How to DM: A Creative Process

A quick online search of “how to DM D&D” can lead to some interesting results.  The information is not bad per se but it also might not be terribly useful.  Specifically, this search was looking for help on the creative process behind Game Mastering.  The search could have been made more specific but I figured such a basic issue would at least be addressed in a rudimentary search.  Alas, no.  Since this advice is nowhere to be found, there will be an attempt to provide such information here for would-be DMs who might like the idea but struggle with putting it in practice.  I’m going to pick on a friend of mine (Gabe) because he’s flirted with the idea of GMing but never committed to the idea outside of a session or two.

In addition to all the basic requirements (paper, pencil, players, books, knowledge of rules), the first step of the creative process is the idea.  It need not be original but it does need to be something worth sharing with players for a session (at least).  These ideas can come from a favorite movie, book, video game, whatever.  The d20 ruleset is incredibly versatile, so it’s not hard to find something worth playing.  Gabe was thinking of running a pirate campaign inspired by Assassin’s Creed, so he has that base covered.

Next up would be looking at all the tropes and flavors of a pirate campaign to include.  This is where TV Tropes is such a nice guide, as it provides a comprehensive list of all those things.  For instance, the top of the page shows the two differing types of pirates.  Choosing between these two types can affect the tone and play-style of the campaign and involves a certain degree of knowledge of the players involved.  Will the campaign depict the PCs and fellow pirates as the true to life vicious bandits of the sea?  Or will the campaign have a more idealistic bent and romantic flavor?  Who’s the real villain of the campaign:  the PCs, other pirates or a deserving antagonistic government?

Once those basics are addressed, the GM can start thinking about how the campaign begins.  Instead of worrying about being original, take a favorite story involving pirates and boil the story down to its most basic components.  Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, is ultimately about a well-meaning man who has to team up with an unsavory rogue to track down the pirates who stole his love interest.  This plot need not be copied outright.  Both characters could be like Jack Sparrow, who does not care about Will’s problems and is only motivated to get revenge for being marooned and mutinied upon.

Campaigns are more of a preference because there’s more longevity to them but if a “session by session” basis is more the reader’s style, here’s something to try:  one idea I had was to run a Zelda campaign where the PCs would be pirates.  They’d start off as orphans and after deciding that life on their home island sucks, they’d steal a local pirate ship.  Said ship would be captained by a penny-pincher kind of guy, a man so cheap that he wouldn’t even buy his own crew oranges to starve off scurvy.  The PCs would have some freedom to determine how to take the ship.  They could try stealing it in the dead of night or they could just kick the crap out of the pirates and take the ship by force.  The references used to create this opening session are from Zelda:  Wind Waker, Final Fantasy I (which has a party of 4 facing off against 9 very weak pirates to acquire a ship they access the rest of the game world with) and 8-bit Theatre (where Captain Bikke provides his own crew with Cheetos instead of oranges to fight off scurvy).

Once on the sea, the PC pirates would engage in each trope associated with piracy and sea travel in general.  They’d encounter sea monsters like Octorocks and Kraken.  The players might choose to sack one of Abe’s merchant ships or a Moblin fortress.  If the PCs treat their crew bad, they would have to deal with a mutiny and possibly marooning the traitorous sea dog(s).  Perhaps they’d hear rumors of a buried treasure and spend the session fighting off other would-be treasure hunters to claim it.  Those NPCs could be based off real or fictional pirates.  Maybe I’d take a page from Pirates of Dark Water or Wind Waker itself and have a PC be of noble birth who must reclaim certain magical artifacts so they can restore an ancient kingdom.  These ideas would be run by the players the moment they set sail from their home island and whichever one they liked most would be what they’d encounter next week.

Other session ideas would involve addressing the setting.  Wind Waker showed the player what happened when the sea level of Hyrule was raised a few thousand foot but what about Termina?  How would a flood shape the map and inhabitants of that realm?  Answering that question would lead to further encounter ideas.  I could also take ideas from other fictitious settings involving pirates.  Like, what happens to Veggie Tales‘ Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything if we deconstruct the idea that those vegetable pirates really don’t do anything…maybe the PCs encounter a ship full of vegetables dried-up from exposure to a humid tropical sun?  Or perhaps they come across a ship with animated vegetables who don’t resist when the players decide to plunder their ship.

For even more ideas, a GM could think to twist those tropes around to create something even more interesting.  For instance, the buried treasure map the PCs acquired from some guy in a tavern and have spent the entire session fighting other pirates for possession…turns out to be a fake!  A GM could even mess around with the setting itself.  Instead of a campaign set somewhere based off the 17th century Atlantic, the campaign takes place in space with all those 17th century tropes played to full effect.  Hell, have the setting take place in the sky with literal airships with a Victorian steampunk flavor.

While this article mainly focused on pirates, this logic could be applied for pretty much any idea.  Start with an idea, be familiar with the themes and tropes associated with it and have fun messing around with them.  It can be a little daunting to think of how much this involves but the truth is, if you’re familiar with the idea, it won’t take nearly as long as you think.  And just think of the reward when the GM and players end up crafting a worthy tale that all involved will talk about for years to come.

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