Share your favorite Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
April 8, 2010 10:15 AM   Subscribe

What was your best D&D experience?

I just finished reading 30 Years of Adventure, the history of D&D. I was struck by how much work went into the creation of the campaign settings, from Ravenloft to Dark Sun to Forgotten Realms -- never mind the historical sourcebooks like A Mighty Fortress.

I think back to my own campaigns and realize they were actually pretty primitive, probably because my friends and I were about 14 and didn't understand story structure or subtle characterization.

So my questions are these: Did you use the campaign settings that the writers at TSR created? Did any of those minor gods in the back pages of Forgotten Realms ever see daylight?

And beyond the written settings, what were your favorite homegrown campaigns? What plots and character arcs made them so enjoyable? Ask MeFi has posts on how to make a great campaign, but I can't find any sort of discussion on what past campaigns made for a great D&D role-playing experience.

Before answering, please Save vs. Magic Wands.
posted by Flying Saucer to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (35 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I played for about 4 years through college with the same group, with the same characters. We had a lot of great moments. All our scenarios were homegrown. Our DM had a group from his high school days that he still played with on occasion; one summer we all got together, the college group and the high school group, for a PvP battle that had been setup by our respective gods. It was fantastic.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:21 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got started playing D&D in high school with a bunch of friends of mine & an older DM who ran through a lot of the packaged adventures with us. It was fun because it was new & is age & authority made the stuff we did with him seem sort of canonical.

But my best memories of actually playing were from a few years later when it was just me & my friends and we improvised a lot of stuff, eventually eschewing even dice (or if they were there they were props) for storytelling.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:26 AM on April 8, 2010

I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember any of the details you've mentioned. My D&D experiences were from the mid- to late-70's and we just played and played and went to SFCons and learned pinochle and worked on bridge bidding strategies when the D&D quests lagged. I never aspired to being a DM. I knew it was a lot of work to build a universe. But every weekend was a 72 hour marathon of play and exploration.
posted by michswiss at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2010

I have some *great* memories of playing my way through In Search of the Unknown, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and The Ghost Tower of Inverness with a group of friends in 6th grade - they inspired us to create a campaign of our own (up until then we had only used the prepackaged ones) - it was pretty crude, but it was the first writing that any of us had done, and a lot of fun just the same.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband has been playing for over 15 years with the same core group of four people, with other members drifting in and drifting out. For the most part, they've held the same characters all that time. I would guess that over that time they've played at least a hundred pre-made campaigns/adventures plus things their regular GM has written.

One thing that makes them as entertaining for me (an observer) as they are to play is that they actually are roleplaying -- thinking and acting as their character would, sometimes with hilarious results. Also, the GM isn't afraid to throw puzzles at them, things they need to think about rather than hack through. And its not all laughs: they've played some unbelievably 'heavy' scenarios (mostly written by their regular GM) over the years ... not just "end of the world" type stuff, but we had one character (not player) who became an alcoholic and the GM sort of realistically wrote this into the a string of scenarios, until finally the other characters had to stage what was basically an intervention for him.

The core of why this works is that the players (who are both men and women) really know and trust each other, and they take joy in the rules, the adventure, and also the role-play.
posted by anastasiav at 10:53 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

My best D&D experience was DM'ing with a mixed group in high school (boys and girls, no lie), and describing the entrance to an evil fane as:
"You see an enormous stone entrance, carved with twisted and grotesque images depicting the gods of this region. Two gigantic brassieres flare up as you approach."
That was it for that game. This may not be the kind of story you were looking for.
posted by Aquaman at 10:57 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Natural 20 - the spell is reflected off my ring of spell protection in a random direction at half power.

I've played a few different settings, ravenloft was kind of neat, but very dark and its pretty hard to keep that grim mood when people are chugging dew or whatever. Most games were in a generic world the DM's made. Personally the best time I had was a weekend camping trip to a primitive site. The game actually started to get larp-ish with hilarious results. Good times.

You have to go check out the campaigns that Gabe from Penny-Arcade is doing. He's a new DM and going through a simialr thing. He's setup some very cool stuff - adventures in large moving clockworks, free-fall combat, WoW-type questing, time travel (including going from 4e to 1st edition rulesets). I'm pretty jealous.
posted by anti social order at 10:58 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my experience, the fun of exploring the characters and the storyline was always pretty constant. In general, I believe that people who like to play D&D will explore and get really creative with the story line and play really well with a good DM who can react well to that.

The best experiences I've had are when the DM took careful time to examine and understand the actual abilities and equipment of each person in the party. For example, if you have a druid, make sure the campaign goes out of doors so your druid can do something other than bonk a bad guy on the head with a wooden sword from time to time. It may seem obvious but it can get pretty tricky to set up your encounters so that your players can get creative.

