Funny Pants of Omnipotence: The Metaphor Overstays Its Welcome

After last week’s little episode regarding how I can never go back to life before the day I sat behind the DM screen, I spent the better part of last week stocking up on information about how to do this better. I got a lot of seriously excellent advice from a lot of folks, and I buried myself in Sly Flourish’s DM Tips book. This all confirmed what I originally thought – I wasn’t making the PCs the center of the adventure. Now I have a few ideas how to go about that. Phil, the chattiest of DMs, recommended to me that I set events in motion (rather than the plot) and add hooks for the players to act upon. They’ll write the story, not me. Weeeeird. It makes the little control freak monkey pulling the levers in my brain very unhappy. If I have to hose out the inside of my head, there’ll be Hell to pay, simian.

Now I’m looking at where my campaign has been and where I think I should nudge it. I almost typed “where I think it should go”, but that was an old habit stubbornly refusing to die.

A Dungeon Master, flight testing his campaign.

The Need To Be Needlessly Complicated

My first thoughts upon deciding to run a campaign were about doing this crazy temporal jumping thing where the party sees their epic level future selves doing something Not Nice and has to figure out why this is happening and whether to stop it. I decided I would go insane trying to make that work in a story I was writing by myself, much less with a D&D group. But I keep feeling like the stories I come up with are perhaps a little too big for my DM britches at this point. At the very least, I’m wondering if they’re too big for the PCs’ collective britches.

When I think about this, I am reminded of the 3 tiers of character levels. Heroic characters save villages from kobolds. Paragon characters battle dragons and wizards for the fate of a nation. Epic characters stick their mighty thumbs up the diabolical butt of Orcus a la the Crocodile Hunter just to see what happens. And yet here I am throwing an entire army of cement zombies and powerful magics nobody has ever heard of at a party of level 1 characters. It makes sense that I’m having to resort to frustrating and arbitrary resolutions to encounters. They would die otherwise.

Does this mean I can’t set a huge and epic stage for low level characters to grow into? I’m guessing not, but figuring out how to do it in a way that works is proving somewhat elusive. I’m finding myself having trouble figuring out why the leadership of the Bad Team knows or cares who these guys are who were epic farmers and stable boys until sometime last year. It’s hard to resort to one of those “you’re the chosen one” plot scenarios when there are six of them with differing backgrounds. I could go all Curse of the Azure Bonds on them, but it’s a little late in the game for that.

I have a feeling it’s going to be a matter of making events with a long enough timetable that the PCs can grow and gain power and eventually get to be enough of a thorn in the Bad Team’s side that Evil Plans start including their eradication. I don’t think my plot is so far gone that this can’t happen anymore, but I’m at a loss as to how to set things right without jarring the players any further. I’m reasonably sure at this point that my players trust nothing going on around them due to my (incredibly successful) attempts at misdirection. I’m fighting that instinct I get when my computer is running all weird and I eventually say “f#*$ it, time to format the hard drive”. My hands smell enough like ham as it is.

Am I In The Wrong Room?

This whole business of running a campaign and entertaining 6 people for hours on end has me gazing at yet another facet of my navel – the northwest corner, also known as “the funny part”. I’ve used my sense of humor to my advantage my whole life. First, as a defense mechanism in school, and now when it enables me to talk about things on the Internet in a way that is not necessarily factually accurate. I’ve played every D&D character of my adult life in a weird and amusing way, and I think everybody thought I was going to run a humorous campaign as well. Even me.

I haven’t quite figured out why I decided to go all serious on my players, but I have a few guesses. One, I have yet to play a “funny” D&D game that didn’t get annoying fast. Every weird thing I ever did in D&D was against a serious backdrop, and it was in character for the most part. Is it that I prefer the DM to be the “straight man” in this comedic adventure? My players are up to the task of dropping the funny, and we’ve already had some “need to take a break for oxygen” moments.

I do have to wonder, though, if me taking this story seriously is an effort to be taken seriously for once. It used to drive me batty in our old campaigns when I would stop being strange for a moment and try to take a leadership position. I didn’t get to parlay much. I take that back. I would frequently try to do the talking. I didn’t get to parlay for very long before someone got worried I was going to get us all killed, soon pushing me aside. It is a skill I wish I’d developed more now that I’m running a campaign in which I have to have a lot of NPCs speak with a serious tone. One of my players, roleplaying in fine form, managed to intimidate both an NPC and me simultaneously and I had to stop the group to tell them not to take this fellow’s stunned silence as him trying to hide something. I simply didn’t know the answer to the question and my brain locked up because Katherine is speaking to me with pointy words OMG.

