Adventures worth living
For anyone who has experienced playing tabletop role-playing games, it will come as no surprise that no two gaming groups play alike. This is largely attributed to the fact that rules in RPGs are only there to guide players and help resolve the outcome of certain situations. How the majority of games are run will depend on the Game Master’s (GM) and the players’ play style. The other defining factor is the adventure itself: is the GM running a published module or did he create a campaign from scratch in a world of his own creation? Let’s look at the different ways you can live adventures of pen and paper and why tabletop role-playing games are almost always not what newcomers think they are.
How do you play?
If you ask anyone who indulges in the hobby, they will tell you that there is no wrong or right way of playing. Another thing newcomers will often say after their first playing session is: “It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be like!”.
It is somewhat true that, like many hobbies, tabletop role-playing games are misunderstood by outsiders. This is because every gaming group will play the game in their own manner, which makes it hard to come up with an explanation that does the game’s potential justice. All you get from rulebooks are guidelines, the rest depends on how the GM presents you with the situations at hand and how you deal with them. Some of us will want to crawl dungeons, slay monsters and look for treasure, while others will be more attuned to the pure role-playing and storytelling aspects of the hobby, looking to solve mysteries and riddles. Some players will act in character all the time while others will prefer to describe their actions and behaviour. As a game master, you might decide to rely on extensive visual cues to convey the atmosphere of a place and meticulously describe the personalities and behaviours of the adventure’s antagonists. Or maybe you revel in doing voices and strive to bring non-player characters to life by acting them out. Immersion can be enhanced with background music and well timed sound effects (there are even specialized apps to help set the mood, such as Syrinscape). A current trend, especially with groups streaming their games online via YouTube or Twitch, is to cosplay as your character while playing. The use of physical artifacts is also an interesting immersion technique. This can be as simple as a letter the players find and can actually hold and read or go as far as mysterious statuettes, goblets, books or elaborate maps.
Personally, I think all of these immersion techniques are fun and if they appeal to you, why not. But ultimately, I don’t see them as essential, by any means. While maps and the use of miniatures are practical contributions that help us visualize the surroundings our characters are exploring; music, costumes and other tools can be interpreted by some, such as myself, as hindrances that do the opposite of their intended purpose. Role-playing takes place in our imagination and it is only as fantastical as the visions you create in your mind. Adding content that reminds you that you are only sitting around a table can, for some, ruin the simplicity of the game itself.
This all comes down to personal taste and, I’ll say it again, never forget the most important thing about role-playing games: there’s no wrong way of playing them!
Many games rely not only on the quality of their rules but on all the other material created for them. Source books about the geography, lore, monsters and the cultures of the world are often essential and can also be a lot fun just to read. Published adventures, sometimes referred to as modules, constitute a great way to get started running game sessions. They can even become your primary source of adventuring material as a Game Master.
Back in the eighties, when I first started playing, my friends and I would run adventures often inspired or derived from ones published in tabletop roleplaying magazines. Starter adventures found in rulebooks would also provide a good basis to get us started. Many years later, as I got back into the hobby, I found a certain enjoyment in reading source books or adventure modules just for the fun of it. Once I finally got back in the GM seat, I felt compelled to run published adventures. It was fun to discover what worlds others were creating and to see how the intrigues unfolded and how they were carefully woven to provide my players with a different type of adventure than the ones I would create.
Official supplements are also a great way to learn more about a game and its world
In the case of 5th Edition D&D, it gave me an opportunity to discover the real new flavour of the game as well as its world, the Forgotten Realms. Diving into a fantasy world imagined by others was fun. I came across things I loved as well as aspects that didn’t particularly tickle my fancy. All things considered, I was enjoying it all very much and quickly saw how I could easily tweak things to make it my own. I was still determined to make it as D&D-like as possible. But, after our first adventure, something happened that I had not anticipated.
If the shoe doesn’t fit
Running a published module requires a tremendous amount of work and preparation compared to a homebrew campaign. To familiarize yourself with the plot, the antagonists and the setting, a thorough read is a prerequisite. Then the real prep work starts. This is all fun, of course, and never a hassle, but when your time is limited because of a hefty work schedule and a family life, it can quickly prove to be a bit much. At least it was for me.
Another hurdle soon appeared: as we played, I slowly learnt about my players’ preferred gaming style. I gradually worked to adapt our adventures accordingly and in the particular case of that module, it provided me with the room to do so. Once that adventure was over, my players expressed a desire to visit their characters’ home towns. It came as a welcome break from a structured story and turned out to be more of a shared storytelling experience. Fun for all involved and it loosened my rusty GM improvisation skills!
This eventually served as a springboard for our next adventure and I wondered if maybe the group would enjoy a classic dungeon crawl. I took an official module and started running it straight, as it was written. My players’ gradual loss of interest in the dungeon was a big indicator to me that this was not the right type of adventure either.
