Sunday ended my three-year campaign. It was a British ending. Just about everyone died. Yay. In preparing for the next campaign starting in a week and a half, I’ve cobbled together a list of things I’d like to implement. Some of these might not work. Some might. Undoubtedly, there will be things here you will hate and that’s okay too. So, let’s get started, shall we?
1. Ignore the Published Adventure’s Conclusion
A published adventure’s conclusion does three big things. One, it tells you how it ends. Two, it might lay out the consequences. And three, it offers ways to continue the adventure. Scratch this out. You don’t need it. Players drive the campaign, so they decide when the adventure ends. Consequences arise from the players’ decisions. And whether or not the PCs want to follow up on elements discovered during game play or not is up to them.
2. Ignore a Published Adventure’s Readaloud Text
Readaloud text has its apologists and detractors. I often use readaloud text, although I undermine the mood when I lead with “and now it’s time for the obligatory readaloud text.” Readaloud text communicates the information the players need when they enter a new environment. Most often, it’s just bad, forced, and is a disincentive to explore an area.
When you prepare a published adventure, extract all the meaningful elements from the readaloud text and assemble them as a bullet point list. Write it on a sticky note and put it over the italics so you won’t be tempted to use the text. When the PCs enter a room, tell them what they plainly.
“This is a room. A brazier fills it with dim light. There’s a door on the far wall and a chest-of-drawers next to it. A fur rug sits on the floor. And there’s a crude bed in the corner on your right.”
Don’t worry about passive Perception until the PCs start exploring. If a character walks up to the brazier and it has a hidden feature the character might identify, then check the passive Perception or let the player make a Perception check.
3. Make Monsters Meaningful
In D&D speak, a monster is any creature you fight. It could be a bear, a human bandit, or a beholder. For this discussion, a monster is just what it sounds like, a horrible, strange, and terrifying thing. When you use a monster, it should be horrible, strange, and terrifying. And once defeated, the PCs probably shouldn’t encounter another one like it. Why? A particular monster should never be “old hat.” Defeating a beholder is an achievement. It’s okay to use most humanoid monsters again and again, but it’s not okay to use the same big threat critters since it diminishes their weirdness and kills the wonder.
I would assign creatures a rarity scheme. Since a full catalog here would be ridiculous, I’ll instead give you some examples. A human bandit would be a common enemy. A dire rat would be uncommon. And a lesser water elemental would be rare.
4. Use Skills
This is a 180-degree turn from how I used to see the game, but I’ve since revised my assessment. Originally, I felt skills could be represented as powers and so I discouraged folks from relying on them too much. What I’ve found is that without skill use, players feel they can’t do anything when they lack a power to deal with the situation. Encouraging skill use should result in players finding unconventional solutions to their problems and that’s what is fun about this game after all. This said, you set the DCs and it’s well within your rights to set it beyond a character’s reach when they would do something you feel is ridiculous (using Intimidate to get a blue dragon to surrender for example).
Let the player try. Assign a DC from easy, moderate, hard, or impossible (hard +5). Create a consequence for failure.
Example: Rook tries to Intimidate a bloodied enemy into surrendering. The enemy has plenty of allies left, so I make the DC hard. Rook’s player rolls and fails. The enemy gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls vs. Rook until the end of its next turn.
5. Let the PCs Fail
Without a meaningful risk of failure, there’s really no point in playing the game. Don’t sabotage the players’ efforts but don’t stop them from making a bad decision either. Don’t fudge the die rolls in their favor and don’t alter circumstances to help them along. The players are playing the game. Your role is to facilitate that play.
6. Let the Game End
You must be willing to let the game end. If the players stumble into a TPK, then so be it. If the villain’s plans work because the PCs failed to piece together the clues, that’s great. Letting the game unfold as it’s supposed to makes the world more believable and also creates tension. Maybe the princess is killed. Maybe the goblins burn down the town. Maybe the cultist opens the rift to the Shadowfell.
