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) 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. 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.