Monthly Archives: May 2009


Tweet Yesterday, I talked about the adventure/story worksheet. Today, I’m covering the campaign/chronicle/saga worksheet. The campaign worksheet is very similar to the adventure sheet, but expanded to cover the entire arc of the campaign. For my campaign sheets, I use … Continue reading

GM Tools: Story Worksheet

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White wolf publishing introduced the idea of a story worksheet in their Vampire Storyteller’s Companion (first edition) . Basically, it’s a “quick reference” sheet that covers key details of the adventure at a glance, such as a plot summary, key NPCs and situations, any rewards for the characters should receive and the conditions for success and failure. I found this so useful for planning adventures — even whole campaigns — I’ve expanded on it and adapted it to all of my other games. Using these sheets helps me focus on the important points of a story and not get lost in the details.

Any GM will want to tailor these sheets to fit their own gaming style and world. I use separate campaign and adventure sheets, as well as a quick-reference sheet for important locations. Frequently, I don’t need anything more detailed than these to run a game, but I’m a very “off-the-cuff” GM.

Here’s what my adventure/”story” sheets cover:

  • Campaign / chronicle name
  • Story name
  • Geographical setting — where does this adventure take place geographically?
  • Start date (real time)
  • Start date (game time)
  • PCs involved — since I frequently reuse entire campaigns, this helps me remember which campaign I’m currently running.
  • Adventure concept —  a one to two sentence summary of the adventure. This helps me clarify the adventure so I don’t get bogged down in  subplots. Example: PCs are hired by the local king to eliminate the dragon terrorizing the local farms.
  • Plot archetypes — is this a “bug-hunt” (like the example above), a rescue, a “baby-sitting” (ex: guard the prince while he travels through Lupine territory on the way to an important meeting), a murder-mystery, etc?
  • Plot summary — a short paragraph detailing the beginning, middle, and possible outcomes of the adventure.
  • Theme — another inspiration from White Wolf. My theme is an open-ended question or phrase I’d like the story to explore. Ex: Trust — who can you trust, how do you know you can trust someone and what do you do when you can’t trust anyone?
  • Mood — what overall mood I want the adventure to have.
  • Subplots — these are subplots I want to make sure I touch on in this adventure.
  • Key NPCs
  • Key Locations
  • Key Situations
  • Adventure opening — how do you get the players involved in this story, where does it take place, and who are the key NPCs the PCs need to encounter
  • Adventure outcome — what are the most likely outcomes (I find this useful, even though my players will inevitably find something that never even crossed my mind), where is the final scene likely to take place, and the NPCs key to the outcome of this adventure
  • Midpoints — a list of the crucial points of the adventure. This is a list of events that need to take place during the adventure, along with their locations and key NPCs
  • Rewards and the conditions for gaining them
  • Game summary questions:
    • Who are the characters involved?
    • What do they need to do?
    • When do they need to do it and how long do they have to do it in?
    • Where do they need to do it?
    • Why do they need to do it?
    • How are they likely to accomplish it?
  • Plot outline
  • Summary — a brief summary of what really did happen in the adventure.

Next time: Adventure / Chronicle Worksheet

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My Appendix N

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Dice Monkey posted a blog entry on is site titled My Appendix N about inspiration sources. So, here’s my “Appendix N”:

  • Tolkein, J.R.R., The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, of course. But not for any material from Middle Earth itself. Tolkein’s works are pure inspiration for me — they challenge me to make my worlds and settings richer, deeper, and more complete.
  • Mallory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte D’Arthur. (Also Chretien D’Troyes, Parsifal, Gawain and the Green Knight … really, the entire body of Arthurian works).
  • In a similar vein, Camelot 3000 and Matt Wagner’s Mage comic book series. This has inspired me so much I’ve actually created the bare bones of a game built around the idea of reincarnated Arthurian heroes.
  • The “Mummy” movies (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor [I’m a sucker for anything with Jet Li and/or Michelle Yeoh in it]). I felt like I was watching someone’s game sessions. The characters in these movies act so much like PCs I’ve run.
  • The Bible. No, seriously. Aside from the fact I’m an In Nomine junkie, the Bible contains some of the best action stories ever. Also add Milton’s Paradise Lost here.
  • Roger Zelazney’s books
  • Various anime and manga series, esp. Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach, Cowboy Beebop, Naruto, and Samurai Champloo (While the last one may not have much in the way of storyline, I find it full of ideas on how to get PCs in trouble with the locals.)
  • The National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, and the various Discovery Channels
  • New and current events
  • Various tarot decks. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used tarot readings to develop adventures.
  • Everway cards and fantasy artist trading cards
  • Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica [both series], and Torchwood.
  • Folklore and mythology
  • Other people’s games

There are many more, but these are the ones I’ve come up with off of the top of my head. My biggest source of inspiration, though, is my players. Someone will mention something or make an off-hand comment that sparks an idea in my head. Even casual, non-gaming get-togethers usually end up with someone getting hit by a foam die, a Nerf sword, or a rolled-up character sheet accompanied by the words: “You idiot! Now you’ve given her ideas!”

What’s your Appendix N?

Kids & RPGs: Passing it Down

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Just recently, I’ve started a new campaign. I think I’m more excited about this game than any other I’ve run (which is saying a lot,  given the fact that I practically live for running games). It’s nothing fancy: just a plain, vanilla, out of the box ADD3.5 game, using largely canned adventures. The adventures aren’t anything to write home about — many are old-fashioned dungeon crawls updated to 3.5 stats. It’s not the adventures, it’s not the setting (I haven’t really developed one yet). What makes this game so exciting for me is the players … well, one player.

