How to Beat Writer’s Block for DMs

It’s a common problem every DM has. If you let it get too out of control it can turn into a full blown case of DM burnout. I’m talking about writer’s block. Being an aspiring writer myself, I know a few ways to beat this scourge. Here are some tips to keep writing that game:

Look over old material: Looking through your old notes, players’ backstories, and campaign notes can help get you back in the mindset you had before writer’s block attacked. And while you’re there, maybe you’ll notice a plot hook you dropped that never came up or you’ll see something a player wrote in their backstory that you sink your teeth into. Sometimes, when I’m looking over my old notes, I notice important NPCs or campaign themes that haven’t come up for the players. Figuring out how to incorporate these into the next game session can help get the creative juices flowing.

Look at monsters: Nothing gets me excited about an encounter quite like exciting monster art. Go online or crack open your books and look at some sweet van style, fantasy art. Some artists that always help me are Michael Komarck and Wayne Reynolds. Their vibrant and active styles always get my writing muscles ready to flex. A great exercise, when you’re having trouble writing encounters, you should try to recreate the fights depicted in the art.

Write the adventure you’ve always wanted to write: I have this dream encounter I’ve always wanted to run. After sneaking on to an airship, the players find themselves on the open air observation deck, facing down a major antagonist. This is when the fireworks start. I’m willing to bet every DM has these dream situations to put their players into. If you’re like me, you always say ‘someday’. Why not make someday today?

Recycle: Don’t be afraid to reuse old stuff. Hey, you wrote it. I have a reoccurring minor villain called The Lizard King and I have no idea how many things I’ve run him into players. If you’re worried that your players will be upset that you’re using things over, don’t be. It goes one of two ways: they either get nostalgic or don’t really notice the difference. Hey, this stuff inspired you before for a reason.

So next time you get hit with writer’s block, try some of these tips. They work for me. I’m also interested to know what works for others. What’s worked for you?

The Illusion of Choice

Players like to do their own thing.  It’s one of the major challenges of being a DM.  Nothing can destroy the best laid plans of great Dungeon Master like players.  One of the best ways to keep players on the path you want is to use a method I call the illusion of choice.

The illusion of choice centers on giving your players no option but to follow the path you’ve laid before them.  It’s not railroading, it’s not pushing, it’s roleplaying.  The best DMs do this.  It requires an understanding of their characters.  Instead of trying to explain, let me give you an example here.  Here’s a hook that doesn’t give the players the illusion of choice similar to one that follows that I’ve presented to my players:

The lord of a local town asks the players to investigate the dwarven ruins in the nearby mountains offering a substantial.

VS.

The pirates that attacked the players earlier have been spotted in the mountains exploring ancient dwarven ruins.

Both of these hooks lead the players to same place but one is more personal.  The second one ties into the game more and gives the players an opportunity to further their own stories.  This method requires knowing your players’ characters.  If you present them with an option that their character would and should pursue, the chances are they will.  It ties the needs of the characters with the ongoing story you produce.  Instead of giving quests, you give choices, tailored to challenge the characters’ morals.  When you give them journeys to further their own personal goals, you give them a more engaging experience.  But more importantly, you have a more predictable experience.   This requires some work from your players too.  They have to have clear goals and needs for their characters.

One argument against this is problem players can never be completely avoided.  I’m pretty lucky that the only problem my group has with each other is that we want to talk and hang out too much sometimes and put the game to the side.  But, it’s harder for players to be disruptive when they’re invested in their character.  If you make your players have goals for their characters, it organically leads to more roleplaying and easier adventure writing for you.  When you know what the characters in your story are after, you can put the path they’d most want (or not want) in front of them.

When you perfect this method, you no longer tell your players where they’re going, they tell you where they want to go and it’s where you planned.