Killer D&D campaign
September 3, 2007 1:16 PM   Subscribe

How can I, as a first-time D&D 3.5 DM, make my campaign completely kick ass?

I'm starting up a campaign with a group of friends who will be taking an extended stay in Ravenloft. I'm an experienced player, having done everything from D&D 2nd ed to Paranoia! to Rifts to the whole White Wolf series (circa 2000ish), but I've never run a game before.

What sort of embellishments and experiences did you, as a DM, think got the best responses from your players? What did you, as a player, think made your game totally kick ass? Some of the players in this game are fairly experienced, which is not intimidating as they're friends, but all the same I want them to walk away from our first few sessions thinking, "Man, this is why D&D is fun," instead of, "Business as usual in Barovia...yawn".

Any answers would be great; they can be as specific as particular encounters that really stick out in your mind, or as broad as general points on style and game composition, pacing, etc.

Anything specifically tailored to Ravenloft is great, but feel free to opine even if you've never played there.
posted by baphomet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Having never played D&D before, I was drawn into a 3 year campaign with some of my friends from undergrad. Some things that made the game work:

We were all really invested in our characters, and paid a lot of attention to what our *characters* would do instead of what *we* would do personally. Our characters had their own motivations, and they would often vary within the group. We would, however, keep these motivations somewhat in line with the group. As a sidenote, in a different campaign that didn't go well, all of the characters were trying to kill each other. This made for a tough game.

Decide early if you want the game to be centered around story and narrative or around killing bad guys and running dungeons. Both are fine styles of play, but most people will tend toward one or the other, and this tendency will determine what a "good" game looks like. We were big into character development and story, so it didn't matter much to us if we went a whole gaming session without killing anything.

If your players are big into narrative, be sure to have plenty prepared. Have NPC's fleshed out and ready to roll. Give them motivations too. Instead of forcing your party to go to a certain place, give them incentives to go there. Also, give them plenty of forks in the road, and incentives to weigh out, since they don't want to be forced into decisions.

Chose their enemies wisely. Some head baddie that they're out to foil often works well, and have some underbosses to deal with as well. This sets up reoccurring characters, which nicely leads to vendettas and feelings of revenge.

Be good to your group, but don't coddle them. Figure out what level of baddies they're ready to fight, and throw 'em at them. It's bad news if you kill off characters willy-nilly, but if one does something stupid and gets killed, don't go to extreme lengths to save him.

Finally, allow the adventure to feel somewhat epic. Whatever you have your party fighting in the "big picture," let it somehow tie to saving the world, ala Lord of the Rings.

Also, having good descriptions for things helps the atmosphere a lot. Read widely, and adopt your own narrative style. Hearing "you slice off Bob's head" is less impressive than "Your blade slices through Bob's head, covering the area with a fine pink mist."
posted by craven_morhead at 1:27 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

We always liked to use creepy background music, such as Wojciech Kilar's score to Bram Stoker's Dracula (except for the Annie Lennox track! What a mood killer!) , or the Pouledouris orchestral score of Conan the Barbarian. Creepy ambient stuff like the Alien soundtrack.

Drop in Carmina Burana's O Fortuna at the beginning of a major battle and watch the players grin and squirm. It really sets an epic mood.
posted by BeerFilter at 1:36 PM on September 3, 2007

It's important for you as DM to understand your job. You are not competing against the players. You are not trying to defeat them.

You are a story teller. Your goal is for your players to have a good time. That doesn't mean running a "Monty Haul" dungeon; that's boring. But it does mean giving them challenges they can handle, and rewards that make sense. And it means creating a story, collaboratively, one which is worth hearing/watching/living-through.

You don't win by defeating the players. You win if the players are enjoying themselves.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:38 PM on September 3, 2007

As a Paranoia player, you'll remember how great the handouts were. I haven't DM'd in many years, but back then the canned handouts in AD&D weren't nearly as cool. So I made my own, and they were greatly appreciated. A few clever handouts (paper, props, whatever -- just something physical for the players to handle) made with care go a long way toward enriching the experience.
posted by ewagoner at 1:46 PM on September 3, 2007

Also, when you get a bunch of players together, it is just about inevitable that they'll get to joking around and goofing off at some point. This is great for a lot of games, but I think this sort of light-heartedness detracts from the Ravenloft setting, which should be nightmarish and unforgiving. You could consider giving the group a bit of an experience bonus at the end of each session where they stayed mostly in character and didn't get too silly and spoil the mood. I've seen it work before. It's best as a group reward, and not individual. That way the other players will help you to re-enforce the mood.