You see — I’m teaching my son AD&D. At 12, he’s finally able to sit down long enough to make it through a game session. I’m not sure who’s more thrilled: him or me. Probably me.

As the child of two gamers, he’s been around RPGs his whole life. He actually played his first game when he was 14 weeks old; he played a changeling child in a World of Darkness LARP. He’s been playing MMOs since he was five.  He’s watched countless game sessions I’ve run and played in. He follows the AD&D game I’m playing in almost as closely as I do and always asks what happened if he’s not around during a session. But this is his first real tabletop game.

I’m not expecting him to play all of his games with me. Honestly, I wouldn’t want him to. I know for me, half of the fun of games was discovering things for myself, with people of my own age and skill level and that’s an experience I don’t want him to miss out on. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud when he asked me to run his first game.

I ran my first game when I was about his age. It was the B1 module In Search of the Unknown that came in the Basic D&D “blue” box. Of course, back then adventuring consisted of killing monsters, gathering treasure, and getting as much magic and experience points as we could.  We had only the most rudimentary idea of a background for our characters and there wasn’t as much role-playing as roll-playing. But it was the start which, 30 years later, led to our current games of rich character interaction, fully-developed game settings, and intricate plots and subplots where it’s almost as much theatre as game.

I’ll refer to my son as ‘Kraseus’ —  his character name. After all, when I was his age, I preferred my character name to my real one, too 😉 .

Kraseus is starting from a different point: he wants what he sees the adults playing. He wants a detailed character background and the sense that he’s playing in a world that could be real — something I never looked for until my later years of high-school. But he’s entering a well-developed hobby where as, 30 years ago, it wasn’t just us that were new: the whole idea of gaming was new. My son is a second-generation gamer (actually third, on his dad’s side), so his expectations are different from mine at his age.

It’ll be very interesting to see where his generation takes us.

Character Questionnaires

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I’ve mentioned how useful character questionnaires are to me as a GM. I can draw reams of campaign ideas just from the questionnaires I receive. My questions run the gambit from “What does your character look like?” to “What gives your character’s life meaning?” I ask players to answer the questions in character, except for those specifically stated “as a player”. It’s a long list, but I require players to answer only what I call “The Basic Six” questions. These questions are:

  • What do you look like?
  • Everyone has a few mannerisms unique to them. Describe three of yours.
  • If you could accomplish one thing before you die, what would it be?
  • Name five things about you that would drive a college roommate nuts.
  • What do you, as a player, like best about your character?
  • What do you, as a player, like least about your characer?

I encourage players to answer as many questions as possible and, for the most part, my players seem to enjoy doing it. I do give player contributions (see my post Player Contributions for more info on that) for finished questionnaires. If a player’s answers are really detailed, I’ll often give extra contribution points.

Also, I allow player to go back and change their answers, as long as they don’t change anything already known to be true in the game. It sometimes takes several game sessions for a player to find their character’s “voice” and I don’t want a player stuck with an answer that no longer seems true for their character.

My questionnaires have changed over the years; I’ve added some questions, dropped or reworded others. I have one “master list” of questions that serves as the base questionnaire, but I usually rephrase the questions to fit the game system I’m currently running.

Character Backgrounds

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There’s a continuum about character backgrounds. I use detailed character backgrounds in my games; in fact, I warn players that I reserve the right to fill in any character history they don’t. Other GMs don’t bother with backgrounds at all — a sentence or two at the top of the character sheet. It really depends on the individual GM’s game style.

I can’t even begin to building campaign until I know the PCs involved; for me, the PCs are the campaign. Player-written character backgrounds provide me with a wealth of ideas I would have never come up with on my own. I give my players free reign to create NPCs in their background, with the caveat that all NPCs need to approved by me. This takes some of the background work off of my shoulders; I can use the PCs backgrounds to help flesh out the population of my city/world/setting. Frequently, I find I can substitute someone from a PCs background for one listed in the adventure, thereby helping to get at least one PC more invested in the current story.

Sometimes I can even tie NPCs from one character’s background to those of another PC. This makes a connection between those two PCs, right off the bat. These connections don’t have to be friends, or even like each other. Having an NPC from one character hate the NPC from another character has led to some great role-playing in past games. Even better is when I can actually use the same NPC for at least one additional PC. Locations are something else I mine character backgrounds for. Usually, the player has given me some idea of what that location is like, even if it’s just “small farming town”. Businesses, towns, homes, farms from character backgrounds have all become integral to various campaigns I’ve run.

I always have players give me written copies of their background. That way I can go back and look up details I may have missed the first time through. If a player is having a hard time coming up with anything for a background, I sit down with the player and walk her through a series of questions. I’ve found character questionnaires can really help a player get “unstuck”.

Even really basic stuff like “how old is your character” or “what color is his hair” can trigger ideas for the player. Every player I’ve ever dealt with has at least an idea about what his character looks like, including clothing. If a player seems really stuck, I’ll ask questions about that: “why are your character’s colors red and blue?”, “why would she wear that hat?”, etc. And if a player is really, really, stuck for ideas or is looking for a challenge (I’ve had players who said “surprise me”), I’m more than happy to take over. But in that case, I warn them they’re going to be stuck with whatever I give them.

Usually, a PC only needs their background tweaked; in that case, I’ll make my revisions and hand the player a copy. Maybe I swap out the town in their background for one that already exists, or maybe I change their childhood friend to an NPC already in the game — I try to keep as much of the player’s work as possible.

Next post: character questionnaires