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Player Driven Campaign Creation in 5e Dungeons & Dragons and TTRPG- Web DM

Jim Davis. You ever noticed your DM a little drunk on power and maybe needs a designated driver to take the campaign home. Well guess what we’re talking player, driven campaigns here on web DM player, driven campaigns? Why do you want to put the players first as a DM? What’s the benefit to me, the benefit of a player driven campaigns is bringing the rest of the table in and it’s less about, like poor Dungeon Master doesn’t have any input.

They don’t get to have any say in how their campaigns going. The players are just going to dictate the way everything happens with the setting. Oh woe is me all of the great wonderful imagine of things that Dungeon Master’s get to do. I don’t get to do it. There are games that are like that, where, where world creation and world building are collaborative and group based and and there are even some games, that everyone’s a GM basically yeah – we’re not really talking about those right here.

We’re talking about making your traditional sort of mainstream fantasy and and whatever other games, that you’re playing more player focused and using certain techniques to bring the characters front and center into the campaign and to make sure that the decisions that the players are making are centered. In that campaign and that the dungeon master, our game, master referee or whatever you want to call them, is not like subtly, nudging and and moving the campaign towards some predetermined end, but is instead letting the campaign breathe and and go where it goes as it goes.

Introducing new things into it to keep it going and keep it moving and and sort of keep it vibrant, but the players and their decisions and the characters and their their backgrounds and personalities and goals are the both of the motivator. The driving force behind the campaign and and sort of the center of it right, the opposite of this style, would be we’re playing through the diems novel. It’s the straight-up railroad, although to be fair, a hyper focused campaign with characters that gel together that they they have a goal in mind that they want they pursue it without.

You know a lot of tangents or getting distracted and they communicate that clearly to the DM. The end result of it looks remarkably similar to a railroaded campaign, write it. The end product looks as though it’s it’s. You know that they were always doing the thing that I am one of them to do, and but if they will only bought the ticket for each leg of that journey, sure maybe that’s what they’re all like forcing people on a railroad right.

They want to walk across the country and you go no, no. You need to stay back on the tracks right guys, stay back on the strikes. That is true, you know and linear play, which is a less. You know derogatory way of saying railroad. Interrogatories right, listen, incendiary way is built, the country we’re talking more of the you know. What are we going to do with the campaign? Let me let the players.

Okay, take the take the initiative here and and lead what some ways that a DM can keep the players in the driving seat and keep their hands like on the wheel natural one of the big things to me and – and I experienced this as I will like Prepare a campaign is I’ll, get to a point where I’m like. I cannot do any more prep for this campaign until I know who the players are, we need something here. We need to know who are the actors that are going to be in this right? Who are the characters? What do they want where their goals, what are their backgrounds, if I’m over here, creating like an intrigue heavy urban campaign with light, combat and lots of politics and and messing about in the criminal underworld? And things like that and and my players are over here – going like man we’re psyched to play these like mighty feud warriors who are going to do battle against their enemies, then that’s a mismatch there and and I’m wasting my efforts in preparing a campaign based on, Like intrigue and politics, and and backbiting and scheming, and things like that, when I’ve got a group of players who are itching for a game of kick down the door D & D or vice versa, right, maybe they’re really feeling like.

I want to play this thief to the best ability climb the ranks of the Thieves Guild talking to the players before the game starts before there’s even a session zero, and just like communicating this information to them. Many DMS do this right, like they’re like oh hey, this is the kind of campaign I’m thinking about running like what do you guys think? Are you interested you know what what about the next time we play is this campaign I can run.

This is the a good time to start asking specific questions of your players and ask them like what is it about your character and it’s connection to the game world that that player enjoys? What are the things in the players or sorry. The characters background that the dungeon master can use for play that they can mine and look and see like okay. Well, wait a second. This looks like something that you could spin a whole adventure out of, or this thing right here is like it happened in the characters background, but but who else was involved with it? Maybe we can bring these elements to the floor later on and and what you have is as you’re reading, through the backgrounds of your of your of the characters where you start taking notes like this thing seems like a secret that’ll come out later, or this thing Seems like something that we could tease out later into an adventure.