Also, never let the players off the hook of wondering if death is right around the corner. For a horror game you want them scared, thinking, "If I screw up, baphomet's gonna kill me without hesitation" instead of thinking they'll be able to weasel their way out of you offing them if they act carelessly.

From time to time, pause in the middle of whatever's going on and ask someone for a random character stat, and roll some random dice behind your screen, then just continue on with the game as you were. This will keep them guessing, wondering what unseen horror is about to engulf them. Obviously, don't over do it, but a few fake rolls behind your DM screen can go along way to keeping the players rattled and jumpy. :)
posted by BeerFilter at 1:52 PM on September 3, 2007

Also, Re: BeerFilter's comment about players screwing around, when we got into the campaign, we generally took up a LARP convention of placing your arm across your chest, national-anthem-style, if you're speaking out of character. All other communication was assumed to be in-character.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:55 PM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: Some random thoughts culled from a geeky career:

- Set up separate arrival and start times. That is, have people show up at a set time (7 pm) and then start the game a half hour later. This lets folks get some social stuffs out of the way, gives players a chance to talk to you regarding their characters, and generally get settled. You can also play some mood-setting music as a pre-game warmup.

- Plan on sessions to last four to five hours. Frequently scheduled short sessions are better than marathon sporadic all nighters.

- Announce what time dinner/foodbreak will be. If you're ordering take out, have people pick from the menu during the half hour pre-game session.

- Don't be a slave to your plot. Let the characters do what they want. This does not mean that you have to let them run wild, just that you shouldn't railroad them. One good way to do this is with "cut scenes" of big badguys talking about the characters and what they're doing or other general foreshadowing. It not only makes the players feel special (OMG Vader knows my name!), but it can remind them of the game at hand.

- Time your fights. As you get a better feel as to how long it takes the players to complete a combat, you'll be able to judge how many combats you can throw in. For big fights, download a sheet of already rolled random numbers (there was a Frontpage post about this recently - you can generate a list of 100 d20 die rolls) and just tick your way down the list instead of rolling for goblin #2.

- Give every character a chance to shine or be otherwise useful. If this means fudging a die roll or two here and there, well, so be it.

- Ravenloft is a great atmospheric setting and you can modify some rules to help enhance that. I played in one game where we drew Tarot cards at the start of each session. Our picks would have minor helps or hindrances (usually DC modifiers for different tasks for the Minor Arcana) or some roll modifying ability (for Major).

- Handouts are good!

- Given that you'll be in Ravenloft, you have a lot of signature NPCs (Strahd, Soth, and Azalin) to play with. Use them sparingly. Never let them outweigh the PCs or let the game become NPC Theatre Time. Depending on your plot, you may want to skip over using the given NPCs and just set up your own Dark Lord.

- All that said, the main rule is for everyone to have fun!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:26 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

My gaming group keeps a gavel on the table. If things start to get jokey or off-track, anyone's allowed to bang it. It usually works pretty well for getting everyone's attention.

When I'm GMing, I think rhythm's very important to the story. Think in terms of the beats of the story. You can think in terms of a complicated nine-act structure or something as simple as beginning, middle, end. Then take those beats and flesh them out with their own beats, and so on and so on. Think about each scene and not only the characters that are likely to be in them, but the other things they'll experience. You might want to jot down a few ideas here, thinking in terms of the different senses--what do they see, what do they smell, what do they hear?

Naturally, your players aren't going to walk through the story in exactly the way you've planned it. But the more prep work like this you've done, the easier it gets to improvise around their decisions. Pacing is really nine-tenths of a successful GMing style--if you start things off with a bang, have some good ups and downs, and end on a climactic note, more often than not it'll be a satisfying evening.

