GTM #200 - Tricks of the Game Trade - Tip #7
by Jon Leitheusser

In the previous couple of months, we’ve talked about the nuts and bolts of beginning to play a roleplaying game; how to get your friends together, coordinate the game ahead of time so everyone’s starting with the same assumptions, finding a place to play, committing to doing your job as the game master or player, and having the books, pencils, dice, and other supplies you need to play.

This month we’re continuing the series, but concentrating on what to play. Or perhaps, more accurately, how to come up with adventures to run your friends through at the table.

~ The Mind’s Eye ~

One of the things game designers and writers get asked all the time is, “How do you come up with your ideas?” And really, the answer is that it’s not magic. Inspiration comes from everywhere; movies, books, television shows, a situation from real life, and so on. Once you have the kernel you want to base your idea around, it’s time to get creative.

To use a concrete example, let’s say you’re running Dungeons & Dragons. You want to come up with a short adventure to run for your friends in an upcoming game. Instead of using one of the adventures that have already been released, you want to come up with something on your own. That’s a perfectly understandable urge and something you should absolutely do! There’s nothing more fun than coming up with an idea that turns into a night of great fun for you and your friends. Since you’re not using an pre-written adventure, the biggest resources you have available are the D&D Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. These books are great and filled with all sorts of details you can pull ideas out of to create adventures.

As an example, let’s say you like orcs and want to run an adventure that pits the player characters against a marauding band of orcs. Okay, that’s the start of the idea, but now you need to figure out why the orcs are raiding, why they’re far from home, if they have some other reason to come to the area where the heroes will encounter them, what they’re willing to fight and die for—and what they aren’t. The Player’s Handbook has information about half-orcs, so you can pull some information about orcs from there, but the Monster Manual includes more information and a few examples of different types of orcs that give you even more information and give a very clear picture of how orcs behave in combat.

From their listing in the Monster Manual, we can see that orcs are “savage raiders and pillagers,” but we can also see that they put a lot of importance on their shaman and their mighty god Gruumsh. Perhaps instead of a wayward group of orcs raiding the countryside, we have a group of orcs on a mission, guided by a shaman to search for an ancient orcish holy site where the weapons and armor of an orcish warlord are buried. The shaman has been given visions to lead the group to the site, but orcs will be orcs, so they’ve been raiding while they’ve been traveling, so they’ve called unwanted attention to themselves. Now they’re near the holy site when the heroes get involved, perhaps the heroes encounter a small group camped outside the holy site, while another group has ventured inside. At this point, you don’t just have a night of adventure, you have a couple! The first night includes setting up the problem, finding evidence of the orcs’ activities and tracking them to their campsite, dealing with those orcs, then following the others into “The Warlord’s Tomb!”

~ Creature Comforts ~

In addition to the core books for Dungeons & Dragons, there are a number of other excellent resources out there. Two of the newest are available in this month’s GTM, the Tome of Beasts and its sister book, the Book of Lairs, both from Kobold Press.

The Tome of Beasts is a massive 432 pages, with over 400 new monsters and non-player characters. It’s written and edited by people with years of experience with D&D, so the quality is as high as it gets for non-Wizards of the Coast D&D books.

Using the Tome of Beasts in addition to your core D&D books, the number of ideas for adventures and adversaries is at least doubled. Some of the monsters in the book are variations on creatures that already exist, such as new types of dragons, demons, and devils, but there are also new creatures such as the bone swarm, clockwork hound, lindworm, and shoggoth. Those of you familiar with your Cthulhu Mythos will recognize the shoggoth, and they’re not the only Cthulhoid creature included in the book, so if you like existential horror in your fantasy, this is a great book for you.

In addition to its excellent quality, both in terms of its appearance and its creators’ mastery of the rules, the Tome of Beasts gives you the tools to make your fantasy world feel different from every other D&D campaign out there. By taking some types of monsters out of your world and adding new ones from the Tome, you can create something truly unique and interesting for you and your players to explore. Plus, if you’re playing with others who own the Monster Manual, you can surprise them with creatures with which they’re unfamiliar!

The sister book to the Tome of Beasts is the Book of Lairs. This book is, effectively, a collection of short adventures designed as lairs for monsters of a certain type. Each lair was created to challenge characters of a specific level, so the first lair in the book, The Riverfront Rat Gang, was built for 1st-level characters, while the final lair, A Triangle in Shadows, is for 15th-level characters. There’s not a lair for every level, but with 25 different lairs, there’s bound to be one you can use at your game table ... probably a lot more than one!

~ Drawing Inspiration ~

Most gaming books talk about drawing inspiration from books, movies, and television programs as well as all the gaming books out there. That’s because those sources are familiar to everyone and can let you answer those “what if” questions that you and your friends toss around. For example, what would Tolkein’s Middle-Earth look like if Sauron recovered the ring and rose up to conquer the world? That would make for a very interesting campaign, possibly even a number of campaigns.

If you’re a fan of a particular book or movie, think about how you could adapt it to your own game. It doesn’t even need to be a fantasy book or movie. You might, for instance, like the idea of running your favorite police program as a fantasy game in which the player characters are members of the guard or some other peacekeeping organization. Or, perhaps you like political intrigue and find the idea of a game filled with visiting dignitaries, tense negotiations, and subtle betrayals to be interesting. There’s a lot of room for different genres to fit within a fantasy milieu, so find something that gets your creative juices flowing and talk to your friends about building a game around it.

~ Take it to the Tabletop ~

Running a roleplaying game is all about finding good ideas, adapting them to your game, and having fun with your friends. Don’t ever feel like you’re “doing it wrong” when you come up with a good idea based off something else that already exists. Honestly, that’s what most game designers and writers have been doing for years.

Look through your collections of books, movies, comics, and television shows to find something that inspires you and run with it. If you’re excited and enthusiastic about the game your running, then your friends will be, too. Having fun is contagious, so do your best to make your games as fun as possible — no one will care if the plot sounds similar to some book or movie. Chances are they’ll be having too much of a good time to even notice!

Jon Leitheusser is a writer, editor, and game developer. He published the Dork Tower comic book, was the HeroClix game designer for years, was a content designer for Champions Online and Neverwinter, has been the Mutants & Masterminds game developer for Green Ronin since 2008, and freelances for a number of different companies. He cut his gaming teeth on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and still games twice a week with his friends online or in person. He’s attended about 30 Gen Cons and he lives in Renton, Washington with his wife and a mean cat.