Welcome to another edition of The Gamemaster. For those who may be new, my brief explanation: I’m new to the world of game (or dungeon) mastering. I hadn’t played any RPGs in 15 years at least and am now getting back into it. I’ve begun a campaign in a setting of my own creation using the Pathfinder rules.
This column is a way for me to explore what I’m doing, what’s working, what’s not working, what I can do better, and I hope it will be of interest to others as well.
Today, I’d like to talk about the importance of taking notes and providing a continuity.
I know many GMs like to “just wing it.” I hear and read both wonderful things about them and horror stories. Personally, I’m not the sort who could just wing it. Everything for me in the world has a reason and I’ll explore that reason in writing before the game even starts. Before our first session, I wrote a 250 word piece on the world, and in concert with the players, 200-300 about each character. Then I made a list of cities and towns. I drew a map of the kingdom and the spatial relationship between the towns and the world. Then I made a massive list of names. Each lord in a keep in the kingdom has a name. Major generals they might encounter. Mayors. Officials. Police. Tavern keepers. I just made lists of names that fit into the tapestry of the world.
I keep that list with me when I’m GMing because it’s so much more engaging to have a name right there, ready for your NPC, than talk to the players about “this guy” or “that girl” or whatever.
But it’s important to remember that at this bar, the bartender was named Bertram instead of Roderick. Not because the characters care, per se, but if that remains consistent throughout the campaign, then maybe they will care. Maybe that barkeep, who’s character and name have been consistent will play a larger part in the world. Perhaps after talking to him a few times and interacting with him, getting good information, asking about his kids, etc. they come into the bar and he’s gone, having been abducted by the soldiers while the heroes were on their last adventure?
Do you think characters would be more or less invested in the plight of that character if I maintained him as a consistent personality through their many encounters with him?
For my money, I write up and prepare just about everything I can think of that the characters might decide to do (along with a few things I can’t even imagine them doing) in the next game beforehand. I write down things that are going on in the world around them, and I prepare statblocks, dungeons, and other encounters they might come across. One thing I’ve learned, too, is that you can multi-purpose this stuff. If I build a dungeon of the Orc overlord and they decide to go attack the Ratfolk instead, well, they coincidentally have the dungeon layout I designed for the Orcs.
After each session, I try to keep detailed notes and every scrap of paper and map layout I can from the session. In those notes, I recount which characters did what (at least the major actions, anyway), I put down the names and demeanors and personalities of all the NPCs they encountered, I put down what the characters seemed to think they were headed, and where the session ended. It gives me a reference document that allows me to go back to any session we’ve played and know what went on, who said what to whom, and I can look back to old story hooks I might have left that haven’t yet been followed up on.
I’m not sure if this is common practice for GMs. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I know it’s a lot of work but it’s so incredibly fun for me as a writer that I can’t imagine others wouldn’t do the same.
But what this does is it establishes a world of continuity for the players so they feel as though they’re coming back to a specific world every session as opposed to “Generic Dungeon Crawling Game #4.” I’ve had one player tell me that because of the way I’ve been telling the story, and the way his character is, he spends most of his free time thinking about my game and the story and the world that we’ve created together.
Another player got so into the story, he created the most amazing map of the kingdom and brought it to our last session:
It’s been the most amazing experience to watch the players, in character, explain to each other what they know of the world and use the map as a tool to share that information.
And if I hadn’t made my cheesy, colored pencil map in the first place to keep things consistent and written down in my notes the name of every town and what was where, we wouldn’t have had this.
And each of those cities on the map have, at the very least, a loyalty and the name of the lord of the keep. For the cities we’ve been playing in, they’re much more fleshed out. But when it seems likely they’ll head to another city, then I’ll worry about figuring out what’s there. And once that’s been done, that’s it. It’ll make it into my notes and every time they come back the same things will be there…
…or at least the smoking remains of the same things…