I remain fascinated by the DM’s Academy subreddit and post there a few times a week. The following was popular:
The trick is not being ashamed of unoriginality and twisting on it until it is, in fact, something quite fresh and new. It doesn’t take much. Let’s play with such an idea that I was daydreaming about in the car today. Let’s play with, daydream about and twist on the idea of the Dwarven Mining Company. I have a pinterest board dedicated to the premise; it has been in the back of my mind somewhere for years.
Dwarven miners….not original at all. Okay, What organizes them? We’ll use the Burning Wheel dwarven lifepaths as inspiration – again, using others’ work – not original. We could futz with those in charge of the company but let’s drill down a bit, so to speak. Who are those dwarves who dig the tunnels, who have slate and mud in their beards?
Yes, the game will be about the scouts who descend into untouched subterranean vistas and leave markers for the miners and tunnel-diggers. In a perfect world the scouts would leave markers for a good spot for the miners to make basecamp and organize the tunnellers, tunnels would get sunk and gems, gold and the occasional mithril would vomit forth. Let’s make the world less perfect. That is how we create Situation.
The scouts are being forced into an area their grand-sires avoided for centuries; the mining company is hesitant but also greedy. Someone is putting pressure on them. Who? The Prince of the Holdfast is putting pressure on the company to attain riches. Why? Hm.
The Prince is in debt…to necromantic bankers from the west. Cool. Let’s keep an eye on that, make sure that evil bankers don’t take the shape of any antisemitic tropes.
What are scouts watching out for on a good day? They are making sure the tunnels don’t run afoul of any trolls. Maybe there are stories of dwarves who delved too greedily and too deep and awoke a demon (NOT original); the scouts are watching out for that.
Me, being me, I want giant spiders to show up. I’d probably have the first session have the scouts run into troll refugees running from what they say is an army of giant spiders. They are desperate enough to head into tunnels that everyone knows has sleeping dragon or balrogs or something the grand-sires spoke of in fiery hushed tones.
Maybe I don’t even start that dramatic. Maybe it is just competition with a rival mining company that wants these unclaimed tunnels for themselves, throw the trolls and the spiders in later after we’ve created some context and gotten a feel for the tunnels.
Either way, it starts unoriginal and then you push on it and twist it and think about points of view you’ve never seen in fantasy novels or never seen in the way you wanted them to. By the time the players make characters and the dice hit the table, the idea will gain a fresh point of view. All we have to do is get over the shame of being unoriginal.
Folks who say they improv when they DM have a structure that they have often internalized. Here’s one type of structure that might help you out during those moments when you are brainstorming before a game or taking notes while DMing (PDF at the bottom of the post). NOTE: I’ve also included a PG version, Context, Cool Stuff and Consequences, in case you need to use this in a school or professional environment.
The worksheet below is meant to be a tool for jotting down bullet-points for pre-game daydreaming as well as in-game note-taking. Names, places, ideas, encounters, whatever inspirational bits you need when the game is on.
The questions on the sheet above are meant to inspire, not to overwhelm. Answer however many you need to feel comfortable walking into the game. You’ll find your rhythm and what you like to have when you walk up to the table.
They’re arriving at the place you’ve prepared. Tell them what they see, hear, smell. Tell them what the place looks like as they approach.
Under Hollow Hills by Meguey and Vincent Baker
What is happening in your game? What dynamic forces are in motion? What is at stake? In Burning Wheel this is known as The Situation – the imbalance, problem or injustice that will drive the campaign forward.
Maps, heraldry, pinterest boards, inspiration lists (music, books, movies, etc.) are other ways to get that context in place.
There is an instinct to have a hidden antagonist and spend extraordinary amounts of time and energy hiding their presence from the players and the characters. Fight that instinct. Yes, Vecna is the Lich-God of Secrets and Sorcery but their secret bid for world dominance is more interesting if the players are one of the few to know the secret. The more the players know the more dynamic their plans can become and the more invested they are in learning more.
Have an idea what is happening just beyond what they can see and then watch for opportunities for them to uncover that lore. Don’t waste time and energy hiding information. The players will always see more mysteries just beyond the horizon and even if they know EVERYTHING there is still the thrill of what they will do with the information and how the future conflicts will shake out.
