Friday, September 4, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Two

In the last post, I wrote about the process I have for drafting a campaign. I usually start with notes about the following:
  1. The campaign setting.
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
I also come up with one sentence that sums up the campaign, to serve as a lighthouse to guide me when fleshing out the events that make the campaign tick.

But the single most important element of the campaign isn't the setting, the plot or even your skill as a DM - it's the players that matter the most.

This is the reason I don't develop my drafts until I know who will be joining the group. In my experience, it's best if the campaign is tailored to the players' expectations and skill level - otherwise the first session might be the last.

Think about it this way - your role-playing heavy plot will evaporate soon enough if three-quarters of the group enjoys combat and tactical play the most and aren't worrying too much about character death. It works the other way too. To mitigate, I usually ask the players what interests them in a game (usually via e-mail), and try to incorporate these interests into the draft I'm fleshing out.

I plan to discuss fleshing out a campaign in a later post, but once the campaign is fleshed out to a point I feel confident enough to start running it, most of its success is on the players shoulders. I found out that campaigns that are driven by engaged players enjoy a lot more success that campaigns driven by an engaged DM...

The way to engage players differ from group to group and from a player to player, but I found out that most players respond to the following:

  1. A Coherent plot that involves the characters
  2. Meaningful choices
  3. NPCs


I try to make the characters a big part of the plot. It's easier when the players provide you with a background to work with, and it's a lot easier when players realize they are the main focus of the campaign, and act accordingly. The characters can be the heroes a prophecy revolves around, or natural born leaders who can 'show the path' for others, or powerful individuals destined to do great things. The plot revolves around them - they are like the main protagonists of a book. As such, they can accomplish great things, or fail miserably - but if their actions make a great story, it doesn't matter how it ended. A good player recognizes this, and act accordingly. I had players portraying their character's death scene in such a gripping way that it made me forget I was the DM - I was simply enjoying a great scene from a story, even if that scene was all about a hero losing his life.

It's important to make sure your players will connect with the plot. If they don't, engagement will fly through the window. Before the campaign starts, I ask them and make sure the plot I have in mind is something they will enjoy playing. During the campaign, simple checkpoints can help you make sure everybody is interested in the story (more on that in the next post).

Meaningful Choices

I hate railroading. I really do. As a player, I feel like being cheated out of my D&D experience, which is all about my character and the dent it leaves in the universe. When the group's choices mean nothing, players will do one of two: trot along gritting their teeth (and eventually leave the group), or try to wreck havoc (before leaving the group).

The only way to make sure the players feel like their choices have meaning, is to actually plan for it to happen. The heroes defeated a major villain? his forces will disperse. The heroes stole a relic from a temple? the cultists will seek them out. The heroes persuaded two merchants in different towns to cooperate? A new trade route will be opened, with new wealth flowing through the realms.

Same goes for poor choices and failed attempts. The heroes did nothing when a vampire asserted control over the town's council? The town will evolve into a bastion of evil. The heroes failed to protect an high-ranking diplomat they were assigned to protect? War might erupt between two kingdoms. The heroes fail to avert an evil god from entering the world? Well, bye bye world...(not really - our job as DMs is to make sure the story goes on...again, more on that in the next post).

The important thing to remember here is that we (as DMs) need to challenge the players, give their characters the right tools to succeed, but never look the other way if things go bad for them. The game is much more rewarding this way - even if somewhat difficult. Players choices should matter - and they should be very well aware of that.


NPCs are the best tool a DM have in his toolbox to engage and entertain players. A lot of DMs don't use them enough. I know I don't use them enough.

NPCs can serve as the DM's secret weapon. When you want to know what interests the players? Here comes the talkative barkeep that simply asks them that. When your players a in dire-straits and need directions? Here comes a hunched man with a glass eye to whisper words of wisdom. When the group is debating about how to approach the upcoming attendance with the king, going into circular logic discussion? That old dwarf coughs politely and with a heavy accent says: "Heard ye be talking on the king's court? Been there myself, lately..."

The problem with NPCs is that a) the heroes need to be in a place were other people are present and b) running then can be a real challenge.

Sometimes the group is adventuring with no one close in sight. While monsters can be good NPCs, more often than not it's the "tell us what we need to know or die" scenario (can be uttered by the adventurers or by the monster, BTW). But even if the heroes are in a city, with NPC interaction opportunities abundant, most DMs (myself included) have issues with coming up with a score of NPCs unless we prepared for it (I "love" that fraction of a second delay when a player asks the NPC "so what's your name", revealing the fact that the DM just came up with the NPC a minute ago).

But all that said - NPCs are hands down the best tool the DM have to make the world real, evoke some response from the players, and move the story forward. I guess practice makes perfect, and the new 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with advice on creating and running NPCs.

So here it is - with a campaign draft, and some information about what makes your players tick, you are ready for the next level: fleshing the campaign out, and preparing for the first session. All will be discussed in my next post.

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