Guest post by Jason Massey
Putting together a D&D campaign is a tricky thing. You have to balance many different aspects to create just the right environment for your players. There’s the challenge of the quests, the scale of the story and a myriad of potential social pitfalls with the people you play with. Don’t even get me started on scheduling a basic session. The point is, there are a lot of moving parts to the hobby. One thing that I find getting glazed over time and again though is the world building aspect of the game.
We’ve all been there before. You’ve spent hours upon hours crafting your world and filling it to the brim with people, places, history and conflict. When the time finally arrives to let your players run amok within this new world, it can be the greatest feeling to see them get attached to the characters and events you set up. Now though, you have a new problem. How do you set up a game where your players feel like they have agency while still retaining your world’s essence as a whole? It’s a tough thing to balance but I’ve outlined a few steps that should help you along a bit and hopefully make your players happier while still sharing your world in the way that you intended.
Step 1: Drop the “malicious DM” schtick
While it can be fun from time to time to have a vague threat for the party to worry about or a tough upcoming fight that gets the blood pumping, you have to follow the rule of diminishing returns. If you’re constantly taunting the party or threatening their characters, that is just going to create a tense situation down the road. At best, when something bad inevitably happens to a character, the player will think you planned for it to happen. At worst, it could create a real feeling of you “being against” the group or even drive a wedge between you and a player.
D&D is a cooperative game at the end of the day. You are letting people into your world and sharing a story with them. Part of that means that they will be able to make choices and influence the world, even if that is in some small way. You are serving them the ball and they are batting it right back to you. If they don’t trust you then that throws off the balance of the game. They either won’t make choices because they’re too afraid of you punishing them or they won’t care anymore because the game feels rigged. Remember, the party winning something doesn’t mean that you’ve lost.
Step 2: Yes, and . . .
Improv is a skill at the core of RPGs in general. The ability to roll with the punches and spin gold from completely unplanned events is an art that simply get better at the more you practice it. When I first started DMing, I was terrified that a player would do something that I just wasn’t ready for. I prepped endlessly before each session in some crude attempt to be ready for whatever they might choose to do. You know what happened most of the time? They would choose something that I wasn’t ready for.
You aren’t going to “outsmart” several people at the table. You also shouldn’t expect to. The best you can do is know your world inside and out. If a players asks a question about how things work in your world, you should have at least some idea of the answer. That being said, there will come many times where a group will choose to go left when you thought for sure they would go right. If you know your world, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Need more ideas on how to plot a campaign?
The Great GM offers some more advice on how to keep your master plot on the rails when the players go the other direction.
It tends to make the world feel like there are no “invisible walls” and the players can go anywhere they like.
The World Anvil campaign system lets you compile all this backstory and share it with players, and even collaborate on the world.
Step 3: No, but . . .
There will be times that a player will want to do something that just doesn’t work in your world. That’s ok. A fantasy setting is essentially a list of rules and events that make the world work. If you’ve spent any amount of time perusing the near limitless amount of settings on World Anvil, then you know how varied they can be. When a player wants to add something that would “break the world” by violating those rule, it’s ok to say no. However, there’s a right way to do it.
Most times, a player will be completely understanding if something doesn’t fit properly in your setting. If they want to play a vampire and they just don’t exist, you could do a couple of things here. You could simply offer them an explanation as to why that wouldn’t work and then move on. I often try to find something as close to their pitch as possible that does exist. That kind of compromise will go a long way in tempering disappointment. It also shows that you’re willing to work on concepts with your players and aren’t inflexible.
This leads well into your second option. You could let them be the first vampire in your world. This is a slightly riskier option but if you can both pull it off, it’s pretty rewarding. It can create a wonderful new wrinkle and it helps you evolve your setting at the same time. How did this creature come to be? Why is it appearing now? How did your player’s character get infected? You can work with this player from the ground up and create a brand new story that you’ve both put effort into. This way, there are tons of potential new stories to tell.
Step 4: Listen up
Here’s the biggest piece of advice I can give you today. It’s something that I have talked to people about every time that I’m asked. At panels, in emails and online.
Listen to your players.
It’s the most crucial part of being a DM. By listening to the people you’re playing with you can find out what they like, what they don’t like and how the story should go from where you are now. Listen intently to the way they solve a problem. If they are sent on a rescue mission, how did they deal with the situation? Did they kill everyone and then bring back the hostage? Did they negotiate for their surrender using tact? Did they utterly fail and get everyone killed? No matter what the answer is, bring something back from that story later on and fold it back in.
Even the smallest interactions can have some sort of impact of the story down the line. A bard that annoyed the party might need some help at a later date. The bard might apologize for their actions or even double down and insult the group further. You’re building history with these characters and making the players feel like their character are truly a part of your world. Of course people tell stories about dragon slayers and wars fought in grand scale. It’s these little day to day interactions that make the world feel truly alive.
If you’re players start to care about these interactions and even get excited when an old character they haven’t seen in a while makes an appearance? You have em! That reaction will be something you chase forever. There’s no high like it in the world and you will strive to duplicate for the rest of your time DMing.
I hope these tips help you to share your world fully with your players. Remember, in the end, you’re building this together. A world is only as good as the stories you tell within it.
The next step is to start playing. Head over to WorldAnvil.com to get started with your own digital campaign.
About Dungeons and Randomness
Jason Massey is a veteran dungeon master of many years, the last seven of which he’s been hosting the Dungeons and Randomness podcast, You can check out their campaign world of Theria on World Anvil. The new series of Dungeons & Randomness has recently started, so catch up with the recaps of Season 1 and 2 to get prepared for a new adventure.