That Almost Sucked

In retrospect, it should not surprise me that my procrastinatory tendencies extent to my DM planning sessions. Last week was a lovely off-week board gaming session with some Give Me The Brain (the original $2 “on pink card stock” version)Β and Cranium. The latter had been sitting unopened in our closet since Sarah and I got married in 2004. The purple Cranium clay was growing… something on it, so we drew pictures for the “sculpture” cards too. And somehow, a new week snuck up on me and I find myself with only a couple days to plan the party’s next adventures.

I’ve been mulling over in my head how I want the story to go first, because I want the story to drive the encounters I create. I’m sure there will come a day when I make up an excuse to use some cool monster I saw in a book in my campaign, but right now everything is supposed to Make Sense and be For A Reason. I’m certain this is going to come back to haunt me, but I haven’t put my finger on how or why yet. It may simply be that a little organized chaos spices things up. Some of the best battles we ever had were when my old DM would decide to wing it and roll on a random encounter table. I’m reasonably sure a lot of the things we fought over the years weren’t integral to the main story in some way. I think I’d like to provide a little foreshadowing for these encounters via side quests, just so the experience and setting feels cohesive. Then again, a random Owlbear ambush never hurt anybody.

A Brush With The Dark Side

This story-driven approach found me in a place I never thought I’d go. I was developing the character for this new major bad guy NPC, and he’s so full of Proper Villainy that his armor barely fits. I had mapped out what drives him and what he would do, and this led me to start thinking about how he might interact with the leader of the army the PCs had joined and I started coming up with all these story concepts and it was making me all giddy — but I was having a real problem coming up with how I was going to tie this in with the PCs. Technically, what I had in mind eventually made sense. However, there was a 15-step process that happened behind the scenes before the players even got remotely involved. It was at that point I realized the horrible truth: I was planning an adventure in which the PCs were not the main focus.Β I suppressed my urge to self-flagellate (in the interest of time, of course), and scrapped the idea in favor of something my players might give a crap about.

I don’t think the problem was that the story was bad. I think something marginally worth reading could have come out of this, had I taken the time to develop and write it. I think it just wasn’t right for D&D. I had similar problems as a player when coming up with character concepts. A few years back, I played a necromancer with a heart of gold. His name was Lionel Pureheart, and he wanted to use the black arts for the good of mankind. He’d let you speak with dead relatives, raise skeletons to help plow the fields, and reunite families with a beloved dead pet (at least, whatever parts were still available.) I still think he’s a funny idea, and I’m probably going to write some fiction about him at some point. In practice, he was unbelievably frustrating to play for various reasons. My DM found it appropriate to make the local populace flee in terror and/or attempt to lynch him whenever he would offer his services of Gentle Necromancy. This made sense, but it pointed to other “you need to work with your DM before you come up with this kind of thing” issues. That, and 3.5e wizards specializing in Necromancy don’t have much in the way of attack spells at low level. Or defense spells. They’re just sort of like goth punching bags. Lionel was a good idea. Just not for D&D, at least in that form.

It seems to me that a D&D adventure, when done well, is not a standard kind of story. Regular stories, once written, generally follow a timeline. They often don’t work right in D&D because the DM doesn’t have any idea what the players are going to do. They can kill somebody important to the plot. They can lose an important artifact. They can accidentally polymorph the royal family into weasels, throwing the country into civil war. They can all die, and nobody lives happily ever after. As DM, you can stop all of this from happening to preserve the story — but it’s always been my experience that you wind up with a bunch of grumpy players if they have no real impact on the world other than killing what you tell them to. Ever been in one of those campaigns where the world is incredibly detailed, the NPCs are the stars, the outcome of everything has been predetermined, and you would rather commit seppuku than play one more session of this? If I wanted that, I’d play World of Warcraft. Blizzard does, at least, make an effort to make the single-player experience seem like the PC’s actions have some effect on the world (especially with their new phasing tech that lets the world change only for that player when certain quests get completed.) However, the problem still exists. No player can ever be as big a badass as Thrall. Your PC never appears in any cutscenes. Some super-awesome NPC is doing all the cool stuff. That’s not the kind of D&D game I want to run.

