Following Ancient yesterday, the inspiration for day 7 of #RPGaDay2019 is Familiar. This may be thought of as a contrast, or maybe the ancient things are familiar. I’m going to take a different tack, one which I have referred to in the past.
Apparently some people can improvise a game based on a few notes, some dice rolls and a random selection of names. SlyFlourish with his Lazy DM’s guide and follow-up Return of the Lazy DM is a major proponent of this.
I have come to realise this doesn’t work for me. The sessions where I’m trying to flesh things out on the fly are the ones which end up unsatisfying and drab. I need to be familiar with what I’m running.
This doesn’t mean I need every detail locked down and for the characters to follow exactly the path I designed, however. What is important to me is that I am familiar with the setting and the NPCs so that I have some details to riff off. Once I have that, the players can do what they want and I’m usually okay.
For example, the first session I had with the group I rescued actually started based on the swamp tiles in the updated Wizards wilderness set and a Lizardfolk lair created by the awesome folk at Heroic Maps as their Patreon map of the month. Based on these two, I came up with a scenario which started with a deus ex machina to bring them across into Mystara and drop them into a swamp on top of a depressed mud mephit (somewhat based on Marvin the paranoid android), and then had some lizardfolk capture the group and take them back to their lair. The group then had to talk their way out of being “special guests at the feast” and persuade the lizardfolk to let them go.
So I had these notes, I had the concept of the mud mephit and the lizard folk, I had the map. I had thought about the various bits in advance, and come up with a set of lizardfolk and an idea of how they might react and what would be important to them. Based on this, I was able to run the whole session, including the conversations with the guards from the hut they were trapped in, pet crocodiles in the water, conversations with the leader who was more intelligent, better educated and spoken than the rest, and who negotiated with them to release them and lead them to dry land if they would negotiate with the nearby leaders on behalf of the lizardfolk and try to persuade them to cede the marsh to the lizardfolk. And then a magic armlet which was attached to one of them as surety (which gradually developed more powers as time went on). It was a great session.
Then they got to dry land, found a pub, and encountered a bigoted landlord who was very into the local Traladara nation and against “the oppressors from Thyatis”. They of course hadn’t a clue about local geography or attitudes, so when he said “you’ve got funny accents – are you from Thyatis” they blithely said “yes”…which he didn’t like and asked them to drink up and leave… For some reason he had a Scots accent.
So that was based on knowing that Karameikos had the tensions between the indigenous people, Traladarans, and the rulers who originally came from Thyatis 100 years ago.
On the other hand, I got caught out with another group when they decided to head across the hills across country towards a place I had previously trailed as seriously weird and dangerous, intending it to be somewhere they ended up after various other adventures to build up experience, ability (and storyline). I hadn’t had time to prepare, so I pulled together a few encounters from various sources called things like “101 quick encounters” (that’s not a real title), gave them a stirge nest and matriarch (which they grudgingly dealt with because it was clear that was all I had on offer, even though it would have been more natural for them to just skirt it and ignore), and then made up some ghostly soldiers and random pillars. But it was clear that the players found it as unsatisfactory as I did.
I think this need for familiarity has also fed into my dissatisfaction with some of Castle Amber. I had been trying to run it just from the module itself, rather than thinking it through, fleshing it out, and working out how to give them the guidance they needed. Again, the sessions that worked best came when I added my own details – the water trap to take them down to the basement, for example. Our most recent session, which was based on “they’re lost in the woods” fizzled out because I didn’t really have enough prepared to make being lost interesting, and it didn’t lead the main story onwards.
That’s why I spent all yesterday evening fleshing out the next few parts of Castle Amber in more detail ready for our session tonight – characters in the roadside inn, details of the bishop of Vyones and how that encounter pans out, details of what they need to do to obtain the sword of Sylaire (although I fear that might still need a few more details about the environment).
My sessions are definitely more successful when I am familiar with the situations and characters in advance. I’ll see how it works out in our session tonight…