“Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”As an aspiring Dungeon Master, I made it a routine to sit down once every month or so and outline a campaign: writing a handout, a campaign bible, and a first adventure. I discovered that it's the best way for me to hone my writing skills, and keep the 'juices flowing'.
I also try to do some retrospect, think about the last adventure / campaign I ran, focusing on what went well and what fell apart.
So here's a snapshot from a recent campaign I ran: The heroes - low level characters - are walking through large city at dusk when a demonic portal opens and belches out a demon. A fight erupts, and the heroes kill the creature, but the portal is still open. After investigating the portal, one of the players suggests to 'hand off' this issue to a 'high level NPC', as clearly 'someone else' should handle it.
Now, I just want to be clear: the portal was not a 'random encounter'. The heroes were dancing around the issue of a demonic manifestation in the city for several sessions, so the portal was not a big surprise, and actually a story element.
But - to be completely honest (and hence the post-morterm), I never even considered the players would go and search for 'somebody else' to fix this portal issue for them.
I mean - what was I thinking? A demonic portal, a large city, and a group of low level characters? I should have planned for them to go and seek someone to figure this out…
So here are some points to consider, analyzing myself as a DM:
- I see the PCs as the 'main event' of the campaign. I therefore tend to downgrade NPCs to a point of making them weaklings. Authorities, local rulers, high-level wizards, all have 'reasons' why the PCs should handle things, or 'excuses' why they can't do it themselves. It's wrong, and it breaks the suspension of disbelief. The PCs are the stars of the movie, but in order for the movie to succeed the stands and the rest of the cast should come into life when needed, make an impact, and dissolve into the background right after their scene is done
- Running a D&D session as the Dungeon Master is the Art of Moving Forward. If something doesn't go as planned, the DM's job is to smooth the corners and keep the story moving. I did recognize the players' valid reasoning as they expressed the need for a higher-level official to handle a demonic portal in the middle of a bustling city, but I got stuck on making excuses instead of saying yes and moving forward. The art here is to identify you're in a "no" mode, and quickly move into a "yes, but…" mode.
- I wrongly assume that the players see the story from the same perspective as I do. That's simply a bad way to look at things. The DM's screen should be a good reminder that the players might perceive and experience the game in a very different way than the DM. Building on the movie metaphor - they are like actors who don't see the whole picture, don't have access to the complete script, and get to act in front of a green screen. The DM's job is to make sure the players know what's going on, feed them with bite-size story chunks, and challenge them appropriately.
So what did I learn from this, as I write my new campaign outline?
- If I want the players to try and overcome a challenge, it should be within their abilities to overcome. It might be difficult or dangerous, but within their limits. Placing the bar too high might drive them away - which is good if that's the purpose of the challenge. But if you want engagement, the problem at hand should be within their capabilities to solve.
- The keyword in the above bullet is "try". The players should have choices to make, and walking away from an encounter is a valid choice. As long as the story moves forward, and the players are now presented with the consequences of their choices, all is good. The trick is to present meaningful choices, and for that, the players might need to know the consequences up ahead. Easier said than done, though.
- The story should always be present. As a shadow, or as an aura, but always there. The story should develop slowly, but consistently. Slowly, to allow the players to digest, and to allow you to diverge if the players don't show an interest. Consistently, because the players don't see the whole picture, and consistency over time helps them understand something is going on, grasp its importance, and make good decisions up the road.
And for the name of my new campaign: The Ancient of Days, set in the Forgotten Realms, in the small town of Port Llast, where rumors of a Seer amassing power in the northern city of Luskan makes the locals nervous….