Choose the Illusion

Being a successful Game Master is relative to an array of deciding factors: The makeup of your gaming group, the personalities involved, and the actual game being played all make this job difficult and demanding.

I have been playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons since I was very young—even before I really knew what roleplaying was. I often tout that I was a bushy-eyed 6 year old when my experience with gaming began. Some might be deceived in believing this would make me far superior in my storytelling ability. Well, what with my vast experience, surely I am a god amongst men! Honestly, this means crap. It should in no way suggest that I am better in my ability to portray a scene, or communicate the fantasy world that surrounds my players. It just means I might have potential.

Humans are an interesting animal. For all of our glorious and vast intelligence, we have an innate primal struggle to do things the easy way. Sure, there are exceptions to all things, but overall, we’re a lazy animal. The television’s remote control is possibly the best example I can use that encompasses every single person reading this. There is more to this, and I promise I’ll make the connection later on. For now, let’s talk about story development.

When designing a story adventure* we often tend to think linearly in our progression. In grade school, we were taught the elements of a story, and were trained to think this way when moving from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the ending). This line of thinking was reinforced every time we watched a television show or a blockbuster movie. The protagonist is introduced, a problem is presented, they go on to deal with the problem, and eventually it is resolved with some solution. Easy, right? Not so fast.

When engaged in collaborative storytelling (also known as roleplaying games), you have to take the normal dimension of a story’s creation and bring it into the third dimension. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkein wrote the Lord of the Rings as a choose-your-own adventure. What if you had the choice of deciding how Frodo got to Mount Doom, commanding each decision along the way? Well, that would be a massive book—one that could not reasonably be crafted. So what does this mean for your game? There’s no quick or easy answer, but I’ll provide to you something that I have been doing for a very long time. You can find a hint of it in my first published D&D adventure Monument of the Ancients (Dungeon #170). That adventure was commissioned to my older brother Brian R. James and me with an original target word count of 10,000. When all was said and done, we wrote 22,000. Why you might ask? Because we needed to add that third dimension, and stretch the main plot.

Use of a Grid Matrix to give the illusion of choice!

When starting the design of your adventure, grab no less than 9 blank index cards (more can be used if you are comfortable doing so). Lay them out on a table in three rows and three columns. You can easily do the same thing in Microsoft’s Excel, but I am very visual and find this to be easier. Your mileage may vary. Now, grab one additional card. This will be your adventure’s beginning. It will have the name of your adventure along the top, and you will write the primary conflict of story. For example it might read:

Title: The King’s Precious Treasure

Premise: The newborn child of King Tanner has been kidnapped. The only clue is a single piece of parchment with an odd riddle scribed on it.

This will set up the other 9 cards you have already laid out. Place the card at the top of the others and you have your start. Now, take one new card and write out the conclusion. In the case of The King’s Precious Treasure, you might have two possible outcomes. Either the players rescue the child, or they do not. Write down the possible outcomes and then place it at the bottom of the, now, 10 cards.

You should have a total of 11 cards; one start card, one conclusion card, and 9 blank ones in between. On each of the 9 cards, start to fill in the encounters they will engage in, and include how they will proceed to the next step. You want to design each of the encounters so that they lead to one of the other 9 cards. Remember to keep the flow of the encounters tight. You want to incentivize a natural progression to the end card.

This type of design takes some practice, but you will find a great reward in developing your campaigns or adventures this way. The players should be given the ability to choose, but you ultimate control the end.

If you have questions, comments, or anything else, please leave a comment. As well, you can follow me on Twitter. My website is

Thanks for reading and happy gaming!

-Matt James

 EDIT: I'll add some better pictures as soon as I can.


*I use the term story adventure, because it denotes a specific contrast to combat adventures—ones where continuity is less critical to the adventure’s conclusion.

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