Worst. Session. Ever (Part 3)


Don’t let the appearance fool you. This is a map of the Nine Hells (around which the PCs are going to revolve at 32rpm).

The dust has settled, the Phoenix has risen from the ashes, and now he’s very confused how he’s going to run a D&D session because he is a bird doesn’t know how to communicate either verbally or through writing.

There’s a lot I was disappointed in with the start of our new campaign, and I’ve realized I was putting way too much pressure on myself to make things amazing. Now, it’s time to get back to basics and have some fun. Here’s how I intend to do this thing:

Self-Healing Storybots

Our own Dave “The Game” has a simple means of crafting a rough outline of a campaign, called the 5×5 Method. In it, you decide on 5 major goals, and 5 smaller quests for each (which could correlate to a particular night’s adventure). I think it’s a really good way to plan long-term without getting mired up in too many details.

That being said, if our last campaign taught me anything, it’s that players can chew up and spit out my grand plot schemes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least with my group, to try to plan an entire campaign’s story right from the start. Even so, I dearly love it when everything is part of a bigger picture. So I’m going to try something different.

I’ve had a theory for awhile (that I haven’t been particularly good at following through on). I think it would be really interesting to set up the world, set up the major players in a story, put them all into motion, and then introduce the players. I’m still going to make a 5×5 outline, but I’m going to write it from the villain’s perspective. His goals, his sub-goals. Left unchecked, enough of them are completed and the world falls into darkness and ruin.

It also sounds interesting to me to make several of these outlines, and let the party figure out what they want to get entangled in. I’d need to figure out the next move for my NPCs, and figure out appropriate hooks to do different things if the players chose to do them. It might involve some planning that never gets used, but I think I could prep more for the likelier choices they’d make and have enough ready for the inevitable unexpected ones.

Now I don’t have a grand story getting ruined. Now the grand story would get written. Assuming I don’t go insane first. I hope this doesn’t result in stories that just sort of eat everything around them until civilization is consumed. At the very least, I’d hope the ending is worthwhile.

Combat Allergies

I’ve not traditionally been good at running combat. I find it mentally takes me out of the story, it stresses me out to run, and I never know whether it’s OK to fudge (whether it’s to be merciful to the PCs or to take someone down a peg for dramatic effect). Our last campaign got to the point where it just plain didn’t happen for weeks on end.

I need to get over it.

Combat, when done right, is really memorable and the source of some of the best camaraderie at the gaming table I’ve ever seen.  So, I’m going to do a few things to up my combat game.

First, I’m going to have a few ready-made encounters each week able to drop in at a moment’s notice. You’d think being a programmer for 15 years would have taught me the value of  modularity by now, but I’m glad it finally showed up. If I’m going to wing it, I want it to be winged properly. No more hastily searching through lists of monsters to reskin and fudging numbers. This will be current level and setting appropriate, and my guess is (if I do it right) the players won’t know when I’ve done it.

Second, I’m tired of combat taking me out of the story. So I’m going to do a lot more stuff  where combat is involved but not necessarily the only factor in play. This can mean something as simple as providing a lot of stuff in the environment for the PC’s to use during the battle (like setting a moat aflame before the main force of baddies arrives), or it could mean encounters where the win condition isn’t necessarily killing everyone who isn’t your friends. This opens me up for rescue missions, escapes, and all sorts of other strangeness. Most important of all, it lets the PCs do something that isn’t just a battle of numbers, and that’ll keep me engaged.

I also bought some baddies for the PC’s to fight. I don’t know if I like having those more or less from a theatre-of-the-mind standpoint, but from a “what kind of encounter might have these in them” perspective they are fantastic. Except for the one with the scantily-clad green lady. My brain keeps telling me she’s an Orion slave girl, and that’s just not setting appropriate.

