Most Dungeon Masters (DMs) seek to develop exciting, engaging Dungeons & Dragons adventures filled with vivid descriptions and evoking the complete range of human emotion. Doing so is no easy task, especially if a DM has limited preparation time.
One way to increase the creative output of your adventure planning sessions is assembling an “idea file” where fragments of adventure ideas and game elements can be piled between formal planning sessions. Such a file works rather like a bank account for your imagination, where you can deposit or withdraw inspiration as necessary.
Although inspiration isn’t something that can be manufactured for this purpose, many DMs have “dungeoneering on the brain,” where concepts and ideas not even related to the fantasy genre can inspire game-related elements. It is that condition which, when harnessed and directed into an imaginary bank account, can greatly increase the level of originality and creativity in a D&D campaign.There is no single format for creating one of these idea files. Rather, any way of organizing the information (or not organizing it) that is most conducive to creativity for a given DM is the best structure to use. This writer, for example, uses a manilla file folder with a few crude dividers inside, creating sections for plot ideas, monsters, traps, rumors, maps, non-player characters (NPCs), descriptive text and miscellaneous ideas.
The sources of inspiration for such a file are too numerous to mention here, but can include the following:
- News media. News agencies can provide considerable inspiration for a D&D game. Watch for unusual crimes, police, military or government activities, and natural disasters, and imagine what effects similar events would have in your game world. Many of us have heard of at least one politician’s “fall from grace,” for example. But in a D&D game, that fall from grace could be the result of magical compulsion or the conduct of a shape-shifting replacement of an imprisoned ruler. A natural disaster could be just that – or it could be evidence that an elemental or primordial force is stirring.
- Books, television shows, and films. It’s important to note that these sources of inspiration aren’t restricted to the fantasy genre. Years ago, this writer’s local Shakespeare in the Park troupe staged a performance of MacBeth – in the setting of the European Theater of World War II. In much the same way, it is surprisingly easy to retro-date the plots of books, television shows and films set in modern times to a Medieval sword and sorcery setting, just by replacing technology with magic. Of course, films and books don’t need to inspire entire adventures; sometimes, they may give rise to an idea for a new monster, weapon, spell, ritual or trap. The key here is not to be too obvious: if you explain to your players that their quest is to throw a magic ring into a volcano (cf. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings), you’ve probably taken the concept too far.
- Other role-playing games. Few would dispute the statement that the D&D game is preeminent in the fantasy role-playing game (RPG) market, to a point where lesser-known but very good fantasy RPGs can only be found by actively searching for them. Whether or not this situation is good for the hobby is a question left for other Web logs, but it is beyond question that content from Savage Worlds, Steve Jackson’s GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System), Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls or Middle Earth Roleplaying can be easily converted to use in your D&D game, and chances are that your players will be unfamiliar with that material. Relative newcomers to playing D&D can also find some buried treasure in the form of prior editions of the D&D game, and in the stacks of third-party supplements produced for the 3.0 and 3.5 editions of the D&D game.
- Other DMs, RPG Blogs, and Campaign Journals. The Internet offers a host of resources that were unavailable to DMs as recently as ten years ago; literally thousands of DMs are now connected through the Web, either formally, as is the case with the Campaign Builder’s Guild, Plot Storming, or Strolen’s Citadel, or informally, as found in countless campaign wikis and adventure narrative sites. In addition, dozens of prominent bloggers at all levels of RPG experience, such as those organized into the RPG Bloggers Network, are sharing their thoughts, experiences and insights and building upon each other’s ideas in ways never anticipated by D&D’s creators. By tapping into that community, DMs can find writers with gaming styles and experiences matching their own.
What does one do with this newfound, albeit fragmentary, inspiration? Print it up and file it. Whether you find and print a cool map online, see a newpaper clipping containing the kernel of a campaign plot, see fantasy art that perfectly matches a dragon lair you’d like to use as a setting, meet a cashier with mannerisms you’d like to see in an NPC or print a short adventure with some useful character names (but nothing else), place your notes or printout in the appropriate section of the file. Soon, you’ll find that you have more undeveloped material than you’ll probably ever use.
Then, when preparation time arrives, you’ll have material to work from – even if the material on hand tells you what you don’t want, it will help y0u create what you do want.
When your idea bank reaches sufficient size, try this creative exercise. Randomly draw one plot element from each section of your file and assemble them into an adventure. You may be amazed at what you find.