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How do I get people to really EXPERIENCE DnD?
March 10, 2012 3:01 AM   Subscribe

How do I get people to really EXPERIENCE DnD?

So I"m trying out being a DM for the first time. DnD. 3.5.

First, any tools or resources or 'ask this guy any questions, he's the best DM ever' things that you throw at me will be much appreciated. I know this has been asked before, but surely, there's been new inventions and insights and people trying things since then.

Second, I want to use DnD almost as a...art form? Social critiques? Philosophical meditation? I want to have people stumble upon a gold mine, only to discover that the gold mine is sentient, and that they might have, if they believe in alleviating suffering, a moral obligation to stop the gold from being ripped from its home. But they also have to experience and hear the stories of the great benefits of the wealth that the villagers receive - that their mothers don't die in childbirth because they can afford doctors, that the children can become educated, and not work in the field, and can improve their society and the family's worth and wealth.

What themes or plotlines or events or encounters or VILLIANS can I do/have like that? I want to do STORIES that IMPACT. oh god caps. sorry.

I just want to use it as a medium to potentially, in the best of circumstances, change people. Like good art, like Shakespeare. Why not? Improvised drama. Look at the best stories of DnD online. They're all where the people buy into the games. Like people buy into the best of stories, except that they're living them out. Isn't that the magic of it?

What's the best way for doing THAT?

I guess that's question 2.5.

Third, I want my players to have an intimate, physical connection to their characters.

Let me explain.

I'm talking about things like...making someone make food for the players if they're camping out and making food. and then writing me a notecard about why their character did that. Or....if they have to do a ritual to open a door, one party member has to recite some poetry, or...one person has to immediately say that they have to go to the bathroom, and wink at the DM, at that point a timer starts, and they have five minutes to write out a speech about something their character cares about at that point in the story, and if they do a good job, they get a cool thing...things like that.

What things like that should I do in my game? And combat, is there anyway to make combat more experiential?

Fourth, I'd love for my characters to intersect with The Doctor. I've just absorbed the newer episodic in no time, and I'm hungry to experiment with the idea of the eternal presence of him in stories. I forget where it is, but I read some article, maybe from metafilter, that was about The Doctor being a god of stories.

Anyway, how should I incorporate the great and powerful and awful Doctor into my game?

Am I making sense? This is a space for creativity, and expression, and I want to fully tap into that. I might also want to record it. audio; no visual. We're nerds sitting around. unless I make someone do something funny.

Also, I may force people to wear a costume. Or bring a prop. Just to get into character. No real question here, I want players to make their own props.

These are several questions, and forgive me. But I think that all these questions are intersected in metafilter.
posted by justalisteningman to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
How much experience do you have with D&D in general? This sounds fairly ambitious for a first-time DM.
I mean, you can probably pull it off.. but you might want to spend more time familiarizing yourself with the mechanics and the "baseline experience" of D&D before you try bending it to your will.

For that matter, does it have to be D&D?
If you want a more "experience-oriented" campaign, you might consider a rules-lighter system.
Or even just free-form roleplay that isnt tied to any mechanics.
posted by jozxyqk at 3:35 AM on March 10, 2012


Okay. First of all, make sure your players are on board with this level of intensity. A lot of folk play for the smash-it-and-take-its-stuff grade shits and giggles. You may have players who do not want to become emotionally vulnerable to the other players. The players' vision of the game is just as important, if not more important, than your own. Forcing them to do anything, costumes or no, will make the game seem more like a chore than a fun night out.

Secondly, give yourself some training wheels. Running a game is very, very different to playing one. Take a smaller session or two to get a feel for the group before you bust out the Big Themes. You don't mention how much playing you've done, or whether you've played with this group. Rest assured, the dynamic is different and takes a bit of practice.

A tactic I use to create depth of character with PCs is to take a session or two to play through, one on one, the backstory and creation of that character. I started that with the White Wolf V:tM prelude system, but it lends itself well to other game styles and I honestly can't imagine playing a pc without it now, and it makes life so much richer for the DM when running. Run through their past - their childhood, their families, look into the way their past has shaped them. It can also give you the Big Themes you're looking for - unifying tidbits thrown in for colour that can lend themselves well to storyarcs.

