Accelerated RPG Campaigns

I am the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I recently had a great insight. Let me share.

Like many a DM (I think), I adapt published adventures for my players. This means I use the published adventure as the backbone of a story, then I add or modify material to meet the specific interests of players and given them an interesting character arc.

For example, one of the player characters in our group seemed to be leaning evil, and I knew the adventure I was using would eventually lead the party to a city that was a hive of scum and villainy. I therefore dropped hints that the character might be able to join an assassins guild there. When that prospect seemed to catch their interest, I arranged for the character to meet someone who told them how to contact the guild. Eventually, when the party reached the city, the character had to decide how much or how little to become involved with the guild.

The guild wasn’t part of the published adventure, but going to the city was. Thus while the party followed the plot-line of the adventure, the character had personalized opportunities that (I hope) made the game more interesting than just following the predetermined plot.

As I said, I believe a lot of DMs do the same. This approach provides a nice mix of plot (from the adventure) and character material (added by me personally).

So now my great insight: I could throw away huge amounts of the published adventure and still have a great game.

For example, suppose the adventure calls for the party to work their way through a 30-room enemy castle. Why not toss out 25 of those rooms (or more accurately make the rooms pretty much empty)? The only rooms I’d keep would be ones I found really cool, or else ones where I could insert character-based material. In other words, I could drop the “crawl” from “dungeon crawl” and distill the whole thing down to a few rewarding set-pieces.

In the old days, you crawled through a dungeon so the characters could accumulate experience points through the slow process of killing monsters. There’s some value in that—it takes a long time to achieve significant milestones, so the players feel great when they finally kill The Big Bad (or whatever). It also gives players time to learn how to use their current abilities to best effect, and to yearn for the cool new stuff they’ll get when they reach their next experience level.

But my group only meets once a month or so. Grinding through a generic battle means that no one advances their story, even if the battle is a memorable challenge. So new plan: follow the adventure’s plot, but cut it down ruthlessly to its bare essentials so that the added character material takes on a much larger percentage of the action.

Also accelerate character advancement—discard keeping track of experience points at all, and allow players to go up a level every four or five sessions. If that’s too fast, use incremental advances: let players take partial advances now and then, e.g. increasing their hit points or taking one of the new abilities they’d get at the next level. Incremental advances are a great trick I learned from 13th Age.

In this way, the campaign will make faster progress through the published adventure and through D&D levels, finally reaching the adventure’s conclusion in a reasonable time. This avoids one of the major problems of D&D campaigns: petering out before you get to a satisfying end, because the DM gets busy, or a player has to quit, or whatever.

In other words, I plan to speed things up by dropping 90% of the published material. This should let us actually reach the end of a well-rounded story, while still not feeling too rushed. I recommend the same to all DMs reading this.

Checking In

2020. Amazing.

What did I do in 2019? A lot of writing, almost none of which has been published yet. I’m still working on the haunted house novel, titled The Hacking of Hyll House (at least until someone tells me I can’t use the name). I hope the book will be finished in a couple of months, because other stories want to be written too, and I’m not getting any younger.

The holidays were mostly quiet, except when a water pipe developed a pin-sized hole on Christmas Eve, spraying a fine mist all over my basement. I tried to fix it with duct tape (of course), which changed the fine mist into a more manageable drip. I happened to have some old hose from my clothes dryer sitting around, so I rigged it under the drip to funnel the leak into a nearby drain. I considered taking pictures and posting them here, but it would have given my insurance agent a heart attack and/or made me go viral on some belittling website, so I decided against it. I eventually managed to get a plumber in on Monday, and life is dry again.

So that was my Christmas…although I also read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tomaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which I heartily recommend. And I’ve been dying a lot while playing Control. Dying isn’t fun, but the game is, so it’s worth checking out.

I haven’t made any resolutions for 2020, but I do intend to blog more. So happy 2020, and I hope to write more in the near future.

Back from When Words Collide

I’m finally back from When Words Collide in Calgary. I had such a great time there, it’s taken this long for me to recover, even though the con itself finished on Sunday. The weekend was a whole lot of fun, and I’d recommend the con to anyone. Afterward, I led a workshop on Monday, then spent Tuesday with Randy McCharles and Stacey Kondla of WWC, going out to see dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell Museum.

