Beating the GM Writer’s Block

A week ago found me starting blankly at my keyboard yet again. During the week I’d been having all sorts of ideas and inspiration for the campaign, but now it was time to actually plan out the next session, and I couldn’t get started. Sadly this is not uncommon for me. Do you recognise the feeling? Once I get going, I can power on, but I seem to have a struggle just getting going and firing up the inspiration machine.

However, I was reassured, because during the week I’d read a post by Johnn Four about Tiny Prep, based on a discussion with Che Webster and his article on Tiny Prep.

Tiny Prep

Johnn hooked me with his post introduction:

A huge piece of friction when it comes to prep is blank paper syndrome meets lack of inspiration. We don’t know what to build and don’t want to build it.

Yup. That’s me. So what’s Johnn’s suggestion? Based on Che’s post, he suggests having a list of simple prep-related tasks.

Che’s list has six items:

  1. Write a clue.
  2. Add one room to a dungeon map.
  3. Add something to an NPC profile.
  4. Add something to an item design.
  5. Write down a consequence from last session.
  6. Add a person, place or thing to the world.

Johnn has a different list, with eight items, which he finds take five minutes or less:

  1. Create a 3 Line NPC
  2. Outline a 5 Room Dungeon
  3. Plot an Encounter
  4. Draw a Map
  5. Create a Magic Item
  6. Update a Character Loop
  7. Create a 3 Round Combat Plan for an Encounter
  8. Build a Location

One suggestion I missed on reading Johnn’s post which Che’s post really stresses is to make these small tasks, and hook them to something else to make a habit. In Che’s case it was initially turning on the coffee machine and waiting for the coffee, but now his cue is “After you’ve posted a blog post, roll 1d6 on the Daily Game Prep table”. Note: he doesn’t actually say to act on it, or to use the roll, but making the roll and seeing what he gets is usually enough to inspire him to do something.

The Lazy Dungeon Preparation

Che’s first option, “write a clue”, reminded me of Sly Flourish’s The Way of the Lazy Dungeon Master, as described his awesome Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. His preparation checklist is:

  • Review the characters
  • Create a strong start
  • Outline potential scenes
  • Define secrets and clues
  • Develop fantastic locations
  • Outline important NPCs
  • Choose relevant monsters
  • Select magic item rewards

Of these, he says the most important are reviewing the characters, creating a strong start and defining secrets and clues.

Reviewing the characters can be just running through who they are mentally, or can involve looking at index cards or summary sheets. It can help inspire things in the session and tie them to what the players are interested in.

Creating a strong start gets the players’ attention and engagement, and gives the session a focus.

Defining the secrets and clues lists ten things the characters might be able to find out during the session (but not how). This could be as fundamental as “the orcs are building a war machine” which could lead to a whole adventure arc, or simpler like “the thug Mariusz was seen handing over a parchment to a gang member”.

This forces you to think about the various factions and fronts and how they are progressing their plans, and then how these actions might manifest themselves as things the characters might be able to notice.

One key thing he stresses – these secrets and clues don’t exist unless the characters actually find them – any which aren’t discovered can be dropped if the campaign heads off in a different direction. He says he used to save them, but he found that ended up counter-productive because it tied him too much, so he throws them away now.

Putting it together

So what prep did I end up doing?

Review the story so far: Sly Flourish recommends reviewing the characters, but before that I decided to review the story so far. The first thing I did was to catch up with my session summaries. I write a summary of what happens each session, but I had missed a couple, so this brought me back up to date. This had several benefits: it forced me to review what had actually happened, and what the characters had done recently. It also allowed me to review the random details I had thrown at them (which included lists of names, some of them crossed out, and lists of boats with dates).

In the previous session, they had found a flat mentioned in a bloodstained set of title deeds stored in a cavern under the city along with a list of names; the name on the title deeds was one of those crossed out. They broke into the flat and found the corpse of the owner, along with his ghost and various papers including lists of shipping. The ghost had asked them to give his body a proper burial, and had dropped more hints that he had been investigating strange goings-on which might be related to the ones the group were also investigating.

Previously, one of the characters visited Isadora, a high-placed friend of his sister’s, and left a letter of introduction with her butler, and they had an appointment later in the day to meet with her.

They have also earned enough XP to go up to third level, but in my campaign levelling up requires training taking half a day per level, i.e. one and a half days, which would make them miss the meeting, so they have decided to delay – which is exactly my aim in having training have a time cost.

So, it looked like they would be dealing with the body, meeting with Isadora, and heading to the docks to investigate these ships. There are a couple of other strands of investigation involving the thugs and gangs as well.

Review the characters. We have:

  • Gergran, a dwarf paladin of the watchers, attached to the church of Ixian. Likes his war hammer, has recently invested in a glaive but left that in his room.
  • Isilya, a grave cleric of the church of Khoronus, associated with the Chardastes wing of the temple which acts as a city hospital.
  • Gareth, a fighter originally from Glantri but who left at his sister’s encouragement to become a sellsword when it was clear he wasn’t going to amount to anything as a magic user. It is Gareth’s sister who has provided the letter of introduction to Isadora.
  • Jinnie, a halfling rogue who lives on the streets and is barely housebroken. Good at picking locks and climbing and noticing things.

Strong start. I had a couple of ideas. I eventually settled on tying them to a previous, somewhat related campaign (this was my plan anyway). This campaign had a dramatic entry to Akorros, being transported to a basement where a portal had just opened and various fiery creatures had appeared, along with a mysterious flaming black sphere which burst up through the building, crashed through the roof, and shot off into the sky leaving behind a blizzard. I decided this would do for my strong start, with them as outside observers. (I had plans for that sphere, so maybe I’ll get to use them in this campaign…)

Outline potential scenes: this came out of the review of the story so far, above: dealing with the body, meeting with Isadora, and heading to the docks to investigate these ships.