Maybe you know a secret from the characters past that they don’t want discovered or an event that happened to them, that that that’s going to come back later, they think is resolved, but instead it’s going to come back later. Sometimes you see these elements refer to as knives and as I’m not sure where that exactly comes from, but I’ve had a couple of DMS use that technique now and I kind of like it right.

You’re you’re, asking the player character. Your ass on the player like show us what your characters got. What are the things in the backstory that we could potentially use in the campaign or that’s potentially there? Now you don’t have to necessarily do that. You could just like ask for a regular player background, and then you find those themselves. You know you find the things in it that you can use, or you can like just straight-up ask a player hey when you show me your character sheet, that you include some kind of list or description or something about the things in your characters, background.

That would be interesting to include in the game those kind of different approaches to to just getting that information. Well, then, you get to take that information and basically seed the campaign with all of that info. Exactly exactly right. So let’s say you’ve got a map of your area of play and you’re, starting with you know, sort of a locality. You know maybe there’s a town or a village. There’s a couple of adventure sites nearby, maybe a full-on dungeon or bandits.

You’ve got your encounter tables and all these other kind things it’s now time to take those elements, and hopefully you have left room for the characters in in your prep. You haven’t detailed everything out to such a degree that there’s no room for the player characters to enter into your world and start changing things up. There needs to be a moment where the DM and the player sit down together and go okay.

What’s, in your character, background right? Well, this in my world, these things work like XYZ. Do any of those things sound interesting to you, or do you think they’re relevant to your character background, it’s a back and forth and maybe there’s a little bit of compromise where the dungeon master goes like well, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. That was just sort of my initial thought if you’re a character or if you have an a different idea, or you want something different for your character that we can find a place for that in the world.

Let’s take, for instance, like you’ve got some sort of character that belongs to an organization or something like that, maybe like a wizard’s guild or monastery or a fighters dueling Club or something right like what you have is is a an opportunity for the burst off of The player character to influence the world and they can say like alright, we didn’t know that there was going to be a fencing school in this location.

But we’ve got a you know: a fighter who’s like all about dueling, and there should be someone here that that fighter can latch on to in a sympathetic, NPC a source of potential quests, a source of interest for that fighter. Who can then go to the fencing school and feel like? Well? Maybe I want to join up. Maybe I want to become an instructor. Are there any jobs or anything that needs to be done there like? Maybe they want to take it over and you’ve got kind of a whoosh of martial arts sort of like the outside instructor, comes in challenging the master to combat and takes over and that spawns a whole sort of vendetta and and so the cycles of violence.

They just continue those cycles of violence. This is where you take a look at your map and you go. Is there anywhere on here that can be connected to the player characters background? Is there anything in the player characters background that I need to be sure to include in this player, and then you go do that with the with your NPCs? Are there any NPCs here who might be a good fit for something that happened in one of the PCs background? If it’s like a local going to ruler or something like that, then that’s a good place to do it.

Maybe a mentor of some kind, that’s in their background or an enemy. Those NPCs have a place in your world, and you you owe it to yourself and to the player to like really take a look and see like okay can i? How can I work this into the campaign world? How can I embed this NPC in that campaign, world and and like have it be a part of it, but it’s there for the player to interact with as they choose player, might completely ignore these things and do something completely different.

I know I have made characters where I was like. Oh man, this is the backstory. It’s going to be this and that and the minute we start playing. I forget all that and then I’m playing the character as they exist right now, and it’s not about what? What I came up with for backstory or anything can’t move forward. Looking over your shoulder, Jim Davis, just kind of soldier looking backwards, is actually kind of good advice, we’ll run into something: that’s kinda, what we mean when we say seed, your sandbox or your location or your setting or whatever it is with your player, character, backgrounds.

