Thoughts on Writing Workflow Part 1

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

My favorite part about writing an adventure or campaign is filling the world with details, and I find when I do this, the process of writing starts to become an adventure of sorts. But, like all good things, you first have to have an idea of what you want your campaign to accomplish and some sort of hook. A hook is your first goal.

What do I mean by a hook? Well, when I was studying storytelling in college, an exercise that was taught is the art of an “elevator pitch.” This is the practice of summarizing and condensing your whole story into no more than 20-30 seconds of spoken detail, about the length of time on a short elevator trip. These 20-30 seconds is all you have to capture the attention of your audience and get them “hooked” on your story.

This is actually a really good practice for everyday life and professional development. If you can develop elevator pitches quickly, it then becomes easier to sift through the unnecessary details and get to the heart of your idea or argument. Making it easier for you to convey your ideas concisely and clearly, but I digress.

Condensing your story to this level draws out the general concepts of what you are looking to accomplish in your campaign. So once I have an idea in mind, I try to rough out and apply the very basics of the story to the idea. I like to think of things that will get the creative juices flowing and get me most of the way to an elevator pitch.

Some things I like to think of are:

  • Who is the protagonist?

  • Who/what is the antagonist?

  • Where is the setting?

  • What is the protagonist trying to overcome?

  • What are the climax and the reward?

  • Why?

These core questions will help you develop the seed of your story. But, some of those questions seems a little specific of a campaign so let us unpack some of these questions and figure out what they can mean.

Who is the Protagonist?

From a campaign standpoint, the protagonist is not necessarily the players. Remember what you are currently doing is building the story/situation/world in which the characters can function. So the protagonist could be the main NPC like a king, a god, nature, etc. A protagonist does not need to be Good-aligned either, and this can create great situations for player characters down the road. This protagonist will be the story element that would change the most or be affected by the change the most and will be the driver for your story and adventure for your characters. The events surrounding this protagonist, or the campaign’s protagonist themselves, would be the antagonist for the player characters and the reason they are put on this path.

For example, let’s say that I want to run an adventure that puts players in many situations where they face moral ambiguity problems. I could use someone like a guild master or leader of a cult as a protagonist. With outside forces working against this leader needs to make sure that the wealth in the city gets redistributed from the rich to the poor.

Who/what is the Antagonist?

The previous premise sets up a great starting place for the campaign’s antagonist. Now we can ask “who/what are these outside forces” and depending on how in-depth you want to go, you can even ask “what drives these outside forces”. This will create a predicament for the campaign’s protagonist and can help later develop what your player characters are asked to do.

So running with the previous idea, the outside forces could be the city itself, maybe the cities politicians or other leaders are corrupt and are imposing extreme taxes to pad their own pockets. This situation also starts to beg questions like “why does this one guild master care?” Keep asking these sorts of questions, and soon you will come out with something like this like the following.

In the city of Caragorn, the politicians have grown corrupt and greedy. They impose impossibly high taxes on the people of the city, and those who don’t pay or voice their opinion too loudly tend to disappear. The local thieves guild master, Aaric, is finding this to be extremely bad for business and has started to put out the word to surrounding cities that he has a need for capable adventurers.

This pitch is good enough to get started on fleshing out a campaign or adventure. It takes roughly 20 to 30 seconds to describe to someone the premise and has the hook to get people to want to play. Once you have reached the point where you think you have a solid pitch, practice it on a significant other, your parents, a co-worker, or a friend and see if it sounds interesting. The pitch should grab them and when you are done, they should want to play what you pitch them. The questions that they ask will tell you if you need to work on the pitch more. If they ask for clarification on details, then this is a bad sign and you may want to workshop the pitch. But, if they are asking questions that indicate they are interested in the story or world, that’s when you know you have got them.

After I have developed a solid pitch, I like to go in and start unraveling what I have in my pitch and start applying them towards the Hero’s Journey. Think of the pitch as the seed that your story grows from, it is just a rough form of a story with lots of potentials, not bogged down with detail.

This is where I will leave it for the week. Check back in next week as I continue to unravel my campaign creation process. 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