Friday, February 20, 2015

A Cypher GM's Writer's Block




We’ve all been there.  It’s a week until game-day, and you are staring at a blank piece of paper or computer monitor trying to come up with a somewhat coherent plot for your crazy group of players.  You’ve run several incredible adventures so far, but are stumbling when it comes to this next quest.  You’d love to turn to a published module, but nothing on your shelf fits the current state of your campaign.  The clock is ticking.  Do you cancel the session?  Is it time to restart the campaign?  


What do you do?


GM’s Note:  To be clear, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m just talking about published settings (Numenera, Deadlands, Ravenloft, etc.), since you have all of the materials ready to go.  Writing a campaign setting from scratch is a whole other animal!

I often have six or seven potentially amazing ideas brewing in my noggin right now for incredible new campaigns.  If all of my current ongoing campaigns were to end right now, and I was forced to cook something up from scratch for the weekend, it would be an absolute breeze.  I’m sure this is the same for most GM’s.  Starting a new campaign, especially in a published setting, is relatively easy.  Sure it’s a lot of busy work, but adventure design is much simpler when you are working with a completely blank slate.  You may have a lot of reading to do, especially if you’ve never read the setting materials, but ideas are going to be exploding in your face every second as you flip through those rulebooks.

With fresh characters and a shiny new campaign setting a GM can freely choose:


  • Starting the campaign with a published adventure
  • Starting the campaign along a published plot-point-campaign or adventure path
  • Adapting a published adventure to an original plot
  • Developing a home brewed adventure using published maps/resources
  • Developing a home brewed adventure from scratch


Even if the players come to the table with some very well developed character backstories, a GM can either integrate these into the adventure, or suggest a player to shelve ideas until a more opportune time in the campaign.

But for an established campaign, working with published materials becomes more complicated:


  • Published adventures may not fit the current campaign model
  • Plot-point-campaigns and/or adventure paths may fit the campaign setting, but could be designed for much lower level characters
  • Party backstory conflicts with published adventures/plot-point campaigns/adventure paths because all of the characters are completely off the wall-crazy and their players love to break the plot.


Note that last bullet-point.  Those are my typical players.  

Need some New Numenera


This was my challenge earlier in the week when I was trying to put some ink to paper for our Numenera: Tales of the Broken Mask campaign.  Back in December we shelved the campaign for the holidays, but had every intention of returning to the Ninth World at some point in early 2015.  With Quattro con Carnage winding down, we decided to aim for March, at the end of +Marc Plourde’s run of Cinqo con Queso.   

When we last left our pary, they had just learned the hard way that the organization they served, a guild of mutant bounty hunters called the “Broken Mask”, was not only sinister, but incredibly cruel and unjust.  An innocent child the characters had stolen as a bargaining chip in a feud with the Order of Truth, was forcibly mutated into a pathetic, wormlike pet, to serve a high ranking guild official.  It seemed like the party was done with the Broken Mask, and the next logical extension of the campaign was to take the party elsewhere in the Ninth World, as they would certainly not be welcome in Nihliesh any longer.  

As a game-master I love when players come up with new and exciting ideas on the fly that I can turn into future adventures.  Typically, I would’ve asked for suggestions at the end of Session 10, and plotted the next adventure accordingly.  But with a three-month break in the campaign, returning to the table would be the start of a whole new season… a reboot of the series.  In addition, I was adding two new players to the group, expanding our crew to six.  

I considered running the players through The Devil’s Spine, but one of the players was already familiar with the adventure.  Without any other published Numenera adventures, I had to sit down and write something out from scratch…

… but the words weren’t there.  

From Monday to Thursday this week I had a small pad of paper with me that I carried around everywhere I went.  I would jot down notes at breakfast, lunch, after the kids went to bed, during Tuesday’s Cinqo con Queso game when I wasn’t busy missing hellhounds with my bastard sword.  On Monday here were my notes:

  • New campaign to start in Qi.  
  • Consider city-based campaign concept similar to Dragon Age 2 and Kirkwall
  • Party hiding out, away from Broken Mask, taking odd jobs
  • Andreas’ character a Qi resident and possible forensic surgeon.  Source of creature hunting side-quests.
  • Add Jeremy’s character somehow.  Going with bard-type, perhaps local band?  Source of entertainment side-quests.  


Wednesday morning I added the following:


  • Make Andreas’ house weird.  Maybe have it be a living creature’s stomach.


That’s it.  

Certainly I have more written on the pages afterwards, but nothing that I was going to keep.  I have line upon line of ideas, but either they conflicted with previous campaign concepts, or they were just garbage, cliché, or NOT weird enough to be Numenera.  My only significant plot outlines were for the side-quests, not a main story.  How was I going to come up with the next series of meaningful plot points?

The Brilliance of Andy


+andrew lyon and I have been playing together for about a year.  We met at the Norwin Game Knights during a Numenera demo, and soon after he joined my playtest for The Strange.  We’ve been gaming together ever since!  Andy is a terrific sounding board for my adventure writing, and has no problem telling me when an idea needs to go back to the drawing board.  Hat’s off to my good friend for an end-of-day chat on Wednesday, when I was kicking myself for not having something meaningful for the next game:

Jim:  “I have no idea what we are going to do in Numenera in two weeks.”

Andy:  “LOL”

Jim:  “I had a hastily crafted plot but hated it.  Now I’m just like… “shit”.”

Andy:  “Dive into Ninth World Assassins or Whisper Campaigns for inspiration.”

Jim:  “I’ve been through all of that.  Have lots of cool side questy stuff.”

Andy:  “Side quests might be good for a party with new players.  Maybe something on a side quest will make itself into a main quest.”  

Hot damn, he had it!  I was so focused on creating some magnificent storyline, something broad and far-reaching, that I didn’t even consider just writing the next session or two.  My wheels were spinning when I tried cramming for six to ten sessions, but once I just focused on a single idea for a side quest, everything flowed freely.  I finished writing the plot outline last night, and over the next few days should add enough meat to make this a four-session adventure.  It may even be longer if the players choose to explore options within their own backstories.   So that simple “side quest” became the longer story-arc that I was looking for all along!  

Andy’s advice also reminded me that while it’s the game-master’s job to create the foundation for an adventure and campaign, it’s really the players who create the story.  I was fretting about not having the opportunity to riff off of the characters’ actions given the three-month break.  Injecting a simple side-quest would help introduce the new players, and reintroduce the existing characters to the world.  After one session, our crew of exiled bounty-hunters could be at it again, doing what they do best: causing chaos, carnage, and destruction.  

Group Huddle


How do you deal with GM writer’s block?  Has it ever put a serious kink in an existing campaign?  If you’ve never faced this hurdle, what helps you keep your adventures fresh each session?  Let us know!

If you just happen to be looking for a published adventure that could fit a Numenera campaign of any Tier, take a look at +John Marvin's "The Sun Below: City on the Edge", a tremendous "scalable" adventure.  

Finally, we will be starting Numenera: Pulse on March 3rd.  It’ll feature some great material and locales from Monte Cook Games’ brand new Ninth World Guidebook.  Expect the full play-reports and adventure recaps that I always do!  


 and thanks Andy… I owe you one!