We’re talking about matching locations matching NPCs. Is there something in the PC background that jumps out at you and goes like who I can make an adventure out of this then like? Let’s, let’s do that like like put that in there and and work through the players? Stumbling across it or that becoming an active element of play, you know as the game unfolds well, sometimes that can actually, instead of just seating, an adventure like you said with the fighting school thing like if it’s the traditional, like, oh my my master, my whatever was Killed that can be like the whole source of a campaign that can focus your campaign and, like this character, their whole goal is to get to the end and kill that guy right and it just so happens the rest of the party like oh yeah, that’s the Guy, that’s the baron, that’s subject like suppressing this land and we need to take him out anyway right right if you’re, creating a dynamic campaign world where things change and things develop, and your NPCs have plots and motivations and goals that are going on in the background And you’ve created like a timeline for your campaign, that’s like: if the players do nothing XYZ events will happen.

If you have something like that in mind, maybe it’s an actual like timeline for your campaign. Maybe it’s just a general idea of what’s going to happen, then you start kind of creating these moving elements. The person who slew the fighters master at the fight school is now the baron. Well, that’s a problem right because you can’t just walk in and kill the Baron yeah, that’s going to be bad news, and so you now you’ve spawned this whole other thing.

Well, what if the Baron is also has a tie to the background of another player character. You’re looking for connections that you can potentially make and it’s a skill that you’ll have to develop as a dungeon master. This is this not how I used to run games. This is something that I’ve learned to do really over the last few years is really kind of focus in and make players the the center of a game.

First off I hated reading big wall character backgrounds. It was difficult to get to the game. Ax balem owns in a multi-page handwritten gym. I had an opus he’s going to write it when you use des sins, and I know – and it’s one of those things right. I always kept my every my that’s very true. My stance was, I’m just not going to read them like write them all you want not. I don’t feel like reading a bunch of stuff.

For me, that was a reaction to character backgrounds. I was getting at the table where it seemed like the most important things that had happened to that character had already happened, yeah that the most adventure that they were ever going to have had been written into that character background, and to me that signaled, a breach Of trust that the players who were playing these characters didn’t trust that cool awesome, amazing things would happen in their campaign, and so they felt the need to write this into the play to the character’s backstory instead of just saying like yeah.

Well, you know maybe some exciting things have happened to my character, but the best is yet to come and let’s figure out, what’s going to happen through play, and so I really focused then on making sure that in the moments of play there were interesting things for The characters to do now I try to do that as well as tie in what they’ve given me for the backstory to create the elements of play that we’re going to use.

Let’s use an example right running Warhammer yeah right now on on encounter RP, their twitch blog. We got a Wednesday game. You know I have a mini sandbox that I have packed to the gills with heretics and witches and mutant and chaos and all sorts of things for a witch hunter to salivate over and want to fight. And then it’s then we get the five player characters. The witch hunter – and you know its followers and it’s now time to look through the backgrounds of each one of those player, characters and go alright.

Alero is an elven, you know it’s a high wood, elf, Ranger type from you know: who’s had this tragic backstory with a hag or a Crone of some kind that that caused Alero Pruitt’s character to to sort of commit this atrocity. I already knew that there were going to be witches and hags and sort of like chaos, sorcerers and the like in my campaign. Well now one of them has to be Alero switch because otherwise, what’s the point of Pruett telling me that there’s a witch in his characters background when he’s with a witch hunter, you said I’m saying like there was a time whenever I would read a background like That and I would go like why you can’t tell me to put a witch in my game like there, whereas I’m thinking when I wrote it on like over a bunch of witch hunters.

This is perfect right. So now I look at something like that and I go oh well. This is perfect, like it makes sense, and – and I try to do this – you know a lot now where, where it’s like, if there’s something in a PC background, let’s like bring it to the center of the game – let’s put this in there, and this works really Well for very short, focused campaigns, but it also works well for like longer running ones as well.

