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The Lost GM Scrolls: Mike Mearls on Legos, Cinder Lords, and the City of Brass

The Lost GM Scrolls: Mike Mearls on Legos, Cinder Lords, and the City of Brass

Lost ScrollsBack in the fall of 2009, Chris Dinkins and I interviewed a host of game designers and novelists who were also experienced game masters. We sent around too many questions to too many GMs and received far too much material for one article to hold. As a result, a lot of great material got scrapped. Fortunately, gaming wisdom ages well. I recently discovered a folder full of all that cut material (anecdotes, advice, and miscellany), which we will be presenting, here, in the Lost GM Scrolls. Enjoy! —JLCJ

Mike Mearls was a lead developer on D&D 4E. Now he’s heading up the creative team that’s developing D&D Next. Here’s a quick look into the way Mearls runs a campaign.

Mike Mearls: I tend to rely on building general story elements and a feel or theme I want for a game or section of a campaign, and then let the players find their own direction. In one of my current D&D campaigns, the characters are in the City of Brass on a quest to convince Imix, the evil elemental prince of fire, to do a big favor for them.

When I planned things out, I made a simple list of stuff the PCs might try to do, then created a few NPCs and groups that might play a role in those tasks. Here’s part of my list for the City of Brass:

  • A rundown, thieves’ guild type tavern—the Iron Griffin
  • An information broker—Varda the Hag
  • Useful criminals—a gang of smugglers who specialized in ice and storm magic
  • Bad guys—the Cinder Lords, pirates who operate on the Sea of Fire
  • Opportunists—Timm and Tamm, arcanoloth twins

My notes are more fleshed out than that, but the basic idea is that I have these pieces that I can bring into play as the PCs think of how to deal with a situation. In the campaign, they wanted to find information, so a friendly NPC pointed them to Varda. Varda asked them to steal a boat from the Cinder Lords in return for the information they wanted. Now the Lords hate the PCs, while Timm and Tamm have heard of them and are eager to dupe them into an alliance.

The key for me is to find a balance between passive NPCs and story elements that I can use when the PCs make a decision, and active ones I can bring into the story if things stall. For instance, if the players were fumbling with a plan, I could have Timm and Tamm introduce themselves and try to strike a deal with them.

I think of all these elements like Lego pieces that I can pull out and use as needed. The key is that they have things to offer the PCs or the story, and pointers to the next piece that fits with them. Varda’s hook is that she has info the PCs want, so the characters want to talk to her. She has a grudge with the Cinder Lords, so there’s an easy way to send the PCs into conflict with a bad guy group.

The nice thing is that the PCs have a clear goal: Talk to Imix, and make sure that talk ends with his helping them. I placed the end point of this arc of the campaign in front of the PCs, but give them a lot of latitude to get there however they want. I take a lot of notes on NPCs and what happens in the game, and use that info to keep things moving. If the PCs hate the Cinder Lords, maybe they show up just as the PCs are about to grab the item they need to bribe Imix. If you keep good notes and pay attention to what the players enjoy about your game, the campaign starts to write itself.

So, how do you plan out your campaign? Feel free to share your thoughts on this question in the comments below. You never know when something that works for you is exactly what a fellow GM needs to improve his or her game!

5 thoughts on “The Lost GM Scrolls: Mike Mearls on Legos, Cinder Lords, and the City of Brass”

  1. I often run my games the same way – railroading is never the most elegant solution and often times I will start a campaign with the beginning fairly well designed and purposely leave everything else quite muddy, preferring to see what elements of my story and world the players enjoy so I can take them down the paths they will enjoy the most.

  2. Again, good insight into Mr. Mearls’ mind–as scary as that might be.

    I like this sort of GMing style–I think the biggest obstacle for a GM in this is divorcing himself from any set notion of what the end–or even what the path might look like. When you get 7-8 sessions in, you might already believe that you can see things going this way or that–and those other 5 people at the table, well they have other ideas.

  3. I think a lot of DMs do something very like this when generating the power structure of their community (ex: “A lawful evil corrupt bureaucracy, a chaotic evil thief’s guild, and a neutral good peasant-church”; you might have even gotten all that from a random chart, but it gets you thinking about how those pieces fit together and how the protagonists can become involved).

    Of course, a force with its own interests doesn’t have to have community-wide influence to be relevant or usable, but it’s a good place to start.

  4. Others have already said it, but it is important enough to repeat: Note taking is Absolutely Essential to a long-running campaign!

    Note taking is especially useful for getting the players to see the NPC’s as real people. Who they have treated kindly, who they have irritated… All that will affect how the individual NPC’s react to the PC’s days or even months later. Players will start to pay attention to the pretend-people of the town, because (just like in real life) how they treat these people will shape future interactions.

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