I do want to try a few more lighthearted things sooner or later. I just want them to fit. I can see myself coming up with an amusing scenario involving one of the PCs backstories a lot sooner than I could, say, send them after the Fart Queen of the Poop Ogres. That’s trademarked, by the way.

The Road Ahead: Sufferin’

If there’s one common thread I’ve noticed about my reaction to everything I’ve been considering for inclusion in my campaign, it’s that crippling self-doubt makes me want to scrap it all. I’m sure my former DMs are feasting on a neverending supply of delicious irony that I am taking writing a campaign far too seriously. Perhaps it’s time to throw caution to the wind and do what I do best.

Attention to all my players: SPOILER ALERT! This story is, and always has been about succotash.

Now there’s a mystery.


Photo Credit


  1. Another great article as always.

    Don’t sweat the plot too much, eventually the PCs will generate it for you — or at least let you know where its going. One idea, albeit cliche, for why the PCs are being targetted is the old standby of the prophecy. Prophecies are great in that you can always fall back to “the future is never written in stone” for when things fall apart. However, a prophecy along the lines of “The Six will rise up to challenge the Cement Lord or the world shall perish” is sufficient to give the Bad Team a reason to target the PCs. You can later flesh out exactly how they are able to tell that these are the Six.

    As for funny, I think it can be very difficult to integrate into a campaign from the DM side of things. The biggest problem being that what’s funny to some is not necessarily funny to others. I think your idea of trying to provide some amusing tidbits related to a character’s background is a good one as opposed to the Fart Queen. Certainly there are groups that would get a kick out of the Fart Queen, but many more would just roll their eyes. Another good standby for amusement are goblins and kobolds. In my last 3.x campaign I had a small group of kobolds attempt to extort the level 8 party into paying a toll, and then charging more to answer 5 (“1, 2, 5.” “Three Sir” “3!”) questions. The party was good-aligned enough that they were just rolling on the ground laughing. “How many questions is that?” “I don’t know, but I don’t think they know either”

    In my current campaign, a recurring NPC is a goblin who had the misfortune of being the last survivor of his tribe after the tribe encountered the party in the first adventure. The paladin wasn’t happy with the idea of executing the goblin but they needed to rest up. The party ended up stuffing the goblin into a chest for the night so he wouldn’t run off (a few holes for breathing included). The goblin was released, given 10 gp and told to lead a better life. Since then he has definitely turned things around, running a successful general goods store and proudly calling himself Chesty. He always brings a few laughs when he appears.

  2. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the funny, it’s that funny is best when it’s organic and not when it’s planned. A funny moment when roleplaying with a goblin in a dungeon is one thing; an entire adventure based on farce is something else entirely. It can work, but I’m guessing it’s much harder than simply writing a “straight” adventure and letting funny moments spawn on their own. Players have a hard time staying on track when the plot of an adventure is just plain asinine and since good comedy is almost 100% about timing, it doesn’t come off as planned, derailing your carefully laid comedic twists and puns.

    As to your other point, I do too feel the frustration of not being able to reveal my Horrible Worldbreaking Villanous Plot all at once. You have to wade through the kobolds and the orcs and the gnolls before you can really start to see that story gain traction. With some good foreshadowing and clues picked up early on that become more relevant later, however, you can hint at your idea and let the players wonder and build suspence. I’m definitely a fan of using that time in the beginning while I’m hinting at things to help the PCs develop their characters through subplots and stories that tie to my overarching plot so that by the time they’re really embroiled in my long-awaited machinations, it is far more meaningful to the players.

  3. I don’t know if this is your style, but as an approach to the concept of “setting events in motion,” as Chatty suggested, I’ve been using a modified version of Dave Chalker’s 5×5 event track. My campaign is pretty large-scale and takes place across several small nations, so I began with one strong plot hook that they could chew on from the get-go. On their way to accomplish that objective, they ran across another three or four plots hooks, each of which were related at least indirectly, unbenownst to the players. As the number of concurrent plot arcs rose, I decided to make a system for keeping track of it all. I made a list of about 10-15 events for each plot arc, increasing in urgency. Each event list counted down to an awful and cataclysmic end.

    Once I had the list of how outside events were to progress, I could simply roll each time the party took an extended rest to determine which villain or other plot arc would advance. Sometimes the events would take place in the location of the PCs, but often they would occur elsewhere. It was easy enough to come up with random roleplay encounters with people who could inform them of the news as the party traveled across the frontier.

