Tabletop Tuesday: Running a Dungeons and Dragons Campaign
Welcome back to Tabletop Tuesday! Last week, Stephen Rhodes offered valuable advice on planning a D&D campaign; today, Trent Cannon is here to follow that up with tips on how to run your campaign successfully.
So, you’ve got your group together. You’ve got snacks ready and the required number of chairs. Maps are prepped and your plot is outlined. Your players, the mad creatures that they are, have submitted backstories, preferably filled to the brim with delightful NPCs for you to torment and slaughter for the sake of your storytelling. You are, after all, the Game Master and, much like any other author, your job is to inflict pain on a group of closest friends.
Now I want you to do something for me. It will make you a better GM, so just stay with me, alright?
You know those notes, plans, and carefully woven plotlines? Get them all together in one place and throw them right out the window. Or in the trash. Or delete them. Whatever you can to get the point across that those plans are not going to survive the first few encounters with your players. You are going to have to change and adapt your story and every encounter to account for the madness that comes your way. Any GM who has been doing this for more than a few sessions has at least one epic tale of a party who either burned down a village, overcomplicated something as simple as opening a door, or went west when the druid clearly told them east.
And you know what? That’s a good thing. It is part of what I love both about playing and running a tabletop game. You learn to adapt and enjoy a bit of chaos. Those moments when the party decides to spend an entire session trying to set up an after-school club when you’ve constructed a murder mystery they are completely ignoring are the stories you’ll tell (or, as the case may be, write about for a website) for years to come. However, as a GM, part of your job is to tell a story. Like Stephen pointed out in his article, a set of encounters without a story is only fun for so long, but how do you tell a story when you don’t have any control over what your protagonists are doing?
Well, listen up, because I’ve got your back.
Your Non-Player Characters (or NPCs) are your voice within the campaign world. Some of them will be good guys. Some will be bad guys. Some will change sides. But all of them will be played by you and that means they can be powerful tools for keeping your party on track and, more importantly, interested. Have your players missed an important piece of information and are getting frustrated by their lack of progress? Use a familiar, trusted face to nudge them onto the right track.
But there is something else that NPCs can do and that is keep your party guessing and enthralled by the story you’re all telling. If you give them a secret or two, even if you don’t intend to follow it up, then you’ve got something to throw in when the party goes off track or proves they are less interested in saving the world than they are with building their own criminal empire. If the party is travelling with a merchant caravan, the owner of said caravan could also be nobility from a distant land hiding amongst the merchants as they deliver an important message to another distant land. Having these little twists and turns coming from your NPCs will give your campaign more depth and, more importantly, prevent your party from wandering off, bored.
It is important to remember that you are not meant to be in an adversarial role with your players. They are your friends and you’re all there to have fun. However, that feeling will be sorely tested as you watch them take your carefully crafted stories and set them on fire (sometimes quite literally). For instance, there was a time when I’d planned a covert campaign. The players were to operate in the shadows while others drew the attention of the enemy. And things went quite well for a few missions until they made a careful trip into enemy territory to recover a magic book. One thing led to another, as it often does, and the next thing they know they are fleeing the country with a sixty-foot geyser of fire behind them and an army of devils well-aware of their presence.
As you do.
Suddenly I had to not just change up the plans for that specific session but the whole campaign. It became less about subterfuge and more about avoiding capture while finding safety. A refugee story instead of spies. And it turns out that was the story the players wanted to tell so it became a better experience for everyone involved. Unlike writing novels or short stories, you don’t have complete control and if you try to assume complete control, you’ll end up having less fun than if you learn to adapt to what your players are telling you through their actions. Always remember, it isn’t just your story to tell. It’s everyone’s.
MAINTAIN THE GROUP
Most of the time, you’re playing with people whose company you already either already enjoy or will learn to enjoy. After all, you’re all there to have fun and already have something in common. However, sometimes there will be those players who cause a bit of trouble. Most of the time it is completely innocent. Maybe they are consistently late or they only show up one out of every four sessions. Maybe they get over excited and talk over people. Maybe they just don’t seem to be that interested in the game so much as the social experience of hanging out with their friends. Easily done, after all. Tabletop gamers are the best sort of people.
Most of the time, these players don’t realise they’re impeding the game or causing problems. However, as GM, it is probably going to fall to you to have a quick chat with them (away from the rest of the group) to remind them that everyone is there to have fun and they maybe should adjust their behaviour slightly. Nine times out of ten, this will be enough. They’ll apologise and buck up and all will be well. Only once in my ten years of running games for dozens of different players (sometimes in multiple countries) have I had to ask someone not to come back to the group. Not gonna lie; it was super awkward and no one enjoyed it, but for the sake of the other ten players in the group, it was necessary, and sometimes being a good GM means doing that.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. You’d be amazed at how much goes into running a successful campaign (whatever that looks like), but if you can make changes to story as needed, use your NPCs to good effect both as rails for the plot and as plot twisters, and keep the group running smoothly, you’ll be well on your way to being a great GM and all your friends will appreciate you for it.
(Right up until you kill them all with your furious vengeance. Just to keep them in place.)