Secrets and clues: I came up with a list of nine in the end. I think most of them are still relevant, and they only found out a couple (one of them only partially), and I know some of my players read this blog, so I will not list them here…

Develop fantastic locations:

  • I needed Isadora’s place. I had started a description of this a couple of sessions ago, so I reviewed that, added a few more details – indoor draperies which made it feel like a tent and a magical brazier for warmth (after all, I’ve just dumped a blizzard on the city). I got a good picture of the place – all polished marble until they go into her room which is a 1001 Nights-style feel.
  • I needed the square where the action took place. Fortunately I had developed this (at least in my mind) for the previous campaign, so I just needed to refresh my mental picture.
  • I already had the flat where they had found Ruben’s body and ghost, along with the close and streets around. A quick review.
  • If they’re going to bury the body, they need a graveyard. After rootling through my collection of Heroic Maps’ artwork masquerading as battlemaps, I eventually came on Mortfield Cemetery – it’s even got a dusting of snow. Perfect.
  • Docks. I also felt I needed some alleys and slums nearby for [deleted to prevent spoilers…]. This took me longer to come up with something right, but I eventually settled on The North Docks and Cherbury Alleys, which were designed to connect. At that point inspiration failed, so I hoped the images would provide enough inspiration. I was also looking through Sly Flourish’s The Lazy DM’s Workbook, and found a double-page spread on Docks. Not all of the locations in it made sense, but I hoped there would be enough to give me inspiration depending on what the players did. Fortuitously, Raging Swan Press had also just released a 2-page description of a Dockside Tavern to their Patreon patrons.

Outline important NPCs: I had previously developed Isadora to a degree, but in developing the scene I added her 1001 Nights interest. The Dockside Tavern also included some characters I could introduce, and when Heroic Maps released The Navigator’s Guild to their patrons, they also included a resource sheet which included some interesting NPCs.

Choose relevant monsters. Not applicable this time. Everything will be with NPCs. I hope they don’t mind not having a fight…

Select magic item rewards. There’s one they found last time they haven’t yet realised…

How it played out

Shortly before the session, Isilya’s player revealed to me that he was going to have leave the campaign because of other time commitments, so this would be her final session as a PC.

So the session started with a crump and rumble in the nearby square. When they went to investigate, the flaming black sphere burst out of the roof and shot off and the blizzard started. They were about to try to investigate when half a dozen of the Akorros Storm Troops appeared (the high-powered troops who deal with magical issues) and surrounded the building, warning the characters to stay out of it. A contingent of the guard followed, and the characters in the place got taken away. A couple of guards remained guarding the door, so the group decided to leave it, and go to their meeting with Isadora.

They waded through the now shin-deep snow (all passed their constitution check), and were let in by her butler to the atrium. After being allowed to cool their heels for a bit, they were led to Isadora’s room with all the hangings and drapes, and got into conversation. She didn’t give them much information, other than that a particular ring had recently been stolen – she asked for their help in recovering it, and hinted if they succeeded this might open up more. They mentioned her name on the list, and she laughed it off as a bit of a joke. She also seemed unconcerned by suggestions that she might be in danger from them and dropped her wizard training into the conversation (not sure whether the players picked up on that). She also revealed she had met Gareth’s sister at a ball about a month before, but that she had headed off on business after that.

Once out, they compared notes. Gareth had spotted that the drapes also served the purpose of giving guards a place to hide behind, and had spotted a couple of suspicious-looking shadows. Isilya caught that she seemed shocked to hear Ruben was dead, though she hid it quickly.

The group then headed to the temple and Isilya’s mentor to arrange for burying Ruben’s body. Her mentor told her it was time to return to her studies and research in earnest, and then they arranged for a carter who was making a delivery from the temple to the Silver Dragon Inn in the square to help them transport Ruben’s body back. They paid for this and the service from a stash of Ruben’s coin they had found (with his ghost’s permission) and headed to the cemetery (Ruben’s ghost following along). Isilya said a few words, they committed his body to the grave and covered it over, and the ghost disappeared (rather to Gareth’s dismay – he had been hoping to ask more questions of Ruben).

Going into the session, I still felt unprepared. I didn’t have any particular maps made with encounters and battles. However, I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked. I had written descriptions of the key locations which allowed me to both picture them and relax and fall back on things from the descriptions. I had a good feeling for Isadora, what she knew (and how much she was willing to reveal), and was able to improvise from this. I also had enough of a description and image of Maidel (Isilya’s mentor), and enough of an idea of the city layout, to be able to handle those descriptions. It turned into quite a satisfying session (I think) despite having no combat, just investigation and roleplay.


I have felt the need to have a solid map and set of encounters when I go into a session, and feel underprepared without. But finding the map and setting it up in Foundry VTT (we currently play online) and setting up characters takes time – particularly finding the right map. In this, I think I may be hampered by having a very visual imagination – I “know” what the various locations look like, and so I want to find a map that matches, and that can be an incredible time sink.

However, I was able to run this based on some well-described/imagined locations, and some key NPCs. Maybe I can relax a bit…

Of course, my preparation wasn’t as structured and linear as the description above suggests. But actually, it has been a useful exercise to think through how it fits with the model, and it has got me thinking. I’m definitely going to try following it a bit more thoroughly. And it was really useful already having some useful locations and NPCs, so maybe I’ll start trying jotting down or updating locations, characters and secrets and clues in odd moments.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some level 3 training sessions to plan…

One thought on “Beating the GM Writer’s Block

  1. Wow, it looks like you pulled off a great session! This was very enjoyable to read. I like reading about other GMs’ session-creation processes and it helps to inspire me when I work on something.

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