Let’s talk about choice and how real those choices are because, like you said you know, sometimes demons don’t want to be forced to do anything in their game, determined by the players. Things like that. But what we’re talking about here? Players, if they’re in the driver’s seat and they’re going to be directing, where we’re going right, yeah and so when they make choices, to go places and to do the things in the world that you that the DM has set down like.

How do you ensure that that actually matters there’s a school of dungeon master, ring and game, a stirring in general that that you’ll see sometimes refer to as illusionism and this school prizes, the illusion of choice, the illusion of a living breathing world that reacts to player Decisions and prizes the illusion of all of these things and they use techniques diems, who sort of like this style and like this kind of play, use a lot of techniques with what we might call a quantum encounter.

There’s something something was prepared. An encounter was prepared, but it floats around the map. It’s not nailed down yet the reason why I personally really dislike this style of play is you illustrated by like you’ve, come to a t-intersection in the dungeon. You can go one way or another. If you look at for clues as to what’s in either direction, you realize that to the left there seemed to be clues, suggesting one type of monster or enemy, and so instead you go towards the right and the dungeon master goes and looks goes well.

You know I put that encounter. I was thinking it might be to the left or something like that, but they decided to go against it, the others I’m just going to move it, I’m just going to move that encounter right. The everyone knows that the bandits attack people that take the left fork in the road. The players take. The right fork in the road bandits attack them anyway, it’s at any time where, regardless of what the players say or do, regardless of the decisions they make and the choices that they that they they make or the past that they follow.

If the dungeon master goes, this thing is happening, no matter what that is an element of illusionism. Let me take a step and say there are some times when that technique is useful. I use it all the time in one shots, because you’ve got two to three hours to play, maybe a little bit more you’re trying to deliver a certain experience to to to make sure that the game is is whatever it is, particularly if you’re like doing a Focused one-shot or something like that right, you know, but you want a beginning, a middle and a beginning.

In a million you want a satisfying session of Dungeons and Dragons. Then you use different techniques here, but in regular play in a long-term campaign play overuse of illusionism and and for players like myself. Any whiff of it immediately takes me out, and I know I’m not the only one. I’ve talked to other players who are like this and other people who they do not like in the sense that when they make a decision in game, the dungeon master is just kind of humoring them and whatever the dungeon master wants is going to happen.

They’re just shuffling things behind they’re, just shuffling things behind the scenes moving around and counters, saying like oh, that NPC was always there. I understand the temptation to do this right. It’s sometimes difficult with a group of players who really keep you on your toes. It’s hard to stay one step ahead of them and so keeping things vague and loose and what’s there what’s not, can lead to these moments where you go like well, I’m just going to at the table.

Whatever the players come up with, I’m just going to immediately react to it. It’s going to be like a counter towards it, or this encounter that I’ve prepared it’s going to happen, no matter what we’re going to get to that, because that’s what I’ve prepared! That kind of illusionism that kind of forcing an encounter, it really does damage to the bonds of trust between player and game master if they find out, and if it’s not something that the party was like.

Okay with to begin with, you know well, there’s also a few other things that diems have been known to do and we’ve discussed them before and other shows it’s worth mentioning here again, but like fudging, yeah but dying young. Maybe it’s because you are so focused on the players getting to where they want to go you’re going to fudge just to help them along I’m young easy. Is that even okay, I don’t like that.

You know here’s the thing. Would you accept it from a player? Would you accept the player going like one man? I that’s thirteen looks like an 18 to me. I have to hit you know, I’m ready to hit right now, I’m just going to fudge this dice a little too good to get the outcome that I want. You wouldn’t accept it from players. We would call that cheating yeah with those kinds of players whether it’s like Oh fell on the floor fell on the crack of a book.

It’s a die whatever. It is whatever coded language they use to give themselves. Another role or ordinate get me the first hole that they had. We, you know we don’t like it as Dungeon Master’s when players do that. Well, why would we accept it from ourselves, even if you’re using a screen like let’s say, you’re using a screen, you want to keep your notes secret. You don’t roll on the open because you’re one of those DMS likes just roll random dice in order to make the players think a lot of things are going on legitimate technique, but guys the fake bro.

