While some of the worlds of Dungeons and Dragons are big and expansive, and Ravenloft can be, in fifth edition, you’ll find that Ravenloft is quite small. It’s also quite different as we’ve shifted away from something that’s heavy fantasy and into a world that…
So I just picked up the Eberron source book for fifth edition. And I’ve been waiting for it for a while. With the games that @evilsanscarne and @Mundangerous have run or played in that they talk about on the @TPTCast (Total Party Thrill) podcast, I…
The forest quakes as the heavy footsteps of the dragon shakes the trees. The critters are running away from the flames of the dragons breath. The village, not too far away is raising the alarm with a clanging bell, but that seems to be drawing the dragon’s murderous attention towards it and the bell ringing is quickly cut off.
*queue Benny Hill music*
And our adventuring party has arrived.
Should D&D be a serious game, a silly game, or both and how can you keep the tone that you want?
First, I’ll say, there isn’t a right way to play D&D, you can have a serious game in a grim dark fantasy world or you can have a light and fun game where everyone who seems at all bad can be killed off by your roving party of murder hobos and that’s completely fine. But setting a tone and being willing or able to adjust if need be is something important to be able to do.
So with setting the tone, when and how do you do that?
I’m going to go to one of my favorite answers, Session 0. So, before you start playing when you are pitching ideas, you can talk about what sort of story it is going to be, but talk about how serious the game is going to be. It might be that a story with drow fighting a war and being a group infiltrating that, might seem like a time for silly high jinx for players, but you might have meant that as a serious game. Or maybe it’s a decent into the 9 hells, and your demon lord is going to be like Satan from South Park, but the players think it’s going to be very serious. So, in session 0 when pitching things, talk about what sort of fantasy setting it is, and how serious a game it might be or might not be as that might influence how much players like the idea or what type of game that they want to play.
But beyond that, as a DM, you need to be able to adjust the tone as you continue to play. This can be done in a couple of ways. Maybe you start out with a serious game, but the characters keep on doing goofy things or off the wall things and making it more light hearted or less grim dark at least. Then you have to adjust your DMing in one of two ways in game.
The first one is that you can adjust your game to be more light hearted, maybe that is what your players really wanted and they just didn’t want to say that in session 0. This can be tough to do, because your story might be focused in on a more serious setting. So you might not be able to use the whole idea like you had planned for the players. So adjusting might mean setting aside some of that idea for a later game. Or it might be taking what you had planned and making it less grim and serious.
The second option would be to almost double down on the more serious or more light hearted tone. Focus on providing those moments that really enforce the tone that you’re going for, and when the players do something against that tone, if it’s being serious in a lighter situation or goofy in a serious situation, have the NPCs react to what the PCs are doing. This one is tougher to do because you might be pushing against what the players want in a game. So I’d lean towards adjusting with the first option, though, there is a third out of game option that I’d recommend.
The best option, is out of game, and less passive aggressive, and that’s just to ask the players what tone they want. If, for example, you had planned a more serious game, you can ask the players if they want the game to stay serious or if you should adjust the story to more of a lighter game. It might be that they didn’t realize they had shifted into doing lighter and goofier things, especially if that’s how they are used to playing. Now, conversations out of the game can be a bit trickier, especially if you talked about it in session 0. but generally it’ll be what helps your game the most.
But, let’s say that you have a group where you’ve played for several years and always played lighter games, and now you want to play a grim dark game. How do you go about doing that?
If you are used to playing light games without many consequences and without tracking things like arrows, food, etc., it’s going to be a big change. Instead of going for all of it at once, I would slowly build up to it. So start tracking arrows at the start, but keep the players so that they are always ending up in a town before food would be an issue, and just tell them that they are spending a bit of money to reload. And once they figure out that they need to track arrows, then they can start tracking food as well. And the same with theme as well, start with what seems like a more standard quest, you can then start to add in more grim dark elements to it. And the same goes with going from a more serious to a lighter game, go slowly, it’s going to be an adjustment if people only know it one way.
Now, there are going to be other things that you can do to adjust, and there are going to be ways to keep a game on track, such as rewarding role playing that fits the type of game that you want to run. But I’d really say, session 0 is going to be your best friend for planning out the game and I can’t overstate the importance of it.
How do you set tone in your game? Are there certain things you do to describe or set-up the story in such a way to help enforce a tone?
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I think that this is a very rare thing. I don’t know that a ton of people ever really complete their D&D games. There are multiple reasons for it potentially not being completed. But, is that something that’s okay, or as the DM should you be looking to complete it?
