A TTRPG GM is like a Swiss Army knife
GM tools for adventure – you only need a few
My TTRPG group keeps me on my toes as a GM. Comprised of adults, all of whom have varying degrees of adulting to do, our get-togethers are infrequent. It averages out to about twice a month on Sunday evenings. Within that group, everyone has varying schedules for work, family responsibilities and so forth. This results in a flexible group makeup on top of everything else. That last part usually isn’t a problem, as PCs can fade into the background or remain on their spelljammer ship while the present players form an away team.
But what happens when a particular character is important to the story for that session? Maybe the previous session ended on a cliffhanger or dramatic moment and a character’s absence would be awkward Or you as the GM simply aren’t prepared to continue your usual campaign?
At these times, a TTRPG GM needs to be like a Swiss Army knife, with a tool ready to go for any circumstance. Staying flexible and adaptable to fluid situations outside the game is just as important as juggling the action within the game. Maybe you’ve only got a blade, corkscrew, keyring, tweezers and toothpick ready to deploy. Perhaps a deluxe version with wire crimpers, seatbelt cutters, hoof clearners and a marlin spike is at your disposal.
Whatever the case, here’s four basic tools you can unfold when game day comes around and what you planned for goes awry.
Access to ready-to-play TTRPG characters is the simplest tool that can save a potentially floundering game session. Even if you don’t have an adventure prepared, at the very least you can pass these new characters out to your players and do your best to improvise. The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D has an entire appendix for generating random dungeons you can use in a pinch. And the DM’s Guild has a vast repository of one-shot quests, many for free or pay-what-you-want that can provide a few hours of questing for your players.
EN World user ForgedAnvil has a wonderful tool to download, the D&D 5E Character Generator that is great for quickly creating a pool of characters. Stuffed in my folder are about a dozen 1st level D&D characters of myriad race/class/background combinations. On my group’s most recent game day, we decided to take a break from our regular campaign due to some last minute situations that arose. A few potential adventures were offered and the players decided Sunless Citadel from Tales from the Yawning Portal sounded fun. They all chose one of the pregen characters and we dove right into the adventure within 10 minutes of sitting down at the table.
All the players had a blast playing new characters. It was a chance for them to try different races and classes than they are used to; several of the group are first-time TTRPG players so their regular characters are all they know. Exploring new abilities and developing new personalities intrigued them. On top of that, they were thrilled by the callback to the dangers of low-level play. One giant rat bite is nearly enough to down a 1st-level D&D character!
If you’re a TTRPG GM, take some time to generate a handful of characters for whatever game you play. Having these ready to go is a terrific resource that can maximize your game time and save a potential flop on game day.
To go along with your pregen characters, having at the very least a skeleton framework for an adventure or two fulfills a variety of purposes. Perhaps you’ve been running a long-term campaign and simply want to take a break. Campaign fatigue is a thing that is real. It could easily be the case that the GM or one of the players has an idea for an adventure they’d like to try. Alternating GM duties is a time-honored tradition for TTRPG players. And despite what you might hear or read, GMing is not a Herculean task.
A couple of resources mentioned above can provide you quick access to adventures when you need one. In addition to those, here’s a few of my favorite go-to’s when it comes to adventuring on the fly. Note that my TTRPG hobby primarily revolves around D&D 5E, but some of these options can be adapted to other game systems.
- Book of Lairs from Kobold Press: this product contains dozens of what are essentially one-shot adventures that focus on particular creatures and their lairs. Many of them feature creatures from the Tome of Beasts (also from Kobold Press) so keep that in mind if you intend to purchase Book of Lairs. I’ve used several of these in my group’s regular campaign with a few tweaks to fit them into our setting.
- Monster Hunter: Pick a creature out of the Monster Manual or your favorite resource with things for TTRPG characters to fight. The characters are contracted to hunt down the creature and slay it for a reward. Perhaps they have to harvest something from the creature for whoever took out the contract. Handwaving the actual tracking of the creature is an option, and the characters have cornered the target. A single combat might not carry an entire game session, but it’s a good bet that player interaction with the circumstances will flourish into more than just a fight.
- Monster adventures: The Stream of Annihilation from Wizards of the Coast inspired me to work on a new one-shot adventure to add to my Swiss Army knife of tools. WotC Product Manager Christopher Lindsay ran a fantastic adventure called One Grung Above where all the characters were various grung on a short quest. The grung from Volo’s Guide to Monsters captured my attention right away and I’ve been toying with the idea of adding them to my campaign in some fashion. Lindsay turns the idea on its head by letting the players take the roles of these humanoid poison dart frogs and I loved it. Consider something similar at your gaming table. Choose a creature that inspires your imagination, let the players play as them and look at adventures in a totally different light. Perhaps this monster squad needs to defend their lair from infiltrating heroes. Maybe a bigger monster hedges into their territory and they need to drive them off – or ingratiate themselves and become new minions. You could even integrate this into your regular heroic game by sending the monsters on a quest that will impact the players heroic counterparts when you return to their adventures. Chris Perkins’ Dice, Camera, Action program puts monster characters to excellent use for guests players as well, who have ran things like dryads, frost giants and wereravens.