In my opinion, the great fun of D&D as a game is in allowing clever people to get really effective with the very small amount of things available to them, and how they work together. The most fun I can ever remember happening is when we worked creatively as a team to bring down a particularly difficult enemy, when it seemed impossible at first. The story arcs have always been far less important to me.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:01 AM on April 8, 2010

Response by poster: These are some great responses. It looks like I'm not the only one who likes to reminisce about the old dice days.

we had one character (not player) who became an alcoholic and the GM sort of realistically wrote this into the a string of scenarios, until finally the other characters had to stage what was basically an intervention for him.

I'm a writer, so this information that I most appreciate. The creators at TSR made up all these worlds and scenarios and quests...but what did people really play? Did anyone really take part in a gigantic war of good vs. evil? Did anyone grow to love an NPC, only to watch them die? Did anyone have to make a difficult moral choice, even sacrificing themselves to save others?

Basically, can you look back and go -- "Jeez, when I was 17, I actually wrote a novel!" (Or a screenplay.)
posted by Flying Saucer at 11:07 AM on April 8, 2010

My favorite D&D moments didn't happen at the gaming table. My favorite moments came while designing and populating places. Writing backstory for NPCs, figuring out why the mad wizard's keep kept the village's fishing fleet so busy (someone's gotta feed the lizardmen, right?), adding the little flourishes and telling details that bring a place to life.

And then the players would stomp through in ten minutes on their way to the next locked chest containing a +1 Ring of Whatever.

posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:24 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I DM'd a lot, and there are various memories associated with that... but my absolute favorite stand-out moment as a player was when I played a chaotic-neutral wizard...whose back-story was that he had at one time been lawful good wizard until a horrible magical mishap fried his noggin. Not only was he now basically batshit insane, but he also was utterly convinced that he was a paladin rather than a wizard....a rather inconsistently upstanding paladin, at that.

As far as DM'ing goes? There's a lot there... but one of the memories that stands out is an entire combat staged in the rigging of tall ships that were set ablaze.
posted by kaseijin at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2010

My hands down favorite game was one where we players started as 0-th level kids and eventually grew into this epic story. Nobody who started with a future class in mind ended up with it. I was going thief, but ended up a cleric (of Mask, but hey, I was also the Heir to Hillsfar), the ranger hopeful ended up a barbarian (Templar of Tempus), and so on.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:36 AM on April 8, 2010

When I was a kid, I built some dungeons, with some puzzle areas and some free-for-all areas. They were usually themed, rather than monster hotels. We ran a lot of short, fun sessions around goofy ideas, so I tried to speed up the process of getting to the playing part. To that end, I wrote some software to speed along character creation and had "equipment packs" listed up — well-balanced sets of tools that the average adventurer might have, with slants towards one thing or another. I would pick up a mythos from Deities & Demigods, but aside from a module or two, I never used the settings for a whole campaign. I did use Lankmar, from Nehwon, as a backdrop, briefly — made for a nice stop. One Ravenloft module, the first one, was used. It didn't do much for me. Eventually we wanted something bigger.

My best campaigns included immersion and a series of short arcs and longer arcs. Each player had to have one prop, could be a hat or anything. When it was on, you were speaking as the character. When it was off, you were you. This kept things in-character after a while. I had a big folder of NPCs. Aside from the stats and equipment, they'd also have notes on their attitudes, accents, mannerisms, goals and whatnot. The short arcs were missions and dungeons, obstacles and quests. The long arcs were usually Big Payoff stuff where it called back to some trivial bit from short arcs. That NPC you guys kept blowing off? Yeah. He was the guy. Things were always happening in-game, whether the players were around or not; when it came time for them to hatch, it would be nice if the characters were up to it, but if they weren't, they were gonna be hurtin'. I didn't much like the Good vs. Evil theme, but Light-dwellers versus those Underground (led by the mind flayers, natch) was a fairly big deal. Given that the mind flayers wanted to blot out the hated sun (yeah, the yellow face, it burns us) and all.
posted by adipocere at 11:48 AM on April 8, 2010

I was almost always the DM in my group. I was one of the obsessive worldbuilder types. In my closet as a teenager were half a dozen manuscript boxes each filled to the brim with notes and history and hand-drawn maps for a different invented world. I feel like my best D&D memories mostly revolve around helping my players craft backstories for their PCs that tied into the world I had created. I can't say whether I was a particularly good DM, but goddammit by campaigns took place in real, complete, places.

There was one other player in our group who liked to take a turn at DMing occasionally. He was a fan of the Dragonlance books, so his early games took place in that setting. For all it's flaws, I have no doubt that the Dragonlance setting was better crafted than my own adolescent imaginings. Despite that, the players generally seemed to agree that having a third party sourcebook sucked a lot of the love and life out of the world. He ended up running his later games in a campaign world that I crafted to order.