If you want to use props, pick one significant item per session and no more, or the paraphernalia on the table will get distracting. A wanted poster is a good one, as are maps and "mysterious jewels" - junk jewelry or shiny crud from the craft shop. A bottle of mead can be fun too if you have vikings. Don't make the PCs bring props, I've seen that in play and it can be very distracting and really doesn't lend much to the game.
posted by Jilder at 3:42 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The key to DM'ing is letting the players have their own fun. Don't impose what you want their experience to be. Make it fun.

Be magic and treasure scarce and reward stupidity with death.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:47 AM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


What you're describing seems like it could lead the players to think you're ... insufferable and pompous? No offense, really. Your motives are admirable. But I am not sure you can decide in a game, any more than life, that people you're with are Going to Have a Heavy Experience, Man. It almost sounds like you want to make the D & D game like a drug trip where previously common things are suddenly looked at in a "whoa, when you reslly think about it, that's deep" sort of way. But without the drug to usher that feeling into being, or without the artistic ability of Shakespeare to create a comparable aesthetic experience, I think you run a serious risk that your attempt to show them Something Deep will be silly and boring, and that the players will be snickering under their breath if they don't laugh in your face.
posted by jayder at 5:10 AM on March 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


I agree that this sounds really ambitious for a first-time DM. I'd ease into it, let your players have some fun, get attached to their characters, and then try a little of the deeper stuff.

The fastest way I've ever seen a DM make a group bond - and bond with their characters - was to have an absolutely ridiculous game night. The party stumbles into a portal to a world where bows shoot flowers instead of arrows, the bunnies are the size of houses, etc. They return to the "real world" after figuring out a problem that can only be solved in a silly way.

Like I said, have some fun.
posted by ThisKindNepenthe at 6:52 AM on March 10, 2012


Those ideas sound to me like they will interrupt the game and slow it down rather than making it more experiential. Take into consideration the grumble factor- just because you are in charge, doesn't mean the players will accept everything you say. If you add too much of this kind of thing, you risk the game being disrupted by everyone questioning and complaining that "this isn't how games work", etc. If you are playing with experienced D&D players, I am pretty sure you will get those reactions. If you are playing with inexperienced people, you are going to have to take enough time explaining the general rules, without adding extra stuff on top.
If you want to make it more experiential, why not think more about how you could add to the atmosphere, rather than introducing gimmicks? For example, lighting, music (create a game playlist?) and sound effects, even smell - they enter a holy place and you light incense. Or they have to eat a magic cake and you actually hand some round, etc. The moral dilemma ideas sound pretty interesting though, but they can work because they will just be incorporated into the gameplay rather than pulling the players out of it.
posted by KateViolet at 7:40 AM on March 10, 2012


A friend of mine approaches being a GM much the way you are talking about it -- at the beginning of a campaign he'll hand out a hundred or so closely written pages of world building, with the geography and politics and social mores of the whole freaking planet worked out ahead of time.

Which he seems to get a lot of enjoyment from, but for the players it winds up being a little stultifying: it's difficult to do any real role play because you mostly wind up needing to be reminded whether your actions fit appropriately into the complicated world he's invented, and sessions often devolve into a sort of guessing game where you finally stumble across the next plot point in the narrative that he's worked out in its entirety ahead of time.

D&D is, ideally, a collaborative medium. Think of being a GM more as guiding an improv session than as authoring a play. Set up a general framework and have some ideas planned to keep things moving along, but let your players participate in creating the world through their actions, and discover the stories and emotional character connections together by creating them collaboratively, during play. You'll all have a lot more fun that way, and honestly will have a lot more chance of producing effective and affecting stories that way than if you're constantly arm-twisting your players by "forcing" them to wear costumes or write poems or whatever.

If your real goal is to control the story completely and produce Great Art, you probably want to write a book or a play, not GM a D&D session.
posted by ook at 7:42 AM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just a thought - might you be better off LARPing?
posted by KateViolet at 7:49 AM on March 10, 2012


Seconding the "collaborative" bit. Keep in mind that your players independent wills and are likely to disrupt your best-laid plans.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:14 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


If that's what you want to do, make 100% sure that's what your players have signed on for.

Your job is to facilitate a story. If you want your players to make a moral choice, that's great. But you must, before you introduce the choice, make the players want to make that choice. You have to make the choice meaningful for them.

To do that you have to the the players interested in the story and their characters. To do that:

- Discover the player's (characters) core desires. What do they want? Offer it to them.
- Disable them. Give them a curse, a child to be cared for, an artifact that is just as much a curse as a boon.
And then, most importantly:
- Hurt them, badly. And ideally, unjustly.

Players who have had this happen to them will be well invested in the game, they'll be fighting for their characters, and you can hang whatever story you want off of it.
posted by Ookseer at 8:27 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


On rereading I feel like my answer was too vague. So now I'm going to get way way way too specific:

making someone make food for the players if they're camping out and making food. and then writing me a notecard about why their character did that.

...the notecard is going to say "um, because we were hungry?" and the player is going to be kind of baffled. If you're talking about making a player literally get up and prepare real food, that's going to interrupt the play session.

Or....if they have to do a ritual to open a door, one party member has to recite some poetry, or...one person has to immediately say that they have to go to the bathroom

Having people actually act out whatever magical ritual their player is performing can work, providing the players know it's expected and are into the idea -- players will have different degrees of acting ability and comfort with verbalizing on the spot, and you need to accommodate that.

and wink at the DM, at that point a timer starts, and they have five minutes to write out a speech about something their character cares about at that point in the story

As a player I would have absolutely no idea what you expect of me here. I, um, care about opening the door? Because... we want to get to the other side? Also there's the go-away-and-write-some-text thing, which like the go-away-and-cook-something idea is interruptive to the play session.

is there anyway to make combat more experiential?

This is a really good question, and there are a lot of ways to approach it. You can try to set up situations where the players can't just bash their way through every combat like a big dungeon crawl -- make sure they have to run away sometimes, or negotiate sometimes, or engage in trickery or stealth. Give them opportunities to plan ahead and strategize, rather than just here's-another-roomful-of-monsters-to-fight. Plot-and-environment-relevant combat against a known and named foe you've been stalking for weeks is much more exciting than a roll against the wandering monster table. If a player comes up with a strategy that is awesome and in-character and dramatic but technically against the rules, break the rules. If a player always uses the same strategy no matter what, come up with plausible ways to thwart and divert them into other strategies. Hide your die rolls so you can cheat whenever it would be more fun / exciting / streamline the story. (Dying is rarely fun. Coming to the brink of death and then miraculously making a nigh-impossible saving through is almost always fun.) Develop a good poker face and don't do it every single combat; if they know you're cheating it's not fun anymore.

That said, remember that some players really like the dungeon crawl aspect of the game -- if you have a roomful of stats-and-loot-loving min-maxers and try to turn it into near-LARP kind of acting session, you're all in for a rough evening. If they usually like acting out but tonight's session just seem more interested in hack-and-slash, go ahead and have a hack-and-slash. Work with your players, not against them.

I want to have people stumble upon a gold mine, only to discover that the gold mine is sentient, and that they might have, if they believe in alleviating suffering, a moral obligation to stop the gold from being ripped from its home.

Provided you can come up with a way for the discovery that the mine is sentient to feel natural and not like forced exposition, and to communicate the potential moral obligation to the players in a way that makes them think it was their idea, not yours, and that their characters are of an alignment for which such an obligation makes sense, and etc etc, this might be an interesting twist on the expected dungeon crawl type of play.

"Show, don't tell" is even more important in this type of play than in most writing.

But they also have to experience and hear the stories of the great benefits of the wealth that the villagers receive - that their mothers don't die in childbirth because they can afford doctors, that the children can become educated, and not work in the field, and can improve their society and the family's worth and wealth.

This sounds to me like the play session grinding to a complete halt while you engage in a lot of exposition unrelated to the characters. I have a difficult time imagining most player parties choosing to walk back to town and spend a lot of time gossiping with the local midwife about the economic effects of their latest adventure.

I'd love for my characters to intersect with The Doctor. I've just absorbed the newer episodic in no time, and I'm hungry to experiment with the idea of the eternal presence of him in stories. I forget where it is, but I read some article, maybe from metafilter, that was about The Doctor being a god of stories.

