Monday, August 15, 2022

Tips to the New DM - Part 1, the Campaign

I saw the trailer for the new D&D movie, Honor Among Thieves. 

I love the idea that it's titled "Honor Among Thieves" and presents a series of characters who don't seem to be thieves. This is typically problem #1 at the game table, exactly what happens when a DM proposes a game and the players don't have the same idea in mind because they aren't mindreaders. 

It reminds me of the first D&D movie, you know the one where everything was ridiculous and over the top. It was like someone asked: "What if all of our fine actors rolled a 1 for each and every aspect of this production?" Since this actually happens at the table, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of the game. You can read my five-star review right here

This highlights the second thing that can go horribly wrong at the table, an overreliance on dice or chance for outcomes for things that don't really matter. If you let dice overrule sensible choices and the agency of your players, everyone gets screwed by chance. Things that shouldn't really matter suddenly are all important. Don't let it happen to you, only roll for the things that need to be resolved by chance. Let the kiddos have agency. 

Anyway, I have been talking to my kids about a new campaign I'm planning. They are all hung up on the basic concept of a "campaign". It's a big word that has never really been presented very well in the core books. The core books of any RPG series, not just D&D. I would define a campaign as both the world where the action takes place and a list of rules and assumptions about the world. This is the highest level meaning of the word "campaign". 

When starting out, the campaign should be vanilla flavored. Zero restrictions on character class and races, no modification to the rules, etc. The players, if you and they are lucky only have the core rules. Don't yank the carpet out from under them by making restrictions or changes on the basics that they do know.  

The second part of the "campaign" is the setting. What type of story is being told? It is a pirate tale, a ghost story, a land grab, an exploration, a quest.  Technically, these are limitations of scope. A pirate tale is very different than a good ghost story. You should not find paranormal events in a pirate story, you won't find vampires in an exploration campaign. It makes sense, so the players don't think it's all a free for all. They don't need stakes and garlic to get on a boat. 

But remember there is always the ability to fuse stories. Dracula starts on a ship, the Flying Dutchman is a tale of pirate ghosts, and so on. You can either have these ideas from the outset or morph things as needed. Just because you start in one place, it doesn't mean you can't land somewhere else. 

Where your first few games go bonkers is when the players hit the outline of what you have created. You'll get the weirdo things like a bard with an electric guitar in a fantasy world, the thief with a skateboard that goes by the name "Zoomer-boomer", and a kleptomaniac cleric in a hair-lined football jersey. Don't worry, just roll with your players, to the extent that you can. Let them have fun at first and after a while, they'll eventually come around to meet you halfway. Or better. 

One good thing to have in mind is a character swap. When starting out, you'll have problems like this where no one wants to play the character they have, and killing off characters is either unreasonable or impracticable. It's really not worth anyone's time to kill off a disliked character. My suggestion is to swap former player characters as NPCs and once you have these wild ones under your thumb, cool them out. Don't kill 'em. Don't make them disappear. Just place them in a more natural and sedate setting for your world and let them be. Maybe they'll grow into something else. This will depend on your player's outlook on their past silliness. To be honest, these wild and wacky characters probably will fade into the background of the setting. 

No harm, no foul. 

Now we are to the setting. What is happening in your world? 

I find the smoothest way to create a campaign is to write a story. Not a huge story or a polished story but one with a set of boundaries that has a clear beginning and a clear end. The DM isn't reading a book to a party of players, you are all working together on a set of tasks that will eventually tell the legends of heroes. 

Maybe, they are heroes. Maybe not. Anywho... 

The DM should prepare their campaign as a set of chapters or waypoints where the goal is to get the players and the characters from A to B to C. Keep to the basics. How do they meet, where do they go, when do things get exciting? 

Simple. Except it really isn't.  

Remember, at each step of the way many things can happen.  Most of which can't be controlled by anyone, players and DM alike. Don't expect sessions one, two, or 27 to end where you decided they would. 

The players should succeed at the end of each chapter, but they can also fail. Failure doesn't have to be death. In fact, if you plan it right, getting killed should be hard. In all likelihood, they won't fail and die. It could be something so simple as running out of health or something as annoying and show-stopping as losing the tools they needed to move forward. They could be captured, they could get drunk or homesick and take a break. Any number of things could and will happen to them and your story, which really isn't the story you wrote down. Don't sweat it. 

The moment the players don't have success, you need to change what you are doing with the players so they can continue. Usually, this results in a quick side story before continuing on to the main event. Hopefully, your players will enjoy this tangent while also wanting to continue on to the main event. Sometimes the tangent will become the main story. That's cool, too. 

There is a variant on party success. I call it the Uber-Win. You created a scenario and presented it to a dozen people. One of those players will figure out something very logical and sensible that you didn't think of and they hop right to the end of the material you created. Instant Win. It happens. Be ready for the strange wine the players serve up at your table. It's really good, albeit surprising. 

There are two other possibilities besides win and lose. A stalemate or a no-sell. A stalemate occurs when the players don't win or lose and is often a variant of failure. These events are easier to adapt to than an actual failure, there is merely a pause in the action while the party prepares to continue. The nice part a stalemate means the players are interested in your campaign, wish to continue, and are invested. They just can't do what you expected right now. Roll with it. 

Mastering picking up stuff after
a mistake. It is the first step to
mastering anything. 

A no-sell is the worst outcome. There is something happening that the players do not like, dig or understand. They simply want no part of your campaign as it exists. That totally sucks because give a table of 4 or more players, the odds are there will be something one or more people won't be interested in. This is more than a simple adaptation. It can mean a change in theme and style of presentation. Or even a total change of story or theme. 

In one of my campaigns, I had a dungeon entirely populated with insects and spiders. After one room of combat, I discovered that one of my players had a visceral reaction to bugs. I had props and everything. Rattles, scrapers for eerie sounds, a bag with something furry inside, plastic toys, and so on. And she would not be having any of it. 

How could I possibly ditch all of that fun for one player's enjoyment or lack thereof? 

Well, since that player was getting ready to pack up and leave, the choice was easy. The next room had rats. She seemed indifferent. Me too because The Dungeon of the Rat was really dumb. 

In the third room, I tried snakes. 

She asked, "Do they look friendly?"  

"Well. No," I answered. 

But it was a lifeline. It wasn't that the players disliked the idea of a dungeon crawl or playing D&D yet again on Saturday night. Just one feature, bugs were not for them. It turned out my props could be used in different ways. They were still effective. And everyone enjoyed The Temple of Serpents more than "the unnamed dungeon of spiders and ick" I planned. 

Sometimes, rephrasing or reskinning a setting is all that is required. 

Other times, you have to completely change course, mid-stride to engage the players. This is an absolute abandonment of everything for something else. It sucks, but it is preferable to the players being forced into certain scenarios against their will.  

This brings us to another concept DMs should avoid, railroading. The above example with the conversion from bugs to snakes is not railroading because the players wanted a dungeon crawl but didn't want to deal with spiders and centipedes. Everyone was on board, a tactic choice to play was actual buy-in, only without spiders. It's a reskinning of an acceptable idea. 

Railroading is a different beast to be avoided. 

Suppose I had created "The Dungeon Crawl to Save Not Just The Universe, but ALL of the Known Universes", and the players wanted and expected a game of courtly political intrigue? Forcing them into my dungeon is a railroad. Don't do it. 

Given that you created a specific scenario that absolutely must be resolved for the world to continue to exist, you, the DM created a massive problem. You are going to have to get very creative to get out of it. In a perfect world, you shouldn't have made the basic premise so all-consuming. If the players aren't going in that hole you made, the main question is who is going in that massive suck hole you made? 

Not the players. They don't want it. However, the players gave you your escape. The Royal Court that hired the players in the first place is your answer. Flesh it out. 

The King wants the Dungeon problem solved immediately before his kingdom is destroyed, but the Queen is looking ahead and wants her son to marry. The Prince wants to marry the Princess of the neighboring kingdom, who is the arch-enemy of his Kingdom. Queen Mom is not enthusiastic about this turn of events but will go along. In secret, of course. The Princess's half-brother happens to be an Uber-Mage that can resolve any issue down in the dungeon with a snap of his fingers if only he was predisposed to do such a thing. Too bad he is only interested in Matilda, the young and attractive spy sent by the Prince's father to neutralize the Uber-Mage before he can take to the field of battle. 

Gee, that has all of the courtly political intrigues the players could desire, and no one but the Uber-Mage has to go down into that trap of a dungeon that you created. Problem solved. 

Sort of. Except you lost all of the hours spent on creating that dungeon. This is the way of D&D campaigns. As mentioned before, there is even a movie about it.  

A railroad would be if the players met the Prince like they wanted to, but then the Prince forces them to go into the Dungeon of Death you created. Or the Queen was kidnapped and the party had to go into the dungeon to get her back. If the Uber-Mage couldn't actually solve the problem, forcing the players into the mucky dungeon. If the King appointed the party to be the Keepers of Honor, leading peasants on a tour of the now safe dungeon, recounting the Heroic Deeds of the Uber-Mage, every weekday morning and twice on Wednesdays... 

Personally, I'd totally use the last one if my players were jerks about the whole thing. But I use a lot of meta humor at the table. It just works for me. It probably wouldn't work all the time or for everyone, but I'm sure I could make it funny. 

Remember, your players aren't antagonists they are your co-conspirators. Read the room and use their ideas to drive the fun. 

So on your first good campaign, you need to know a couple things and master them: 
  • Start small, 
  • Know what you mean to do, 
  • Know where good, bad, and indifferent can happen. 
    • Hint: at every party choice. 
  • Don't let the dice make choices, 
    • only use dice to resolve choices made by the players,
    • and never force a choice by dice either for you the DM, or the party. 
  • Plan to adapt from there.
The first and the last are just as important as the middle two. Pick anyone to start and you will naturally expand your skills at DMing. You can't possibly sprint to success, so focus on one or two and grow from there. 

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