As a writer, I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to be one of the people who said “there’s not such thing as writer’s block.” In my work as a writing professor, yes, I think in most cases that’s true. “Writer’s block” for students is more often a case of not wanting to write the assignment with an underlying insecurity or boredom than it is anything else.
But as a fantasy author, I run into blocks with my novels at certain almost predictable points in the writing process. And it was this predictable pattern that allowed me to start noticing when the same thing happened in our duet game. However much I wanted to, I could not figure out what should happen next in our D&D game.
Matt Colville has an excellent video about the different types of D&D players that, if you haven’t seen it, is worth watching as a GM for a duet 5e game. If nothing else, it will help you think about what your partner looks for in your sessions, what they love about the game.
My “player type” is based in narrative. I’m willing for whatever needs to happen to happen so long as it makes sense for the story.
Now I hear the questions already. “But Beth, what about PC death in a duet game?” (You can read more about our take on that here.)
This post may contain affiliate links which means that, at no cost to you, we receive a small commission when you follow the link and make a purchase.
Reasons We Get Stuck
The connection between these two points is important. Who I am as a player helps inform why I get stuck as a GM. For me, it’s because I can’t see where the story is going or because the story has veered slightly off course and I need to take a step back and tweak something that happened in the previous session.
Perhaps you can relate to that. For me, it manifests almost as an itchiness—something feels off that I just can’t put my finger on.
Reason one: The story has taken a misstep or you need more time.
If what I described above sounds familiar, there are a few steps you can try to get the story back on track.
First, don’t cast too far ahead in your DM planning. You don’t need to know what happens ten sessions from now. Do you know what happens next? Where is the party going? Who are they about to meet? Are there any interesting creatures or NPCs nearby?
Second, keep a few favorite go-to’s on hand if this happens frequently. This tip is a lot about knowing yourself as a GM and knowing what your player enjoys most in the game. I love creating interesting characters and introducing them into our game, so when I’m GMing and get stuck, one of my go-to’s is inventing a new person for Jonathan’s PC to meet and interact with. Oftentimes the PC helping this NPC solve their problem will get me back on track for addressing the larger plot concerns.
If your player loves combat, dig out the Monster Manual or, my personal favorites, the Tome of Beasts series (including Creature Codex) by Kobold Press. [Another go-to of mine is fae characters, so Jonathan is usually going to meet a cool fae or help a fae creature.] Probe one of the PC’s weaknesses or a soft spot during the combat/encounter with the creature, and you’ve moved the story forward!
Third, take a step back and look at the big picture. Yes, this is opposite from what I suggested in the first tip for this section, but sometimes our stuck-ness comes out of losing sight of the larger stakes. Ask yourself:
- What is the party trying to accomplish?
- What is my villain up to?
- Is it time for my PC’s guide character to pay them a visit?
If it’s been a while since the villain has made contact with the party, can you bring in a raiding party and up the stakes? What would help the party reengage with their larger quest?
Reason two: You need new/more inspiration.
Others of us might get stuck because we need a new source of inspiration. It’s common in writing circles (at least the ones I frequent) to hear someone talk about “refilling the creative well.” When you’re outputting a great deal of creativity—which you are as a DM!—it’s important to input new information too. You can’t draw water out of an empty well.
The new source of input doesn’t have to be directly related to your game either. Sometimes our brains need time thinking about something other than the thing we’re trying to figure out. That’s why you get your best ideas in the shower, on a walk, or while you’re driving.
That brings us to tip number four: Know your favorite back-burner thinking activities, the things you do when you need to let an idea simmer.
It also might be time for you to engage with a new story or return to a favorite story from the past (tip five!). Is there a movie whose environment you love, or with a soundtrack that always gets your heart pumping? Have you, like me, been saving Andor until you couldn’t wait any longer but you know, deep down, that you’ll love it and that it will spark something new in your story brain for you?
Reason three: You need more time.
This is my least favorite reason to write because there’s no rushing it. Sometimes great D&D sessions are a result of turning soup into stew, and that means the potatoes need to simmer. (Can you tell it’s cold here and I’m thinking about pot roast?)
Returning to tip five and reason two above, try to dig into as much inspiration as you can during this rejuvenation time. When I don’t have the time or don’t feel like sitting down to watch a favorite movie, I’ll head to my inspiration boards on Pinterest and look back at environments and creatures I’ve saved before to see if something piques my interest there.
One of my favorite game planning/brainstorming methods is setting up Pinterest boards for locations, characters, and creatures. It often serves as a gift from past me to present/future me.
If it seems like you need a substantial amount of time, maybe you and your player need to switch roles for a week or two. They can pick up an adventure from our shop and run that for you or take some of your secondary characters on a side quest while you brainstorm the main game!
Fun fact: our Land of Vampires campaign came out of the need for our primary party to take a break so we took some side characters on an adventure. Here we are, years later, having spent countless hours in Steymhorod and having set the stage for so many fellow duet-ers to do the same!
Bringing it all together
I know that the three reasons above aren’t all-encompassing when it comes to why we get stuck in our planning. In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about when we might get stuck, especially in a duet game, and ways to anticipate and avoid those sticky sessions.
In the mean time, I hope this has helped you with some strategies for getting un-stuck and, more importantly, I hope you’re feeling less alone in sometimes feeling stumped about what comes next. But sooner than you know it, you’ll be back behind the GM screen, leading your duet partner through an enthralling tale of your co-creation. And that’s really what it’s all about!
Have you noticed any patterns behind getting stuck in your own duet game? Have you tried the tips above? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan