Thoughts on Writing Workflow Part 2

In last week's post, I talked about how I like to start my adventure or campaign writing process, and this week is an extension of that. To quick sum up what happened last week, I stressed the importance of developing a great elevator pitch. The elevator pitch gives a condensed understanding of the situation and can help spur new idea on how conflicts can come to be and become diffused. I also stressed that it is important to use questions to develop a better story. This concept will follow you through to the end of the writing process.

So from the elevator pitch, I like to develop the basic ideas main Non-Playable Character (NPC) that is driving the turmoil, usually referred to as “the big bad.” I then use a condensed version of the Hero’s Journey and start to fill in plot points in that NPC’s personal story. For information on the Hero’s Journey check out my two-part post about how it was applied to Storm King’s Thunder by Wizards of the Coast. It has some insight behind the Hero’s Journey and can help you understand how to apply that to a character. I like to start with the bad guy’s story first because the entire campaign’s story should be touched or affected by what this NPC is doing in the background.

I like to think of the big bad’s story as the backbone of the entire campaign and that no matter what else happens in the world, within reason, the bad guy’s story from the start to the point at which they are confronted for the final time is destiny and will always happen. This keeps scope within reason as well, because unless you are running an operation that is pulling down serious cash and have a team working full-time on the campaign, there is no reason to develop crazy amounts of alternate paths for your villain.

From here I like to start developing a couple external paths that players can take. These paths, including the villain's path, weave together all approaching the same fixed point in the plot, the final conflict. These convergence points allow for the players to explore other aspects of the story and gain background information that might help them in the end, but at the least, the information will make the story come more to life. This part is a very abstract concept to explain in words, so here is an example of how I visualize the multiple mini-story arcs interacting together.

The players travel the red and blue lines and have the option to switch from one color to the other when the two stories converge on the villain’s story. As you can see, both the mini-story arcs are linear as well, this means that the who or what those arcs are focused on also have a destiny to lead to the final conflict. So with the Villain and surrounding story arcs being linear, we must introduce the red and blue lines to mask that the campaign is really “on rails”. These lines give a sense of entropy to the players, where they can feel like they have freedom in their decisions. Ultimately, this is up to the DM to really sell the story so that it does not feel like it is “railroading” the players, but we want to give the DM enough tools and story to work with that this is accomplishable.

All that we have really done at this point is plan, jotted down a few key ideas and established a small set of beats. This is our framework, it should contain a very basic story plot, of a start, rise to a climax, climax, and end with a clear idea of a villain and a couple of outside factions that play into the story.

This is the part that starts to get really fun, you have the bare minimum information and now it is time to start fleshing out this framework. I personally like to start in on the campaign’s NPC leading with the villain. I suggest writing small character bio’s that describes the physical and mental traits of the characters. What do they look like? How old are they? What is their greatest desire in this world and how are they going to try and achieve that. These are important questions that make your characters and factions come to life.

By creating the foundation in the order I have suggested, this allows me to be able to question faction or NPC motives. I can develop things that my NPC’s might need or want and start laying breadcrumbs that the player characters can discover to lead them to the final conflict. This is where, through writing and imagination, you can explore the world you have been developing.

After this world development phase, I like to really key in on developing the adventures or quests that the players can take on. It is my own practice to make sure that every quest is linked to the main story in some form. This does not mean that every quest furthers the plot, but it means that if it isn’t giving any insight or background to the area or the story than I ax it and find something that fulfills those requirements. Campaigns and adventures are already long enough with the amount of detail that goes into the description of the world, the story and the dungeons, so don’t bloat it with non-value added quests.

Finally, the end phase in my writing workflow is to gather all of the notes I have taken through the processes and start editing it and formatting it for the final layout. I will not be going into layouts in this article, but from a high-level overview, I spend a lot of time on the layout to make sure it is readable and easy to reference when DMing. This final process is meticulous and can take a lot of iterations to get right. Once this step is completed all that is left is playtesting and making sure the encounters you have laid out are tier appropriate.

Thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Check back in next week to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates on release dates for our upcoming podcast and other big announcements. Thank you for reading.

-- The DM