So here we are, 1:08 AM my time, and I'm once again staring down a nasty case of insomnia. As often happens, I've been up tweaking or otherwise playing with my notes for my regular Sunday night game, which I'm sorry to say won't get played this coming weekend, as my fiancee and I will be camping at the fair campgrounds for the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest such event in the state. And so I find myself looking at more than a week of preparation time and startlingly little undone prep to fill it. I've got the world and adventure notes as high-res as I dare make them without just spilling over into the realm of wasting my time on detail the PC's will never see. Work only requires my presence on the phone or in person about 30 hours a week right now, and my full course load is less of a beastie than usual, as I'm more than a week ahead in all my reading and assignments.
So we come to the question: what does a DM do with truly spare time?
For me, the answer is soak. Whenever I find that I genuinely have little to nothing to do and I still feel in a mood to expose myself to fantasy fiction influences, when I've watched or listened to all the PA/PVP podcasts, shored up whatever plot holes my PC's managed to gouge or stumble onto in the previous session, and re-checked all my maps and skill challenge outlines (let's be honest... in practice my skill challenges never progress past outlines until the PC's are already playing through them), I sit down somewhere comfortable, put on some low music, and pick up a supplement book or a DragonLance novel or an old Dragon magazine I haven't cracked open in an edition or two, and just peruse. I don't read it through; that would be like homework, and I already have plenty of that to contend with on a month-to-month basis. But I flip through the pages and glance down, skimming headings and paragraph titles, looking at the artwork, and generally just taking in the feel of the book in my hands. This is something that I will probably never really be able to do with a pdf, but as long as there are older game books out there, the practice remains inspiring.
Doing this, I've run across fantastic ideas. Those inspired half-logics that bound out from the page, one-half the actual goings on in the book and one-half the weird conclusions and additional details your distracted mind fills in. For instance, I recall flipping through an AD&D Player's Handbook and seeing an illustration of a wizard supporting his comrades by sustaining a magical bubble of air deep underwater. From that image, I somehow arrived at the idea of using a giant sea-snail a la Dr. Doolittle as a vehicle / mobile base, and which eventually evolved into a kind of a mini-castle on the back of the magical creature, with whom the party's druid developed a fun roleplaying repartee.
Another example is looking through Pages from the Mages, a positively wonderful supplement which detailed nothing so much as a bunch of spellbooks penned and/or used by the popular magicians in the Forgotten Realms. After reading the description of the Alcaister within, I determined right away that it should make an appearance in my 4th ed game, and when I stumbled onto the fact that it was mentioned by name as being locked away in a sorcerer's abandoned tower in the same nation where my group was currently adventuring, I took it as an omen. That spellbook remained the object of our warlock's obsession, never-mind the fact that at the time she couldn't use spellbooks for anything beyond looking cool, and when she finally got her hands on it, she immediately set about building much of her ambitious future career around its power.
Between that and the Pirates of the Fallen Stars book, and the inestimable if somewhat unsettling Grimtooth's Traps, a whole generation of 3.0 splat-books and the three dozen or so novels I have set in Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, DragonLance, the Wheel of Time, and any number of other settings, I never run out of great ideas to use as springboards for my own, or to just re-name and outright steal.
So I think that's what I'll be doing tonight... I'll pour a glass of milk, open up a book that hasn't been touched in a while, and soak it all in.