When you GM for a game, you’re essentially responsible for holding an entire world in your head. It’s not just the landmasses and terrain rules, either; it’s a squirming mixture of people and history. The best made worlds continue to develop and function even when the PCs aren’t interacting directly with the various aspects of your world.
Sometimes that means interesting things are happening or have happened without any input from the PCs. They might not even be aware of some of these developments elsewhere in the world. From the point of view of realism, that’s fine: there’s plenty of interesting stuff in the real world happening that I don’t know about. Who cares?
Well, you do, probably. You put a lot of effort into thinking up those events, and even if they’re only tangentially related or not at all, you want someone to appreciate them. So you’ve turned to the age-old table trick of using extras to tell additional stories.
In this digital age, there are many ways to tell these tales. You could write a short story, draw a comic, record an audio drama, even make a little film. You can create an entire wiki devoted to your game or even open up a discussion board for your players to act out their characters while you’re away from the table. With all of these options available, you might think the question is, “How can I do this cool thing?”
Let’s start with a different one:
How Creative Are You?
There’s no denying that adding to your universe is cool. It creates a greater feeling of depth, the sensation that the universe is constantly in motion around the PCs, both reacting to them and carrying on without them. You might get this sensation from playing in a well-developed universe like Star Wars, but adding your own touch goes a long way.
But actually keeping up with that plan requires a singularly creative mind. You have one, since you’re a.) human, and b.) a tabletop game player. It’s practically required, especially in the latter case. Being a GM is another point in your favor, since even a so-so GM requires more than a modicum of creative talent.
Ask yourself this: how drained are you by preparing for game? By running it? Some people pour every ounce of their creativity into the game itself, and for them, trying to keep it going when away from the table would be too much of a burden. Don’t be ashamed if this is you; there’s nothing nobler than devoting your abilities completely to tablecraft. Besides, you could always come up with some ideas and saddle a willing player with the responsibility of expanding the game’s universe through handouts and painstakingly illustrated tableaus.
That might rub you the wrong way, since it would be letting a player have the chance to influence important goings-on in the universe. Well…
Importance is Not a Story Trait
They’re called “extras” for a reason. Whatever you’re coming up with can’t have a direct influence on the events in your game. Nobody likes assigned reading, and when it’s just for that goofy game you play with your friends on Wednesday night? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
And even if you slave over a novel for your players to enjoy, one that nicely elaborates on the consequences of the king’s decision not to get involved with the dwarven civil war based on the PCs’ advice, chances are they won’t read it. Sure, they’ll say they want to, but there’s more going on in their lives besides the game. Thus, weaving plot-critical details into the narrative of your magnum opus isn’t a great idea.
If you insist on doing so, make sure to write a Cliffs Notes version, too.
How to Do It if It’s Worth Doing
Still haven’t scared you off yet, huh? All right, if you insist on making extra narrative bits for your game, I have a few recommendations. Bear in mind: it’s all highly relative and dependent on your group’s taste. They might not even like extras, so be sure before you start moving forward with any of your ideas.
- Writing: The oldest and most tried-and-true method of going beyond the tabletop is the written form. From short stories to full-length novels, carefully constructed narratives to campaign documents that span multiple binders, handwritten notes to word processed documents, this has long been the GM’s bread and butter for conveying information. These days, take advantage of the digital age and iPads to get this stuff to your players. Set up a regular e-mail schedule, use a sharing service like Dropbox or Google Drive, or even go the distance and make a wiki using Obsidian Portal.
The most important thing to remember: keep it short. The primary reason nobody keeps up with extras from the GM is that they’re long. Format them like private letters or news briefs. If you feel the need to do something longer, break it up into very small chapters — four pages, max — and release it gradually rather than all at once. No need to overwhelm your players with a tidal wave of your brilliant prose.
- Art: Okay, fine, it’s all “art,” but I’m specifically referring to the visual medium. This is more than just having someone draw everyone’s characters, by the way. For it to really count as an extra for your game, it has to add something more. Consider doing a brief comic or making an illustration of a pivotal moment from the universe’s history. Hell, even just come up with a consistent design plan for the enemy’s giant mechs, and it’ll aid your game considerably.
I freely admit that this is the area I know the least about. I’m no good at drawing, at least not in the sense of consistent quality. The only thing I know about adding artwork is from what others have told me about having an actual artist in their games. I’m told it’s magical, like having a goose that lays 14-karat eggs, or a unicorn that can directly nuzzle the players’ egos with its magical face-horn.
- Audio: This is a favorite of mine. Write up a quick script (no, there’s no way you can make extras without doing at least a little bit of writing, stop asking), wrangle some of your friends to act it out in front of a microphone, and you have a fun experience for the guys at your gaming table. Be sure to add sound effects so it sounds like a monologue being given to the Galactic Senate, or so the fight scene has the appropriate sword noises.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this up front: both audio and video require a fair degree of technical expertise. Audio to a slightly lesser extent, since its special effects are limited to a sound library, a number of which can be found for free. Higher quality, of course, requires spending some moolah. (Or having family in the business, like me. Ha!)
- Video: Now you’re just showing off. This kind of undertaking demands scripts, actors, costumes, locations, video recording equipment, video processing equipment, special effects, and the technical know-how to implement it all. Depending on your area, you might need film permits, even if you’re just shooting for your fellow nerds. Finally, the process from start to finish will take several weeks, so you have to be thinking months ahead.
But if you pull it off? Even if it’s narmy, over- or under-acted, and with the cheesiest special effects you could pirate for Prelude, you’ll have a genuine treasure. Something that you and your friends can cherish, convert into a drinking game, and maybe put up on YouTube to see if you can get a few hits.
Should You Do This Cool Thing?
Eventually, what it all boils down to is this: should you? Creating extras for your campaign is time-consuming and has dubious value to your game. I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t do it for the good of your players, since they’ll probably feel that what’s good is playing the game itself.
But I also can’t stress enough that, if you feel you should, you need to sit down and do it. Whether they admit it or not, your players will appreciate the work you put into it.