It's been years since I had an opportunity to play a pen and paper RPG (though I'd love to... Philly metafilter D&D anyone?) but I still have a certain deep-seated disdain for pre-crafted campaign settings.
posted by 256 at 11:48 AM on April 8, 2010

My favorite campaign was just a few years ago. I was playing a gnome Truenamer on a boatload of assorted pirates, including a Thri-Keen cook. Our DM was strongly in the camp of "story over rules", so basically if we could roughly justify something rules-wise, he would find a way to make it work. I think that's what made it so awesome. It's difficult (for me to) cram a character into the ruleset, so knowing that I had the ability to take a little liberty with the rules was great. (Un)surprisingly, even with so few restrictions on "what fits in the world", we ended up with a really well-rounded, interesting, and consistent group. It also enabled us to do crazy things like making up our own spells, abilities, and cultures.

I set a tornado on fire.

We didn't play pre-written worlds, although we borrowed a few of the religions.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:02 PM on April 8, 2010

We used to use wacky house rules. Two of the best were:

1) The Hero Point. I think this was cribbed from some other RPG. The idea is, you're a hero, not a slave to mathematics. In the movies, Indiana Jones and James Bond don't roll for initiative. So, every character starts off with 1 "hero point." These can be spent whenever the player wants to spend them, and trigger a successful, heroic-yet-reasonable action that is instantly successful. "Oh shit, my buddy is low on hit points and the orc is lining up for a final attack. But my attack round is over, so I can't do anything. Fuck it, I spend a hero point and throw sand in his face!" The DM makes the call on whether it's reasonable to assume it could be done, and what the actual effects are.

Conversely, you earn hero points for successfully performing particularly bold, unusual actions that turn out to be successful.

"The palace guards heard you, so they come charging up the stairs and find you."
"I point to the open window and yell, 'He went that way! Quick, after him!'"
"Hmm, roll a Bluff check. That's going to be a tough one..."
"I got it!"
"Holy shit! That's worth a hero point!"

2) Heads or Tails. You play a quick, easy scenario with low-level characters. The catch? All the "to hit" dice rolls, saving throws, activations, etc, are replaced by coin flips, and every damage roll is either 1 or 2 hit points. No bonuses, THAC0, nothing. I swing my sword. Did I hit? Yes or no. How much damage? Heads is one, tails is two.

Permanent character death, severe injury, item gains or losses are not part of this game. This is for non-canon, non-campaign, what-if scenarios.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:03 PM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

The best time I had was a summer when I was in college. We played...40 hours a week, easy. Our DM had story arcs for us, but also let us do our own thing, and was really, really good at improvising when we'd do something he didn't expect. Encounters, even whole side-quests he'd just make up on the spot, and it was seamless. That was an amazing time. When my dwarf was finally killed, I was depressed IRL for weeks. One of my friends said "I knew this would happen". Still the best memories of the game for me.

The worst was in contrast, and because of. A few years later I was playing with different group of people. Our party was attacked (just a random encounter) by some hill giants. After we killed them, I said "let's see if we can find out where they are staying, and kill any others/get more loot". The DM first looked angry at me, then panic stricken when he couldn't handle us going off-track.
posted by Gorgik at 12:10 PM on April 8, 2010

On the house rule issue, we would generally get "cool bonuses." If my rogue wanted to jump from one building through the window of another building, Jason Bourne style, instead of just running away, my odds of hitting the right window were pretty good.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:10 PM on April 8, 2010

So, I've been playing D&D for something like 20+ years now, almost always as a DM, and my favorite games have always - ALWAYS - been the ones where players buy into their characters, and care about them as more than statistics engines. When my player's characters grow and change and develop in very human ways. Additionally, I've always enjoyed it when players could really *make their mark* on a world.

Maybe that's I never went in for TSR settings, except maybe Dark Sun, nor the prepackaged modules. So, of course, my favorite campaign setting is the one I've been sandboxing in since college. In graduate school, I plotted out an ran an epic campaign, the sort that ends up remaking the very face of the setting, from top to bottom. A couple of years back, I did some thought experiments as to what that NEW setting would look like after a thousand years or so, then started a NEW campaign in that new setting, with all of the source material from the first game being the background material for the new game. (Does that even make sense?)

But, I'll tell you what, here's probably the campaign I ran closest to my heart: it's the one I did my NaNoWriMo about. In that setting, different from the one above, I did a similar sort of thing: ran a campaign, ended campaign. Fast forwarded a decade, had some of the old character meet some new level ones and start a new campaign. So, we're on the third iteration of this setting, when all but one of the original characters are dead or missing or so ungodly powerful that they no longer have PC-like agendas.

So, my players and I sit down and figure out how to base an entire party based around a single ex bard. We come up with: She has retired and become a governess for a tangential ally from the previous campaigns. So, from the outset, things are already awesome. Since the party is made all at once, everyone has really flushed out and interconnected characters: The middle aged bard, reasonably high level. Three brothers, one (the oldest) of whom returning home after being disowened by his father, one of whom was kind of a scummy, responsibility ducking epicurian who was forced to take over Lordship after father died (which is the hook that brought everyone together) , and one of whom was kind of bitchy and embittered. Add to that a skeezy best friend and you've got a party ALREADY rich with human drama.