Leave some questions that you aren’t sure about. Have some NPC’s who could go to the Dark Side or become Born-again Paladins. If you aren’t sure where some lost lore ended up or how the players will uncover it, find out in play. The answer might become more clear once the players have kicked the tires of the world and gotten some dents in the fender. Let answers come to you in play not prep. Prep is for interesting questions and of course – cool shit.
Consequences are what end up at the table because the players’ actions. Cool Shit is about putting toys on the table because they bring you joy. It could be your favorite monster, or your favorite type of NPC (good teachers and sly, reasonable villains for me). Hopefully, the Cool Shit relates to the context and reacts to the consequences but sometimes strange things have travelled in from far reaches of your imagination.
What do you like in a story? Put some of that in. You are the Story Guide, after all.
Was there a part of a character’s back-story that you want to delve into or an NPC family member who you think is interesting? Get them in the game.
You are playing too. Have fun. Put a treat in there for yourself.
Sometimes this is when the players make an enemy and that enemy strikes back, looking for vengeance. Diversify those consequences. Maybe the enemy they have antagonized also has an enemy who sees the players’ chaotic conflicts as an opportunity. Let the players’ actions cause ripples across the world and inspire folk. Have a bard write a song about their prowess or a theatre troupe write a play about their exploits.
NPC’s react according to their goals and methods. Events snowball. You don’t need to “manage” the game. Action, reaction and consequences will drive everything.
Blades in the Dark by John Harper
Make their actions a dynamic part of the world for good and/or for ill. I notice lots of rookie DM’s tend to look for negative consequences. Constant negative consequences might push players to avoid interacting with the world out of fear of causing any ripples in the pond. Find that balance based on the vibe of the table.
Think about what an NPC might’ve heard about the characters in a world of rumor and sorcery and how they might react. Make the characters’ actions meaningful.
Establish situations with several actors or factions pursuing their own ends. Let the players’ actions affect this environment, and let the consequences affect the players in turn.
Principia Apocrypha, Elementary Axioms & Aphorisms on Running & Playing Tabletop RPGs in the Old School Style by Ben Milton, Steven Lumpkin and David Perry
I hope this structure is useful. If it helps (or fails miserably) I’d love to hear about why it worked or how it could be better.
This post was inspired by spending time on the DM Academy Subreddit; these are things I have found myself saying or thinking as I read new GM’s posts. Good luck!
I did not feel like going through the treasure in Castle Ravenloft and tallying it up after the Sigil Six killed Strahd. So, I wrote up the below houserule to use as the players make their way through the Demi-Plane of Dread’s mists, into the Shadowfell (random encounter tables are brewing) and eventually to Gloomwrought (tempted to write the factions up Blades in the Dark/Doskvol style) spending loot fresh out of Barovia. Inspired very much by Burning Wheel’s resources.
NOTE: Will I ever play a fantasy RPG and not take some inspiration from Burning Wheel? Probably not.
I imagine we might clip the coins into halves and quarters if needed. We’ll see. If they ever take a dragon’s hoard, I’ll write something similar up but with a touch different flavor (and probably more slots to burn).
Will this somehow link to my unfinished resources system or will that wait until I have Project Ampersand (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH ANY NONSENSE THE nu-TSR fools are brewing) into some kind of playable format? Time will tell.
We’ll catch you up right here so you can watch along with us.
In the first arc of the game Nara was a baby and in that game she was declared an elf-friend (so that a cruel elf wouldn’t murder her) and prophesied to be the Arch-mage. When we learned this before we knew what an Arch-mage was, what the title meant or that Nara was going to be a character in the third arc.
Since then we have learned that the ages of this world are marked by Arch-mages, one per generation. If Nara is the next Arch-mage she will be the 5th, an auspicious number. An Arch-mage is a wizard who picks up the Burning Wheel, an artifact left on a mountaintop in the care of the Dwarven Wheelholdt clan, and carries it down the mountain.