Bullet Dodged, Another Bullet Please

This is all well and good, but now I have to figure out a better way to go. The first session with my new group was, admittedly, firmly on rails. I don’t know what I would have done if they decided to deviate from the plan, so I had a giant mixer-horde of cement zombies chase them back to camp. Effective, but ultimately lame — especially if used again. I have a decent idea of the major things I want to happen from using Dave The Game’s super-cool 5×5 method (the hype is real!). Thinking of things as an outline that you fill in as you go along makes the prospect of changing a future line-item to suit the game that is unfolding considerably less terrifying. At least, as compared to watching lots and lots of meticulous work unravelled by one PC inadvertently pulling the string that will bring it all down. I know it’s possible. I’ve been that player. I bear the scars of being repeatedly bludgeoned by a Dungeon Master’s Guide. (And, since I am using the Essentials paperback books, I do not know if I can produce “learning”-class impact force.)

At least I’m not quite as nervous as I was last time. Even when I dropped the ball, it sure seemed to me like we were having fun. I know I was. It’s good to know everything’s going to be OK even if you fail. Unless you’re a player, in which case you should have your DM come read this article. Damn, I’m good.



Photo Credit


  1. @Alive30 says:

    Great commentary.

    I try to balance incorporating the story and world I have created with turning the keys over to the PCs. My party seems to want to be directed as only one of them has invested any real effort in their charcter’s backstory. I would assess your group; if they are actively building their own stories, then let them drive the campaign here and there.

  2. Lionel was indeed an interesting idea… much in the same way as say having a good troll pc that likes to hand out flowers to the populace. NECROMANCY BAD MMMMKAY!? πŸ˜€

    The real trick is balancing your story and definite timeline with the ability of the players to screw your #$%@ up and still be able to pull it off convincingly. Once the players think the game is on rails, you might as well start over. So no magically resurrecting gold dragons… No all powerful NPC that pulls your fat out of the fire EVERY SINGLE TIME the players get in over their heads… and no retconning something that a PC does that drastically changes the face of the game like stabbing a teammate in the back with an insta-kill dagger and wishing himself to the enemy to join them and divulge all of the party’s secrets. Yes all of this has happened for those of you not having been in our game group.

    All you have to remember is that if they kill an NPC that’s integral to your campaign… You have the power to create another one and put him/her in their path just as easily. If you are agile enough to be able to do it on the fly and modify your campaign without it seeming like you are doing so, then you can be all Charlie Sheen with your winning. πŸ˜€

  3. I find most players want to “be in the story”. That’s the primary motivation for a lot of players, even more than “be the story”. It depends on personality type, of course. Power gamers often want to shine (though may take a backseat to story-rich portions) and shy players will often be passive.

    Still, great gaming is usually about great story. To that end, it is fine to drive the PCs toward the events at hand (put them on rails) or to have a session not be about them. What is important to avoid is a session where they are taking no actions. A session where they go around asking questions about an NPC is not particularly strong on its own. A session where they take all kinds of cool actions to help that NPC can be really good. The PCs aren’t the center of the universe, but they should be heroes and vital to their microcosm of the universe… which you paint for them.

    Sandbox can be great for freedom and fun, but it often causes story to take a hit. Think of it this way. You design four short possible wilderness encounters and the PCs go to one of them. Or, you spend more time on that one wilderness encounter and some time on making sure it feels like a natural choice. The later is usually a more fun experience by a solid amount.

  4. And, by the way, I am enjoying this series immensely!

  5. Shilling says:

    I’ve acted on stage, and so done a lot of improv workshops. I find a lot of similarities to tabletop games/

    In improv, most people’s instinct is to overplan – to pre-decide plot points or dialogue. This utterly kills the magic and makes the whole routine awkward. What is needed is situations – a freeze frame of a moment unfolding, with stuff going on. Characters can have agendas and motivations, but not lines.

    Then we (actors/players) join the scene and the situation becomes unpredictable but also ALIVE. You do need reference points – not plots but cues (for instance when I say or do ‘x’ then we have 2 minutes to wrap it up).

    So that’s my advice for D&D: write situations, not stories. Give NPC’s agendas, not plot arcs.

  6. Exactly! I rarely do more than prepare specific “events”, or what you call situations. I can use these events as side quests, humorous situations, or to drive the main plot. But I rarely, if ever, create a full blown scripted game. I like to wing it or improvise and USUALLY it’s those less than scripted ideas and spur of the moment situations that make for the best gaming.