The same pacing advice applies to planning the story arc of the campaign. I'll have a (very) rough idea of the end of the campaign, and at least some idea of what most of the adventure will be about, although that could be as generic as "Dungeon Crawl" or "Monster of the Week." Campaigns work in beats, too, just as adventures do. Think about Lord of the Rings, or a season of Buffy--start with some hints about what's going on, gradually develop it, work in some red herrings, and build up to the final confrontation with the Big Bad.
posted by EarBucket at 2:33 PM on September 3, 2007

The DM of the Rings saga encodes lots of experienced DMing advice in an often side-splittingly funny comic format. Good for players, too.
posted by mumkin at 2:53 PM on September 3, 2007

It sounds twee, but rôle playing is more successful than (die) roll playing.

NPCs who challenge anyone speaking out of character as if they're speaking in tongues/insulting them in a rare dialect ("Did I hear you call me a Palm Pilot?! How dare you?") helped keep people focussed.

I've not been involved in any rôle play for years but the campaigns I remember fondly were ones where the characters felt a part of the milieu. When I was running the game, I tried to have a sequence of events that would happen unless the players did something to change matters. Not always earth-shattering things, just "things".

The fact that these 'events' seemed prepared (even only sketchily) meant that players had no way of knowing whether a procession to celebrate the arrival of a new priest at the Temple of Mefi was integral to the plot or a total red herring.

I always preferred running urban adventures to dungeons, so this made things much easier - you've got hundreds of NPCs with a reason to be hanging around, each with favoured haunts and their own motivations. In fact, it was rare that there'd be any real "monsters" to speak of, even in D&D.

One other thing that worked well for me were the idea of solo adventures. This was great for urban settings as I could meet up with one of the players and we'd run a very short encounter. Sometimes they'd learn something as a result which would prove useful in the group and avoids the "If you roll 15+ you know something about this" syndrome.

Finally, although it's not you vs the players, if they do something stupid the characters deserve to die, if only to serve as an example to the others. I never played Ravenloft but ran a lot of Call of Cthulhu ... now there's a game with a high turnover rate if it's run properly! Happy days ...
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 3:04 PM on September 3, 2007

A lot of good advice already. Of that, the most important thing I'd reemphasize is that you aren't trying to beat the players. Scare them, sure, but don't get into a situation where you feel like you're going to win if they lose, or vice versa. Give them challenges, but always root for them.

On a related note: Don't overshadow the characters. Don't play a super-cool NPC that adventures with them. Don't hit them with overpowered encounters and then rescue them with overpowered allies. Focus on player agency.

I personally prefer very character-driven games, with minimal predefined plot. I like wandering off into the wilderness with a party and seeing what happens, and having most of the game experience be character interplay. But I've played with people who like a very plot-focused game, a story arc in play from the very beginning that the characters have to constantly work toward unraveling. Some people like to focus on gaining abilities and loot, and some people like to focus on atmosphere and personality. There's really a lot of variance

The best piece of advice I can give is this: talk to each of your players individually, in advance, and find out what kind of game they like. Ask them to tell you about prior gaming experiences and note the aspects they've really enjoyed. Tailor your game environment to them rather than trying to determine a universal ideal.
posted by coined at 3:11 PM on September 3, 2007

As a DM and a player, I find the single biggest thing that causes games to run smoother was is having all the rules relevent to each character printed out.

Each of my players when I used to dm would either print their own, or have printed for them, the pages from the PHB about their race, their class, and if relevent, their spell list (the version with the 1 line description of each spell).

As a DM, I would always always always use printouts of each of the monsters the players would fight. The start of a fight should have tension, not page flipping.

Streamline combat by having a scrap piece of paper where you write down the order of initiative. Don't write the names then the numbers, just write down the names in order of who goes first.

See for all the core dnd3.5e content released by WotC under the Open Gaming LIcense, reformatted to work well in a web browser.

A final note, don't use sugar heavy snacks. Use stuff with protein and not much salt. Stay hydrated. Cheese and wafer crackers is an awesome gaming snack. Bottles of tapwater to go with bottles of coke.
posted by Jerub at 4:36 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Be more flexible than you could possibly imagine ever having to be. Players do interesting, unexpected, illogical, brilliant, and sometimes plain old insane or suicidal things. If I, using my Die of Eternal 20's, steal the Holy Hand Grenade and drop it down the main bad guys pants in act one, scene two, can you recover from this? Half the fun of being DM comes from listening to players fears and either saying 'oh yes, you guessed right! You DID accidentally summon a lake troll' while covering up the script, or saving it for future games. And seconding the limited sugar.... too much sugar can make some players sort of jagged....
posted by Jacen at 5:24 PM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: Here's some random bits that Ive found help. Some specific to 3rd ed D&D some are more general:

1) Give everything a name and keep track of the names you've used. They don't have to be inspired or original names as long as you use them consistantly. EG: Rather than "the innkeeper" use "Rolando the innkeeper" (or whatever). It is amazing how much detail is implied for a place or person just by giving it a name. Its an easy way to appear way more prepared then you really are with just a minimal amount of work. Keep a list of throwaway names on hand and use them whenever you need em as you make things up. Just note down what names were used for what as you go and keep on using them if the characters revist that place / person.