While I was out there in Calgary, several people told me they’d really liked a workshop I led several years ago. They said they particularly appreciated a handout I’d given them on writing…and at first, I couldn’t remember any such handout at all. However, I finally realized they were referring to my Seminar on Writing Prose. Since I haven’t mentioned that much in blog posts, I thought I’d link to it here. I’d like to revise some parts of it in light of my 2019 outlook and skills, but any readers who are interested in writing still might find it useful.

Reading List

While I’m in Calgary for When Words Collide, I’ll be leading a writing workshop. In preparation for that workshop (and just as a useful reference), here are some books I think are useful for fiction writers. (Since the workshop is in Canada, all links will be to Amazon Canada…but by all means, order from your favourite bookseller, whoever that may be.)

On Writing by Stephen King
All kinds of good inspirational stuff from Stephen King
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
The best book I know for writers who are past the beginning stage and are ready to work on specific skills. I think I own three copies.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
My favourite book on grammar and punctuation…mostly because it’s funny, but it’s also quite useful.
About Writing by Samuel R. Delany
Writing advice by one of the most literary masters of science fiction

 
Also have a look at The Skill List Project, a series I wrote several years ago about all the skills I think are involved in writing fiction.

Quick and Brilliant Revision Trick

As I’ve commented before, I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, and I’ve been going over some of their past episodes. (They’re now in their 14th year, and the show runs weekly; that means a lot of past episodes.)

The following brilliant tip came from Brandon Sanderson in Season 12. He said when he starts revising a manuscript, he does a global replace on words he tends to overuse, changing each occurrence to the same word in brackets. For example, he might change “very” into “[very]”.

This ensures he doesn’t just slide past the word when he’s reading through the text. The brackets force him to review every instance, and to decide whether it’s needed or just filler. Once in a while, such words add to the writing, but most of the time, they’re just cruft.

So now I intend to do the same thing with my latest manuscript; I may even write a macro to cover all the words I usually ought to delete:

very
quite
a little
a bit
a lot
just
suddenly
quickly
almost
probably
likely

I’m sure I’ll add more to that list in the next day or two. In the meantime, I was so impressed with this trick, I wanted to pass it on immediately.

My To-Do List(s)

As I said last time, I’ve decided to share how I keep my writing schedule on track. Daily logs are my way of looking back and making sure I’m keeping up, as well as just maintaining records of when I do various things (laundry, dentist appointments, etc.).

For looking forward, I use to-do lists. No big surprise. Over the years, I’ve used several to-do list apps, and I still use one called Errands for chores that recur on a regular basis, e.g. clipping my rabbit’s toenails. This is useful for monthly tasks and for things that take place even less often. I can just set up a schedule and have the software tell me when the time comes.

But for me, this kind of to-do list isn’t great for daily or weekly chores. I end up with so many entries popping up every day that important things get lost in the shuffle. Instead, I use a straightforward Google doc for my daily to-do lists. It contains daily lists covering the upcoming two weeks. I review the day’s chores every morning and every night, as well as multiple times during the day to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks.

I have three types of entries in each day’s list. At the top of the list are actual appointments: things I have to do at a specific time. For example, today’s list contains one such entry:

5:15PM—Help Teach Kung Fu

I’m expected to be at Waterloo Kung Fu Academy ready to teach by 5:15, so it’s right at the top of my to-do list. Timing doesn’t really matter for anything else on the list, but that one is a fixed commitment.

The next type of entry I enter in bold face, one chore per line. These are things which are special enough that I’m worried I might forget them. For example, today I have Grocery Shopping on the list. I need milk (among other things) and I don’t want to forget that I should shop; otherwise, tomorrow morning I’ll have to drink coffee without milk. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s undesirable.

The final type of entry I enter in normal font. These are things I do pretty much every day, and I just want to keep track of whether I’ve done them. For example, I’m on a 1113-day streak with Duolingo and I want to keep the streak going. I’m probably not going to forget to do it, but I like deleting the line on the list so that I know it’s done. When I review my list at the end of the day, I can see whether Duolingo is still on it or not, and take appropriate action.

Writing is definitely on the list: there’s an entry for what I intend to work on in the morning, and what I’m going to do in the afternoon. These are just “normal” entries; I’m not going to forget that I always write in the morning, but it’s good to be clear about what I’ll be doing.

I also use this kind of entry for things like meal-planning—I have entries for breakfast and supper, and what I intend to eat for each. If I haven’t filled in the blank (as in “Breakfast: ?”), then I know I should make a decision before it’s too late.

Doing all this with a Google doc makes things simple—no special software involved, and I can edit the list on any device I own. As I said last time, the best system is the one you’ll actually use…and this one works for me.