Gaining Focus

I’m also going to try to put my focus less on what I think everything needs to live up to, and pay a little more attention to what my players (and I) actually want. I’m going to accomplish this by doing the unthinkable: asking them. Nothing too crazy, but I think a few questions like “What would you like to see more of?” and “What didn’t you like last time?” couldn’t hurt things much. By no means am I going to have six cooks all stirring the pot, but some feedback would be nice.

One of the things that shot my last session down was me trying to do too many Special Things at once, and winging everything else. I still want to do that kind of thing, but maybe not at the expense of everything else. I’m going to try to make flexible plans the norm this time around, and keep the freestyling fenced-in a bit.

I might also try and encourage my players this time around to do a little out of game RP, maybe in the form of post-game journals of what happened. We did this in one of my favorite campaigns years ago, and it was always fascinating to see how people portrayed how their character saw things. It was one of the things that got me into roleplaying, and I’d love to share that with my players.

Best. Session. Ever?

I sure hope so. But what I’ll plan for is simply a good, solid session every time. I think that might be my job, my players are usually responsible for the spectacular parts.

I can happily live with that. But that definitely doesn’t mean I’m not going to shoot a lightning bolt at something now and then.



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  1. Vanir, I would suggest checking out Dungeon World. Just bought it myself and I’m really excited about it. Your theory is comparable to the one devised in Dungeon World; you create Dangers (Bad Guys) and Grim Portents (Bad stuff the Bad Guys do if left to their own devices). I reckon you’ll quite like it for other reasons too.

  2. I really like that 5×5 from the Villian’s perspective… I often have a hard time moving the story forward because I’m waiting for the PCs to act (or interact) with the villian or his entourage and instead, I really should just have the villian’s storyline move forward and have the PCs be the ones reacting accordingly instead of the other way around…

    I guess I would need to foreshadow that a bit so the party doesn’t feel completely overwhelmed when their city goes into turmoil while they napped, but it would make the campaign feel more alive as things happen despite what the PCs do. – Josh

  3. I see that I’ve already been beat to the Dungeon World shoutout–you’ve got something working which is very like to their concept of Fronts (does DW use Fronts in the latest version?). It’s a great idea, because of how it reflects a reality that bumps up against the PCs.

  4. ” I think it would be really interesting to set up the world, set up the major players in a story, put them all into motion, and then introduce the players. I’m still going to make a 5×5 outline, but I’m going to write it from the villain’s perspective. His goals, his sub-goals. Left unchecked, enough of them are completed and the world falls into darkness and ruin.”

    It’s a good idea to have active factions whose plots proceed to a timetable. However I’d recommend against having (a) only one villain faction – even Tolkien had Saruman as well as Sauron or (b) only having villain factions be active – proactive Unaligned and Good/Friendly factions add a lot of depth and versimilitude to the setting. Try to avoid friendly NPC factions be ‘cardboard redshirts’ – let them win the occasional battle vs the villains offscreen, perhaps because of prior PC activity.

    For a D&D type ruleset with rapid power increase and long term play, I find that having multiple factions in an ascending ladder of power works well. Eg villain factions in my Loudwater Forgotten Realms game range from the low-Heroic Southwood Goblins through the mostly Paragon-Tier Zhentarim to the mid-Epic Shadovar of Netheril and their enemy, Szass Tam of Thay. They all have their own plans. Good-guy factions have their own agendas too, and the PCs occasionally hear about events in eg Elturgard.

  5. The 5×5 method for villains instantly made me think of the newest X-COM game (Enemy Unknown). You would be given a choice of three different locations throughout the world that you would stop a particular alien activity. Since resources are limited, you can only pick one, and doing so causes the other two locations to be assaulted by the aliens, meaning you lose status with those countries. I imagine the PC’s having to choose between a couple different events happening simultaneously. While they go off to foil one plot, the other one, two, or however many continue unhindered…They head off to kill the hag that’s kidnapped the town’s children, only to return to find the town laid to waste by the dragon.

    Could be fun if you like that idea of the PC’s essentially having to play damage control when the odds are heavily stacked against them…I think we can all learn a lot from X-COM. >.>