wanted to handle travel, and prep this before hand, and we all agreed that it wouldn’t change the game that much.

Now this isn’t to say that I am going to force the players to go where I want them to go, we usually make any big decisions about our next location at the end of the adventure session, but for short trips out of the area, then I will pick the path and add it to the adventure. I then check for random encounters before the players even sit down at the table. I don’t often use Random Encounter Tables as they are an enormous waste of time, but I do pick what the encounter is, and I limit them so that we don’t get 8 encounters on a three day trip, we only get one or two. I pick the monster, and either I work it into my story, or it is just a case of wrong place, wrong time.

Now, if I do get to feeling ornery, and bored because I want to do prep but I’m already done, then I will set up small encounters on a 1d6. Again, they aren’t random at all! Just very short scenarios that take very little time away from the main adventure.

I still don’t want travel to seem boring, so for every day,I’ll come up with some fluff off the top of my head on game day to make a scene or two stand out.

In dungeons, I don’t like Random Encounters either, but they are easier to stat. If I do end up using them, then I’ll just use a d6, and unless it is a 1 it is a random patrol (if the dungeon is big enough for that kind of thing), else a monster that is unique to that list, which is already stated and I know what it will do when it meets the party.

I don’t like saving Encounter Tables. I saw that they were included in the Greyhawk setting, and I know that many DMs on-line are looking for them, but I find them to be tedious, unbalanced, and unnecessary.


Sometimes you just have to do it. When monsters harass NPCs, we need to figure out if we need to have our stats reflect this or not. If a scenario is timed, we will want to know, ahead of time, what is going on. Or sometimes, if a PC doesn’t start in the room to set off the scenario, and we don’t know when they are going to chose to go in, we might want to figure out how many minutes they can wait until it is too late to save that NPC or group of NPCs. Much of the time, we can do this really quickly on gameday, but sometimes, if too much is going on, we don’t want to sit there and play with ourselves in front of others. Add it to your prep.


Once we get all of that out of the way, and our notes reflect the stuff that will save us time on gameday, we can go through and roughly figure out XP for if all goes well, also if you are going to need to look something up during play, write down the page number and the book you’ll want. This isn’t a waste of time at all! We want to be prepared, but we still want to have fun playing too.

At the end of the night, once all of the smoke has cleared, and the adventures have gone back to their normal every day lives, sit down and reflect on what you’ve done. Could something be better? Where did you stumble? Players are going to take advantage of you, how could you had handled that better so that it doesn’t happen again. Did we over prepare an element? Did we under prepare an element?

We are writing our own adventures! That is something to be proud of! No other party will be doing what you are doing, you will find your own style, and you are telling a story WITH your players, not about them. Now the only question is . . . what next?


Sean Robert Meaney said...

I rather enjoy writing...and modules come with the added bonus of drawing art.

Ripper X said...

While I did enjoy writing my own modules, I found that much of my time was completely wasted. I do collect them though! I do enjoy the art, and the maps are well worth the admission fee.

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