So, they run around and adventure and get into the Major Quest Chain and it's awesome. They act like a real family, but that's nothing compared to the final battle. They finally track down the cult leader behind all the troubles, track her to an abandoned temple in the swamp (of course) and climb to the top to finish the job. By this time, of course, a pair of cousins have been added to the party.

So, final battle. It's HARD. The cultist turns into some winged, lovecraftian horror. One person becomes dominated and kills another party member - who he had been secretly crushing on for ages - only to snaps out of it, see what happened, and just start weeping and completely withdraws from combat. Another one (a wild mage), in desperation, triggers a wild surge that ends up making her go blind and crazy, causing a bunch of damage and confusion to friend and foe. Everyone else is trading blows with Big Bad until, finally, they have this demon-cultist-person trapped and almost dead. As a last minute ploy, the cultist grapples with one of the brothers and starts using him as a human shield, clutching him close to its body and starting to fly away. It's a sort of standoff, and if something isn't done, the baddie is clearly going to get away.

So the oldest brother, who has always been an Ends Justify the Means sort of guy, runs over to the PK'ed teammate and picks up her (really powerful bow), readies and draws, then shoots an arrow STRAIGHT AT his youngest brother, whom it goes clear through, and into the monster, who is mortally wounded. The winged corpse of this monstrous thing falls from the sky - taking the wounded, but still screaming, brother into the abyss with it. The family then proceeds to completely fall apart in backbiting and recriminations during the epilogue.

Never have I seen a more somber group at a campaign's conclusion. I have never seen a more somber bunch of victors in my life.

Well, maybe once. A different setting, a different group, all still relatively low level, travels into a swamp (I love swamps!) to go fight a "Great Wyrm of the Earth," to recover a bunch of kidnapped kids. They fight a 20' long dragony thing, kill it, and recover the kid. The party, in the midst of celebration and "Man, we're going to be HEROES!" talk, is shocked as the ground starts to shake. BOOM! A GREAT WYRM explodes from the ground and takes to the air - all they have managed to kill is the beast's offspring. They flee into the swamp with the children and hide. The dragon, pissed as hell, flies to the village that dispatched the party, burns it to the ground, killing all the residence. So, now the party has a bunch of really traumatized and miserable kids who they have "rescued," only to have them watch the razing of their town and the destruction of everyone and everything they ever loved. On the quiet walk back, one of the players mumbles "Being a hero sucks."

Good times.
posted by absalom at 12:26 PM on April 8, 2010 [14 favorites]

In adulthood, I've gamed with the same group for seven years, playing under one DM for three of those years, then taking a turn in the DM's chair myself for four, and have just retired my campaign and handed the reins over to another so that I can get my weekends back and enjoy being a player again.

The first campaign we had was set in the Forgotten Realms, but our DM didn't really leverage a lot of the flavor aside from "it's a fantasy world with elves and orcs and stuff" Instead, he bolted on his own plot that revolved around a mad wizard siphoning off fragments of souls from newborn children in a bid for god hood. It's like the rounding error scam from Office Space but with soul damaged children turning into autistic toddler assassins. Creepy, but then it turns out that the mad wizard / villain is an ex-wife of one of the PC's, who was kidnapped in his back story and who he had all but given up for dead earlier. The subsequent quest to find her and redeem her was probably one of our memorable adventures. What I learned from that is alluded to by others -- get the PCs involved and keep them invested in the story. Ask them to give you hooks and collaborate on fleshing those out into adventures.

The campaign that I ran was a homebrew setting loosely based on 'Fantasy Earth' ie. Earth geographic areas resettled with elves and dwarves and orcs, then run through a couple of iterations of Guns, Germs and Steel to speculate how history would be different if you toss in some standard fantasy tropes, like having a race of naturally long lived individuals or a divine God who actually directly interacts with his chosen people and tells them when they're being retarded and misinterpreting his will.

The players responded to the world well because 'it made sense' and there wasn't this whole need to relearn the politics of Zhentil Keep or the history of Eberron's Last War to be an effective roleplayer. We could devise shorthand descriptions of cultures based on commonly understood tropes -- "Tibetans are Buddhist dwarves who live in the Himalaya and worship elemental djinns." "The Prussians are Christianised orcs and half-orcs who have merged a human military tradition from the Teutonic Crusades with tribal semi-nomadic culture that evolved from the Polish and Russian steppe." etc.

I also tended to err heavily on story over rules, and while I consciously opted to make raise dead and resurrection unavailable for setting flavor and to keep the party on their toes, I did not strive for high character attrition. I also opted for heavily 'object-oriented gamesmastering', keeping a loose framework of plot ideas, villains and quests then adapting them on the fly as the PCs made decisions. I did not have a specific set of guards for a given king. I had a template for a human guard that could be advanced through 20 levels of CR and spreadsheets that auto-calc'ed what their stats would be if they were a hobgoblin or a minotaur. I had generic fortresses and prisons and temples that had rooms that could be arranged for variety and to keep the PCs guessing. I had a general flowchart of how the rest of the region and world's history would evolve without PC intervention and gave them regular news reports that could turn into quest ideas later on.

