Finding what feels good: a story from the RPG Writer’s Workshop

Normally in November I’d be giving NaNoWriMo another go, but I didn’t feel like the novel that I’m currently working on would benefit from the sort of frenzied rush towards word production that NaNo tends to spark in me. So instead I took the opportunity to sign up for the RPG Writer’s Workshop instead. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at RPG design for a while, but have been lacking motivation to actually put the effort in, so it seemed liked the workshop would be the perfect opportunity to give myself a kick up the arse (that reminds me, I need to find a way of forcing myself to take up yoga…).

Before the workshop started things went pretty well. I had plenty of ideas of adventures that I wanted to write. I was looking for something pretty light, since I actually want to be able to play it myself and my players tend to prefer fun and breezy rather than the more serious tone of WotC’s official adventures. Random ideas that popped through my head included:

  • a Shakespeare inspired “Much Ado About Nothic”;
  • a story about escaping hell after a clerical error (which I wont give you the title for because it just too good and I still desperately want to make a series of adventures inspired by the idea);
  • and the one I finally ended up deciding to do as it seemed feasible size wise: helping a goblin tribe to set up a mining operation in order to escape from an oppressive hobgoblin empire (which is going to involve a fun game of “how politically overt can I be with this and still publish on the DMs Guild?”).
    I was pretty hyped about getting started, especially since lockdown had just started again in France, so I was stuck inside anyway and was unlikely to be finding a job within the month so I had a bit of time to spare, even if mentally it wasn’t going to be the easiest. All things considered, I was pretty optimistic going into week 1.

How it’s been going so far

Week 1 went well (try saying that 5 times quickly). I was in the zone. The first sessions were mostly about preparation and planning so I got my workspace and documents set up and I made my playlist full of mine and cave sounds to get into the ambiance. I also threw a few Trollfest songs in there to get the whole goblin anarchy feel (Steel Sarah really makes me feel it but I couldn’t resist adding their cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic which is just exquisite). The reading went well and I got through all the activities without much effort and was just really feeling enthused throughout the week. I brainstormed plenty of ideas to flesh out the adventure: cave ins, animated mining equipment, giant spiders, and a few special surprises that could only come from the deranged mind of a goblin on shrooms that I’m really excited about but which will remain a surprise for now. Basically, week 1 went well.

Then week 2 hit. Now this has nothing to do with the workshop itself, which kept up with well thought out activities and a good lesson structure, and everything to do with real life. In short, shit happened. Redoing my CV and writing cover letters for jobs just drains me and through week 2 I pretty much only managed to keep up with reading the lessons, because I’d promised myself that I would do at least something everyday and that was about all I could manage.
And then we got to lesson 12 on incorporating maps, which happily coincided with me catching up on some of Matthew Colville’s videos, specifically “The DM is also a Player, Running The Game #92”. If you haven’t seen this yet, and you’re a DM, then you should go and watch it now. Really. Forget about this blog, it’s really not all that interesting in comparison. For those that are really against video content, then to summarise Colville talks about how DMs should also be having fun, just like their players are. He talks about other things too, but that’s all you basically need for the purpose of this blog (you should still watch the video for the other insights though). The general idea is that as a DM, sometimes we need to find out what interests us in running the game: playing characters, tactics, whatever floats your boat. Now in my case, for the purpose of the RPG writer’s workshop, it’s making maps.

Now, this came as something as a surprise to me. It wasn’t the first time that I’d tried making a map and had generally not liked it. There were two main reasons behind this: I found the software clunky, and the maps that I was making didn’t inspire me. I was generally making a map to fill up a gap in a published adventure where there wasn’t one, or because there was one but it had too much or too little information on it, or I just wanted to change a few elements, but I wasn’t making something that I was excited about. I wanted to run that game certainly, but slightly changing a map to do so just isn’t interesting to me, necessary, yes, something that gets the mind sparking, no.
So after several days of being completely unable to transform my brainstorming into anything resembling a manuscript, or even a half decent outline, something about drawing the map of the adventure grabbed me. There was something incredibly enticing about having a visual representation to work from. The workshop provided an exceptional list of possible maps that had already been drawn but after a brief overview there was nothing that really fit what I wanted, plus I already had Dungeondraft on my PC but had never had the occasion to try it yet so I thought why not jump at the occasion and give it a go since it was listed as one of the recommended mapping programs.

What happened next was a lot of fun.

Drafting dungeons

I loved Dungeondraft. It was fluid, it worked well for what I needed with a very flat learning curve that allowed me to jump right in. The map isn’t perfect certainly, but it’s far better than anything I could have hoped to provide otherwise. Plus, it has allowed me to imagine my adventure in a very visual way which I found allowed me to look at it all with a new eye and motivate me to write, which really came as a shock because I’m generally better with words than with images (despite what you might think when you read this blog).

This has given me the enthusiasm to continue, to work through the harder bits and the bits that excite me a bit less because I had this wondrous moment of joy, where I spent the better part of a day just playing around making a map. Making an adventure, DMing a game, requires effort. It’s work. It might be enjoyable work, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not work. What’s important is that you can find the bits that you enjoy, and don’t hesitate to play around with it. Normally I like writing, and I have never enjoyed making a map before, but this time round, I wasn’t feeling the words but my gods did I have fun putting little cobwebs in the corner of a cave. I hope to be able to come back to this blog at the end of the month and present you all the finished adventure, but until then I hope you enjoy the map below of a mining operation.

The mining operation and it’s mine. Ready to be overrun by intrepid goblin entrepreneurs.
Work in progress.

TTFN. Be more kind. Sam.

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