Sunday, October 22, 2023

Never Say Die! or, How to Improve Workflow - Part I

"No updates since January!!! Where you been at TS?"

I flatter myself that you are thinking this. 

I've been short on posts for a few reasons this year. I have been playing and running A LOT of games in the last few years. I got on Discord, made new friends, played in some pickup games, joined some campaigns and had lots of fun (hails to all the cool and weird folks I've met on many different servers, too many to name). 

Mainly though, I was running my own games for my own players. No matter how much I use modules and steal material from everywhere I can, inevitably either my players take a weird turn forcing me to write new material and/or I get a cool idea I have to write up for myself anyway. As I've said before it takes me forever to write even a small dungeon, so there was no energy left over for blogging.

It'd be a lot cooler.

Several recent developments have hampered my gaming even further: 

I am studying for a work exam on evenings/weekends (normally this would be 3 months of full-time schooling, so doing it in my spare time takes a while). This really cuts into anything else I might spend my time on. I have put my online game (running since October 2019!) on hold for several months to focus on school stuff, and my in-person games (both of them) have slowed down completely over the summer/fall.

More importantly: due to a relentless and constantly-evolving rehab & weightlifting routine, the tendonitis that plagued me for years is finally in retreat and I can use my hands again! It is impossible to overstate how positive this change has been. For the last 5-6 years I haven't been myself at all - being unable to play music has really been wretched. Only now that I am out of it can I see, by comparison, what a deep mental pit I was in for a long time. Like having my mouth sealed shut for half a decade - all of a sudden the duct-tape has been ripped off! 

I only dived deeply into RPG gaming more intensely a few years ago because my hands hurt so much I couldn't play. Now that I'm back I am making up for lost time, spending hours in the studio, finishing up projects and taking on new ones, not to mention practising to regain my previous skills. Although my speed is nearly at peak levels I've noticed my endurance, accuracy and precision on my instruments are *not*. This will take time... time that I'm not prepping for games.


"Okay TS, that's great (and verges on oversharing) but what's the point?"

I need to write more gaming material in less time than ever before. Running multiple original sandbox games (even using modules when possible) has placed a creative demand on me that I've never had to deal with before. Here are some of the ways I have kept the workflow going, and some mistakes I've made & lessons I've learned along the way.

Other People's Suggestions

First of all, I tried to find reading material on speeding up my prep time. I couldn't seem to find anything good. I asked plenty of other gamers and found that sometimes even communicating my problem was basically impossible - a baffling situation!

The Alexandrian has a lot to say on the subject. Many of you will find all of it old news, others will benefit. Start here. I read these articles a long time ago and they are helpful if you are currently a beginner or mired in counterproductive habits, but for me at this point they don't say anything new.

Sly Flourish's book The Lazy Dungeon Master just sucks, don't read it, fucking embarrassing.

If anyone else has suggestions for "smart prep" resources, I'm all ears, but strangely this is one area of gaming that I don't see too many people discussing. Am I an outlier? Am I just missing the conversation? Let me know in the comments.

A Short Tale

I was house-sitting for my brother a while ago, spending most of the time on the couch with the cats and watching all the streaming TV that I don't have at home. I eventually felt guilty I wasn't being productive so I brought over the gaming material I could fit in my laptop bag: the Sword & Magic rules, my campaign notes & maps and a 2 or 3 helpful booklets (more on that below).

I tell you, I created more dungeon rooms in my notebook on the couch with inane sitcoms droning in the background, than I do on my computer with a modern word-processor and access to a veritable mountain of gaming resources, tables, blogs, PDFs & books!

What can we learn from this?

Get The Fuck Off The Computer

The dangers of distraction are well-documented in the social media age. I have certainly killed a lot of time scrolling IG or hanging on Discord, but you know all about that stuff. 

My point here is somewhat different.

When I'm writing on my computer I try to stay organized. I want my dungeons to make sense, to 'fit' together into a coherent whole. So to help with that I have my dungeon map open in photoshop, a project overview & to-do document, a doc for the particular dungeon level I'm working on, my treasure tables, a stack of books beside me, my favourite generator tools, etc. Having all of this at my fingertips can drain my ability to do anything. Alt-tabbing around between documents, maps and different books is really distracting and soon, work bogs down utterly. Attempting to hold all the existing dungeon information in my mind while creating something new is pretty much impossible.

To an untrained observer I am "focusing" on creating a dungeon (after all, I am engrossed in these dungeon documents & maps, I'm not browsing socials or looking at my phone) but I can easily spend hours doing nothing of substance. I might be tweaking the map, reordering the to-do list, adding some inspirational source material I should eventually read, or re-writing the room keys to be more terse and evocative... 

But NONE of that help me decide what is in the next dungeon room - and that's what I need to figure out by game night!

Peter de Vries wrote "Write drunk, revise sober." Perhaps for me it should be "Write on paper, revise on the computer." Now on Saturday mornings I go down to a local hipster coffee shop with my notebook, get caffeinated and write down dungeon ideas. I just bang out cool rooms, monster lairs, dungeon dressing, 'specials' and anything else I can think of.

As it turns out my memory is fine for this purpose - I don't need all the keys and maps in front of me in order to write rooms that make sense in the context of the dungeon I'm working on. I can remember the basic organizing principles, and don't need to know exactly whether the pit trap is in room 10 or 11 in order to write something down the hall.

