The Architect DM: Building a DM Library

I believe that most DMs have only run a single campaign world, whether it was one big campaign that has been continued through various ages, or they’ve only managed to run one satisfactory campaign. The tendency for a DM seems to be to conserve the number of campaigns they run by reusing worlds or tying them together so that in the end the number of campaign worlds they run is as close to one as possible.

For instance, though I have run three separate D&D campaigns all have taken place within the same game world and have been tied together despite being run in two different editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Our very own Dave the Game ran a handful of campaigns through our years at school that all took place in the same game world, then he moved away to college, created a game world there, and upon his return ran a new game for us that had hints linking it back to the world he used at college. In the same vein, I think our tendency as DMs is to keep things relatively stable within our game worlds unless they are split by something like a change in campaign.

Last week I talked about my experiences in Architecture school and learning how to design with precedents, as well as how to apply this concept to running RPGs and creating campaigns. Now I would like to take that concept one step further and talk about building a personal DM library that you can use to help you run RPGs. The idea of building a personal library is nothing new, artists frequently do this with art books and clippings from magazines and newspapers for use as reference, and architects do it as I discussed in my post about precedents through study and history books that allow us to see how other architects have gone executed their designs. When I started to think about building a personal DM library, the idea was a lot more intimidating than I thought it would be.

Beyond the Spiral-bound Notebook

You might be thinking, “I already have a DM library, right here in my spiral-bound notebook!” That’s great, and I have the exact same thing for my own campaign, but the concept I’m trying to get across is something beyond just the notes about overall plots and the next adventure you plan to run. In essence, I’m talking about a library where you keep all of the ideas that you don’t put into your spiral-bound campaign notes. One of the most common phrases I hear in conversations between other DMs is, “Wow, I’d love to run a game using that idea!” For years we tossed around how fun it would be to run two ongoing campaigns that were linked and in the same game world, but it wasn’t until the launch of 4th Edition and with a lot of effort on our parts that Dave and I finally did it. I can’t even imagine how many other gaming groups have had the same idea but never took it passed the “that would be cool” phase.

How many pages do you think you could fill if you and your friends kept a library of all of the cool ideas you had but never got around to actually playing? I think the major reason for this is what I mentioned at the beginning of this post, most DMs/GMs only run one main campaign and they’re often already set in their ways or honestly too scared to change their worlds to include all of their ideas. I’m the exact same way most of the time, but I took a leap of faith in letting Dave take over a significant portion of my game world and it really paid off in the end. Hell, now I have 2-3 years worth of his D&D campaign that act as an excellent detailed history for my game world. If all of this sounds familiar to you, it could  be that I’ve been harping on the “run a game to build your game world” idea for the last few months over and over again.

What Goes into a DM Library?

The answer to this question is probably much more broad than even I realize. For me, the biggest influence on my own personal DM library has been reading short stories, novels, and playing video games. I’ve added more ideas to my own DM library since I started reading A Game of Thrones, or watching my wife play Dragon Age, then I ever thought I’d have. As I mentioned a few months ago, when I started playing Mass Effect I was stunned by the amount of inspiration it gave me for my own science fiction and Star Wars campaign ideas.

One of the biggest challenges about this concept is also its greatest asset, the fact that pretty much anything can inspire you in running an RPG. Books, movies, music, games, or ideas thrown around with friends, all of them can help you in building a world, running an adventure, or creating your next NPC. The biggest difference I perceive in simply saying “I’d love to run a game like that” and creating a DM library is the implication that you will one day use something that you store in your DM library. Instead of just shrugging it off as something that most likely won’t happen, you store it away for a time that you may want to use it. The great part of this whole idea is that once you’ve started, you will then start seeking out and collecting new ideas to add to your repertoire such as reading more books or visiting other people’s blogs to read about their campaigns. The building of personal DM libraries could even lead to us hearing, “please, tell me about your campaign!” Well, maybe not, but I can dream can’t I?

Solution: The Episodic Mini-Campaign

One excellent solution that I’ve mentioned before (that Phil introduced me to) is the idea of running numerous, small-run mini-campaigns instead of one big game. This affords you the freedom of tying several mini-campaigns together to create the feel of a longer running game, or if you want to try out more of the ideas in your personal DM library without messing up your world you can instead run entirely separate games. This idea has become even more appealing to me after playing games like Fiasco, where you tell a fairly complete story from start to finish in about 2 hours and then move on. For me this kind of solution is really a win-win scenario. You have the option of running a game much like the longer, ongoing campaigns many DMs love, but you also have the option of pulling in new ideas or changing things up to take advantage of all the cool ideas you might never have run otherwise.