I don’t overuse it, but it is a legitimate thing. You’re, like you’re gaslighting, the PC anyway, the fudge, the altering of dice, is one of those things where. Why are you rolling in the first place, if you feel the need to fudge, but to me, there’s something else going on that leads you to believe. Like the outcome that I just got with this die, roll was unwanted. Then why did you roll the die in the first place? Yeah, and if it’s something like I don’t want to kill the players right now.

If the dice are just been going against them all night and and what should have been a standard just like walk in the park, combat has got them on the ropes and and you’re running the risk of like a TPK or something like that. Even in those situations, it’s tough for me to say, like oh yeah, you should like pull your punches there and like not have them. You know, be mercilessly slaughtered first off if you’re playing a modern, mainstream RPG, the likelihood of that happening is very low right.

You really got to like go after like really deadly hard combats in a row or some kind of monster. That’s going to like drop a bunch of AoE damage on you or something to like get to that point. So taking that thought and like flipping it. What about altering an encounter like once your PCs roll up in a room? And you get your thought? Oh, this is going to be badass in one round. They just bucket of steamroller for all them in one round and then there’s like a unplanned wave.

That comes in that’s another thing that I’m just not a fan of a style of gaming. That kind of like we’re going to adapt and and and change this scene. You know change the encounter in the middle of the scene or something like that. It’s one of those tools where it’s like there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. I have really never seen it used in a way that makes the game more fun. Like I, you know, there’s a lot of times when the players like just like waste and encounter yeah right just like utterly waste yeah.

Well, they just hit the perfect, spells and attack excite order and just take a freaking enemy down and to me it’s like well sometimes like that. Just feels good, sometimes yeah, hey, we did it right, yeah. You know yeah, and I think it’s one of those things where, if that’s what’s happened, if you know first of it’s a one-off thing, give it to your party if it keeps happening, and you sense that your players are getting bored because you know the encounters that You’re, throwing at them are not engaging and not not fun or not whatever.

It is that you, the players, want out of any counter. That’s a behind-the-scenes thing, it’s time to up your game in terms of like making sure the encounter is challenging for the party. If that’s what they’re, looking for and including like very dinna me types and looking at the tactics that they use and and and altering your own, the way you play the the monsters themselves, those are things to get you a better encounter, but the the occasional like Man, the party really just curb-stomp these these enemies, that’s perfectly fine and in those situations like fudging the dice so that it’s a more challenging encounter first up, I there’s someone will know that one of the players particularly have veteran players or something like that.

They’ll know all right this place that we’ve said it many times. Please don’t fudge dice. We like rolling in the open. We like letting the dice fall where they may, because they tell their own story when it comes to campaigns. Adventures for the DM here. Yeah, PC driven campaigns right can that coincide with what has become kind of the bog standard of fantasy RPG, which is like Avengers type world-saving like the big, the big dam quest, the big dam question yeah.

Does that work like I? I think it can, but it is difficult and there are countervailing factors that that that push dm’s into into what I see as bad practices, a lot of, but not all of them, of the like Wizards of the coast modules that they put out for themselves. Follow this model, you don’t have to play them this way. You can chop them up and use them a lot of different ways, but if you run them kind of, as is, there is a a big threat that requires the party to be higher level to deal with right somewhere north of 10th to 15th level.

From the beginning, the party is going to be dealing with enemies related to this threat and working their way up a food chain and there’s usually a sense of just like the players are the only ones dealing with this world shaking reality altering campaign, changing kind of Threat, there’s a lot of reasons why I’m not fond of that model, but mostly it’s ones where an implication of a narrative structure to the kind of the Grand Campaign sort of a rising action.

The climax of falling action and all those sorts of narrative beats that you know are the hallmark of really good fiction, and – and you know you might might make for a really good story to just like read or even just kind of talk about. They don’t necessarily mesh well with the random nature of RPGs, where you’re kind of here, at least I’m kind of here and – and I think one of the strengths of RPGs – is being surprised that those emergent elements of play that you can’t account for that.

