Welcome guildies to the continued adventures of the GM Guide! The expectations are set, the setting is prepared and the characters are built! Now it’s time to roll the dice! But how exactly does someone go about building their first adventure? How much stuff, exactly does the burgeoning new GM need to pack into the first adventure that their party will partake in? How much world do you build for your new players?
Oftentimes, this step is the hardest for a new GM to do and can be the most intimidating for anyone who wants to get into running a TTRPG. I know several players who wanted to take the step to become a GM but didn’t feel qualified to make a “good story” and never got their ideas off the ground. For myself, even after years of GMing games and playing thousands of hours, the first story in any new campaign I make the very first story is always the most nerve wracking for me.
This series of articles will break down what I do to prepare the first story of a campaign. Hopefully this will help you in making your first story too!
A Word About Published Campaigns
Many, if not all of the RPGs on the market have published adventures or stories to run for your players. Many games now have a beginners box that can be purchased. These have a story, character sheets and dice that help get new players into a game system. These are a great resource for any new GM that wants to run a game, but feels that they don’t have enough experience to run their own stories. I know several GM’s that only run published campaigns and one shots.
This series of articles is for the GMs that want to tell their own stories, or build their own world for the players to play in. Running a published campaign or story is a great way to gain experience. However most GM’s eventually decide that they want to tell their own stories. This series of articles will help those who need a little push in the right direction. Even if you start out as a brand new GM without ever running a published campaign, these stories can still be helpful in coming up with themes or ideas to help you generate your own stories. I won many campaign books that I will never run, but I have used ideas, items, puzzles and traps from these books to help build my own stories.
What goes into a Story?
To build any story for your players to adventure in there are several things that must go into it. Below is a small list of essential items that should go into every story:
- A Goal: What is it that you want your players to accomplish for this story?
- An Ending: What is the desired outcome of the story? How do they go about achieving this ending?What do your players get for achieving the goal?
- The Spark: Which event or character gets the players to start the adventure?
- The Barriers: What gets in the way of the characters from achieving the goal? What interesting choices do the characters have to make in order to achieve the goal.
- The Consequences: What happens when the players break through each Barrier? What happens when the story is over?
- The Setting: What pertinent information do the players need in order to go on this adventure?
This is by no way an exhaustive list of items that need to go into the story. This is the bare bones that I use when building a story. When building the story for the very beginning of a campaign there are two more principles that I use and try to adhere to throughout the writing process: Keep It Simple and Introduce the Characters.
Keep It Simple:
I try to make the adventure as simple as possible, for both me and my players. I can eventually build up to complex stories that draw on the characters past experiences and backgrounds, but for the first story I want to keep it as straightforward as possible.
Introducing the Characters:
The principle of allowing the characters to explore themselves and the world, but in as simple and small a chunk as possible. Some players will write extensive backgrounds for their characters, talking about their troubled childhoods and magic lineage. Those can be explored, but I usually focus on those in future stories. My first story I just want the players to gain a little experience role playing how their characters will react to the world and challenges they face and how they get along with each other. I can start adding in the players’ backgrounds and personal goals at a later time, after they have had a little bit of time at the table, learning how to play the game.
With these principles and a small list, let’s get together and build our first story!
GM Guide to Fantasy and Adventure
For our first story I want to set it in a fantasy world. As the GM I have already helped build my adventuring party. It consists of two woodsy type characters, a brutal warrior and two noble’s that both have arcane powers but from competing schools. Having discussed what my players want beforehand I know that all of them like exploring ancient ruins, fighting bad guys and saving the day.
To start my first adventure with this party, let’s go down the list, starting with a goal. I want the goal to be simple and straightforward and I want it to appeal to the characters. This ensures that they will actually bite the story hook and go on the adventure. Drawing from fantasy tropes we have a plethora of things our characters can do.
They can save someone from something evil. Someone can hire them to protect someone or something from something evil. They could be an exploratory party and go diving into nearby ruins in search of treasure. Since I have two Nobles in the party, maybe I could do something that works for them. Maybe they could explore the ruins to win the favor of another noble, or maybe the King or Queen. Or maybe they could even work to save the King or Queen, or a Prince or Princess.
I like the idea of having the Nobles be invested in the outcome of the story. Furthermore, the fantasy tropes of saving a Princess is pretty standard and straightforward, so I think I will make that my goal for this story.
Goal: Save the Princess!
Now that we have a goal, we should think about the ending of the story. It may seem counter intuitive to immediately jump to the end. However, I have found for myself that having a clear outcome to the story helps write the sections in the middle.
You could also think that The Ending for a simple story would be the easiest part to come up with. Obviously if the goal is to Save the Princess, then the ending would be The Princess is Saved.
What I find, though, is that this path is too linear. When writing a story you want to make sure that there are multiple endings to the story. If you only have the one ending then usually either the characters achieve the ending, or the characters are all dead.
So, even when writing a simple story to introduce your characters to your setting, I want to think of multiple ways for The Ending to play out, to make it exciting for the players. At the same time, we still want to make this a simple story. I am only going to come up with a few possible endings to the story. Let’s aim for three endings.
- The Princess is saved. This one is easy. The characters find and rescue the Princess from whatever evil has taken her prisoner.
- The Princess is saved, but cursed by an evil force. This one means the heroes are successful, but something went wrong and there will be consequences from the heroes actions.
- The Princess is killed. This would be like the bad ending for the heroes. They just were not fast enough or strong enough to save the princess. This ending shifts the focus to the death of the Princess instead of the characters, which can generate interesting stories for the heroes.
What kicks off the action that sends the heroes after the Princess? The Spark does not need to be too detailed for the story. Most sparks that I write, even when not writing a simple story, are still pretty simplistic. Perhaps the crown hires the party to go and save the Princess. Maybe they were simply travelling across the country and witnessed the Princess get captured in the first place.
For the beginning of the story I did not want to make it overly complex for the characters. During our pre-game discussion we had decided that everyone already knew each other and had been adventuring for over a year. I told them that they had taken some time off adventuring and that they all had agreed to meet together a year later.
Since I had some nobles in the party and some people that enjoyed the countryside, I decided to have them meet up on the road to the capital of the Kingdom that they lived in. It seemed logical that the party would be coming from several directions and would like to have some time to meet up before travelling to the big city to finish their individual business in the city.
With that in mind, I decided to keep it really simple. The party sits around a table at the inn they decided to stop in on the way to the city. A royal guardsman stumbles into the tavern, broken and bloody, and decries that “The Princess! The Princess has been captured! I need help!”
Since the party is a bunch of heroes that want to go on high adventure this is all the spark I need to get the party on the hunt for the dastardly evil that took the Princess.
Check back for part 2 of this GM Guide: an in depth delve of Barriers & Consequences on May 15th.