Now, this was technically a fine adventure, in fact, it was one of the most famous and revered D&D adventures ever published. As quality a module as it was, it was not a good fit for us. It had nothing to do with the flavour of fantasy or the plot. A dungeon crawl is a very specific type of role-playing adventure and it offers many challenges to overcome, monsters to slay, traps to spring and what not. But if the only apparent goal is to beat it (either by finding the exit or getting to the end of it, the treasure or what not), you better have a determined and focused group of players who will keep their mind on doing just that. This was not the case for us. As with a lot of things, it simply wasn’t the place and time for it. It became clear to me that, for both my sake and the group’s enjoyment of the game, I would be better off taking it all into my own hands!
Not completely on my own
To many, the homebrew route seems like a terribly lonely and daunting challenge. While you have the opportunity to create a gaming world matching your wildest ideas and dreams, you only have to make up the bits that will make it feel like your world. If, again, we take Dungeons and Dragons 5e as an example, you can - and you should - create your own interpretation of the Forgotten Realms. Do not try to emulate every detail provided in the many published books by Wizards of the Coast. In fact, you are encouraged to add as much of yourself as possible! In my case, I love finding out about settings and characters and then using them as I see fit. I now find myself reading a published adventure, ignoring its plot and building another one from the pieces that inspire me.
In this manner, I still get a lot from the official D&D material while having free rein to make it what I want it to be, rather than feel constrained and having to abide by a storyline that doesn’t appeal to me. This is a particularly useful approach because it lets you focus on the aspects of the game you and your players enjoy most. Some gamers complain about Dungeons and Dragons being too focused on action and fighting. It can be if you let it but the latest edition is so flexible and rich that it gives you rules or clues on how to handle just about anything. If your D&D world has less magic and your game focuses more on storytelling, mystery and intrigue, let it be just that! If you are set on a particular setting and theme, find the game that fits the bill and play it your way. It is true that some systems are designed to give you more freedom than others, but in the end, the game is always here to serve you. You are not its slave or victim!
Erik at UnpossibleJourneys.com put it very eloquently the other day on Twitter and I could not agree more:
Tabletop RPGs are like artist’s paints. You can use watercolors to create amazingly detailed drawings, but it’s a lot easier with technical pens. D&D is acrylic paint – vibrant, versatile – but try other games and you’ll be amazed at the range of pictures you can paint.— Unpossible Erik (@unpossible_e) July 10, 2019
In role-playing games, the story is told as the GM and the players play the game together. While it is easy to plant the seeds to a main story arc, how does one go about writing a homebrew adventure for a story that has not been told yet?
When we started playing (sometime in 1984 or 1985, I cannot quite remember), my friends and I each GM’ed a number of games. This ranged from AD&D, Call of Cthulhu and the Dark Eye to Paranoia, Stormbringer and MERP with a bunch of other ones in between. The least you could say is that we were really into it! For some games, we played published modules and for others we started creating our own adventures. While being creative has never been an issue for me, I struggled with story structure as I treated it the same way I would for a comic: I would extrapolate and try to anticipate what the protagonists - in this case the players - would do. This led me to involuntarily railroad them through a very linear adventure. It wasn’t a deal breaker. We were kids, we had fun and I learned from it, mostly because some of my friends happily took measures to go against the plot guides I was so desperate to have them follow.
My first homebrew adventures were very linear.
Fast forward a few years and my approach is rather different. Creating adventure in this fashion is by no means anything new, as a matter of fact it is a structure I have come across in a number of publications. I start off with a situation and a general problem that the adventuring party will be willing to solve or take on. This has to be something the players will not want to turn their back to, of course. That is the premise of any story. It has to be a given that the players will not shy away from the call for adventure!
Once the problem has been defined, I create a setting and the antagonists who populate it and play a role in the story. All that is left to do is to create situations. Think of them as the components of the story. Not everything needs to be of essence to the general plot and not all of these parts will even be used or lived by the player characters. Some situations will point the players closer towards the resolution of the intrigue and others might just serve as sandboxes for the characters to grow in, gain experience from or learn more about each other. The goal is to have fun. If you manage to do that as a group, then there is no doubt your adventures will be memorable and unlike any story you have read in a book or watched in a movie.
Sometimes, sprinkling the way with subtle hints is not enough to prevent the party from getting stuck. Simply add unexpected events or some non-player characters (NPCs) to help out. At times, letting gamers delve at their leisure and their own pace will truly give them the sense of freedom they need to have the best role-playing experience. Most of all, it’s the most fun you will have running the game as a GM, in my opinion. You will be creating lots of unused situations though. Do not look at that as wasted material or lost time. In storytelling, nothing ever really goes to waste and you will have plenty of opportunities to reuse or introduce that stuff later on or as part of another adventure.
Another great benefit to creating your own content (or repurposing elements from officially published material) is that you will own it when the game is played. I personally find it much easier to run an adventure I created because, having written it, I know the stuff by heart. I spend less time looking things up and more time having fun. Do remember that, as always, keeping notes is essential to running a good game!
If you are looking for inspiration, gaming modules are not the only place to look. You could choose to adapt a novel you read or a story you read online (or in the paper). Just be careful to not fall into the trap of railroading your players! There are many ways of running a role-playing adventure and all of them are worthwhile, as long as everyone is having a good time, and that includes the GM!
As always, this article is based on my own experiences, so please take them as such. All I am trying to do is inspire you in your own tabletop adventures!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.