Tag Archives: Dungeon Mastering

The End of a Campaign

Yesterday, the D&D campaign I began on December 3rd, 2016 ended. Generally, it was a success. The players seemed to think so, and that’s really the most important gauge. I enjoyed myself, although I would be hard pressed to tell you I succeeded in creating the story arc that I originally set out to. Communicating a complex story in four-hour-per-month increments while simultaneously keeping action up for players who themselves can and will change that story is challenging if not impossible task. As a writer, I cringe at the mess I made of my own story at times to keep things moving. Abrupt plot shifts, characters dropping all of their internal motives just to say “ok” to whatever needs to happen for a session to end on time, and of course, monsters and villains inexplicably arriving at exactly the right time to make for an exciting battle. It’s ok, though because this isn’t a fantasy novel. Most if not all of the best moments came from my party’s own sense of their characters and personal creativity.

In Asymmetric Information in D&D, I described some of the entirely organic scenes that arose in my D&D campaign. Let me add a couple more. One of my players insisted on looking through a bad guy’s desk I had just put there for decoration. He kept asking me what he found until I told him he found a list of people they were looking for. Then he kept pushing. “What else do I find?” I told him he found some tawdry love letters to an “Esmerelda.” Then when the bad guy showed up, he read the love letters aloud to infuriate him.

Another player tried to seduce the bartender Ilyna with song. The tavern got excited at such a beautiful voice singing for them and started making requests, which he was happy to fulfill. They had such a good time that Ilyna invited him to stay at the inn as long as he liked and enjoy the food and lodgings free of charge, and he said “no.” He was a wandering man. Ilyna said she understood. The world needed saving. She just had to ask on behalf of her customers.

Another time, I was putting a bunch of vultures on a clocktower just to make it creepy and draw attention, and a player said “someone’s been hanged.” I liked the idea and I decided a NPC priest of the D&D god Pelor they’d met before who had been trying to stoke the peasants into a fury against the queen had overplayed his hand and gotten lynched. The rest of his little gang got run out of town at the same time. It turned out to be an exciting way to tie up loose ends and raise the stakes at the same time. The players, some of whom had a personal connection to this NPC, cut him down and had a burial service. I even got to resolve a little subplot another player had created around himself where he wasn’t sure what version of Pelor he was supposed to be following, the kind, loving Pelor, or the angry, intolerant Pelor these NPCs represented. He’d fought with Pelor so much that for a few campaigns I told him he felt his connection to his god weakened. After laying his former comrade to rest and praying for the rest of the day, Tom the Monk finally understood in his heart he’d been on the right path all along and could feel the light of Pelor shining through him once more.

So, what to learn from this? I should spend less time planning D&D modules ahead of time, and just run with the ad-lib, I think. People really don’t mind when it’s simple or there are plot holes. They love getting the opportunity to do something nobody else has thought of, and uncovering something surprising. What’s especially important, and I think I’ve done well with this, is that I must never lose track of the point of a D&D game. It’s not about telling a heart-wrenching story,  making a perfectly coherent world, or perfectly balancing the monsters and the players in combat. It’s about the all the players having a good time. As a DM, that’s what makes me have a good time.


Asymmetric Information in D&D

The key element of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the party. Seldom does a dungeon master run an entire campaign for just one person. A cooperative group of players is central to the game since its founding, and is so entrenched that when a player doesn’t want to cooperate, things can go very badly even outside the game itself.

But that can make for a dull story. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had no Boromir, a friend turned foe by the evil power of the One Ring only to be later redeemed. NPCs can serve this purpose handily, but it’s harder to get player characters to change alliances and fight with one another.

One issue is well-defined moral dichotomy, which to some extent I have already discussed. Another part of the matter is that information is necessarily shared between all players. If the dungeon master tells a player what his or her character is seeing, all players hear. When crowded around a small game table, inconspicuously getting around this may be easier said than done.

It’s not impossible, though. If you pass a note to a player, other players will see that you’ve passed a note, but not the contents. If you write a text message, they will hear the ‘ping,’ but won’t know what has been communicated. These are only good for simple messages, as few players are willing to wait while their DM types out a page of details on his or her phone.

For more in-depth privileged communication, I recommend what I refer to as a “Special Session.” A special session is a session of a campaign devoted entirely to one member of a party. Generally this can happen while the other party members are asleep or after another excuse to split one player off. I have run special sessions in person and on Google Docs, exchanging DM descriptions and player actions in text rather than through speech. In the latter case it can even take place over a number of days, although it must end before the regular party comes together again, or the story might not be able to accommodate the separated player participating with the rest of the group.

I have tried a few of these methods with exciting results. For one example, I have a druid in my party who can understand spider talk, so I send him texts of everything the spiders around his druid are saying. Colleen elected to tell none of her friends what her arachnid friends were telling her, much to the rest of the party’s chagrin. Another character had a midnight meeting with an NPC who begged permission to kill another NPC party member, a zombie, whose very existence she felt was against her God Pelor. This led to a dramatic, improvised sequence in which the party debated whether to kill the ostensibly friendly zombie, and eventually Tom the Monk succeeded in converting the zombie to himself be a follower of Pelor. This substantially changed the plot going forward onto a track that I had not previously considered. A third pious character received a message from his god during prayer (an email from me) and spoke in elaborate fantasy detail of his experience of the message to the other party members. Other private communications are still playing out. Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t go into detail.

To be fair, I should note that some dungeon masters would prefer to avoid rather than encourage party infighting. for some groups it will ruin the evening. In my case so far people are enjoying the special attention that they receive as part of getting privileged knowledge. I am enjoying seeing what they do with it. I cannot recommend strongly enough to any DMs looking to add more spice to a D&D game that they should try and add some information asymmetry. It’s well worth the effort.

Playing fast and loose with D&D

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