The PCs really liked the idea of living world that had its own momentum outside of their actions, but could still be influenced by them if they were bold or audacious enough to do so. I tried really hard not to railroad them and instead always left it up to them to pick up or drop anything as it piqued their interests, while still playing out the logical consequences of each action (oh, so you clear out a zombie nest only to find that there's a nearby mine of black onyx gems ... and you want to take over the mine and make it your business enterprise? You do know that black onyx is a vital spell component for animate dead and other necromancy right? You still want to go ahead with that? ok, then ..)

I could never predict , out of the dozen ideas that I would shotgun out, what the players would latch on to. Whatever they picked though, was usually something that had a brilliant bit of potential that we would tease and elaborate on until something shinier and more awesome came along. (that onyx mine? totally inconsequential bit of flavor that I didn't think about when prepping the zombie nest ... later on, it and the consequence of being associated with it would be the focus for six different adventure arcs)

It was a fair bit of work to keep this running smoothly, and I will definitely admit to using wandering monster encounters as a delaying tactic more than once ... ("oh, you want to head to the besieged city right away rather than restock supplies and gather intelligence? Ok, on the way there you are ambushed by a stock group of pre-stat'ed golems and their mage handler... that should run the clock out of the session and give me another week to stat out the siege scenario...") but I think that the players really enjoyed:

a) playing in a world that they can understand and feels real to them
b) playing in a story where their characters are involved, but not alone
c) playing in a plot where they feel that they are in control

because then it really does become collaborative storytelling, and the creation of the world is not just based on the GM's vision, but the player's interpretation of that vision; which makes for a richer whole.
posted by bl1nk at 1:05 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

More years ago than I care to think about, I ran a campaign set in a relatively low magic world. All the the player characters had to start out as humans initially (most bitched about it) because elves and dwarves and orcs were something you encountered, not something you were. Mages were untweaked from the original rules and very weak at low levels and liable to die at inconvenient times, so there were very few powerful wizards meaning high level spellcasters were almost invariably famous/infamous.

Eventually, after the party had encountered non-humans and traveled to places they might be found, I allowed for humanoid player characters. Those players had to deal with human (and other non-human) prejudices, language barriers, etc.

Fast forward to a couple years ago, reminiscing with one of my former players, and he happened to mention he loved that campaign...this despite his having been one of the people complaining the loudest about the "restrictions" I put on character creation.
posted by JaredSeth at 1:11 PM on April 8, 2010

My best experiences? Honestly, playing a no-dice version on the bus in elementary and middle school—middle school especially, because we had about an hour bus ride. It was more like an interactive story that all us regular bus riders had a part in than any sort of coherent campaign or even exploration. It was also loads of fun.
posted by klangklangston at 1:34 PM on April 8, 2010


Played 1st ed D&D at primary (which in NZ is age 7-12) school and with my brother - no ongoing stories, just random abortive dungeon crawls. Gave it up for a few years then started again with an American friend at age 14 or so. He gave me (and my friends) an object lesson in what DMing actually meant, and we're still putting those lessons into practice 25 years later.

In the event we stopped playing straight D&D pretty fast as it was a terrible system (old school nostalgia notwithstanding) and we rocked a hybrid of Rolemaster and D&D instead - in retrospect, from a similar impulse towards simulationism that would eventually lead to 3e.

Moving into the 90's, we branched out into cyberpunk/sci fi campaigns for a while, (still with the US friend DMing) playing cashiered ex-soldiers doing the bidding of some anonymous functionary - who turned out (in a move that seems obvious now but completely blindsided us at the time) to be the Big Bad of the setting, when she tricked us into blowing up a city.

The next campaign took the same characters, now on the run, older wiser and way more cynical, and threw them into a freeform sandbox of a solar system, full of interlocking power blocs - applecarts that we would gleefully upset.

The other main thread of those years was an endless, rambling Rolemaster campaign where we could go anywhere and do anything. No particular thrust, just wandering round and hitting stuff on the head in excitingly clinical detail.

Fast forward a few years and I took up the reins for a Mage/Rolemaster hybrid (which is near to a perfect system, in my view), "Hunting of the Snark". Set in our home town of Wellington, with a very strong horror/conspiracy vibe, it took some deep, and damaged characters and put them through the emotional and psychological ringer - essentially psychoanalyzing the players. It had a plot that was so complicated I'm not even sure I understood it, and eventually had to write a wrap-up short story to explain to the players what had happened to them.

Then my mate Dave did an awesome Rolemaster campaign set in a Venice style city with a great story arc which had more superbly cinematic encounters than a stick could be easily shaken at.

After that I did a sequel, "Unstable Elements", with the players as sharp suited reality cops investigating the fallout from the first campaign - sort of a cross between 'the Matrix', Sapphire and Steel and 'Jumper'. Same style of personality directed gaming, with a fairly tight episodic scenario based design. Clearer, but I still did a wrapup story at the end to lay out what happened next.