While the PCs determine their own success and failure, don’t create unwinnable situations. The heroes should have a good shot at securing a victory from the outset.
7. Throw Away All Wish Lists
Magic items have become a character-building tool. Players regard their magic weapon as integral to their character design. This is a problem since it adds yet another exploitative element that can create difficulties at the table. Magic items should be strange, wondrous, and exciting. Yes, you will need to hand out amulets/cloaks, magic weapons/implements, armor and so on, and these can be incidental treasures picked up along the way. You, however, should decide what cool items you want to introduce and if it doesn’t fit with the character concept, the player can always retrain a feat or power to accommodate the item.
8. Create Environments, Not Adventures
An adventure has a script, but roleplaying games are not books or plays. The players decide the narrative through the choices they make in the game. When you build an environment, you might populate it with encounters, creatures, traps, and so on, but the environment has no beginning, middle, or end. It just is.
Villains present in the environment may have their own goals and objectives. Let these unfold according to their timetable. If the PCs thwart the plan, great. If not, well, they’ll have to deal with the consequences.
9. Encourage Discovery
Stop spoon-feeding the players information about the world. Let them know their environment through their questions and choices. They should record notes about the people they meet, their environments, and objectives. It’s not your job to remind them about the things they should know.
10. Be Willing to Abandon Your Work
Your players have no obligation to explore the environments you create. They might enter the dungeon only to find it’s too tough, too scary, and then withdraw. This is okay. You can chop up missed opportunities and use them later if you like. Or not.
11. Let the Players Drive the Car
Your players are in charge of their characters’ story. They decide the quests they choose, the monsters they fight, and the tactics they use. Your job is to provide opportunities for adventure, places to explore, villains to fight. Your job is not to hook the players and compel them to complete the mission. Circumstances and player choice should be enough to encourage them to undertake adventures.
12. Drop Obligatory Combats
Don’t run unnecessary fights. They take up too much time and they don’t add to anything to the game. Every combat encounter you use should create opportunities for the players to advance their stories. A fight with 5 orcs serves no purpose other than to grind out XP. Killing 5 orcs who are sentries and might alert the dungeon dwellers is another matter entirely.
13. Grant XP Awards for Story Goals
Don’t limit XP awards to killing monsters and completing quests. Grant XP awards for roleplaying, clever game play, and furthering the story in meaningful ways. Everyone in the group should get these awards too, not just the player responsible for the great idea. If giving these “free” XP removes an unnecessary fight, all the better.
14. Don’t Break Immersion
Don’t undermine the game’s mood by contributing to the tangents that often arise. Be silent. Answer questions, describe environments, be descriptive, but otherwise be patient and wait for the players to engage the game.
15. Victory by Other Means
Not every fight needs to end with one side wiped out. Be willing to have monsters run away or surrender.
Spend time preparing for your game. If you can’t squeeze out a few hours in the week, then run a dungeon delve instead.
17. Break the Encounter Mold
Rules for building encounters are tools. Use them or not as you like. You don’t have to have interesting terrain features in every fight. You don’t have to build a tactical encounter for every fight.
18. Give Meaningful Rewards
Reward the players for their successes. Magic items should be interesting, exciting, and wondrous. Don’t be afraid to give other rewards too. A castle, followers, contacts, badges, information, boons, and other elements are the things that help make playing the game so exciting. While you shouldn’t use wish lists, you shouldn’t deny a player an item he or she really wants. If a player wants that +5 holy avenger, create ways to gain the item, environments the player must explore and quests the player must complete to secure the item.
19. Adjust Monsters
Two things when using monsters. One, drop hit points for non-minions by 10 to 20%. Two, make sure the monsters have damage expressions like those used in Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault.
20. Don’t be a Dick
Rule Zero. This game isn’t between you and the players. You’re not there to tell them how to play, what to do, to fill in their motivations, or anything else. Your job is not to punish the players, to make them work for their goals or to lead them by the nose. Your only job is to create situations that challenge the players and their characters and to make sure everyone has a good time.