Well, like your sentient gold mine idea, there are some fun storytelling opportunities that could be made out of this -- especially if the players don't at first realize who they're dealing with, is this some high-level mage we're dealing with? Is he a trickster god? What's that weird little wand he carries? -- but there's some risk of the players not having any idea why they should care about the guy, or it feeling like you're dragging some random other fandom element into the world because you happen to be interested in it this week.

It's good for there to be some Big Bad the characters are working against, some long story arc to give their day-to-day actions meaning -- but it's also good to keep the precise details of that arc fairly flexible, so you can incorporate ideas and story branches the players come up with rather than railroading them into a prewritten plot.

I might also want to record it. audio; no visual.

This depends entirely on your players -- some may find this brings out their inner ham, some may be very inhibited by it. Ditto costumes, props, etc.

I make someone do something funny. ... Also, I may force people to wear a costume ... No real question here, I want players to make their own props.

Think about the words you're using here. "I make", "force", "I want". That's really not how this works. You can't arm-twist and railroad your players and expect them to enjoy it.

Less I, more we. Less force, more encourage.
posted by ook at 8:59 AM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Let me approach this an entirely different way, after reading the other answers here.

I can see this working as comedy. Like, a skit where you're the overbearing dungeon master wanting to pontificate, and the other players are wanting to have fun, so they are frustrated and shooting each other exasperated glances and saying, "we just want to play the game, man ..."

This could be truly funny. Imagine a Will Ferrell type as the dungeon master. Try working this up as comedy maybe?
posted by jayder at 9:06 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of the answers here are suggesting that you don't try to be ambitious with your first game. That's good advice. Slow down a bit. But, remember: this doesn't mean throw your ideas away! When you have a cool idea, write it down. You can have a whole file of Neat Things To Try. Just because you can't fit it all into this game doesn't mean you'll never have a chance.

If you go into a game with a whole bunch of New Things To Try, it's going to be confusing, and experimental, and open to serious failure. So, for any give game, I suggest throwing in one New Idea. Have one thing about your game be slightly innovative or strange. That way, if the New Idea works, great! But if it fails, well, it's only one small element of the overall game that's a little odd, and everything else can run smoothly.

Have you seen the DnD episode of Community? (If not, do!) One thing to note is that the action is quite intense, even though it's all just descriptions of fights. A large element of the intensity is the music and sound effects. A really easy way you can try to set the mood without requiring undo work for your players is just having appropriate music primed for key parts of the game.
posted by meese at 9:23 AM on March 10, 2012


My recommendation is to scale it way back in implementation. Your current level of enthusiasm will be off-putting to the more casual players. Many people don't WANT to have to dress up in costumes, nor do they want to be recorded. What they want is to have a fun casual adventure. Your job as DM, if your goal is to run a fun campaign for all, is to understand and implement how to give this to them.

As this is your first game as a DM, try running a more modest campaign. You'll learn quite a bit about how your plans for the world differ from what the characters actually decide to do. Namely, you can't make characters do anything (or even make them want to do something): you eliminate their free will, and no one wants to be powerless in a game where you are a powerful warrior. In such games I've seen, people will gradually become "unavailable" to the point where the game dies.

There are always exceptions to the rules. If you were to find a dedicated, creative, passionate group of folk who've played DnD many times before and who are all into having this high level of campaign, sure you can pull off the level of realism you're envisioning. But to thrust such pressure onto the casual player, which tends to be the majority of all roleplayers in general based on what I've seen, is not only unfair to their level of experience, it's unfair to you because you will never be satisfied with their level of engagement (or lack thereof).

No one wants to play a game that is not fun, bottom line. That's a violation of the Primary Rule of Gaming. Similarly, no one wants to play in a sandbox world where everything has already been built in stone:

"I want to have people stumble upon a gold mine, only to discover that the gold mine is sentient, and that they might have, if they believe in alleviating suffering, a moral obligation to stop the gold from being ripped from its home. But they also have to experience and hear the stories of the great benefits of the wealth that the villagers receive - that their mothers don't die in childbirth because they can afford doctors, that the children can become educated, and not work in the field, and can improve their society and the family's worth and wealth. "

What happens when your players choose to take all the gold after lighting the village on fire? Not many sob stories to hear after that, problem solved!

