In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
At the hub of all role-plays, no matter their nature, is a quest. Something must compel characters to action, even if they have to seek out a reason to act. Quests form the backbone of your story, and can make the difference between a simple dungeon crawl and a real adventure!
Arcs and Sidequests
The key difference between a quest and a story is that a quest should be kept simple. Quests pursue a single goal, where as stories are more complex, and comprised of many quests and scenes. That’s not to say that a story need not focus on a single, larger quest (or arc), but the story will also splinter into many smaller quests, and should include a scene where the arc-quest is discovered.
For example, let’s say that our arc-quest is to prevent a war. That’s hardly a small task, and will likely offer many smaller tasks which become quests in themselves, such as assassinating certain individuals, delivering documents, and attempting to resolve the stressing factors that could be causing the war. The initial quest remains in place, but the story becomes for more complex.
Not everything in the world, and in the lives of your adventurers will revolve around the main arc though. A little down-time with some unrelated sidequests breaks up the action and gives you the chance to field some new ideas and might give you some time to write some new material. Like NPCs, you might want to keep a stash of ideas handy if you’re short of a game one session.
First of all, remember to tie the quest to the world. In World Building I discussed how you could create campaign themes from your world design that could give you a few quest ideas. Let us take an example theme from a simple fantasy world:
Ogres have claimed northern trade routes.
The obvious quest that the theme generates is “Clear the ogres out of the north” but there are a few options here that might be worth considering. For example, why not have your party try to find a new trade route? Or perhaps since the ogres took over, families have been separated and are looking for any way they can be reunited.
Each of these quests gives the opportunity to discover something new that the head-on approach might skip-over. They also offer clear patrons; where simply clearing the trade routes makes them heroes, taking on a private quest gives them personal ties to the world you’ve created (and is more likely to get them paid).
Quests can have many sources (or seeds) but ultimately they boil down to three different categories:
- Quest Givers: The video game staple, especially in MMOs. A quest giver is anyone who approaches the players with a request. Early on in your game this will likely be a shady and desperate character in a bar, or someone in need of cheap help for a small job. Perhaps players hear rumours about a NPC in need, or maybe the players search notice-boards for “Help Wanted” adverts.
- Personal: A character can pursue a quest that stems from his or her backstory. No one takes to adventure because their life was perfect. Perhaps they have old enemies, or began searching for someone or something lost to them, or an ancient family story, passed down through the generations.
- Event: Something happens that creates an objective. It could be as simple as a thief snatching something from a player, or it could be as dramatic as a natural disaster or an explosion. The event needn’t be fast, like a plague or a steady increase in bandit activity, or the players could follow an ancient story, or enact an unfulfilled prophesy.
Each of these options will offer different kinds of quest, and give different reasons for the players to follow those quests. A Quest Giver for example will usually offer some kind of reward for services rendered, an Event will often some kind of threat to the players, or an ancient Event will usually offer a reward of its’ own. Personal quests tend towards more “ethereal” rewards such as character progression, or strengthen bonds with a faction.
It’s important not to blinker yourself when designing a quest. Remember to tie it into your story, and your world wherever appropriate, and don’t forget that the quest need not be completed all in one go and that other quests can begin and end in between. Give yourself a rough plan of where you want your quests to go, but don’t over-plan, or your players will go merrily off the rails you’ve set for them.
At the end of your quest, even if it’s the end of the main story arc, you should never close the possibility for new adventures off altogether. Leave hints as to where your group should go, or what they should do next. Or if you must cut them lose for a while, make sure you’ve already got some ground-work to build sidequests around, an old enemy, or a lose end to be tied up, until the real adventure starts again.
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