2) Don't expect the players to decide what they want to do. They might, especially for a group that has been playing together for a while, but for a new group they are going to be looking to you for direction. Even a ham-fisted "you meet in a bar and someone pays you to kill the thingy of wossname in yonder cavern" is better than just "so, what are you going to do?" followed by several minutes of awkward silence. I've found there is a much stronger temptation to fall into this trap when using a pre-made setting (eg: Forgotten Realms or Eberron or somesuch). Just because there is a whole world out there doesn't mean your players 1) know about it 2) know what they want to do.

3) Try to give the players more than one option for any given decision. As per #3 you want to give them a direction but even better is to give them a choice of a couple different directions. As a rule of thumb I try to ensure that at any given time the players have 2-4 things to choose from to do. More than that is overwhelming but having some choice greatly enhances the amount of investment the players have in the game. The occasional bit of railroading is fine but in the long run it is a game killer.

4) Make it the responsibilty of each player to understand how the abilities and spells for their charater works. Make sure you never have to go digging through books while in combat. If a rule question comes up just make something up on the spot and make a note to look it up later. Of course once in a while something just needs to be double checked (if a characters life is hinging on the call or whatever) but try and limit this as much as possible. A good default rule: Have the player roll a d20, add the closest skill bonus which fits (or ability bonus if no skills are immediately obvious) and if its more than 15 / 20 / 25 (depending on how hard it is) they succeeed.

5) I highly recomend using a battle mat for battles with more than 1-2 opponents or where there is interesting terrain. They are a roll up vinyl sheet with 1 inch squares printed on that you can write on with dry-erase markers (mine has hexes on the back too). You can buy one of these for $20 or so at most game stores. You can use miniatures or just chits / coins / markers for the players and their foes. It makes keeping track of attacks of oppertunity, flanking (which DMs are often way too stingy about allowing when they can't see how absurdly easy it is on the board) and area-effect spells very easy to resolve. You can draw on corridors, chasms, walls etc... then erase when its time for the next battle.
posted by Riemann at 5:43 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Make sure there's a good mix of activities to cover all the different types of things your particular set of players like to do. For instance:

- If you figure out that some players are into puzzle solving, make sure you have some puzzles on hand.

- If some characters are built with a lot of non-fighting abilities, make sure they have a chance to shine.

- With combat, make sure there's a good mix of physically resistant vs. magically resistant opposition.

The important thing is to be adaptive. If you decide ahead of time that if the players talk to person x, series of events y that you have planned out will ensue, odds are even that your players will completely ignore person x. The trick is in making sequence of events y seem like a natural consequence of whatever the players chose to do instead of talking to person x. You want your players to feel like what they are doing matters, but the extent of what you plan/prepare can only cover a small subset of what they could choose to do so you need this bit of smoke and mirrors.
posted by juv3nal at 6:32 PM on September 3, 2007

I wrote a whole whack of advice along the lines of being a better DM that I think could help you.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:48 PM on September 3, 2007

One other note: understand that there's a difference between storytelling and roleplaying. This may help illustrate it (although that's certainly the more frustrating end of munchkinism).
posted by coined at 9:57 AM on September 4, 2007

"Read widely, and adopt your own narrative style. Hearing "you slice off Bob's head" is less impressive than "Your blade slices through Bob's head, covering the area with a fine pink mist.""

Read The Iliad for this— spears cut through guts and leave entrails spilling out like deer from a glen. Swords cleave jaws off, leaving men gasping tongueless for air before they drown in their own blood. Eyeballs explode when faces are caved in by clubs. Arrows rip and snag tender flesh.
posted by klangklangston at 4:22 PM on September 4, 2007

How about not forgetting the party's character sheets on game night?
posted by Demogorgon at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2007

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