The more experience you have as a TTRPG GM and player, the larger the grab-bag you have as part of your Swiss Army knife of options for running games. Drawing on the past, you can put your current group of players through their paces with adventures you’ve run before with other players. To get extra experimental you could re-run an adventure for the same players, too – just make sure it’s not something your group has played very recently. Give them different characters to try, and see what happens. The adventure will almost certainly turn out different.
By this same token, recall a fond experience from your own time as a player and try to recreate that for your group as the GM. It might not be perfect, but if it was memorable for you, try to cleave to the highlights you recall.
In a similar way, look to other forms of media you enjoy and create adventures from them. When I get stuck or find myself unsure what to do with my group, I often utilize elements from Dungeons & Dragons Online, an MMO I spent many, many, many hours playing over a ten-year period. Pulling from these memories allows me to describe the sights, sounds and layout of all sorts of dungeons and environments.
Over time, a TTRPG GM accumulates are wide variety of adventures in their portfolio. Players do as well, even those without GM experience. Interacting with TTRPG scenarios as a player is a valuable commodity for a GM, too.
Recreating favorite experiences from your gaming past, or conversely taking something that didn’t turn out so well and trying again with the lessons you learned since are both features of your Swiss Army knife of GM resources.
New adventure ideas
A potential flop on game day can turn into an advantage with a bit of foresight preparation. Dovetailing from the concept of one-shot adventures, an impromptu game session provides a window of opportunity to try out an idea without disrupting any existing games.
Using the “monster adventures” concept, here’s a bit of insight into how One Grung Above sparked my imagination. In support of the upcoming Tomb of Annihilation storyline set for release in September 2017, Lindsay’s adventure was in set in the jungles of Chult. I’ve never played or ran a game in a jungle setting, and it seems like a lot of fun.
My first stop on any adventure creation is monsters. What sorts of critters will adventurers face in a jungle scenario? This is my favorite step in adventure writing. Flipping through the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters to populate a setting carries my mind away while I envision the danger and excitement that awaits. The list I came up with has a nice mix of natural hazards like baboons, crocodiles, apes and swarms of quippers; low-level mooks like vegepygmies and vine blights; dangerous foes like lizardfolk; and deadly threats like chuul, yuan-ti and a campaign-ending froghemoth. A few curveballs like a mummy, a sea hag reflavored as a jungle hag, a shambling mound and some steamy jungle firenewts are included as well. And, of course, there are dinosaurs.
Next up were the grung that the players would use. Tweaking the various flavors of grung to create individuals with unique abilities, I simply gave each one a single specialty along the lines of standard D&D adventurers. One is a hunter good at spotting traps, one is a lorekeeper who can inspire allies and so on.
This all took about an hour. A list of creatures with a nice CR range and some unique characters for the players is the bulk of the work. With those tools, running an adventure is entirely possible. Think of a climactic encounter with one of the creatures, consider the threat they’d pose and fill in the rest along with way. It’s as easy as answering the 5 W’s as Nerdarchist Dave brought up in an Original GM Request video.
5 W’s of Feelin’ Froggy (or Grungle in the Jungle, take your pick)
- Who: Lizardfolk
- What: Take over an ancient temple
- Where: In the jungle close to grung territory
- When: A few weeks ago
- Why: To expand their territory
- How: From a strong base
Another grung tribe village is savagely attacked. They come to your village asking the tribal elder for help. A party of grung is put together by the elder. Go to this lizardfolk temple, learn what you can and put a stop to it if possible.
Along the way your grung team will brave the jungle dangers, sneak into an ancient temple (almost certainly with ancient traps), and show these lizardfolk how superior the grung are! Perhaps there’s some skeletons in a section of the temple unexplored by the lizardfolk. Maybe a gelatinous cube keeps the ancient passages clean. An ancient mummy might be entombed deep within…but that is an adventure for another day.
At the end of the game day, hopefully the group had fun playing something unusual. Maybe they’ll want to continue another time and discover the mummy’s curse or eventually take on that froghemoth. If things didn’t go so great, take the lessons you learned and come up with a new fast-and-dirty adventure idea to keep in your Swiss Army knife of TTRPG GM tools the next time a monkey wrench gets thrown into your regular game session.