Whenever I am developing a plot-line, location or an NPC, there are two primary factors I take into account:

  1. Realism - Locations should be believable (no redundant corridors, random unfitting monsters, traps in commonly used places, myriads of repeating rooms), plot-lines sensible (no strangers asking PCs to do a quest for him, villages aren't plundered by suddenly appeared army of orcs/goblins/ogres/angry maids) and NPCs reasonable (No, he didn't come from the pits of hell to help beggars have a better life only because his dad is against it, he is just a priest who believes in good). Strange things don't happen everyday, not even once a month!
  2. Uniqueness - It can be understood as not repeating anything! If one monster appeared somewhere, it won't appear anywhere else (only one wolves raid on traveling group). There was an NPC who was an elf, so no more elves!

Some of these things might sound like a blessing, but when they are your primary driving force it starts to be a problem. I am literally unable to create casual encounters, random elements. When I come up with a plotline, I make it epic, unprecedented and unpredictable, it ends up as a main plotline of the whole campaign. I even am able to leave some loose ends here and there to later pick up, but, aside of the main idea, the campaigns are kind of short on side plot-lines.

Did anyone have similar problems and managed to overcome them?


5 Answers 5


It sounds like you are questioning your guidelines and how you are using them.

Your realism guideline doesn't seem like a problem. The idea that things follow a logical structure is paralleling a standard writing rule. Writers must create a level of plausibility into the reality of their stories. This allows the reader to become immersed in the events without having to overcome the believability of the world within the story. Your first guideline fits this to a tee. I wouldn't change this one in the least either how you word or how you follow it.

Your second guideline seems to be the more relevant of the two to your question. I understand what you are saying about this point but, why must everything be unique? Two (or more) wolf attacks on a traveling party might be a plot in itself. You have setup a condition of diminishing returns. Since everything must be unique, then as the story progresses it will then have to be unusual. I imagine you have already used up the common things. Since you are not reusing various elements, this forces you to have the next thing be another unique/unusual thing and so on. Ever session is a progression of this, which by definition focuses the campaign into a ever escalating series of unique/unusual things. Your guideline number 2 forces every plot to be epic in scale, not because of what you are doing, but because of the built in limiter you have placed on yourself.

As a side note if you really want to have a unique campaign ask one player every other session to make up and give you a plot hook that they feel fits your current story and then force yourself to use it no matter what. Even if it has already been done.

If you really want to break this cycle, then throw guideline #2 out the window. give up a little control and deliberately run a session where the same thing happens at least twice. An example might be 2, unrelated, murder mysteries back to back. Sometimes reusing a plot hook, monster or encounter is more effective than a unique/unusual thing.

In one of the comments you mentioned the phrase 'I can't possibly'. This phrase is a very dangerous thing for a game master to say. The first rule of game mastering is always try to say yes. Besides giving your players a stronger voice in how the story unfolds and higher degree of control over their characters fate, this will do the most to bust you out of your control rut.

Say to the party - The manor, in the middle of a city, does have Kobolds that dwell underneath it and no one knows why. Go figure it out. And ask them to give you 2-3 plot hooks while you are at it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answers! I actually had a real problem which to accept as the 'valid', but keep in mind that all are great :). \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Mar 10, 2011 at 9:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The longer the campaign runs, the more these tendencies matter and become real to the players, as well. If the players run into wolves when they leave city x, and then again, the players will assume that you meant it. And I cannot tell you how often that type of event has become the springboard for the ecology or character of a certain area over the years. \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    Apr 7, 2011 at 13:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ After half a year of slow gaming I've got a bit more experience and I can safely say your last paragraph couldn't be more true. More than once I had a situation, where I gave my players a problem, and then listened to them coming up with their own solutions and how it is possible - if I hadn't had ready explanations, I'd just have to listen and chose one I like most. \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Nov 11, 2011 at 10:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have learned that in gamemastering 101 it is never about what you "design", but instead it is about what you hear. In a recent 4e dungeon I had only moderate preperation and vague connection of the adventure to it's surroundings. The party in two nights f play discovered/created a fantastic story that fit the adventure and its surroundings so elegantly that it will have at least more adventures in the future, both using the same dungeon! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2011 at 16:32

I disagree with your definition of realism in the following: I think it's perfectly possible to have randomness in your universe, as long as it is believable. My campaign world has, as a given, that it is a dangerous world. Wild vermin roam the lands. So you could, conceivably, run into a kobold training a pack of rats to do tricks. What I don't like is the jarring WTF I get when I read a module set in the remains and cellars of an old manor, and the first level below ground contains coffins:

  • conceivable: the manor had a winery, and what you find below ground aren't coffins, but barrels and casks.
  • conceivable: kobolds have overrun the manor's cellars, and dug pits and new rooms for their lair (as kobolds are wont to do, sadly).
  • conceivable: kobolds love jury-rigging traps
  • inconceivable: a manor that kept its dead in the first floor below ground (not in tombs, in rooms),
  • inconceivable: cellar rooms complete with a room full of trapped armour.

As for uniqueness, right now I'm running into the opposite problem: the main feature of the adventure I'm running is a manor full of kobolds, and so, it is completely realistic that the group should face tons of the little critters, in more than one encounter. I have to struggle to add different, believable opponents that could somehow have gotten into the manor. So: drakes, pseudodragons, maybe wild animals captured.

