You may or may not be surprised to know that I was part of an improv comedy group for a few months before I left grad school. (The most obvious side effect of this is that I can enjoy a game of Fiasco with the right group of players.) I thought I had some pretty successful performances after a while, but there was one problem I had more than anything else: it took me a while to establish a scene. If I had to tag in and add to an existing scene, or play off of one that just ended, I could really shine. But if we were standing in a void, with a proverbial blank canvas, I was very slow.
Now I am running my first campaign that, while not using dungeons that I myself have created, deviates significantly from the module-centric lineup that I have traditionally followed, since most of my gaming occurred at conventions. Let me spill the secret about this new Megadungeons game, wherein I juggle five megadungeons at random for the players: I am reading none of the dungeons' front matter. No accounts of why these dungeons are here or what factions or other stuff like that. Quite frankly, I don't have the time to read a bunch of backstory.
The lone exception is Maze of the Blue Medusa. A lot of the encountered rooms suggest that you need to be somewhat familiar with the entirety of the Maze, and besides, it's an enjoyable read on its own. This is an aspect not common with most RPG material.
Anyway, I usually skip everything and head straight to the dungeon. This is efficient, although I am noticing a distinct variation in the quality of what I'm given when a new room is discovered. Blue Medusa, for example, never disappoints. Even a straightforward empty room with naught but rope bridges plants the seeds for potential adventure if the PC's decide stop and investigate. Other dungeons feature more ho-hum encounter tables, and more empty rooms than I would like.
Now this is where veteran GMs can have a field day. A room that is listed as "Empty" can and should be viewed as a blank canvas for the GM to create something interesting. Just because something is devoid of treasure or monsters does not mean it is barren and featureless, like an empty self-storage unit. I have heard tales of other GMs turning an Empty Room into something quite engaging just by painting a vivid enough picture of where hidden secrets might lie within (spoiler: there are none.)
As for me, my old improv weakness once again rears its head. In order to improvise, I need a seed, a Suggestion From The Audience. I often try and flip to a random table, but usually I'm unprepared. Even if I am prepared with tables, I often find that it takes me a while to translate what I see into something I can use. Either the results don't make sense for the game, or it's frustrating to decode into something I can make tangible. I am sure that it is just an issue with how my brain works, because I know that all I need to get going is a few words strung together, just enough to strike the match that will be tossed on the gasoline.
To remedy the problem, I have begun to sit down and think of usable word strings so that I can write them down as my lone version of DM prep.
As an example, one of the things I have written down in my notes is "Skeleton Art Gallery." Already, I have enough to get my mind working, but the concepts are as pliable as putty. To use this example, perhaps this room holds twelve skeletons arranged throughout the room. No, let's say they're fourteen: seven for the heavenly virtues and seven for the deadly sins. They were arranged here by an Inquisitor who went mad from heavy metal poisoning...
And we can see that the ball is rolling.
Or, there is a legit art gallery full of postmodern artwork that drives the people who look at it insane. They can't stop looking at it, dissecting it, trying in vain to understand it. They forget to eat or drink, but the desire to "get it" keeps them alive. By now they are all animated skeletons, trying to ask the PC's (most likely in vain) what they see in this particular piece. They are engaged in the Sisyphean task of comprehending the incomprehensible...
Such phrases as "Skeleton Art Gallery" are sufficiently stimulating while simultaneously being liberating in their vagueness. They're like a Rorschach ink blot or word association game. After stumbling on the versatility and usefulness of these phrases, I naturally wanted to write down as many as I could, then jam them into a d20 table (or a d30 table if I happened to be especially creative.)
Then I got another idea, probably cobbled together by the fact that Maze of the Blue Medusa started off as just a dungeon map of pictures, then got "written" after the fact. (I think that's the story of its Genesis. I'll have to research that.) Anyway...
Why not arrange these seeds graphically, compartmentalizing them into the rooms they represent, and then use this to build up a dungeon? Here's what I'm talking about:
While I've been working on an original adventure module to publish, this little map could very well be the start of my first original dungeon, which is already double the size compared to when I took this photo. Granted, it could easily be dismissed as a Funhouse Dungeon (especially if I'm not careful with the room, "Ducks Planning Shit.") However, I love this because it turns out that this is exactly the kind of prep work I need to be doing for myself.
I guess the moral of the story is one that a lot of the DIY RPG community has already learned: find out what you need at the table to help you run a game, then go out and make it.
PS., The alternate title for this blog entry was "A Post That Talks About Improv But Doesn't Mention 'Yes, And.'"
PPS., I have recently posted my positive reaction to Maze of the Blue Medusa on two subreddits - /r/DnD and /r/rpg. Both seem to be well-received. Please add to the conversation if you're so inclined.
PPPS., I leave for Gen Con tomorrow. Please comment if you'd like to get in touch at the convention.