In an ironic twist, in such a situation it's YOU who learns a deep lesson about ethics and truly "experiences" all that DnD has to offer, by observing the depths of depravity some humans can fall to. You can keep exploring this by further roleplaying this demise. This is part of the creative fun! THIS is how you make it more than just a story.

So I suggest broadening your perspective past what you want and into what your players want, else be prepared to have these "have to"s and "wants" completely unfulfilled. People won't do things just because you want them to. That level of uncontrol is what's seen in a book or a movie. DnD is a collaborative story creation game, thus it's imperative to allow free will; otherwise your campaign is doomed to fail.

A final note, your level of passion is very admirable! Don't shed it just because of the feedback you receive here, just channel it where it's best used. Keep a little notebook on you and jot down your ideas to incorporate them into later games with new people. Find a group of hardcore DnD players and join in as a player to see how they deal with some of the issues discussed here (free will vs storyline, level of dedication, level of realism, etc). Hone your DM skills by DMing all types of games. Make your name in the DnD community. THEN set up a hardcore game, make a blog for it, record it, go all out, with all the skills and knowledge you now have!
posted by Meagan at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Create scenarios where actions have unforeseen consequences.

There's a plague in the village. The villagers blame the kobolds, so they attack them. But the kobolds are too much for them and are attacking the village. The party clears out the kobold lair. But they find a magical kobold child that can heal the plague. If the party kills the kobold child, they anger a kobold demigod that attacks the village, and now the village thinks the party did something horribly wrong and they have to fix it. But if the party takes the kobold child back to the village, the villagers think they've been betrayed and attack the party.

Eventually, you might discover that the plague was caused by a vampire preying on the town. Mabe the vampire was in cahoots with a town elder looking to eliminate a rival? But maybe the rival is an insane kobold-hater? So, who exactly is the party helping here?

For every "easy" answer, you think of two things that can go wrong when the answer is applied.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:46 AM on March 10, 2012


Try working this up as comedy maybe?

Or try a different gaming system. Here's one which requires an overbearing GM with a complex hidden agenda: Paranoia.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think you should stick to the basics at first, maybe buy a simple adventure to use and run that. You also sound like you want to write a book, not run a D&D campaign. The DM is the setting not the actions, those come from players. You make a world for other to play in, not a story.
posted by meepmeow at 12:56 PM on March 10, 2012


Your question seems a little like "I'm going to write a story. How do I make it a grand sweeping epic that will forever change its readers?"

Read Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, Greg Stolze's How to Run Roleplaying Games, The Lazy Man's Guide to Gamemastering, The Big List of RPG plots. But don't get bogged down in thinking you need to read everything about GMing before you do it.

Then throw problems at the characters. Pay attention to the players and what they're enjoying and what they want. For anything involving investigating a mystery, remember that you don't need to think much about adding red herrings -- the players will create their own red herrings by obsessing over some detail you considered pointless. When this happens, see if you can figure out a way on the fly for it to be an avenue of investigation that moves the story forward; if you can't, make it as clear as possible it's a dead end and move on. Nothing's more boring than interviewing the NPC who knows nothing or won't say anything. Take a lesson from the Gumshoe system games: don't make finding critical clues dependent on a die roll, letting things grind to a halt if the roll fails. The characters always find the drawer with the false bottom if they look for it. If things drag, attack them with ninjas.

Get some experience with being good, then think about being great.

Keep in mind that it's not all about you, it's everyone at the table cooperating to create a fun experience for everyone.

And have fun.
posted by Zed at 9:36 AM on March 12, 2012


Here are more pointers to articles on GMing. And Places to Go, People to Be has some good articles, and one could read Roleplaying tips all day.
posted by Zed at 9:51 AM on March 16, 2012


Speaking of background, have it written out, the players get almost no info. They are generic, I let them write their own background. Any supposed advantage , i.e. Price of the Helmlands, is offset by additional backstory detailing how his father was deposed and rather than having it easy, is on the run.

Write the big background. Dole the facts of that background slowly.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:20 PM on March 18, 2012


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