This is the best time to plow into things, however. Just as I would sit and talk to someone over coffee, I find it just as easy to write out my thoughts here online. So let's get to it.
What is the one thing that anyone could do that would really, truly, be the most valuable thing to make our worlds better?
From a strategical standpoint, where should we start? It isn't that we won't have time to do other things, in the long run, but given that we have a session that is starting in about two or five or ten days, what can I do today that will make that session run better?
My first instinct is to say that it's too late. Role-playing is a difficult process and getting better requires forethought and consideration. Real, relevant change happens in the long term and always after ages of apparent failure and disappointment. Winston Churchill, in describing British armaments manufacture prior to World War II, belaboured the point that with great things, the payoff is necessarily in the future: "The first year yields nothing, the second very little, the third a lot and the fourth a flood."
Yet his argument is also that we start today because without starting, there is no future. And so it isn't that we're without a strategy that we can't employ this minute . . . it is that we shouldn't expect a result from that strategy the minute after.
But it isn't true that we can't do something that will affect the session that I am running, say, tonight. There are a number of practical, useful things I can do, all of which can be managed in the eight hours between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
I can think. For this, I can sequester myself from other people, concentrate my mind on the matter at hand and think. I'll start by deconstructing the player's reactions so far to the various things they've faced, their apparent motivations, things that they seem to have found expressly interesting. I can diagnose things that haven't worked, both recently and in my long past, and force myself to think about those uncomfortable things that I would rather forget and examine them for reasons why I screwed up or why the players resisted or resented the ideas presented. I can settle on an evaluation to my diagnosis and make up my mind to do something tonight that will satisfy that which the players have always liked and eschew that which the players have disliked.
For example: my players who had bought a ship and hired a captain were surprised to find that the captain they hired was an enemy of Spain, having once been a Catalan rebel and a Genoese pirate. The captain, knowing he was about to be arrested when the ship landed in Morocco, fled the ship, abandoning the party to the first mate, upon whom they then relied upon to continue their journey towards the Canary Islands. The going was difficult because the mate (now new captain) did not know the waters as well - and yet eventually the party's ship made its way to Aguilar in south Morocco, well out of Spanish influence.
The former captain was then speeding the length of Morocco on horseback, sending a message by pigeon ahead to Aguilar for the party to wait for him; that he had information that was of special use to the party. The former captain knew the party would have to land in Aguilar to supply before searching the islands of the Canaries, as that had always been the plan. The party heard the message and decided to wait. The captain arrived, having spent three days in a library in Fez to acquire his story, then told the story to the party to set up the forthcoming adventure. There's a huge amount of treasure laying at the bottom of the sea off an island that the former captain (now full captain again) knows and isn't telling. The treasure was sunk there when the last pretender to the Portuguese throne fled the country in 1580 after the Spanish unification with Portugal, following a sea battle in which many of the Portuguese crown jewels were seized by two Spanish ships that fled south from the Madieras, were pursued, caught near this island in the Canaries and sunk (this last being completely made up for the campaign).
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The party has heard the story and have decided to trust the captain, to search for the sunken ships.
This is where my campaign was left five months ago, as I struggled to find money, work, organize my life, survive, change places of residence and adapt to endless changes. Thing is, and I admit this quite freely, I have no plans whatsoever in place for the campaign beyond this point. I know the island, I have a general idea of what the scene should be, but I haven't decided upon what creatures the players may have to fight, I haven't invented enough rules for underwater adventuring or combat, I haven't made up my mind as to how much treasure is there (enough to get them all up a level, for sure, which will be a lot since they're all 9th to 11th at this point) and many other details.
So, what could I do right now? Well, I could certainly decide some of those things, yes? I could start sketching out a map of the treasure's location. I could sit and think about other obstacles I can put between the players and the treasure to buy myself more time. I could write rules for underwater combat. There are definite strategies I could employ today.
I have already set up some major contexts for what could happen. The captain is clearly not to be trusted. The historical relationships through which I built the adventure have real documents and references that I can turn to for ideas if I need to. There could be Spanish still hunting the captain and it must be remembered that the Canaries are a Spanish Viceroy. And, of course, the players have been adventuring for awhile and have made other enemies not connected to this adventure who could pop up nonetheless.
