GM Moves Boot Camp: GM Moves in Session Prep

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Note: On 22 Sep 2020, I led a “GM Moves Boot Camp” for #DungeonWorldDay, hosted by the Dungeon World Discord community. This was an informal follow-up post I wrote about using GM moves between sessions to develop tension, drama, and danger to fill the players’ lives with adventure.

Hey everyone!

I’m sorry for leaving you all hanging for so long! The GM Moves Boot Camp inspired a whole batch of ideas for blog posts I planned to share here, but they never materialized.

On the other hand, we’re planning to play session 55 of my current campaign on Monday. The ideas are bearing fruit, I just haven’t written them down for you.

What I wanted to write about was various ways I use GM moves in my prep to created loaded situations. Here’s one method that I use between almost every session, in some variation. It has roots in a practice I picked up from the Complete Book of Villains (from 1994? My beard runneth over), but process continues to evolve with new learning and the needs of my game.

What it is is a way of brainstorming and developing tension and drama for your next session, including fodder for adventure fronts and your campaign front.

The Relationship Matrix

First, take a sheet of office paper or notebook paper and turn it so that it is landscape-oriented. Write the names of the player characters you expect to see active next session down the left axis. Write the names of major NPCs, including Dangers and other pivotal cast members of your Fronts, across the top.

Now look at the big blank space in the middle. That is where you will consider intersections between these characters, based on their desires, needs, fears, and agendas.

What you want to do is place a GM move at most of the intersections.

Don’t think too hard about this. Just pick an intersection and look at the characters involved. Go over the list of GM moves from the rulebook, and pick the first one that suggests an obvious application. Make a note that describes how you would use that move in play—whether to further an NPC’s agenda with a certain character, to develop a Danger, expose an opportunity, or something else.

After you go over the whole page once and jot down all the GM moves that suggest themselves, it’s okay if you see a lot of blanks. The important thing to notice is if you have a lot of blanks on the same row, meaning a certain PC is not involved in the drama; or if you have a lot of blanks in the same column, meaning that NPC isn’t really connected to the PCs.

There are a few ways to deal with this.

For the NPCs who don’t have a lot of obvious moves, you can simply leave them in the background unless and until the players make them the focus, or their agenda becomes riper for action.

For the PCs who don’t have a lot of ties to the action, you may need to look back at their explicit and implicit background, including all their previous game sessions, and feature the important NPCs, places, and things they care about in addition to or instead of the NPCs you listed. If they don’t care about anything, that’s a bigger problem, but you can usually get them to care if you show them how their actions have changed the world, and show them consequential callbacks to NPCs, places, and things that they have interacted with before.

You might still have a lot of blanks.

What I do now, is take random story prompts and put them in each remaining intersection, and I think about how I might use them for relevant GM moves in the game. I get a lot of use out of my Story Forge Cards for this purpose, but I have used all kinds of inkblot tools in the same way, including random tables from OSR luminaries.

The important thing is, you don’t have to use ANY of this. It’s all just an exercise to get your creative juices flowing.

However, I find that it ALWAYS produces one or more focal conflicts that grab the players and keep them driven.

“Draw maps, leave blanks”. This is not a dungeon map with strictly-defined connections, but a tool for you to find connections and identify the blanks you want to find out through play.

I hope this helps! Happy New Year, everyone!

A Perilous Wilds Postscript (2021)

The campaign I was running at the time of this Boot Camp used the travel moves from Freebooters on the Frontier and The Perilous Wilds by Jason Lutes. That meant a lot of perilous journeys to reach the next bastion of something close to civilization, and any given day of travel might change the whole campaign’s direction.

This is because the travel moves in Perilous Wilds often let the players choose to have a danger or discovery revealed, which might happen in areas where your existing Fronts are not (yet) active.

Sometimes those random events would become the focus of a whole session—or more! Sometimes the players would ignore a discovery and move on ASAP. This works out fine—you just have to have some content ready.

Perilous Wilds includes random tables for generating dangers and discoveries, but I found these inconsistently helpful. Sometimes they were perfect! But other times they generated content that didn’t spark anything for me. [Edit: I wrote about this before, including a GM-move-based alternative. This postscript builds on those ideas.]

What helped me most when I knew the players would be traveling was to go down the list of GM moves between each session and brainstorm how I could point them at each player’s character, as the basis for a some dangers and discoveries that have bite. This is basically a variation of the “matrix” I spoke about above, but instead of NPCs and factions, you consider the environment, creatures, travelers, and inhabitants of the land that the players will be crossing.

If their travel involves a specific location, I have used the questions from the Discern Realities move to brainstorm what they might find there. These can help whether you only have a vague idea about the location—“You’ve heard rumors about an abandoned chalet on the ridge”. But they can also help if you have already developed ideas about it, to bring them into clearer focus or reveal ideas that surprise you.

The Discern Realities questions are designed to reveal tense and dramatic details about a tense and dramatic situation. Sometimes they suggests some obvious content, but I also use ink blot tools to create dry tinder. Just pick a random prompt for each question and see where it goes.

Better yet is to pair one or more GM moves with each DR question, fleshing them out into something you could actually say at the table (since you never speak the name of your move).

The most important thing about this practice isn’t the actual content you produce. It strengthens your mental muscles and limbers you up for developing adventureful content.

Then you NEVER have to worry about throwing out the ideas that they don’t investigate—you always know your brain will give you more ideas building on the stuff that they do.

But just like the relationship matrix, this method never fails to give me something useful and interesting for my next session. And the unused details form a sort of stockpile of ideas that may inform the background of GM moves you make much later, or supply whole situations for you when you need them.

Good luck, and have fun!

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