My first introduction to RPG’s was the AD&D Monster Manual and its myriad of creatures from the mythological to the completely bizarre. I didn’t comprehend the codex at first, but I took it on myself to learn. Hit Dice and Attacks went from random numbers on a page to delineating the toughness and lethality of the entry. The leap from reading about the monsters to imagining stories about them was trivial, with but a small step between there and creating entire worlds and then running the game. I stuffed notebooks to the brim with stories and castles, places fantastic and wonderful. I wrote out the paths the player would take through the woods into the castle, through the castle into the dungeon, and through the dungeon into the clutches of the final boss monster controlling it all. I can honestly say that I believe that plan never came to fruition.
One of the key pieces of running a game is knowing that your players are not going to cooperate. I don’t mean this in a malicous way, cutting at the players because they can’t play a game. Instead, it is meant to portray the inability of 3-6 individuals to try all try and read the same persons mind, at the same time, come to the same conclusion, and proceed together. I’d go so far as to say its not possible.
Instead, they are going to take the information you’ve given them and make the best decision they can based on that information. The presence or absence of a single word or phrase can change the entire tenor of the exchange of information if that word is critical enough. This can, and will, lead to an instance where they DM has prepared her evening, and is all ready for the players to, after their long deliberation last week, start the descent into the icy chasm of Ghermiaran the Garrulous. One the way, they stop at a tavern, and the bard is singing about this spooky woods and a lost princess in the east. Two players take interest, and before you can even figure out the name of the bard, the players have ventured into the woods to find the princess and claim the magic tower. Because the bard said it could teleport wherever its owner wills it, and they think that is easier than descending into the icy chasm. Why not just teleport.
to some extent, this must have happened to every DM out there, no matter your game system. You say two words to many, and all of the sudden your part is side tracked beyond all reasonable expectation, heading towards a land that is unmapped, unpopulated and unread. And its only 15 minutes into the session.
To some, this is a dreadful prospect. To others a run of the mill situation that they tackle with aplomb, able to hold all the disparate parts together.To a final group, which includes me, it is the only way to play. I’ve taken the situation to its logical extreme, preparing very little, having no set agenda, and relying on my players to make choices that I the build on to better define their experience. This is not an easy prospect, but it is by far the most fun I have as a DM because I am an active participant in the game instead of being the traditional passive role of arbiter and judge.
There are tricky parts to constantly winging your adventures, I won’t deny it. I’ve been doing it for so long, first out of necessity and then out of enjoyment and laziness, that its become second nature for me to simply contemplate the days events and come up with a vague plan of action that I’ll attempt to follow as best I can.
That doesn’t mean I don’t do any work in order to prepare. It does mean that my work is very, very different than it used to be. Rather than creating a static environment through which the players traverse, encountering monsters, NPCs and objects of interest, I create the background, history and personality of a location and let the players inform me of how it all shakes out in the present.
the first thing I try to build is the History of an area. This simple detail, often overlooked, goes much deeper than the simple explanation of the situation at hand. It delves deeply into the society, the culture, and the people around the area, and focuses on the creating and rise of the situation.
For example: The Keep of St. Albaran has been the fortress from which the Baron Kimess has ruled over the lands of Japfor for 60 years. Often, this is the basic plot that will be fleshed from the bottom up. What is Baron Kimess doing, how does the populace respond, and what vile act has he perpetrated most recently to convince those living in his shadow that he needs to be overthrown. All those are important, but not at more than a single line each, or even better yet, together.
Baron Kimess has been rounding up all the Blond Boys when they turn 18, and they are never seen again. The Mayors son turns 18 in just a few days, and he wishes to save his live.
Thats an easy plot, and you could go from here straight into the castle, building it and populating it with monsters and treasure. However, I find that to be the easy part. Once I’ve calculated all the Encounter Groups for the level, I can simply build rooms and describe them: Pantries, Kitchens, watchtowers, Dining rooms, foyers, assembly rooms and audience chambers. All of that can be done simply and with a pre-generated map.
Creating the Background of Baron Kimess and why he does what he does and what lead to his being able to perpetrate his crimes lend a specific air to the castle as your able to describe the castle based on his history and upbringing. Born the youngest son of the Late Baron Kimess I (look, now he’s become Baron Kimess the II), he was able to succeed his father after his two older brothers died of mysterious illnesses. Well, one of a mysterious illness and one of a hunting accident. That way Kimess seems innocent, but also has a veil of suspicion around him. He never married and has never produced any offspring during his 60 year reign. That’s because he was seduced by an Lamia (na, its cold here. lets make it a Scuccubus. Bah, Seduced by a succubus sounds to dumb and cliche. Incubus, though… ) er, Incubus years and years ago, and the Incubus rules over the land in all but name, every decree, rule or law is specifically from the Incubus and is only conveyed by the aging Baron Kimess (Huh, he is getting old, I wondered that) The Incubus demands his favorite toys, young blonde men, be brought to him as soon as they turn 18 so he may feast on their souls, gifting part of it to Baron Kimess to perpetuate his life (I had a thought for a moment that Baron Kimess was another victim. Nope! He’s pretty terrible)
Now, with a basic picture of what the history behind the event is, I can do a number of thing on the fly that will make it seem like I’ve prepared a lot more than I actually have.
- Decorate the Monastery in dark and forbidding images, as befits the Incubus lord of the Castle.
- Determine that no one is allowed in the castle, its dark, terrifying and full of the Incubus’ most favorite preserved Victims
- Create encounter groups that make sense. Groups of Undead of constructs lead by tormentor demons or packs of demons or hellish hounds and cats are all proper encounters.
- Create a legacy of NPC’s that remember a better time under Baron Kimess I.
- sprinkle properly flavored items around the Monastery, both common and magical
- Build realistic personalities for both the Incubus Wasandar and Baron Kimess.
now, go forth, and give Winging it a shot! its well worth the risk!