There are a lot of tools out there for a GM to bring into a game: pregenerated adventures and characters, NPC name generators for every genre, maps, rules adjustments, monster stat lists, video tutorials, reviews, and even podcasts of sample play through sessions. Finding tools is easy if you know how to search the web.
Today we are going to focus a little more on actually using some of those tools. Specifically, we are offering some tips on how to make other materials fit your game. This is something GMs do all the time, even with their own materials that players bypass. We move an unused dungeon to a new location, change the name of an NPC that was ignored, and reuse maps over and over again.
Adjusting your own materials is easy enough with a bit of practice. But using other people’s materials can be more challenging. Especially when some key differences prevent an easy drop-in.
Know Your Core Game
If you are bringing anything into your own game, no matter whose head it came from, you first need to know what your game is all about. These are the absolutes that make the foundation of your campaign: genre, tone, and theme.
Often times we try to bring in new monsters or adventures or plot twists because they sound really exciting or seem to fit the style of play. Or we want to add something completely new in hopes that it will ‘complete’ what we think the campaign is lacking. Good ideas, but that is NOT the place to start. Start with the foundations so you do not overlook them.
Bringing aliens into a D&D campaign is a dangerous idea if you have been running it high fantasy. Murdering a PC’s spouse to make a light-hearted campaign feel more real is more likely to cause players to leave. Running a game of Shadowrun where the job goes perfectly with no hints of problems will leave everyone with false expectations. No matter how cool the new stuff is, you MUST make it fit YOUR campaign.
Once you know the foundation of your campaign, the changes will become more apparent. And how much work is involved will also be apparent. The more foundation basics you have to change, the more work it is going to be.
Changing the Genre
Altering a genre can take a lot of work, but fortunately the steps are fairly simple. To change a genre to fit your own, you simply need to make cosmetic changes to the old so that it resembles the new. This can usually be done by simply swapping out flavor text descriptions.
For example, medieval fantasy and science fiction have equivalents of each other that you can swap: constructs and robots, crossbows and blasters, airships and spaceships, extra-planar beings and alien creatures, armor and space suits, horses and hover bikes. By swapping these things with each other, you can convert one genre into another.
Once you swap everything, some new problems might not make sense. Both a horse and a hover bike can travel across a river of water, but not a river of lava for example. You can try to change the lava to water, but that may change other things in the adventure. Typically it is better to change as few things as possible, so try to keep changing the horse in this example until it can serve the same needs that the original adventure required of a hover bike.
Also be sure to err on the side of caution when introducing things into your campaign from a different genre. While everyone might have hover bikes in the original science fiction setting, most people in your campaign might not have flying horses or mounts that are immune to fire damage. Consider making such things limited to only the session you are pulling in. In this example, a magic potion or berries could temporarily allow your group’s normal mounts to cross the lava for a short time but will wear off once the day is over.
Changing the Tone
A campaign’s tone is generally communicated by two things: descriptive detail and moments of player choice. Since the GM is in charge of bringing the world to life, the first one is fairly easy. You just need to change the details you describe. This can be as simple as removing blood and gore for a kids’ campaign or changing monster blood to black in a campaign where all evil is united.
You probably have some key adjectives you use for your campaign, even if you do not realize it. A light fantasy has lots of bright, sparkly, clean, happy things it in. A gritty modern day probably has dirty smoke-filled tattered things. A cyberpunk has lots of neon wired chrome-covered grimy things. Use the right adjectives to make things tone-appropriate for your campaign.
Making player choices that fit the tone are a bit more difficult to adjust for, because they are not something that GMs have direct control over. Most of us are not experts at manipulating players’ every decision, and do we really want to be? Many GMs enjoy the discovery element of what the players might do.
It is much easier to focus on what the GM can control, and in this case that is the availability of the choices themselves. If you do not want a PC to struggle with saving or killing an NPC, then simply do not give them the choice. Just like you want to avoid dead ends where a failed lock-pick will halt the adventure progress, avoid those choices that will ruin a game for everyone if the wrong choice is made.
Changing the Theme
Every campaign has a theme that drives it towards the ending. Are the characters wrestling with innocence versus ignorance? Are the forces of good and evil as distinct as black and white? Is the whole point of the campaign to see what the PCs are willing to sacrifice and what they feel that they must absolutely hold onto? Anything you add to your campaign should fit your theme.
It may seem like your campaign has multiple themes, but these are actually running themes rather than an overall campaign theme. You might have a theme for each story arc, each area, various NPC plots, or even the PCs themselves. A good addition to your campaign can fit multiple themes, but the Campaign theme its self is a must.
Changing a theme is hard, because it often changes everything about what you are trying to pull in. Werewolves that cannot infect creatures they bite might as well just be big wolves, so why pull them into a campaign where the theme does not allow for the infectiousness of evil? Why use a galaxy map in a modern setting where the group never leaves Earth?
Instead, see if you can make the theme of your content fit somewhere in your campaign by seeing how it will interact with your theme. Does a happy ending belong in a gritty dystopia? It can. Surrounded by terrible choices, a happy event can be very meaningful and even enforce a theme of hopeless survival by providing that contrast and instilling that false hope in characters.
If you want to add something to your campaign but cannot make it work, take a step back and think about why you want to add it so badly. If it does not fit, but you want it to fit, there may be something else going on. Is your campaign growing stale? Are you wanting to expand your experience as a GM? Do you not have a clear idea for the direction of your campaign? Is there someone you are trying to recruit or keep in the group?
Even if a monster, map, or adventure does not fit into your campaign, you can still make use of it as inspiration. If you want a murder mystery, but murder has no place in your campaign, try to figure out what mysteries do make sense. If you want a monster that surprises your player that has all the books memorized, take what you like about that alien and create a new monster with that inspiration.
And if none of that works and you still really want to use it, plan a one-shot for an off day. Try to run something completely new and see if you like it, or at least what you like about it. Give new things a try, and never stop learning.