  7. (I didn’t PLAN on stabbing StupidRanger in the back with the insta-kill dagger… it just HAPPENED!) πŸ˜€

  8. @Alive30 says:


    I understand your points, but I’d like to offer a counter.

    Most players are not trained improv artists (I realize you were not implying such), and are not playing the game to *create* the world. I think the vast majority of PCs are receptive to direction and expect the DM to build the world.

    I think it is the DM’s job to give the game structure; otherwise, why even bother having a DM at all? The players could just get together and riff off each other for a few hours.

    But I believe there can be a balance between forcing players along rails and keeping options open for a more “sandbox” style of gaming.

    For example, one night a few months back after the players leveled, one character was hell-bent on finding a mount for the party. He wanted to train the feat and have a beast to ride into battle. I hadn’t planned on this scenario at all – but instead of just saying “No,” I asked the group for a five-minute break. I created a couple of NPC’s (a pair of rival druids living in the wilderness) and two combat encounters (having MasterPlan helps this ALOT) that led the party to a pack of Dire Wolves. The rest of the night was focused on that and the party enjoyed it.

  9. When Heroes of Shadow is released, I think you might have to bring that Gentle Necromancer back. πŸ™‚

  10. Shilling, Alive30:

    I’m following both your points. I’m an actor too, with something of a specialty in improv. The skill comes in very, very handy when DMing, but not always the way I’d expect. Right now I’m running a campaign in which my goal is to stretch my skills for outlining and developing complex plots.

    Long-form improv is a technique that involves creating detailed relationships and plot through the process of improvisation within a framework or outline, all guided by a director. In my opinion, this is the best comparison I can come up with between improvisational acting and an RPG campaign. Most players expect (even if not consciously) a cinematic structure to the game. If you don’t have rising action to build the tension toward a strong climax and resolution, they’re going to be disappointed. Improv can connect the dots between these big structural elements, usually in the form of roleplay encounters and your responses to unexpected PC actions, but these elements work best when unified by a “director,” the DM.

    I’ve got five plot lines going all at once in my weekly campaign, each with its own central villain and new information being revealed constantly through PC actions. I could never improv something that complex, or that compelling. I do a lot of improv during the game, but it’s in the small things. Then, after the session, I examine the new elements I introduced through improv and figure out how they can be incorporated into the central story. This way every session feels pertinent because it brings the players closer to the goal of plot resolution.

    So I think you’re both right. Improv creates life, but we can’t devalue outlining and preparation. You just have to be willing to adapt your outline when the players go against the grain. The key, in my opinion, is to provide ample PC motivation to follow your adventure hooks. If it’s the logical thing for the characters to do, then they’ll do it.

  11. Shilling says:

    ALive30, DarkplaneDm

    Maybe I should expand on what I said. While there are DM’s who prepare very littel and create much of the edventure on the fly, I love writing campaign worlds. In my ideal method, the campaign world and most of its elements are written out. even some possible encounters. I don’t expect the players to contribute anything to the creation of the setting (unless they want to – and I might encourage them in a sneaky way, eg come up with some rumours that their PC has heard).

    This should be the world in the present moment though – in motion, but with an unknown future. It’s a billiards table a few shots in – the rules are known, as are the boundries of the table; the balls are all there, some likely shots are obvious… but it is completely impossible to predict the shape of the game more than three shots into the future.

    The PCs are the chaotic factor of course. if they do nothing then NPCs will move along their various agendas. But once the PCs get involved, trajectories are changed. I agree that good plot hooks are needed to make them get involved as much as possible.

    And I agree about drama and pacing – these are the sorts of things which need cues, which I mentioned in my first comment. Cues can be based on anything – time, location, goals achieved by PC’s or NPC’s, or even just when it feels right. Such moments are a kind of ‘trick shot’ – you know what you are aiming for but the exact outcome relies on the unplannable positions of all the playing pieces.

    This is my personal ideal campaign of course; roughly half-way between railroad and sandbox.

