My wife came home sick from work on Wednesday with what turned out to be strep. As this was not our first Strep Rodeo, I took my CPAP machine and made my bed upon the couch, where I slept until last night. I’m not exactly sure what about this situation prompted me to decide to catch up on six seasons worth of Doctor Who, but it made sense at the time. Basically every moment that I’ve been awake that my son has not has been filled completely to the brim with Daleks. I would watch the show with my 4 year old son, except I’ve got this thing where I don’t want my kid to freak out and run away from robots. Although, depending on how the future turns out, that might actually be a good thing to do. I’ll ponder this.
It’s a DM Screen. DM Screens Are Cool.
In the meantime, watching 35 episodes of the good Doctor’s adventures in a 5 day span got me thinking a bit about my D&D campaign. One of the things I love about Doctor Who is that, most of the time, you can drop in and watch a complete story about something different every time. It’s usually about the Doctor and the companion he’s with running around trying to stop X from happening caused by Y monster makeup effect of the week, followed by a lot of glaring at each other and then the Doctor wielding the most brazen and wonderful deus ex machina the universe has ever seen to resolve the plot. Plus a lot of the time there are robots of some kind, and I am totally on board with that.
What does this have to do with my D&D campaign? One of the few tiny silver linings of this entire ordeal is that I was set to run an absolutely uninspired session last Thursday night. I had no idea what to do with the story. None whatsoever. My campaign is set up in a somewhat Whovian way that lets me do something different every time. The PCs’ main goal is to retrieve a bunch of magic items, the powers of which are unknown, usually one per session as the subject of a given night’s adventure. On one hand, it allows me a great deal of creative freedom, and I can give a new fresh experience for my players every session. On the other, the expectation of new and different every session can cause me to lock up trying to think of ideas instead of being able to easily build upon previous sessions (which is, among other things, what happened last week).
Though my campaign is organized to be episodic, I do have a larger story threaded through everything. I’ve been finding it difficult trying to figure out how to bring it back into the forefront, especially since with Gen Con, people in our group taking vacations, and streptococcus causing us not to play D&D in sufficiently many weeks that I’m not sure how long it’s been. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happened anymore, much less keep everyone engaged.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Daleks
I’m glad to report that running the 5 day Gallifreyan Marathon has given me some solace about my campaign. Earlier this year, I was visiting my brother. Being of the same nerdly stock, we spent the evening watching a crapton of TV. It is his fault that I wanted to catch up on Doctor Who. I distinctly remember telling him I didn’t care what episodes we watched, because you can jump in anywhere. So it was that I came to see the Season 5 finale with the Pandorica, not having any idea what had happened the entire season previous to it. I’d heard later that Steven Moffatt had written the last two seasons of the show with an overarching plot, and that I shouldn’t miss any of it. As it was, I was moderately confused but my ability to just roll with is because it’s Doctor Who made everything enjoyable. Watching that season this week is making that episode make more sense to me, but it’s not the earthquaking revelation I expected it to be. It’s more that it’s just cooler, but it was still plenty cool before.
My players know what to expect from me as a DM. They expect wild creativity. They expect me not to fuss with the details too much. They expect me to be utterly incapable of naming an off the cuff NPC anything that doesn’t end in “eeberbeeb”. They expect me to handwave furiously in the name of fun and making the story cooler. They even expect there to be a hole in the plot now and then. And most of the time, it works out pretty well.
Sometimes it frustrates me when I see a writer bend the rules to fit the narrative a little bit. I’m starting to think that’s not such a bad thing if you let everybody in on it beforehand. Everything about the Doctor ever since Matt Smith showed up in Season 5 screams “yup, it’s weird — just roll with it”. The TARDIS is full of weird gadgets that are made up of everyday household items glued together and when anyone questions anything it’s usually met with an answer like “yes, yes it is now just PUSH THAT BORING BLUE ONE”. The Serious Knob is being openly and deliberately set about 3 notches lower, and yet the characters are always beset by horrifying creatures and deadly traps and things that don’t even make any sense every single episode. And nobody cares and everybody loves it. Including me, which surprises me because plot holes usually annoy me.
Here, it’s OK. My expectations have been set. Things might not make sense, some dumb things might happen, but I know I will have enjoyed myself when I’m done. It’s this I need to capture.
It’s odd. When I wasn’t yet old enough to drink or vote, it was easy to have enough time to play D&D whenever I wanted and all we wanted to do was chop monsters up. Now that I’m older and that my wildest dreams for a campaign involve having a deep and complex story that entangles the hearts and minds of my players, we play every five weeks. This is a situation in which I think it’s important to make the best of what you have, and if you can sneak some of what you really want in, then that’s cool too. In this case, running a fun and memorable adventure each time with the occasional tie to a bigger story I can end on a bang with at the campaign’s climax might be the way to go.
Honestly, if I could just figure out how to exude the mad confidence the Doctor does as he’s about to fix everything with his deus ex machina, that’d probably go a long way. It might help if I had 900 years of experience and a sonic screwdriver with me, but I’m omnipotent behind the screen. That’s got to count for something, right?