Following that we had a lengthy D&D 3.5 campaign, with rotating DMs and a very vague overarching plot that (while awesome) eventually broke down under the strains of 3.5's systemic flaws. We did do some fantastic system free gaming though - I'd recommend that as a solution to 3/5s problems with high level gaming, just go uber narrative and use the system as a very rough guide to what you can do.

ANNNNND currently I'm just wrapping up a nine level 4e campaign that started as tongue in cheek old school romping with a remixed version of Keep on the Shadowfell and has moved into a dizzyingly complex desert city adventure with multiple interlocking factions and apocalyptic Lovecraftian shenanigans. I've put a lot of effort this time to making sure the players understand the plot and have ample opportunity to affect it - to the point where the collected email 'back and forths' amount to about 10000 words of in character dialogue and description.

So looking back we've basically been bouncing control around for 30 years, learning off each other, having an absolute blast. My own preference is for image driven scenes rather than sandbox - I think of what I want to see happen, and set up the scenario so it does. I've been agonising a little over whether this is railroading, but I'm pretty confident at this stage that it's not - rather that I think of what my players are going to do and have plausible, interesting things to accomodate their likely actions.

It's been quite a ride.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:17 PM on April 8, 2010

oh, and on catching up with the rest of the thread
In my experience, the fun of exploring the characters and the storyline was always pretty constant. In general, I believe that people who like to play D&D will explore and get really creative with the story line and play really well with a good DM who can react well to that.
I'd totally agree with this and some of my favorite moments from watching players as a DM is in crafting difficult but not impossible situations for them and seeing them pull off something amazing.

Let them pay for being sloppy by getting ambushed and overwhelmed by goblins. Instead of having the goblins kill them, let them wake up captured and stripped of their possessions. The cleric can't cast any cure spells because his holy symbol was confiscated, the fighters have no weapons and the mage doesn't have a spell component pouch.

but ... oh wait, the party spellthief can "steal" cure light wounds from the cleric and cast spells for him by proxy. Then, when the guard comes, let the unarmed fighter grapple him and start causing damage by literally choking the guard to death ... and watch the party wake up from being a totally despairing "we nearly got TPK'ed" bunch to a daring squad of prison escapees.
posted by bl1nk at 3:19 PM on April 8, 2010

cool papa bell, the first time i saw the "hero point" concept in play was the 1st ed Star Wars RPG rules, which had a description very similar to the one you wrote. i think they called them "force points", and they were to be spent bending the rules to do something incredibly heroic and awesome.

i have had many, many great experiences, but one of my favorites was sitting at a "first timer's" table at the San Diego comicon sometime in the late 80's. i'd been talking the the TSR rep running the table for a while between mini-adventures, and he was cool with my sitting in on the last one of the day even though i'd been playing for years.

i kept a low profile for the most part, letting the new kids try out their level one characters (we all rolled lvl1s to play this little 30min mission) and get a feel for the rules. a handful of kobolds were storming a building we were in and i'd blown my one spell for the day (sleep) to try and give us a fighting chance, but a few were coming on strong and really hacking us up. the fighter was almost dead, the cleric was unconcious, and one kobold was still basically untouched.

i told the DM i was gonna just throw myself in there and wail on the kobold since i couldn't do much of anything else at that point. the DM raised his eyebrows and said "you sure? you're a lvl1 wizard, this is a bold move". i went for it, rolled a 17 to hit and a 6 for damage, taking out the last kobold and winning me the cheers of my party.

god times! especially for an ubernerdy 13 year old.
posted by radiosilents at 3:20 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

ugh, good times, not god times.
posted by radiosilents at 3:23 PM on April 8, 2010

Our D&D days were greatly improved when we got a hold of The Red Book aka Chivalry and Sorcery.

We kit bashed like mad and dice and rules had no meaning ultimately. It was a world where we could immerse and the DM (sometimes me) made the judgment calls on actions performed.

Plots were background elements but somehow the actuality of day to day life always took the fore.

To quote Lennon "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
posted by Max Power at 3:37 PM on April 8, 2010

the first time i saw the "hero point" concept in play was the 1st ed Star Wars RPG rules

I IMd a high school buddy, and he said we got it from the James Bond role-playing game, and its wiki entry indeed references hero points. I imagine the game was cross-pollinated into lots of games.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:40 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, another cool moment, we had a pirate-themed campaign where our bard had a magical rowboat that transformed from a little wooden box into a boat when the magic words were uttered, gogomagicrowboat or something. So they're in a battle, Bard is taking a beating from 3-4 baddies. He tosses the box over their heads and yells GOGOMAGICROWBOAT!
posted by craven_morhead at 3:47 PM on April 8, 2010

Max Power, it been a long time since I've played but wasn't C&S the game where you could actually die during character creation?
posted by JaredSeth at 5:00 PM on April 8, 2010

In middle school and high school I would very occasionally play a game with some of my friends. This was in the days of 2e. I didn't own any of the books and didn't really spend any effort figuring out how all those tables affected my character so I was basically just along for the ride. Even after several combats I would still not understand THAC0 and whatnot.

