It’s been a dry couple of months on the D&D front for our group. March has always been brutal in this respect for me, with approximately 174 birthdays (including my wife’s and son’s), and just to make things more fun, everybody in my family managed to critically fail their saves vs. ear infections, strep, and <random illness here> for weeks on end. I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable comeback from the Worst Session Ever, but I haven’t been satisfied with anything thus far.
It was during these attempts that I realized I have a means of telling whether or not I am about to do something stupid as a DM. It’s incredibly obvious, in retrospect. If I am about to put the players on the rails or otherwise make terrible, arbitrary plot decisions, I nearly always start having the bad guys be dark, corrupted, oozy with some kind of evilgoo versions of regular bad guys. I guess the monkey at my controls believes it will be scarier somehow, but it is wrong.
My friend that left the gaming group recently had offered to let me bounce some campaign ideas off her, and I happily accepted. We made a few inroads, but then we started talking about the things we enjoyed from the last campaign. I’d wanted this time out to go for high fantasy, journeys across the continent, and epic battles. Nobody at the table, myself included, was ever wrapped up in my gripping story about saving the city and the world. It was always the little stories, the character interactions, and the random things nobody planned for.
I am starting to suspect something about myself, based on this and my experience with trying to write a novel this past November. It seems I might not actually be that great at writing a compelling epic storyline.
I am, however, a damned wizard at making strange things happen and crashing them against each other to make stranger things happen.
No Potion For You
The new idea is simple. I’m setting the bar lower. Waaaaaaay lower.
My inspiration is the premise of the long-running, wildly popular, and pretzel-commercial-spawning 90’s sitcom Seinfeld — “a show about nothing”.
This campaign will also be about nothing — that is, nothing of dire importance to the world, the city, or even most people nearby is going to occur (by my hand, at least). However, there will be lots of characters with strange quirks and issues, and sweet Pelor will they hold petty grudges. This time, instead of laying out a master plan where an evil force finds some way to unleash an army of oozy darkness unless the party figures out how to work my deus ex machina in time, someone is going to open up a rival sandwich shop right across the street possibly forcing the PC’s to take drastic action to save their favorite lunch spot. Campaign finale, in the bag.
There will need to be some planning involved, of course. My thought is that I should map out several neighborhoods near the PC’s base of operations, and decide who all the residents are and why they might hate each other. To this end, I will be paying particular attention to property lines and how much lawn is between each residence, because that kind of thing can fuel a lifelong blood-grudge. There will be curious benefactors who want to make the PCs do uncomfortable things. There will be townspeople with hearts black as coal but without the ambition to act on any of it. There may be ideas that make me dance with glee that I don’t want to spoil because my players read this. The sacrifices I make for you people.
There may also be magical shrinkage. Most editions of D&D have rules for that. It’s canon. I’m pretty sure there’s a Greyhawk mage who specializes in it.
Some of my players have asked for more combat with more options for winning and losing aside from “one side kills all of the other side”. I think this is fertile ground for combat the likes of which very few have ever seen. One possible downside to this approach is that the Seriousness Knob is probably going to have to go a few more clicks toward “campy”, and it’s already pretty firmly in that territory. People are going to get more murdery than usual for very silly reasons, and there will likely be few consequences. I can’t very well have them hanged for going along with the ridiculous plot I placed at their feet. At least, not without a really awesome reason. As the PCs are all respected members of the city guard, I’ve also considered doing a weird arbitrary “you all have new jobs” swap a la Are You Being Served‘s move from a department store to managing a country inn. That didn’t make even a partial lick of sense either, but it was still awesome.
Of course, I haven’t spoken to any of my players about this yet. I suspect this will suit them just fine, but it If I go through with this, I haven’t decided if I’m going to retcon the events of the W.S.E., simply cause them to be not nearly as important as they seemed, or just encourage everyone not to give a crap about the coming darkness anymore. Maybe I will have a dark oozy monster come out of the shower and be like “hey everybody, it was all just a dream”. Now that I mention it, adding a bit of Dallas into this is an interesting idea…..
The strangest part of this for me is that I didn’t particularly care for Seinfeld when it was on. I find myself wanting to watch it now, just to get good ideas on how to make NPCs that are total self-absorbed jerks. I won’t need to worry about the players’ contribution. I’ve been rather enjoying watching them fight their morally-challenged PCs’ baser urges to try and play ball and be heroes (mostly) for the last campaign. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I don’t even try to make them do that a little anymore.
I’m getting that “this is going to be a glorious trainwreck” feeling about this. I’m not sure it’s healthy to be happy about that, but I am.