First, what do I mean by complete a campaign. I think that there are a few different things, but I want to clarify a few things that it isn’t. First, it doesn’t mean that you get to level 20, in fact, very few campaigns ever get to level 20, and the campaign books that Wizards of the Coast puts out for Dungeons and Dragons, most of those stop around level 10. The reason being, anything else would be too much leveling quickly, and they don’t want to start at a mid level campaign, because it’s harder for new players to jump in there. It also doesn’t mean t hat the campaign ends for one of several reasons. When I say completed I’m talking about the story the DM has set forth being done.
Why might your campaign end, there are two main reasons. The group falling apart or the DM burning out. There can be a lot of reasons for the first one, the group falling apart. It can be because someone moves away, or someone gets too busy, or really anything that might divide the group. It’s unfortunate that it happens, but it does happen, and there isn’t much you can do about it. The other one of DM burnout can come for a couple of reasons. If the DM is driving the story and the players are passengers on the DM’s story, it makes it a lot of work for the DM. Or the DM can have split up there story so much that it has become too much work for them to keep all of the threads together, or it might just be that the DM has been a DM for a very long time.
But, that’s not how we want our campaign to end. Whether you’re building up to that final epic encounter against the evil deity at level 20, or the BBEG who is a Wizard you can fight at level 10, you want to finish the story. It’s more satisfying for the DM and for the players. And, if you can do that, you likely will create more people who want to continue playing or maybe try running their own game.
So what can you do as the DM? I’ll come back later for players.
- Keep the story varied. And by that, if you are going to have McGuffins around that the players have to collect, keep the collection process different and changing. Make the settings feel unique and make what the players need to do feel very different so that they feel like they’re not just hacking and slashing their way through the same adventure.
- Keep the players involved in the story telling. If you want the players to feel like their not just along for the ride, have them help you come up with details. This can be tricky if you aren’t great at improv, but if you aren’t, send out Google Surveys to your players between sessions, have them give you character names or descriptions of places that you can work into your next session as you continue planning it. This means that it isn’t just going to be your creative juices in it, so the players are more apt to stay involved with the story and you, as the DM, are less likely to burn out.
- Take Breaks. It’s a surprising one, but I think it’s good. If you are playing every two week for four hours, take a break every six months and just cancel a game or however often you need it. This, again, helps with burnout so that you don’t feel like you’re always pushing to your next session of the game.
- Don’t feel like you have to push to level 20. It’s fine for a game, and normal for a story to be complete before level 20. You might have thought you wanted the big bad to be fought at level 20, but to help with your burnout or the odds of someone dropping out, keep your story tight. That way you won’t burn out and players won’t get bored, and if you can tell a good and tight story to level 20, more power to you, but it isn’t needed.
So that was for DM’s, but it’s also on the players, there are things you can do to help complete your game:
- Miss as little as possible. It seems fairly obvious, but if you aren’t there or if enough players aren’t there, the story probably won’t progress as fast so that you don’t miss anything important. Now, at a larger table, it might still progress, but get caught up on your own time, don’t slow down the game when you get there just so you can be caught up. And when you do miss, let the DM know as far ahead of time as possible.
- Be engaged. This is several things rolled into one. Being engaged means don’t be on your phone at the table, unless you’re looking up a spell or ability. That contributes to DM burnout. Be ready to help the DM when they ask for it in terms of creating the world and more of the setting. I often ask for character names or descriptions, be ready to come up with some on the fly, and if you can’t, that’s fine, just don’t be surprised when the DM asks. Also know your character sheet. It’s a pretty simple engagement, take the notes you need so that you know what you are going to need to do. And finally, be engaged with the planning of missions and the story. It’s so many things, but if you have a side conversation or if you are just even passive in the story, it causes more DM burnout and can end a campaign before it’s time.
- Share the spotlight. You might be always engaged, you might never miss a session, and those things are huge for keeping the DM going in the game, but if you hog the spotlight as a player, it might cause other players to do the first two items on the players list. As the RPG Academy says, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.” And that means fun for you and fun for everyone at the table. So share the spotlight, if you see someone who isn’t engaged, get them more engaged in the game. The DM might not have noticed, but you have the same power to take control of the story and get the player engaged as the DM does in a lot of cases.
- Be open and honest with the DM. If you aren’t enjoying the game, or if there aren’t parts of the game that you enjoy. Let the DM know, but better yet, let the DM know what you are enjoying. Framing the positives of what is really keeping you engaged allows the DM to do more things that they know the players will like, versus having to guess at what might work only if you say what you don’t like. And this can be tricky, especially after a rough session, but take a minute the day after to text or e-mail your DM and let them know what you’ve liked or what you haven’t and you’ll find that the game likely improves and it means that the DM has something more focused to prepare.