Then I went a long time without playing, although by reading threads like this, I realized I had been doing it wrong. So last year, when our old DM started up a new online game, I figured I'd do it right, because it'd probably be more fun that way. I bought the PHB, flipped through all of it at least enough to have a sense of what my options were and how they fit together, and then made a character, complete with a background that was already specifically tied in to our homebrew setting.

And it was totally worth it, because now I'm grooving on this nice interplay between the rules-y choices I make for my character—powers, feats, equipment, etc.—and the roleplaying choices. And just recently all that game together, with the campaign, to a very awesome coherent climax. We were being chased by this freaky drow guy, and he framed us for a murder he committed, and after we broke out of jail, who do we find but the guy himself, overseeing some sort of demon-summoning ceremony? Except for some reason, it seems like he's turning on the priests in charge...

Metagame-wise, I realized it was probably smart to hold off and let the situation unfold a little longer. But that would've been completely out-of-character. So instead there was this beautiful moment where mechanics and roleplaying came together so that I scrambed past the rest of the party and just starting wailing on this drow.

I still don't know what he was up to! And that's probably the biggest mystery in this campaign right now. Hopefully we'll figure it out sooner or later—but when we do, it'll be a way we decide, in-character. And that's pretty great.
posted by brett at 5:43 PM on April 8, 2010

I played years ago, and sadly haven't had much of an opportunity to play since. I remember playing the Dragonlance modules when they came out. The world was well crafted, but you were very much on rails (you kind of had to follow the plot of the books), but later, when the World of Dragonlance book came out, you could set up your own stories in that world, pre or post-war, which wasn't bad. I had the misfortune to really begin gaming with min/max people, so adventures weren't all that great.

Coming from that background, when I was forced to DM (no one wanted to do it), I was lousy mostly because I was unprepared for exceptionally creative players. Faced with some insurmountable monsters in a dungeon, two of the players worked in tandem, one casting a dig spell on the floor under the monsters, the other casting a wall of ice over the hole. What I should have done was applauded the players for creativity. What I did do (embarassingly) was try to argue casting times and how it wouldn't work. The lesson: be incredibly flexible as a DM. Have contingency plans (like the hill giant thing upthread, be ready to describe the hill giants' home), and know your players well enough to build a setting that would further your goals. Also, have goals. What would you want your players to achieve this session? This level? This story arc. Most games I played in petered out because there was no long-term goal, just a series of dungeons and treks through the wilderness.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:14 PM on April 8, 2010

Late to this thread, but I can honestly say that D&D was life changing, if not life saving, for me when I was in high school. Our DM was an incredible storyteller who not only wrote his own elaborate campaigns and designed weird, amazing dungeons, he also drew every NPC in detail and composed piano songs to introduce us to each new chapter of the story. For my part, I wrote my own dramatic interpretations of our campaigns, and our third player was a very talented painter who illustrated the stories.

I say D&D was life changing for me because I was a 14-year old sensitive daydreamer in a small town. And I am a lesbian, and the recreational options for sensitive, daydreaming lesbians in small towns are fairly nil. Straight girls got Harlequin romance novels and swoony Teenbeat heartthrobs, but I had D&D. And thanks to the power of collaborative storytelling, my emotionally intelligent DM, and a safe, non-judgmental environment, I was able to explore my queerness with a hot NPC that quickly became my fantasy girlfriend. (She was a chaotic-good albino thief with mysterious facial scars! FOXY!)

The other interesting thing that our DM did was reviving NPCs his parents had created twenty years before. His folks still had their character sheets, so he borrowed them and wove the characters into our storylines, in a way, keeping his parents' campaign alive. When I look back at the time and love we put into that game, I'm amazed.
posted by Lieber Frau at 12:50 PM on April 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best experiences?

“Durn Bronzefist” was a dwarven thief I snagged from a pile of character sheets tossed to a handful of strangers at an RPG tourney being held on my birthday many years back. I was there with my (very fetching) girlfriend who played an elven assassin, there was the best DM I’ve ever run across, and some truly fun players. Even better, an opposing tourney group was full of assholes, so we even had people to hate together. At the end, the winner of the tourney was decided, and it had been a toss-up between myself and my girlfriend – she took the win and we shared the prize (rpg booty, natch). But having moved into the finals, I went home late... to cake and prezzies. Awesome birthday.

Spent a summer working through the “Deserts of Desolation” modules with a good friend and DM who passed away not too long after. When I think of him, I tend to think of that summer and that adventure.

