Running a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

Todd Kenreck: One of the great things about D&D is that you can find inspiration from dungeon masters all over the world. That's why I talked to Mike Mearls because he not only helps create D&D, he's also a dungeon master himself and he often runs games for people at Wizards of the Coast. So he has to not only create a campaign that is engaging, but interesting and unexpected to people who are very seasoned veterans.

Mike Mearls: One of the things I like to do is I don't think of my campaigns as levels 1 to 20. It think more level 1 to 5. Then we see where we get because that's another thing about having the sort of dynamic element. I don't get too locked in ahead of time. So for me, what gets me excited a campaign that I'm building is thinking of the world itself and how it might change and the interesting places that I get to present. I like the idea of the world coming to life and then really feeling like it's ours, rather than just mine, like thinking of how the world's changing, what that means. I always like that and that's why I always like to have campaign stakes that are pretty high because then I think that forces some interesting changes and real drastic swings within the campaign setting. I am by no means a great dungeon master or perfect or an expert. You just watch my streams to see where I can get better.

But I think if I was to give people a piece of advice based on my experiences, my style, is this idea of lean into this flexibility. Don't fall in love with your plans. Make your game react to the player rather than forcing your players to react to your game. There is something that I see all the time in tabletop roleplaying games, whether it's home games or development, like someone's making an adventure. Everyone wants to have that M. Night Shyamalan moment of, "Surprise. Things weren't what you thought they were." To me, that's a great approach for a passive medium, like a book, like a movie, like a TV show. I hate that for a roleplaying game because that surprise moment assumes that I as an audience am passive and you had been building an expectation in my mind by showing me stuff. Then you undermine it. In a roleplaying game, it's not the surprise, it's the discovery. It's the, "Aha. I figured it out." That's the equivalent moment.

"You showed me this. You showed me that and you showed me ... Oh wait. I tied these together and figured out that the baron is actually the person who's behind this plot, not the orc chieftain that he's trying to get us to go after and kill because he's angling to whatever, to take over the thing. He's secretly a cultist." Whatever. The aha moment isn't the dungeon master or the director or the writer pulling back the curtain and saying, "Here's what was here all along." It's the players going up and tearing down the curtain and going, "Aha, I knew it. I knew there was something rotten here. I figured it out." So that's what I would say is your players drive the story rather than the story driving the players. A lot of it comes down to trying to create things that are not just the obvious route, but also because, especially when I run the game in the office, we only have an hour to play. So I like to keep it pretty straightforward. Sometimes, it can just be a very simple thing.

For instance, I ran a dungeon last week where the players are in this little complex and it's stone floor, stone wall, but the roof is bare earth and the players eventually find out there are undead that are buried above them. So when you go into certain areas, they dig themselves free and drop down to attack. Really simple thing. But it wasn't necessarily something the players had seen before. So I think with experienced players, that's what you want to do. You want to surprise them or give them something new to puzzle over. So that's adventures. I was just trying to think, "What's the things you haven't seen before that's gonna be part of the adventure?" Just keep it simple, right? For campaigns, what I try to do is think of it in terms of who are the movers and shakers of this campaign and what do they want and how does that intersect with the players?

So you might run a campaign where you think, "Okay, there's this evil fey lord who wants to destroy this human city because once that city's swept away, the influence of humans in this region will be gone." He's free now to bring it under his control. But he can't raise an army. The fey necessarily aren't going to follow him. Fey aren't very well organized, so he needs to find some other way to wipe the city out. He can't just invade it. So that becomes the campaign, becomes can this character, this fey lord, unlock the power of this [inaudible 00:04:36] and elemental storm that's brewing off the coast. It's almost like a scar that's still there from when the world was first created, a slight imperfection that he, if he can put magic into it, can tear it open and unleash this massive vortex, some huge storm that will just undoubtedly wipe out the city and tear apart the coastline before its energy dissipates. So that's what he wants to do. Okay, the players, now what do they want? Well, they live in this city. It's their home. They want tot protect it.

They want to stop him. So that's a very simple thing. Really fun campaigns are ones where the players do more collaborate with you and say, "Here's what we want to do. We want to establish a new kingdom in this land." Great. Now I have the players driving that story. That's not always possible though. So to me, it gonna be kind of a mix of the two. The one nice thing that I have found with an NPC approach is, and that's an actual campaign I'm running, is the players very quickly, if I'm doing it right, hate that NPC. They hate that fey lord. They want to kill him. So it does become their story. If I'm doing my job and the campaigns compelling, then the players will buy into it and then on their own now. I did a thing a couple months in the campaign. I emailed everyone out and said, "Okay, everyone, email me, just me. Don't send it to the group. I don't want everyone kind of cross contaminating their opinions. What are three things you want your character to do in the campaign, from here until the end?"

Everyone listed, if not the first thing, at least somewhere in those three, kill this guy. So I'm like, "Okay, yes. It's working. Good." Classic thing is the villain shows up and takes away something the party wants and then mocks them. Always have the villain mock the party if has a chance because nothing makes players angrier than knowing that, "Okay, we hate this guy and he just did something we didn't want him to do and there's nothing we can do about it." I had a moment in one of my campaigns where, with that fey villain, where he was on site, on this ship, on the seashore to pick up this item that's someone he wanted. The players get into the campaign because they kind of come across this exchange. The sort of first step in his diabolic plot was, "I need this item. Once I have this item, then I can figure out what I'm gonna do next." So they're there. He has already gotten the item and then come onto the scene. So they know this trade has happened.

We know what the item is, but we don't have it because he's on this ship off shore. But he decides, "Well, I don't want to tangle with these guys. I need to get out of here. But before I leave, I'm gonna conjure a bunch of monsters and send them from the water to attack the players." Just something as simple as that, the players wanted this guy dead now, like, "What a jerk. He kind of mocked us then sailed off and left these monsters behind." He summoned a few chools from out of the water to go after the characters and that was just enough, at least in that case, it was enough for my players to totally swear bloody vengeance against this guy. Then from there, they kept, whenever they wanted something, he seemed to always be there to, or his minions were there. That's another thing too is connect the dots. The players don't like, "Oh, these goblins showed up and did this."

"Oh no, these goblins showed up and they are clearly sworn to service to this guy and they'd only be here because he told them to come here and ordered them. So, okay, yeah, it's personal." Make it personal. I really think of the villain as a character. Then rather than have an outline of like, "This happens, then this happens, then this happens," I think to myself the players didn't do anything. What would this character do? How would things progress? I kind of have a list. Then I let the players, because to me, the fun campaign is one where it changes and responds to the players. The players start meddling with that plan, which then means between sessions, I have to stop and think, "Well, now what's this person gonna do because this plan has been upset?" Or the players didn't. The players screwed up and didn't stop it. So now I know what's gonna happen next. But if they did screw it up, then I have to look at this plan and think of the goal and think, "Okay, now what are other ways that this could come to pass?"

So it makes it a little more dynamic, which is fun.





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