Juggling rules, setting and scenario information, and roleplaying can make GMing a daunting activity. There are plenty of potentially great GMs either put off by the challenge entirely or from crashing and burning in their first couple of sessions. Published scenarios and campaigns are supposed to do a lot of the heavy lifting to making their task easier.
Most of the time, though, they’re entertaining reads rather than useful reference documents for the GM at the table. Colourful prose, walls of text and plot surprises left until the denouement are better suited in a novel. How are you supposed to look for what you need with that as four PCs investigate a murder scene, while roleplaying NPCs, or in the middle of combat?
The vast majority of GMs are taught to assume they have to make copious notes before running a scenario, to turn it into something they can use in the middle of the game. There’s a lot of great advice, blogs or books by talented GMs about how to prep published scenarios. It’s a skill that can take decades for a GM to get right. Why should we though? Isn’t the entire point of a published scenario to do the hard work for us so we can deal with bringing it to the table?
Publishers are learning there are better ways to introduce rules and settings, and layout and design aren’t just about whether something looks pretty (although for many that’s all it still is). For scenarios though, they usually still lack innovation. Many of those doing the best work are independent, small-press publishers where conciseness is essential to meet tight financial constraints.
Many of these are creating for old school D&D. While D&D, of whatever type, isn’t my thing, it’s hard to ignore the creativity that has emerged recently. Despite them having their genesis in dungeon-delving and a large amount of combat, there are a lot of design and layout innovations that can be exported to other types of RPGs that focus on other activities.
Next time, I’m going to talk about great graphic design and layout choices in some recent scenarios and modules that have made GMing them considerably easier. I’ll discuss what we can learn from them, in particular for investigative games, such as Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu.