As a new dungeon master, one who has already complained about the tabletop role playing game’s restrictive mythology and overwhelmingly combat-oriented gameplay, I like to take an open-ended approach. Here are some examples of what I have already done and how my players have reacted.
Giant spiders in a dungeon are not part of the dungeon’s evil plan, but mere inhabitants. In fact, in my dungeon they were serving a useful purpose – eating the massive supply of zombies that the dungeon was producing. They were so pleased with the preponderance of food that they set up their egg sack in the dungeon, which fortunately they were able to move out before the adventurers caused the dungeon to sink back into the earth from which it came.
What made this especially fun with my party was that we had a druid. Being sometimes a spider herself, she is able to understand the clicks and hisses of the giant spiders. At first I whispered in her player’s ear what the spiders were saying to her and to each other, but then I switched to text messages. Colleen, for reasons of her own, decided not to communicate the spiders’ messages to her party. I may get all of my players’ phone numbers so that I can give player-specific information when necessary.
Also, rather than being helpless victims of monsters and passive spectators of heroic glory, townsfolk will often take action against the dungeons that plague them. Thus far, the townsfolk have noted the predictable pattern in which the zombie invasion occurred and set up a bonfire to burn them up before they can get into town.
Not to say I didn’t have any challenges.
One thing that surprised me when I was trying to make my own scenario was how well-versed some of the players were in D&D mythology. They gave me a lot of trouble for having a non-metallic dragon be the supposedly benevolent ruler of a small country, as it is well known that dragons of solid colors are evil and hate humanoids. I was not surprised that they were curious, but even so they were good at getting information out of me. One of my non-player characters ended up being much more knowledgeable than he probably should’ve been, given his apparent disinterest in anything to do with the main quest. One of the players was intent on laying bare the nonsense at the heart of what I was asking them to do, pointing out that if they were helping a pair of colossal dragons it was difficult to imagine what task they could solve that the dragons could not. At first my retired, cynical wizard character, who had actually been encouraging the party not to get involved just shrugged. Unfortunately, I then lost my cool and he suddenly launched into a pep talk about how overwhelming the odds seemed when he and his party saved the multiverse from the great necromancer thirty years ago. Not in character. Bad dungeon mastering.
When my characters were following the road to the main city, they found the bridge was out. I had some spiders follow the river north to another crossing, and even had one of the friendly NPCs suggest north was the way to go, but my party is delightfully stubborn. They felled a tree and we role played all the skill checks that each of them would need to make their way across. Almost all of them fell in the water, but they had concocted a clever rope system that would prevent them from being washed away. This is the kind of thing that I love to do in any game – find easy solutions to ostensibly tough problems. They are skipping a significant chunk of the content in that forest, but not the plot-important stuff, so it’s fine.
Cover image from: http://sandara.deviantart.com/art/White-Dragon-391820143