  12. There’s a good balance between putting a game on rails, and forcing the entire game to run that way. The campaign I’m running now (d20 Future/Apocalypse) started with a pretty straightforward intro mission that the group had been hired for, and then they landed, and started looking for some other work. I’d run up some random “sample” quests that they could take if they wanted (and if they didn’t, there were always other people around who would be looking to hire them). It took awhile for the good formula to begin to take hold though, because I’d basically given them the keys to the world (as you put it) and said “Hey, what do you want to do now?”

    Today, on the other hand, all of the prepwork is done. The group has a working space ship, they’ve got a ton of work that tends to come their way, but even on their main job, I still have other things come to distract them. Let me illustrate how this works:

    1. I come up with a mission goal – find something to replace X object which is breaking down, and you’ll be paid Y amount. This is enough to entice them to go look around, and after they’ve accepted the mission, I ask them that damnable question: “Where are you heading now?”

    2. Players start looking at their options. Who do they know, what do they know, and where do they have to go to get more information? Without even so much as nudging the players, they usually tend to grab onto some things I’d considered (and some I hadn’t!), and tell me where they want to begin.

    3. Players find a person they know, who may or may not know something. If they don’t like the answer (or want a second/third/sixteenbajillionth opinion), they’ll start looking at some of their other options.

    4. During the mission, I’ll seed some optional quest lines, some which are of minor importance, others which may tie into previous encounters, and some which may come up again later on as needed.

    5. Optional: Interrupt the mission now and again with a smaller emergency – for example, a family member’s ransom. I’ll detail that below.

    6. Once the players have completed all objectives and achieved victory, ask if they have anything they’d like to look into. Regardless, return to the start and go from there.

    It begins with a minor ‘on rails’ prompt, but quickly lets the players take the reins. It’s important, particularly for ‘distraction missions’ to have some sort of importance to the players. I tend to not map out a huge long complex story arc for the PCs to follow. Not within a single mission, at any rate. Long involved objectives with too many objectives can cause the group to feel lost, and that is a very bad thing.

    Let me give an example of this in action:

    PCs are hired to find a replacement generator for a community. It is very large, and very uncommon, but also absolutely essential to their way of life. Repairs are no longer an option – it is too old and too damaged, so a full replacement is required.

    Next, the PCs look at their options: Who do they know who has information on these kinds of things? They hunt around, ask everyone they can, and are given several different options. After weighing all options, the group reaches a consensus, and moves to explore a particular area, to gauge the danger level.

    Once there, the players enter the next phase, where they are actively hunting for the object. They may find it, or find part of it, but in the meantime, they may be subjected to other elements in the area: monsters on the loose, local factions warring with one another, local weather, so on. In the immediate time, they need to deal with these things, complete their mission (or try another location after deciding it is too unsafe), and then returning to the ship. Depending on where they went and how easy it was to find everything, it may be that the group could be forced to continue hunting to get the last remaining bits.

    After everything is gathered, the group is more than welcome to turn in their ‘quest’ for rewards. But all of their interactions during the mission will have an impact on things later – did they meet any groups? Uncover any interesting information? These sorts of seeds can make it easier for the players to undertake tasks without GM prompting – because those seeds are written with the same basic formula above.

    Great example: Recently, I had a younger sibling of a PC kidnapped. The immediate response was to get all the information on the kidnapping, and all I had to do was sit back and watch as the PCs banded together to exact some righteous indignation upon the evildoers. They went to the meeting place, almost murdered everyone there, stole their truck, and drove it straight into their base and went about wrecking everything until they found their goal.

    Then they met with the leader of that particular cell, who wasn’t very interested in them, excepting for one PC, but it was agreed to let one another go because neither side was up for a fight.

    This has caused a number of awesome things as a result. I know as soon as the main mission is over, the party is going on a massive hunt, and that will be very fun for me to see unfold.

    TL;DR: Start the game on rails, but plan for the PCs to deviate, and make sure that they *can* deviate at any stage of the game. Encourage it, even. Nothing is greater than watching the PCs take the initiative to shape the world around them. Because that may be when the PCs decide to start building towns, overthrowing dictators, or purging the lands free of monsters – stuff that they actually have a vested interest in, and stuff that can really make a story shine.


  1. […] past week’s D&D session was something of an experiment for me. As I mentioned last week, I procrastinated a bit too much. By that, I mean that by about 2 hours to game time, I had managed […]