Nara has been feeling the pressure to pick up this dangerous and powerful artifact while also feeling unprepared and unready to do so. Despite all of these pressures, when violence broke out in the city she picked up the Wheel and tried to stop this outbreak of violence with magic. She failed and is burned. That is where we find her today. Burned, frustrated, ashamed and trying to figure out what comes next for a wizard who tries to pick up the Wheel and fails.
Sean and I are playing Burning Wheel (Technically, Burning Wheel Gold Revised), a rules dense system that revolves around the character’s beliefs. Below are the beliefs Sean has written for Nara over the sessions of this game, to give you an idea of her growth and what interests Sean about the setting. It is Judd’s job to push these beliefs.
Theses are ambitious beliefs Sean has written.
Bury your own heads has become a kind of unofficial campaign motto since Nara made a deal with a powerful spirit and it led to her playing a role in the death of over a dozen bandits.
Sean putting Nara in a position to change the world. We don’t know how much she’ll change the world or how much the world will change her.
B1: Write a belief about the duke’s heir, a warrior knight who is warring with neighbors.
B2: Write a philosophical belief based on your favorite tactician’s treatise on war and life.
B3: Write a belief about how you feel when you see war’s fell hand smash the common folk.
War Wizardry Art Magic
3 Specialties: Destroy with Sorcerous Fire, Arcane Weapon, Advantage
+4 Arcane Action
+6 Arcane Knowledge
Necromancer – practitioner of the Death Art
Play this if you want to do fell rituals upon corpses and be infamous for commanding undead.
Note: I’ll burn this up later.
B1: Write a belief about the duke’s dead father, said to haunt the wetlands as an undead abomination.
B2: Write a philosophical belief about death and your skill in evading and twisting it to your purposes.
B3: Write a belief about some necromantic goal that you wish to accomplish to prove your power to the world and yourself.
Twilight and Dusk wizards might find themselves in the midst of battles. War Wizards might have to deal with throne games. Five Towers Guild trained wizards might have to deal with church politics. It is just a matter of degree and how your skills are built.
* = five towns the wizard offers guidance to, as per the ancient agreement made when the tower was first built
*Stipel – little town that built the wizard’s tower long ago
*Aelton – village on the far side of the Southward Ash River, on the other side of the stones but asked for the wizard’s guidance when the tower was first built
Dusk Stones – said to have been placed by fey folk to prevent war
*Castle Byrne – ducal seat
*Port Gersum – on the verge of becoming a bustling port city, seen to by the duke’s sibling
*Livarin – town built around a construction site where foundations for a castle has been laid
Southern Wyrd – spooky forest
The Wizard’s Friend
Just in case you’ve got a third player. The way I’ve made this character creates a very real danger of this game going from being about a wizard finding their place in the world and coming into their own and a hackneyed peasant-prophesied-to-become-king tale. Don’t let it.
B1: Write a belief about hiding from that damned prophecy.
B2: Write a philosophical belief about the simple honor you find in serving a wizard.
B3: Write a belief about supporting the wizard in coming into their own power.
I burned up the characters I could with the online character burner but when some wizards needed hand-burning because they needed Codex lifepaths. So I set those aside aside in order to get this blog post out sooner rather than later. I’ll burn them up in the coming weeks and add them to the post as needed.
If you use this as a jumping off point for a game, please let me know. I’d love to hear how it went.
Sean and I playing Burning Wheel started out because a Blades in the Dark game we both played in had a few nights a month where he and I were the only players who could make it. I suggested a BW side-game and now, several years later, that campaign is still going. Having just purchased a map making program I made a map:
The map helped. It forced me to name things and gives things shape. The human dukes were divvied up into 3 groups that I think of as the Gold Dukes, the Iron Dukes and the Wyrd Dukes. That will help when I need to make up a human on the fly. I can see where they are from and know a bunch about what their political life is like. Naming the dwarven holdfasts wasn’t something I thought about but became important later. Only now have I started to get more firm ideas about Ostofair and Andune.
I knew the BW system wouldn’t be an issue with Sean. He might hate it (and that would be fine (but he didn’t)) but he wouldn’t bounce off it the way I’ve seen some folks do. So I asked him to take a look at the BW Situations I had tweeted and one of those tweets grabbed him.
