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Top 5 Ways to Conquer Your DM Block

Written by Nicholas - Published on April 8, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Your regular D&D game is coming up and you’re sitting staring at a blank notebook without the will to pick up your books and start planning. We’ve all been there. Sometimes there is a lack of ideas. Other times a lack of motivation to come up with the ideas. The term block is a cliché but still appropriate, it feels like there is something in your head just preventing any creativity from flowing. You may never be able to stop the problem but there are ways that you can break through it and minimize how often it happens.

Sensory Input

People who work from home will often tell you that they still get dressed in work clothes or work in a particular room of the house. Those sensory cues keep their mind in the mode to work. It is a trick that you can get yourself into planning mode. The possibilities are vast. You can pick a sound track that you like to plan to, light a particular scent of candle or have a specific planning snack. Beyond tapping into particular senses you can establish a general habit, taking a shower before planning or setting up in a specific place. Whatever your habit is, stick to it and eventually your mind will associate those things with creativity and get that imagination flowing.

Jump Start

Many times all it takes is the motion of the pen going across the paper or the typing of keys to get started. If you find yourself staring at a blank space, start filling it! Even if what you start writing isn’t good or not even related, it gets you thinking as your head tries to keep up with you hands. You can always go through and cut out what doesn’t work but at least you have started something.

Be a Sponge

Sometimes the ideas just aren’t there to begin with, you need to get new ones. Put in a movie, listen to some new music or just go out and people watch. It is an amazing thing but seeing the behavior of a person at wal-mart can spark something that can be bent and twisted to be the cornerstone of a game. I’ve had characters and entire campaigns built around a single song lyric or a conversation I overheard at an airport.

Put it Aside

Sometimes facing a problem head on just isn’t the way to go. If you think too hard and try to force it, you will just end up frustrated. Go off and go something else. Run some errands, clean up around the house or just play some video games. Activities that don’t require a lot of mental effort is the ideal, it allows you to get away from the problem but let it keep running in the back of your head.

Have a Backup Plan

So you’re tried everything else, stared at the space for as long as you can tolerate and bashed your head against the desk and there is still nothing happening? Well, that’s a sad reality sometimes. Perhaps there is a beloved NPC or rehash of an old concept that worked for your players that you can recycle. There’s also plenty of premade adventures and products like Dungeon Delve that you can tap into. Cancelling the game is not a fun choice but it might come to that. If there’s enough time left you can see if one of your players would run a one-shot game. If you are social with the players outside the game perhaps you can suggest some alternative activities for the night, like seeing a movie or mini-golf.

How do you deal with the dreaded DM block? We want to hear about it in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

16 Responses to “Top 5 Ways to Conquer Your DM Block”
  1. Uncle BB says:

    My recipe: cinema, theatre, absolutely new music, art exposition.
    Mix all those & catch inspiration.

  2. KnowItAllDM says:

    I’ve never really had DM block. Infact, it’s quite the opposite. “Gee, I’d really like to do that, but the party is too high/low a level, maybe in another campaign, sometime.” then I wright the idea down (usually on my computer), and when I come to a point where my current campaign’s party is at the right level, I look it up, and use it.

  3. Justin says:

    I’m kinda the same as KnowitAllDM…

    In a way that’s more frustrating though…I have all these great ideas for “later” but need to get them there first.

    If you have passionate goal-driven characters sometimes you don’t need to plan too much….especially as an experienced DM with experienced players. The players will inevitably do something to get into trouble or want to do something that can be driven into an adventure that can be tied into an end goal.

  4. Nicholas says:

    @Justin: How much I plan depends entirely on the system I’m running. In D&D I plan a lot in advance, partially because it is hard to make encounters on the fly and partially because in my mind it is more of a linear style of game. When I run Burning Wheel, a game whose primary purpose is to create goal-driven characters, I plan nothing at all and just riff off of what my players are doing.

  5. Ameron says:

    If it’s a short-term thing then I look for good ideas in other mediums (as you’ve already talked about). The key is to try and find something that will inspire me but is not something my players have likely seen, heard or read. I go to really old comic books as my #1 fall-back source for ideas when I’m stuck. None of my players read comics so I can lift entire plot-lines and NPC from old issues of Batman, Justice League, the Avengers or Spider-man. They never know.

    If I find I’m in a rut and I just can’t get out of it, I suggest we take a break from my campaign and let one of the other guys take the DM reigns. As soon as the pressure is off and I know I’ve got a month or more to come up with ideas, the creativity returns.

  6. Simon Moore says:

    Never had DM Block, I find I work harder & get more stuff completed if I am still in the working mindset. Two nights a week I stay back after work & brainstorm ect.

  7. Eddie says:

    I actuly never had dm block i literly plan adventures in my sleep

  8. Jimmy says:

    I find that reading the Monster Manual helps me conquer writer’s block. As I flip through the pages, I try to think of a story for any monster I find interesting.

    For example, while reading about Manticores, I learned that it is easy to spot a manticore attack from the spikes and teeth it leaves in its prey. I started thinking, “okay, so the players see spikes and teeth in the victim, they will assume it’s a manticore. But what if it’s not? what if something is framing manticores to cover up something far worse?” I think you could come up with lots of ideas like this

  9. Justin says:

    @Nicholas

    I see your point and agree with it. Especially when I’m dming early in my worlds development…I find that you require a lot more planning. Later on, I find that worlds that I’ve practically completely hashed out (or at least areas) become much easier to do to let players run with it a little more. The encounters I tend to just come up with on whims…or save/steal encounters from old campaigns/pre-plans that’s usually my biggest stumbling block if I’m not at least prepared with some encounters in advance.

    I do try to resist the linear style of D&D but you can tell how it tries to force you into one (especially with the new encounter balancing and such).

    @Simon Moore
    That’s a good idea…I tend to get my best ideas at work too.

    Great Blog, btw. :)

  10. Brennon says:

    Best way to get over it in my opinion? Watch as MANY fantasy films as possible lol…after I watch Lord of the Rings I always have something flowing around in my mind for a campaign and a quest.

  11. Delf says:

    Taking a break and doing something else can be helpful, but personally, I’ll decide I should do the dishes, then I have to use the can… oh, I should put on the kettle. Next thing I know, an hour’s gone and my adventure’s no farther along. I just have to sit down in front of that notebook and do it. Like you said, start with something, anything, and it’ll start to flow.

  12. George says:

    I just come up with the basic concept of the campaign. I make a world. Set up the basic plot, throw the monsters in there, let the players alter the world according to their actions.

    When the campaign gets to complicated, everything can go wrong. Keep it simple.

  13. Crystal EA says:

    I sometimes have the “writers” block problem, but i i get around it very easily. (not too quickly though). When i do get stuck i just have a random battle take place where the players have there charcters at. and then go from there

  14. dylan says:

    my recipe,
    pumpin music, and a peice of paper,
    write a map with boxes and lines conecting the boxes
    then put a monster any monster into the boxes
    then make the stats depending on your partys skills

  15. Rakko Wakke says:

    I just carry my notebook around with me so when i see something or think of something cool to put in an adventure. i open my book and jot it down. then when im at home i can sit down with my dnd stuff take my notes and totaly screw my party over. ; ) The only problem i have is ingame, I cant roleplay for shit.

  16. Vortrey says:

    I always read Lord of the Rings if I have DMs Block.

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