Most of those things, however, take time, a lot of time, more than eight hours; and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by that and throw hands in the air and shout, "No way! There's just no way!" before deciding it's a good time to get incrementally better at Overwatch. "Fuck it, I'll muddle through somehow."
Muddling, however, sucks. I was muddling with the previous running, with the captain catching up with the party and giving his story. Much of that running went rather stale, with the party travelling by sea around Morocco and not much happening. If I had thought about it and taken some time, they could have encountered something without the captain, or come across some other information about the area that had nothing to do with the Portuguese jewels, that could nevertheless now exist as another layer on top of what's happening now. But I didn't do that because I muddled. I was tired and I was phoning it in and I knew it. I knew I was taking a break and I was glad of it, glad to be putting aside my game and paying attention to other things.
Coming back to my game, I can't muddle. I need a proper strategy. Bringing this post back around to the main point: what can I do in 8 hours to make this happen?
Hah ~ I can't. Thankfully, I'm not setting up for a game tonight. I meant that above as a "what if," knowing that many readers are starting their game tonight. I'm going to come back around to playing in two weeks ~ and my first night is going to be mostly accounting, updating the players on the rules, getting them set up for the adventure and, possibly, letting them get their feet wet [!] with a minor adventure action and nothing more. I don't expect to be in a thick adventure until four weeks from now.
So, there's a short term answer for those who are looking for something they can do right now: stall. Skip a session if need be; if that's out of the question, create a very short side-quest into a dungeon or just long enough to keep the players busy for a session that you can muddle through without much trouble, that gives them a boost in treasure and power and makes them better able to handle the actual adventure. Then use the extra time you've created to design something worthy.
In the very short term, during the session, hold off on bringing the players back to the point. Let them muddle around, let them overthink things, let them stall for you! They're having fun and it will give you time to think. This game - dungeon mastering - is all about thinking. Do it, practice it, apply it. Our only chance of improving our short term game is through having one epiphany after another, rapidly enough that we can prove we're smarter than they are.
Yet, this all sounds nice but it doesn't actually answer the question. What makes the epiphanies work, hm Alexis? How do I know it even is an epiphany, Alexis? Answer me that one. And while you're at it, please explain why you're not just full of shit?
Sometimes, it feels like I am.
I admitted that I didn't have a proper answer to the question. All I've said so far are some of the things I use to side-step the "best thing I can do for my world" question. Like everyone else, I'm wallowing too; I'm struggling, I'm thinking things up on a dime, I'm putting off the work and not doing the things I should be doing (underwater rules) so that I can frivolously map Scotland.
Fact is, I don't have an answer for what the underwater rules should look like; I have nothing good to base them on, since apparently everyone else who has tried to make such rules had no idea either. And unlike horses, we don't have a lot of real world discussion about swinging swords and firing crossbows underwater. People in the Middle Ages and Renaissance did not fight battles under the sea ~ it was a good way to drown. And there was no reason to do it.
There are a lot of things about the game that I just don't have a straight answer for. I know how to map Scotland. I don't know precisely how this adventure with the players is going to go. So I waste time doing the former (because it keeps my hand in the game and continues to build up resources I may use later) while waiting for inspiration to solve the latter. It's what everyone else is doing, also.
Churchill's flood pays off when it comes to things like knowing the game rules cold (which DMs should do) or spending a lifetime reading about history (so that I can wonder what happened to the Portuguese crown after 1580 and discover that there's an adventure to be built out of it). It pays off when the maps are already there and I've done the research to find out how the Canaries were settled and what purpose they serve in the Spanish geopolitik. It pays off when the players decide to do something really weird and I already have house rules for that or I can base a precedent making decision on something else that I have rules for. Working at random things in my world every day and all the time steadily accumulates until the immediate needs of the campaign have the potential for inspiration from the knowledge base I've acquired or the habits I've adopted from running my world as long as I have.
Can anyone have that by "doing the most important thing" in the short term? No. That's the cold answer. No. There is no specific, definite thing that anyone can do that will universally fix every campaign.
But individuals running their games can do the next thing. And that is really the key. The next thing. I did this yesterday, today I'm going to get up and work on this for some time. And tomorrow I think, if I'm not still doing this, I'll do that. And so on. Every day. Patiently. Waiting for the flood to happen.