My hope is that this concept is helpful for some of you out there who feel stuck or limited in what you can do with your games. Please tell me what you think, even if its to say that the whole idea of a personal DM library is total BS that’s valuable feedback for me to have!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.

Comments

  1. I find the works of Guy Gavriel Kay to be great inspiration and source material for #dnd

  2. Danny, thanks for this.

    I am a big believer in reading to build the library. Particularly long series (Robert Jordan has been good for me). I have also found that taking the plots from TV can be very useful. For instance, I have used Sons of Anarchy to great effect. Happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more.

    Darren

  3. The advise to writers is “read everything”. It nurtures your creativity as well as shows you examples of what to do, how to present, etc.

    As to the last point of the article, I for one would love to see a how-to with mini-campaigns. How to get an arc that lasts 5 or so sessions, how to tie it together completely, but also selecting an appropriate plot – a simple adventure (i.e. adventure module) isn’t a satisfying CAMPAIGN because it doesn’t raise the stakes, it doesn’t involve All the PCs. It’s just an adventure, not something bigger, and even if a game will take 5 sessions to complete it should feel as though it’s something more than just a random adventure. There’s a raised stakes as to where you can begin, and that can give a certain buy-in you can do with a mini-campaign (“You all have died on a failed mission to stop some Asmodeus cultists, and a Prince of Hell captured your souls. Now in Hell, he comes to you with an offer…”)

  4. How many pages do you think you could fill if you and your friends kept a library of all of the cool ideas you had but never got around to actually playing?

    My “character ideas” file in Word is 157 pages long… my “treasure ideas,” “villain ideas,” “plot twist ideas” is 264 pages long.

  5. I love the idea of the DM Library. I have a “Campaign Ideas” folder on my computer for this very purpose. As you say, I often run into the “I love this idea, but I can’t work it into the current campaign” phenomenon. Certainly, the mini campaign sounds interesting and a good way to get around this dilemma. How many sessions do you look to for a mini campaign? As others have said I worry about trying to tie the campaign to each character, etc.

  6. On campaign worlds – IME it’s good to break from your core campaign world now and then, and try something different, with different tropes. Worlds can get stale and feel ‘played out’. If you normally run a homebrew setting, try GMing a published world for a campaign, or vice versa.

  7. Pedro Rodrigues says:

    Im toying with the idea of running a flashback mini-campaign within my current campaign: basically have several adventures i want to run (because they are connected to my main campaign plot) but are outside the current characters levels; so i intended them to meet an old adventurer who had meet the BBEG in the past and would tell the current chars how he and his party had dealt with him; however, instead of just telling them, the players would play through those adventures.

    However, im not sure if the players will want to start a new campaign midway, so, when the time comes, i will propose the idea and see how it goes.

  8. With the exception of a single foray into the “Keep on the Shadowfell” module as a test run for the 4e release, every campaign I have run for the past 30 years has been in my own unique campaign “world.” (I put “world” in quotes because it’s not really restricted to one physical planet, although the vast majority of action occurs there).

    PCs from long-retired campaigns have, in some cases, become demi-gods in the current campaign world. Towns are named for particularly heroic PCs from the past. One of the current PCs in the latest campaign has chosen an old PC-demigod as his deity.

    The world has an entire history and parallel theologies to maintain playability for standard D&D or Pathfinder characters. I do my best to weave each campaign into the history of the campaign world so that future campaigns can build on, or at least pay homage to, previous campaigns.

    My “library” is now four loose-leaf notebooks, almost a gigabyte of computer files (including maps, character sheets and substantial economic, political and religious notes for the major countries).

    I have done my best to provide players with the opportunity to play any fantasy setting they desire, up to late middle-ages. I may one day even go into sci-fi, but so far none of my play groups has wanted to leave the medieval fantasy setting yet.

    Although I do make every effort to accommodate any standard character build, I do have certain restrictions on third-party content, but that is mainly because of conflicts with my own custom monsters, spells, magic items and magical effects. So far nobody has complained.

    I wish now I had never delved into the “Keep on the Shadowfell” module, I found the use of a module to be irritating, constraining, illogical and poorly designed. I suppose there are some good modules out there, and I’ve played in many modules, but I will never run another module again. I get too much enjoyment out of running my own “world.”

    Many of the campaigns I’ve run would qualify for the “mini-campaign” description given above. I’ve even run one-shot sessions in the world which have impacted the larger history of the world. I find that the players tend to feel very pleased when years later they encounter a bard singing about the exploits of a long-retired PC.

  9. Peggy Hunt says:

    What is a DM Library?!