Tabletop Highlight: Working with Your Players in D&D

I know I write about D&D a lot. I have a lot to say about it. Aside from general things like “video games” or “books,” I don’t think I’ve spent more of my leisure time on anything other than this campaign I’m running. I’m constantly running over details, thinking about what I think should come next, and trying to figure out what my players are going to want to see next. After the travesty that was the collapse of my first D&D campaign, way back in college (fun fact: it fell apart almost exactly 6 years ago), I take my players’ input, ideas, and desires much more seriously.

I did a good job, back then, of listening to what my players wanted and there were a lot more factors involved in the collapse of the campaign other than my DMing, but I know it certainly didn’t help things. Now, I listen, implement, and predict. I play mostly with people I know fairly well and I generally don’t get into “serious” story stuff until I know what everyone wants well enough to produce a story they want to star in. Before then, I keep it super generic, roll with whatever they respond well to, and do whatever I can to help them figure out where their characters are going.

My best example is a story I’ve referenced a few times now. How the Half-Elf (previously Halfling (previously Rilkan)) lost his body and why Raise Dead wouldn’t work on his Halfling corpse.

The campaign started simply. The players all made level 1 characters using my slightly-modified 3.5 rules and they were all acting as guards for a colony. Typical first-level stuff since this world sends colonies of mixed race out into the wilderness in order to expand the territory held by the federation and sent a large quantity of guards along because colonies had a bad habit of disappearing or falling to wilderness creatures. In exchange, the guards were given parcels of land, money to start a business in a new economy that was backed by the government, and any treasure they accumulated over the course of their duties.

They colony ran into the usual wilderness problems like kobolds, corpse-eating dogs, and zombies. It quickly became apparent that some force wanted the colony gone, so they players set out to discover what that force was. After a few horrible accidents that resulted in the death of a temporary character and the arrival of a permanent character for a new player, they settled in to figuring things out and protecting their colony.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played first level characters with new-ish players, but they often wind up changing their minds about the direction they want their characters to go in. Rather than scraping the character and making a new one, I usually let them make a few adjustments during the first half-dozen sessions. This time, the players got all the way through their first few levels before the Paladin and the Rogue told me they wanted to change-up their characters.

At this point, I had the basics of a story percolating and I instantly had an idea of how to work in their proposed changes AND give them a plot hook none of them would ever want to ignore. So the Rilkan’s subplot became a major plot and the necklace he inherited started becoming a bigger problem than he anticipated. Suffice it to say that, several failed Will Saves later, the demon inhabiting the necklace convinced him to free her of the last abjurations holding her in place and she then used her powers to displace his soul in his body.

After that, she trapped his soul, stunned the whole party (except the Paladin), and gave them to the rather old Black Dragon they were trying to trick. Bargains were struck, the Paladin learned that he couldn’t solo a Black Dragon, and the Black Dragon got to save on shackles because the Paladin had one fewer hands.

Eventually, they were rescued by the demon’s holy opposite. A “minor” deity saw their plight and a few other things that the players might not know about. Being concerned with Justice, he offered them assistance so long as they swore to do as he commanded–hunt down the escape demon and contain or destroy her. Needless to say, the party immediately agreed. Even the Rogue’s soul agreed. In exchange, they all got a measure of the deity’s power to bust them out of prison, the paladin got a divine-magic replacement arm that let him bypass some of the requires for a good prestige class, and the Rogue got stuck in the body of a recently-deceased Halfling that had similar, but slightly different training.

All-in-all, the party got exactly what they wanted, I got a plot hook to carry them along, and the Rogue’s player got to deal with the fact that a Raise Dead spell wouldn’t fix him because it’d call the body’s original soul back. Reincarnate was the only way to bring him back to life that time. Now, though, the new body is his and Raise Dead will work again. Only, it is a Half-Elf and they kinda suck in 3.5, unless you’re specifically picking it for character reasons.

I like to work with my players when I can. The rules are plain enough that adjusting or tweaking things is fine with me, so long as my players are doing it because it helps them create the story they want to tell. If all they want is bigger numbers well… Those are fun, but their place is in a different campaign. I am even adapting a fun prestige class for one of my players because it is super awesome for his character’s arc AND it plays into the story I’m telling so while I might as well have scripted it. A lot of the time, the players are your partners in telling the story, so hearing them out can’t go wrong. They’re just as invested as you are, especially if they’ve been your players for two years, now.