    This helped me get into the mindset of setting world events in motion, and allowing the PCs to choose how they would interact with the events. Most of the time, they were forced to make choices between simultaneous crises, and to prioritize their goals. I supplemented this with biweekly written updates on the dramatic questions of the campaign (usually one list of unresolved questions for each plot arc). The beauty of this system was that as long as the original plot hooks were engaging and played on the PCs’ personal motivations, I had carved out months of play with simple outlining that didn’t railroad the players.

  4. I’m not a huge fan of just letting PCs drive. This is primarily because it can become aimless, but also because the players want to experience a story, not write one. Sure, they want to shine and sure, they want to have their actions matter, but no, they are not likely to create a really good campaign by playing. The campaign does need structure. It needs villains, schemes, developments, places, events, and surprises. What the players do is shape that. You might think this one guy is a great villain, but your PCs laugh at that one and fear another. You might present an NPC the PCs will find endearing… but they choose another one. You present one hook but they prefer another. As campaign sessions go, you adapt and modify, honoring their will. You also feed off of their backstory and the actions they take. The result is a dynamic campaign but on a solid backbone.

    As for self-doubt, we all have it. Anyone that doesn’t is faking it or should have it. The key is to focus that self-doubt into a positive energy. Fine-tune being your own critic so it is helpful, not detrimental. Let it help you examine changes but still understand that your players are having a good time and they have actually come to you for this.

  5. Vanir, this series of posts is near and dear to me as I find myself in the same proverbial boat. We just finished our first session of a new campaign and it’s my first time DM’ing in 5+ years. The feedback was solid but, as they say, we are our own worst critics. The session was uber-long so some of these very challenges you listed came up.

    In regards to the comedy, it’s evident in your writing that you’re not lacking in this department. Your posts consistently have me rolling. As some of the other comments mentioned, it will probably serve you better if you implement it on an impromptu basis. The extent of the planning may be, “Well, this NPC can be funny” and then just roll with the PC interaction. This came up in our group when the local innkeeper kept trying to sell his undead-attracting property to the Fighter. He would intermittently drop his price in the midst of an exposition-heavy conversation with another NPC. Building a whole event around comedy, however, will probably result in hitting that wall where things become forced vs. organically comical.

    I’m trying to live and die by the 5 x 5 method. So far, it looks like my PC’s are only chomping at one bit out of 20 for which I’ve accounted. Looks like I’ll have to emphasize a few more folks with yellow question marks floating above their heads. My concern is doing this without railroading the PC’s into them. One method I’ve always used is the cut-scene. I’m sure other DM’s either love or hate this but it’s fun to show PC’s what’s going on elsewhere in their world as well as give a sneak peek of NPC’s they may or may not meet. The risk is metagaming but I’m relying on my group’s ability to separate/lack of short term memory due to alcohol consumption.

    Getting my head around the “combat is a means to an end” idea in regards to story is going to be tough for me too. Players looooooooove rolling the dice and making it count – it’s the raw game aspect of an otherwise arbitrary setting. Especially my group. But I’m betting if surveyed, they’d say having a cool experience and an engrossing story trumps whatever fudging takes place. If I do my job right, they’ll hopefully forget the rolls once the outcome is reached and their actions advanced things. My goal with the next session is to put the combat descriptions firmly in their hands. I find myself telling THEM what happens after we determine hit/damage success. I know it needs to be the other way around or else they’ll never flex their role-playing chops.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. TildeSee says:

    This is a big thing I struggled with for quite some time, and have been watching others struggle with lately a lot too. I remember a good friend told me about the three types of folk who GM, that really helped me put things into perspective for myself:

    1. The guy who enjoys having power over his friends. He’s likely to provide a challenge for PCs, but largely for challenge’s sake, and possibly is a bit of a douche.

    2. The guy who is extremely imaginative and completely enthusiastic about presenting his creations to his group. He’s likely to become upset when the PCs make everything go pear shaped.

    3. The guy who is press-ganged into GMing because nobody else will and he really, really just wants a game going. He’s most likely to suffer some serious burnout and go through baaad rough patches.

    Of course in a perfect world the best GM would have qualities of all three of these: the ability to impartially challenge, enthusiasm in presentation, and dedication for the sake of the game. The third type likely has it easiest, because he doesn’t have to relinquish power or creative authority, he just has to learn it, likely from those around him. You sound a lot like a middle-ground case of number 2, with a dash of number 3. That’s how I was, and I wish you luck on your journey 😀