When the World Won't Form

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 08 May 2010

Me: Ok brain, we're caught up on Medium and Ghost Whisperer which you said you needed for "research." Time to write this week's D&D session notes.

Brain: But I'm sure there are some NCIS episodes I haven't watched yet, I think I need those too.

Me: NCIS has nothing to do with the Tower of Lilith and you know it. What gives? I thought you loved this story. You included it in the original map and even hinted at it during the Lizardfolk temple session.

Brain: I do! But I'm afraid the players won't love it as much as I do.

Me: Don't worry about it, they're going to love it. Don't you remember how interested they were at the end of the last game?

Brain: If it's not written yet, how can you know that they'll love it. Sure, the parting of the mists for their boat made them sit on the edge of their seats, but what if what I create doesn't match their expectations. Why did you set me up with Arthurian legend anyway? You know they all know it too well.

Me: Well, you know it too. Don't hide behind that whole I'm not as geeky as they are thing because you don't have Star Trek and Star Wars memorized. Just write what you love and let me sell it to the players.

Brain: Ok, but can we get some caffeine first.

Me: It's a deal.

I'm pretty sure this happens to everyone at some point. When the focus is on the DM to create a great story, eventually nerves will get the better of even the best DMs. Which mean mere commoners such as myself have little or no chance of escaping this phenomenon completely. What should you do when this happens?

You're not writing a novel
Sometimes the problem is that the words just won't behave themselves on the page or refuse to make their way onto the page at all. Changing focus from the fine details to the broad brush strokes might help. Create an outline or at least just put down various ideas on the page or index cards. As inspiration hits, fill out each individual one. Don't worry if you can't go into too much detail for any particular one. Remember, you're not writing a novel, just trying to get the essence of world so it seems real enough at the table.

The world isn't always logical
Most of us were educated to think logically and sometimes this really hurts us as we try to create stories. We see all the holes in our stories as we write and sometimes we put so much energy into trying to fix these logic leaps that we just get frustrated. Logic has its place, but it doesn't rule everything.

Remember the DM isn't the only story teller
The players at the table will be interacting with this world and, even more important than the story you want to tell, is what excites them and their characters. If you are comfortable enough with the idea, come up with a brief outline of the important things about the world, and let your players' questions fill in the rest of the detail. For instance, if you are dealing with a legendary location, you might even have a night of improv. The players can help fill in the details of the legend with versions their characters heard as a children.

How do you guys deal with this when it happens?


My method is to start at the local level and go from there. When I started my campaign, I had names and basic ideas for a number of places in my world, but I only really fleshed out the two or three major settings that the players would be experiencing initially. As they gained access to additional parts of the world, I'd start to flesh those out a little. In addition, character background gave me ideas for what else to flesh out; for example, the warlock is from the capitol city, so there's a good chance that the party will go there at some point.

You can also enlist your players to help you come up with things. I give homework between sessions, asking them to come up with NPCs that they know, places they've visited, and so on. It helps a lot, and gets them more invested in the world.

"How do you guys deal with this when it happens?"


I tell Sam it's his turn to run...


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