Great doings in Waterdeep with an old-time friend and DM in what became an infamous adventure (that particular DM likes to maintain the same game universe so distant odd parts echo off each other). And, well, I loved DMing my Apocalypse Now version of The Keep on the Borderlands, though I think of the campaigns I’ve run, Cult of the Reptile God is their fave. Oh, and I will play and re-play Vault of the Drow, because the genius of it is how empty the module is on the inside. With every new DM it’s like a new adventure, and like the various retellings of The Aristocrats, the brilliance is in seeing the familiar tale unfold in an entirely new way. As for other pre-mades, I also think fondly of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, The Hidden Shrine of Tomochan, and the Against the Giants series. I played through lots of Forgotten Realms stuff but I can’t identify them (aside from the huge Waterdeep box) because I never really studied that setting (once upon a time I went Greyhawk, which is like the Betamax of the TSR worlds) and because they were probably victims of meandering (or purposeful map-busting).

So yes, played many, many of the TSR modules with varying levels of deviation from the text (from a 12-year old reciting the description boxes while the players wait to “what would happen if other adventurers looted this years ago and entirely stranger denizens moved in?” and other enjoyable perversions of the material.

In terms of what made for great play, I think it tended to be a combination of: i) very capable, very flexible DMing (much improv, willingness to follow PC leads), ii) time pressure (no waiting for long decisions from the party – a couple of shouted orders are what gets in before the axe blow), and iii) city/town settings (as counter-intuitive as that is to me – maybe because it emphasized role play over hack and slash, also included time pressure (the guards are coming!) and criminal enterprise). I also like relative lethality, and arcane magic, but I don’t think those were necessarily hallmarks of enjoyable campaigns, just what I like. The most important one I think is flexibility. bl1nk has it upthread when he says: "I could never predict , out of the dozen ideas that I would shotgun out, what the players would latch on to." That's it exactly. A personally meaningful, individually determined goal will always trump a DM-set campaign goal, as it should be.

I encountered "Hero Points" in the form of "Luck Points" in Top Secret S.I.. My favourite system for D&D is actually transplanting the whole Top Secret system in (I like its simplicity, descriptiveness, and lethality) and bring in luck points to balance out the lethality.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:21 AM on April 12, 2010

Late to the party. Hopefully someone will read this. Anyhoo...

I've only DMed one (partial) campaign, and that was in Vampire, so it doesn't really fit here. The one great thing I can mention from my group's White Wolf games is the house rule (I think) of "Stunt Dice." White Wolf runs entirely on d10s, with the character rolling a certain number of them, and if enough of the dice roll over a certain number, you get successes meaning a certain thing happens. It becomes simple enough.

But it's also a storytelling-based system, and so the more creative players get with their actions, the more likely they are to earn "stunt dice," which add to their pool for succeeding on the action. Simple, but effective in making people get into their characters and the game.

As for D&D, I've been playing for a few years now, and am actively involved in two campaigns at the moment. In the older game I play a halfling rogue (Holmes Blackacre) who started off as a level 1. He's chaotic neutral, with high CHA, and thus well-liked though not well-trusted within the group (which now encapsulates between twenty and thirty characters total, though only five or six will play in a session at a time.) Here's what the DM has done, though:

We began in Marsember, ten of us split into two parties. My party largely ended up fighting the Zentarim at the behest of our Epic Wizard sponsor, Sullius. The other party also worked for Sullius, but somehow ended up on a Pirate ship (a turn of events designed for my character, but we didn't do as expected.)

In looking for the Zentarim, we learned of one of their spies, and snuck into her house. As we were split up, the spy came back and nealry killed our squishy wizard before the rest of us knew what was going on. She hurt all of us badly, and teleported out once the tide of battle turned. We later found her and killed her, shouting "die she-bitch die!"

More than a year later, it has become clear the the group that we need to kill the Duke of Marsember, and everyone who has ever played is convening. The DM sent us an email, stuff we know though the characters don't, necessarily, of Sullius being murdered, by the vampiric form of "She-bitch."

Here's what's cool about this. The DM started us on pre-written episodes, but took notes on our behavior and the things we fixated upon. We decided en masse to kill the Duke, something he has been having to write now, as it is our major purpose, and has erupted into civil war in Cormyr. Moreover, the Zentarim spy was a random, nothing character. Someone scored highly on a gather information check, and learned that there was a spy in town, and we decided that was the most important thing. The book made a one-sentence reference to the spy and her name. The DM had to make up all the rest. But because we were so fascinated with her, the DM - a year or more later - made her into a buffed-up Vampire who killed our sponsor and who has taken the epithet we called her by as her chosen name, as she seeks to hunt us down and kill us. And she is allied with the Duke.

In the other game, the DM has been forced to invent new monsters in order to keep up with the shit we do. One character scooped up some ochre jelly into a bottle, named it "Roger," and started feeding it pieces of the Banes we were fighting. Once it burst out, we had to fight a decidedly non-canonical creature known as a "Crystaline Ooze."

The best DMing comes from loving what the PCs are doing, and following that with as much creativity and personalization as one can manage.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:13 PM on September 26, 2010

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