Overall, I think that your problem is not that your guidelines are bad, just that you're too strict with them. Also, that you are confusing realism with in-universe logic.

EDIT To sum up, because I think it can help you, this is what I have found myself doing: Take an unbelievable/improbable/clichè situation. Now think about how can it be justified in-story. Change the bits that are absolutely impossible, provide reasons for the improbable ones. (with time, you'll find that some things you thought as impossible are justifiable). The first room in the manor in my adventure included a pool of sludge. The players immediately asked what was a pool doing in a basement, and with my "Winery" idea I could answer quite sincerely that it had originally been a fermentation tank.

Also, if you find your sense of realism getting the best of you, remember that most of these games can be summed up as "a wizard did it". You have a world with dragons, orcs, warrior dwarves and magical elves, and you complain of realism?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, that's what I actually meant with the realism, just had trouble wording my thoughts. Wouldn't have thought about this kobolds, I would probably deem it improbable, becuase the manor is in the middle of a city and how come Kobolds dweel underneath it and no one knows that? I know that I am too strict, and that's the problem - I can't possibly drop it. Plus I think I am trying too hard to polish the littlest details, which makes many plausible things impossible in my mind. But, as I said, I have no idea how to shift my thought processes to avoid this strictness. \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Mar 10, 2011 at 0:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, I didn't say it was inside any city. A manor was more commonly found in the country. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2011 at 2:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, my bad, I mistranslated manor as though it was mansion/residence (which in my mind is more of a city location). \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Mar 10, 2011 at 9:31

Uniqueness was hard for me to overcome. Eventually I had a couple realizations that stopped it from being a problem.

First off, every story has been told already. Even if an idea is new to you, it's probably been written somewhere else before. If you were to try and read all the fantasy out there to find all the plots, you'd die long before you got to GM another game. Don't worry about being unique, and just run.

Some ideas are unique because they're bad. Maybe your plot about robot pirates coming back in time to kill Elminster hasn't been run in a game before. That's because it's an awful idea. The fact that it's unique doesn't make up for its low quality. It an idea is unique because nobody else has been dumb enough to run the idea before, maybe you don't want to be the guy that runs with it.

Finally, you have to look at the big picture. Maybe you ripped off a scene from Star Wars and a plot line from Lord of the Rings. Your PCs aren't into the whole 'genre appropriate' thing, so one of them ripped off The Big Lebowski. Each of those puzzle pieces is stolen and in no way unique. But, how you make them fit together will be unique. When The Dude shoots first while he's supposed to be meeting an NPC at the Prancing Pony, you'll have a scene that is unique. A + B + C -> N, where N is some new story that hasn't been told before, even if none of A, B, or C is unique in the slightest.

  • \$\begingroup\$ True concept, but I'd put your 4th paragraph before the third, so the idea that uniqueness can come from the addition of common things comes before the concept that uniqueness by itself can be detrimental to the story. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2011 at 12:21

Realism isn't a problem in and of itself. It sounds like, however, you are confusing realism with being heavily plotted (no casual encounters/no random elements), and that is very much a false dichotomy. In the real world, there are all kinds of casual encounters and random things that happen. The trick is, are they reasonable? If I go out and wander in the woods near here, there's a good chance I'll come across some deer, wild dogs, hobos, or lost Frisbee Golf players. But not aliens. Randomness helps create a sense of a realistic world, as long as those random things don't stretch believability.

Same thing with uniqueness - in the real world, you meet a lot of portly ladies in sweat pants shuffling around in a Wal-Mart, it's unrealistic for there to be "only one."

I went through a period where I stopped using random encounters and whatnot because it "might come up with unrealistic outcomes" - but over time, I learned to trust the dice. They often are wiser than you are. You can of course veto stuff that's too out there, especially if you're not willing to write it in as a plot (if a dragon shows up out of nowhere and torches the village, PCs will want to investigate why).

Also, trust the players, they are often wiser than you are. Mini-plots should not really be your responsibility, they should be a result of the PCs' interaction with the world. It should be them deciding to make friends with that blacksmith or taking an interest in collecting the eyes of slain monsters for resale to wizards. If they are not doing this, it probably means you are being way too heavy handed. Let them play, and when they come across something "random" and come up with ideas as to why that could be, grab one and run with it. You don't have to turn anything into a big plot - make it proportional to how much the PCs pursue it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Very good answer. I was about to edit my own answer to add your first two sentences, and now I don't need to :) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2011 at 12:17

i sort of disagree with the uniqueness if you are traveliing through a forest there are many packs of wolves and so you could be attacked every night, they smell the horses and the food you are cooking on the fire so are drawn to you...

Elves, if you are in elven lands then you will meet them more than dwarves. Make the world believable, for instance if you based it in this world, you are walking through america, you will meet americans, you may meet mexicans or canadians, rarely you may meet an australian visiting but you wouldnt meet amazon warriors...

Realism is good, think of how this could have happened, the mansion, - wine cellar fine, family crypt, there may be, but the main entrance would have been from the outside, but maybe the lord of the manor lost his wife and had a tunnel added from the cellar so he could go and sit by her coffin and mourn at night. or maybe he is a vampire and the coffins are his real resting area - him and his family.


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