When I imagined this campaign, I imagined a conscripted soldier who returned home to farm and just wants a peaceful life but is very aware of the perils of war. Instead, Sean burned up Bina Janos, a servant who worked in a tower at the crossroads, serving the knight there. It was not what I expected at all. The game straight up made me nervous. There aren’t many (any?) fantasy books about Bina Janos. She didn’t secretly have magic powers nor was she secretly the lost child of a queen or a knife murder goddess in hiding.
Bina was a mother who married a decent guy, a wheelwright (and it is a Burning Wheel game…huh? get it?) and had a daughter, Nara, with him. She had been taken from a nearby village during some feuding and never went back home. She got by with a skill called Soothing Platitudes, being good at her job and knowing the local gossip.
That first campaign was an exercise in GMing failure without beating up the player. In following Bina’s journey we learned and made up a bunch of mythology in the world. The Burning Wheel, an actual physical artifact that could be seen like an arcane beacon atop a northern mountain and its church. The lore behind the dwarves and the elves that was leading to war. The 17 Great Debts of the Dwarven Princes. The politics behind the human dukes and the songs of the human peasants. There are immigrants from a faraway continent who have traditionally guarded the gold mines and the caravans that take the gold from the mines to the capital after a few local knights turned bandit or rebel lord, trying to control the wealth.
During the game it was clear that a dragon still had an important elf, a consort to the elf queen, and so the second book was about a working class dwarf in charge of tunneling into an abandoned holdfast that was being squatted in by a dragon. The dragon was trapped within but still, there was real imminent danger there.
Pellara the Pillar would become Pellar Dragonsworn and also Prince Pellara Dragonsworn of the Vault through the course of play. That was not at all my intent. I wanted to stay away from noble games but she was born to and was the matriarch of a working class family. To be honest, having a game about a strong woman taking control of a political situation driven into the shitter by born noble princes felt pretty damned good. All of those dwarven holdfasts at the top of the map suddenly became very important. I made notes on each prince and what made those places unique.
I was making stuff up as I went and adjusting to the beliefs Sean made but I daydreamed myself enough content to give myself structure so I wasn’t ever making shit up in a void.
In a subreddit someone asked how GM’s make character arcs. It might look like I very carefully planned everything. Book 1 and 2 are both nine sessions long.
I didn’t. I didn’t plan a damned thing. There was no arc in mind. I didn’ tknow where Sean’s beliefs would take us. I know how I want to push on them but once I push, I have no idea how Sean will react to that pressure. I didn’t want each game to be 9 sessions long and I don’t mind if Nara’s time in the campaign takes 3 sessions or 99 sessions.
Just let he players deal with the problems and cool stuff and arcs will happen naturally because we are humans and we like to find patterns and familiar rhythms in things. Don’t plan the solutions, just put forth the situations filled with problems and wonder and see what happens.
Me, saying stuff, link above
This third book’s situation is more vague. We found out in the first book that Bina’s daughter, Nara, was Gifted and might be destined to be the next Arch-Mage. What does that term even mean? Arch-Mage. All we know is that an Arch-Mage is a wizard who picks up the Burning Wheel, braves its sorcerous fires and takes it down the mountain. We know that her destiny is wrapped up in that mess. I am relying on the lore we’ve built and the fact that we’ve barely scraped the surface. There is still so much that Sean doesn’t know and Nara can learn.
I’ve started writing notes about how Arch-Mages are selected and the previous Arch-Mages and how each of them has led to the current state of affairs in wizard society. We will get to see Wheelholdt from a very different point of view. I’ve been daydreaming about wizards, apprentices and how they learn, what their hierarchies are like and how they interact with the rest of human society.
One of the things BW does well is learning. Seeking out teachers and reading books can be a big deal.
I’m glad we’ve got an empty third belief to start off with, it allows Sean to jump on something that comes up in play as we get to know Nara.
Here are the playlists for the first two books. Come join us in a week for the beginning of the the third. I have no idea what is going to happen. Or…I know some stuff but have no idea how Sean is going to play Nara. We’re going to find out about the history of wizardry and Arch-Magery. We’ll see where Nara fits in all that mess and if she agrees with the prophecy told to her mother years ago that said she was destined to pick up a fiery magical artifact created by a sorcerous fire god.