Use What You Have & What Works

The other factor in that house-sitting success story was my limited access to game materials. Instead of having access to my crammed gaming bookshelves (not to mention an unimaginable horde of PDFs on my computer) I was forced to make use of the books I brought along. Instead of browsing for that "one perfect table" I rolled on what I had, noted down the result and moved on. This kept me focused on generating ideas instead of "comparison shopping" indefinitely.

What many folks know already is that not all gaming materials are created equal. I have been running a city campaign for 4 years and never once have I used anything from Vornheim. Meanwhile The Nocturnal Table features in my game consistently. Coincidence? Um, just, like, my opinion, man? I think not! Good game materials deliver results when you need them. When you find powerful tables or useful reference works, use them all the time instead of indulging your inner magpie and looking for the next shiny object. I wasted years beating my head against substandard tools, trying to make them work because everyone else said they were great.

(This is where the dudes at old-school bastions like K&KA will steer you right. Ask them what kind of tables & reference books they use. I know they seem scary, just be cool and don't talk about B/X.)

Here is a short list of highly useful tables and reference works that I can recommend to everybody. It isn't anything earth-shattering, and most of these you probably know already. Some are hard to find but don't @ me. Get these in physical copy or download & print them, stack them beside your desk, turn off your computer and get more shit done than before:

- The 1st edition DMG

OSRIC (get the Black Blade hardcover if you can) 

- Hack & Slash - Treasure (the best thing Courtney ever wrote, fight me. PDF only but I printed it out for my gaming binder. Yes, it's that essential)

- Judges Guild - Ready Ref Sheets, Wilderness Hexplore Revised, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, City-State of the Invincible Overlord (and plenty more, but these are the best)

- Matt Finch - City Adventures, Tome of Adventure Design (Honestly I don't use the TOAD as much as some people, but certain sections of it are gold. There is a bit of a learning curve while you get familiar with what it can do and where to find things)

- Melan - The Fomalhaut Oracle from Fight On! Magazine #3, The Nocturnal Table

- Muddle's Wilderness Location Generator (the dungeon one isn't too bad either)

- New Big Dragon Games' d30 Companions (duplicates some DMG stuff but both have useful shit)

- Ktrey's Wilderness Hexes. Too bad this is not available in book form. (hint hint bro, my money is yours for all the use I've gotten from these over the years) Also you can browse his blog for even more material.

I'm sure I omitted your favourite book or table. There are lots more, but the point is that these are some of the basics. Start with a useful core of books that definitely work and expand one piece at a time as you find useful things. For further reading, some of these and more are mentioned in Melan's blog article Great Tables of D&D History.


A lot of this advice comes down to working on what actually gets results.

This post got really long, so I cut out some for a future article to make things a bit more digestible. Maybe writing post was a distraction in itself... Oops, time to go! I hope this was useful or interesting. I'm still out here gamin' hard, and I hope you are too. 

Have fun everyone!

To return to the reason for this post: here is one guitar player who wouldn't let a little setback - an industrial accident that cost him TWO FINGERS - prevent him playing some of the heaviest shit ever committed to tape:


  1. Holy shit dude. Sounds like you have been making some serious steps. Work exams and beating tendontitis sounds like a herculean labor project.

    I think I will have to hear you play guitar someday.

    1. Thanks brother. It's been a tough road. Speaking of which...

  2. You inspired me to stop using premade modules and start drawing up my first dungeon. Thanks!

    Regarding prep, I got some links for you. I am not sure how much of it would be useful for dungeon adventure prep though. So with a grain of salt:
    The first 45 minutes of this:


    1. Oops, the second link got eaten by a copy pasta. Correct link:

    2. I'm glad you are taking these first steps man. Welcome to the blog, but wait for the dramatic reversal in Part 2! I'll check these links out right away.

    3. TBH, these Runehammer videos don't make much sense to me. This is the same problem I have with a lot of prep advice - I am not sure I am encountering the same problems it purports to solve?

      Maybe the guy writes railroads, I'm not sure. He says he doesn't do improvised adventures, but I get the impression that he is writing down a few cool ideas and spinning that out into full game sessions. I would like to be a fly on the wall at his games and see how they actually flow.

    4. Yes, RH is kind of railroady. I would describe his DMing style as flexible railroading. He has a high concept of what he would like to achieve with his campaign but, as the podcast episodes suggest, he does not plan ahead the details and is open to the players' input.

      Some of the points can be useful for sandbox style DMs too.
      When his players reach the end of his prepped material, he is open about it. Players can choose whether they push on and accept that the DM is now in improv mode, or end the session right there.

      So if you run a dungeon, you don't have to prep the whole thing. Only one or two levels. When players reach the end of the prepped rooms, you can end the session right there and then. You have to be careful with vertical loopholes and "fast lanes" though.

      I think hexcrawls and city adventures could be run more easily with good improvisation as the success of NPC interactions and random encounters are less dependent on logistics. YMMV.

      In the meantime, I am eagerly waiting for part 2!

    5. RE: Runehammer.
      One thing to note is that RH has a massive experience with encounter design* and tools to keep the players on their toes.

      * He calls it room design, and he talked a lot about it. Usually he gets inspired by video game mechanics and applies them at his gaming table.