There are going to be more tips, I’m sure, for completing a campaign. But this is a good spot to start if you’re a DM or if you’re a player. Realize, still, that there are going to be a lot of campaigns that just end, and that isn’t a bad thing. But if you can bring your game to completion, you’re going to have a ton of fun with it and create some memories in the process.
What are some things you’ve used for running a game to the completion of it’s story? Are there things as a player you’ve found that have helped you?
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Time to make a huge game. I think that there are a lot of interesting things that you could do with this idea, including something a long ways out there, which is have it played with multiple groups.
In this game the different planes, fire, earth, prime material, hell, abyss, fey wild, and everything else, they are all being beset upon by an outside force, a massive massive outside force that is probably controlling one or some of them already and having them branch out against the others.
So in this game you pick different realms, probably fey wild, Sword Coast, Eberron, and whatever else you want and you start playing games in each of them where there are forces, maybe the elemental plane of fire and the abyss have been overrun by whatever this great force is, some evil deity most likely, that is bending them to their will. Have the players then deal with the threats showing up in their worlds.
Build this story up for some time that something is wrong in the abyss or the plane of fire, but don’t really let on that there is a big bad guy, think that it’s something smaller that is causing the unrest. Eventually have this dark force and their own army also show up in the realm. And here is where you might want to have one combined game for all the groups to spring the big reveal on them. Have this force s how up on all of their planes, and they all get transported to some pocket dimension or something like that where this being is controlling everything from. Then have there be a prophecy, but not one of those impossibly vague prophecies, but something something as specific that they basically have to find the pieces of Voltron or some god killing weapon, or even Dragon Balls.
Then you split back up and make the games take similar paths, but searching for this thing in their own realm. And they shouldn’t really be able to interact with the other realms. Once each group has found their piece of the weapon, come back to together for a final epic battle.
I’d really recommend doing a set piece for this epic battle. As I think having loads of monsters around that the players aren’t really fighting, but are kind of set dressing, but there should be some generals that each group of players need to take out to fight their way to the evil deity. Then some players are going to have to do a challenge to get the weapon assembled while the others are fighting off all sorts of monsters. The big thing is that they can’t do damage to this deity without the weapon and the weapon is a one shot kill. So once they’ve gotten the weapon assembled, and you can do some interesting things with that, like them having to cast spells, deal with things in their minds that the deity might be doing to them, more than just roll a dexterity tinkering check. The other players can then be fighting off hordes and hordes of monsters, and make it cinematic and let them hit more than one thing with a swing, so minion type monsters that just pop, but also can pack a punch if they actually get to attack.
Then once the weapon is ready, take your DM control back, and basically narrate what happens. I wouldn’t let it kill the deity, something that kills a deity besides another deity is too powerful, but it could banish him to a prison dimension, where he had been banished before, but had escaped from, or had been banished for a million years. The weapon should fall apart and Dragon Ball it out of there in it’s separate parts.
That’s where the campaign ends. I would pitch this when you are starting out in sessions zeros as an epic game that is going to be fought for the fate of all the planes. Hopefully every group will be in on the game, but really lean into that this is going to be bigger and more epic than other games. Also, with that, really let the players be heroes. As a DM, you should try and avoid having characters die in this game. Also, try and limit plane hopping, I’d maybe allow conversation to happen after that mid point of the game, but traveling between planes might be locked down by either the evil deity, or by good deities to prevent the spread of the evil deity. Definitely make this game big, and I also wouldn’t make this game all that long. Power level your characters up, getting them to the mid levels by the mid point of the game, and then let them have level 20 for the epic fight, But this game doesn’t have a ton of variety, so having them level up fast, almost as chosen ones, would make the characters seem really powerful.
I also know that I said, don’t kill off the characters die in this game. The last session, that is out the window. If a character actually die dies, that’s fine, that’s the epic end, in fact, there should be a chance that everyone dies. At level 20, if it seems too easy, have plans to bump up monsters, add in different tougher monsters, add in lair effects and other hazards for the players, make it difficult on them, make them use up resources to get to the final skill challenge, and make them use resources there. Maybe the weapon needs some magic items put into it to power it, make them spend stuff that they’ve got. Maybe they need to load some spell slots into it, take away resources, and make them spend resources to get there, this should be tough. I’d give the deity a way to interact with them throughout the whole battle, so they might be fighting the deity’s generals, but the deity is also causing them problems with large area effect spells and stuff like that, make it work for what you need, even if it “breaks” the D&D rules.
So what do you think of this game? Do you think it could be cool to run something this epic, or is it too simple and combat focused?
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