Municipal Dungeon Delving in the fantasy city of Jaquays (pronounced Jake-Ways) in the wake of the Sorcerer-Kings, who have abandoned this world and have left their toxic labs, wyrd towers and feral pets all over the city-scape. More about the making of this game here.
I’ve been honored to play so much on the Actual Play channel, a place where I’ve made wonderful friends and played wondrous games.
What am I regularly playing off-stream?
On Thursday evenings we play our Thursday night game, founded at the start of the pandemic. We are deciding what to play in 2023 and are playing Into the Megadungeon until we all can get together, put our previous campaign to a satisfying end and get behind something new.
At the bottom of most blog posts you might notice links to my Threadless shop. A few years ago I started combining my librarian’s passion for finding old out-of-copyright pics and general geekery with the Affinity Art Suite and this Threadless shop was born. I set up the shop so the proceeds that would go to me go to amazing organizations. Below is what the shop has earned as of 11/28/22 a total of $346.69 for organizations like Medshare India, Fair Fight, National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, National Center for Transgender Equity and many more.
Grey autumn clouds are gathering as the ducal council closes and the two richest duchies declare war, each declaring itself the monarch. Soon your modest tower’s place in between these two dukes will force you to choose your place as the storm of war approaches.
Write a belief about the horrors of war you have seen and/or choosing a side in the coming conflict.
Write a belief about getting a warhorse.
Write a belief about what your late spouse taught you before they died and how you would like to live to honor their memory.
Write a belief about helping your knight make a decision about the coming conflict.
Write a belief about getting a warhorse.
Write a belief about what you will do to prove to the knight that you are ready to be knighted.
Village Guard’s Beliefs
Write a belief about serving the knight through a previous war and how what you’ve seen effects what you will do now.
Write a belief about a skill or a truth about the world that you will teach the squire.
Write a belief about nobility by blood or by action.
Most Noble of Beasts of which they are five because five is a holy number, the number of spokes on the Burning Wheel.
Upjumped commoners sometimes find their way to noble title and when they do their banners have objects to show their house’s humble roots.
Sorcerers, wizards and witches are forbidden by law from holding noble title but once this was not so. Here are the heraldric symbols of an arcane origin.
Holy symbols were once the five ducal sigils but now those houses are long since fallen but their symbols are still found on minor houses who married into the holy houses in ancient times.
The Burning Wheel, 5 spokes, aflame, fire and change
The Tidal Wheel, 3 spokes, water and fortune
The Storm Wheel, 4 spokes, wind and change
The Buried Wheel, 6 spokes, earth and stability
None know what the 5th wheel might be. A wheel without spokes? Leave those kinds of arguments for priests and philosophers.
NOTE: Why all this on heraldry? Because making things up from a vacuum is more difficult than making it up with a structure.
If you’d like the possibility of the knight leading an army, fiddle around with your general skills and get Strategy. It is a rare skill. I might even change the reputation so that it is known you can lead in battle and make war.
They are the last of their kind, still guarding this ancient tower with a young human squire and a village guard looking up to them.
I’m all over the place this week and thought I’d get the links all in one place in case you are on the road and need to hear me prattle on about games for a few hours but don’t have my cell phone number.
I was sincerely honored to be asked to co-host this podcast about Trophy games with Jason Cordova of Gauntlet fame. The podcast is about Trophy Gold and Dark (and more?) but many of the techniques discussed are usable all over the table and cool monsters are cool monsters. If Monsters from the World’s Birth sound interesting to you, check it.
Daniel and I are playing Cyberpunk A.W. using the Burned Over Zine rules with asynchronous video and I’m totally digging it. It is like video play-by-post. The link above is the playlist where you can find it all.
It is not often I’m gaming and think, “Shit, this feels new to me,” but this game is odd and new. I’m digging it and cyberpunk feels like the perfect genre for it. Daniel is a real-life nurse and he’s bringing to the table.
If folks would like, I could post when we get updates under the twitter hashtag #cyberpunknurse.