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.
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.