You don’t know, what’s going to happen, you’re you yourself as a dungeon master, will be surprised, but if you’re running this campaign, that requires, like all the players, are on board they’re all unified in this goal. To like stop the big, bad and save the world, and if one of them dies then that’s that can put a hiccup in in the campaign if all of them die that can you know bring the campaign to a complete halt.

If you know, none of them want to do something like that, they all want to pursue other things. They want to go off here and do some downtime activities and they want to do side quests. I think this is like the most common one where it’s like. There’s a sense of urgency to the campaign the soul monger is killing, is killing everyone. Who’s ever been resurrected, the Tia mots going to return or the demon princes or out of the abyss and and attacking everything like.

We must do something now and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the madcap zany adventures that I find almost all of my like favorite role, playing and Dungeons and Dragons stories are a lot there are comes from just like. We were just messing around and this happened and they opened a portal before we had to clean up this mess, or we were just like we’re poking around this dungeon and found this thing and yeah.

So many things that happen just by happenstance and randomness and chance and dumb luck and and and the weird alchemy that is, you, know, playing the game and letting things emerge from it. That’s going to alter it and something to support that argument. The knocks against the Marvel movie universe and how you can’t have any kind of personal like like Jane, never shows up for Thor and everything he’s too busy saving the world all the time you can’t fit in, like all that, you know personal backstory right right exactly Unless you’ve got a party, that’s like all of them have created backstories that tie into the grand campaign, and you know, you’ve been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes metagame work before the campaign starts to like make sure it merges and meshes that’s a situation where you can, But if you’ve just got like some players, who made some characters and they’re just kind of there to play – and they want a meander and Wonder and do all these things and you keep probably pushing them along for the Grand Campaign – you’re fudging roles, you’re altering encounters, On-The-Fly, you start negating player decisions yeah, and this is one of those things that once a player decides to do something in the dungeon master decides.

I don’t like that. That’s not going to happen and they don’t take a moment to just say: hey player, what you’re doing right now. Is it really it I’m having trouble making it work for my campaign? Can we talk about it if they try to like subtly alter the course of the game, some of the most epic meltdowns at a table? That’s it have resulted from that kind of like attempting to manage the players yeah right.

Well, I mean you’re you’re subverting the player agency in the game. Therefore, there’s no reason for the player to be there to be there right exactly and and if it’s just like running through the dungeon master story, it’s not it’s not a fun engaging way to play. There is a place for dungeon master creativity. There is a place for the dungeon master to interject their own opinions, their own ideas into it.

This is not about completely ceding the field to the players, and you are just the mere passive you know entity at the table. It is about making sure everyone gets a chance to collaborate, and everyone has a chance to have their portion of the narrative that’s being created at the table through play as an element of that, and not just like. Oh, it’s, the dungeon master and the players are left to kind of scramble for some way to connect to the setting and world and then find relevance and meaning in it.

It’s the dungeon master, going like here’s a par baked setting. Let’s get your characters in the mix, finish it off and play we’re going to hit the ground running and some of the most amazing gaming I’ve had has come from this style of game of player. Centered effing, a man deafening I’m like well, and what I love about the sword now is they have enough albums that now I could just keep listening to them and not get tired of them.

Yeah yeah because I’ve even gone back and listening to listen to high country again, and it’s still, my least favorite, but there’s still a lot of fun songs on there like I get what they’re trying to do, they want to do a more mellow, chill rock album And they have every right to do that, yeah lad that they did know. I begrudge artists at all who want to do something different now that it’s like you know, squeeze every amounts of imagination out of your brain and put it up on a article.

It’s just like I’m going to do whatever is exciting. For me, you guys can go deal with it. Yeah there’ll be a article there’ll be another. Album yeah there’ll be another article, another album so yeah yeah, but goddamn use future. So good yeah we were listening to apocryphon while

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