Sustainable Characters and Short D&D Campaigns

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been playing (as a player, not the Dungeon Master) in a Dungeons and Dragons game. It was conceptualized as a sort of “last stand” type adventure, with four characters taken after the moment of their deaths by some powerful, godly figure, to see how long they could last against various challenges. Restored to the peak of their power (20th level) and given only mundane, non-magical gear, they are thrown together with no warning or preparation time and bounced from one scenario and battle to another, with only two instant-use short rests to allow them to recover. It has been a lot of fun to play a powerful character with no need to manage magic items or a vision for the future beyond how to mechanically apply my abilities and limited recovery from one fight to another.

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Creating Myths, Legends, and Informational Pamphlets for my D&D Games

As I’ve been working on a setting for a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I’ve been thinking about alternate ways to inform my players and manage various things like lore, legends, myths, and what a person in the world I’m creating would consider the truth of things. There’s a lot of willing-suspension-of-disbelief that happens for most D&D games, so there isn’t a lot most GMs and players need to make it work, but the particular game I’m running is reliant on very specific knowledge and mythology. I can expect my players to ask questions to help fill out what their characters know and I can work to understand what the average person in this world would know so I can avoid making my players roll for the basics, but I can also use my degree in English literature to create mythology and legends for the world in a way that establishes the basics. Plus, then I get to have fun writing stuff and I LOVE writing stuff.

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I Love To Tinker With My D&D Campaign Settings

Lately, I’ve been enjoying making lots of documents for my Dungeons & Dragons games. I know I talk about “understanding can serve you better than knowing” a lot here, but there’s a point where you understand so much you start needing to record it all somewhere so you remember it later. Generally, I like to keep these documents to broad, general strokes without a lot of specifics so I can cleave to my principles as a DM, but it is very helpful to have all the specific, complex systems worked out ahead of time. For instance, in the domain of dread I’ve built for my weekly Sunday D&D, I have a list of the various tiers of effects the players can encounter, the ways various encounters tie into those tiers, how to switch between tiers, and how the world/the people in the world respond to their efforts written down. What I add whenever it comes up are the specific debilities tied to the tiers as my players encounter them. Those I do not have built out ahead of time since I don’t need a name until it’s happening and the name and specific effect should reflect the situation the player character has found themselves in.

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Making Interesting Characters for Tabletop Games

In the final entry of this week’s “Making Interesting Stuff for Tabletop Games” series, we’re going to talk through the process of what makes a character interesting. I’m going to continue to reference stuff from the past few posts, so read up about Interesting Worlds, Interesting Events, and What Makes Stuff Interesting if any part of today’s post is confusing (or, you know, if you’re interested in that stuff). If that’s too much for you to read, the main thing I’ll be referencing are the difference betweening knowing (being able to recite facts you have established) and understanding (being able to make decisions and answer questions for things you never anticipated). There’s a bunch of world building that I reference throughout the series, building further as I go through the posts, but most of it is fairly basic and shouldn’t be difficult to run with.

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Making Things Interesting for Tabletop Games

Today’s post is a bit more difficult. I know it might sound strange, given the general assertions of the last two posts, about creating interesting worlds and filling those worlds with interesting events (both of which are suggested reading for today’s post since I am using the same examples and techniques across all of them), but I can’t give you a sure-fire method of making something interesting. I do my best to make things interesting for my tabletop games, but I still fail with a frustrating degree of frequency. I’m good at pretending otherwise because I’m quick enough to cover for it by pivoting to what my players are indicating they’re actually interested in. There’s no real way to teach the ability to pivot on-the-fly other than experience and getting to know your audience, so all I can do is hope that the general rules and guiding principles I use for determining what is “interesting” will be enough to help you get started. Like most of the worldbuilding and GM prep I’ve talked about recently, if you keep your preparation focused on understanding things rather than knowing things, you can almost always find a place to recycle them if your original use doesn’t pan out.

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Filling Worlds With Interesting Events For Tabletop Games

Once you’ve created an interesting world for you tabletop game, the next step is to fill it with stuff that is either currently happening, about to happen, or has happened. You really only need one to have one built out, since the others tend to grow out of exploring one, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few different options of each kind so you can run the game your players are interested in playing. You could try to predict that ahead of time and build the precise number of interesting things you need in that direction to make the world feel lived-in, but it’s usually more fun if you have a bit of each. In my experience, it always feels rewarding when the players find ties to past events that get them excited to learn more about whatever situation they’re in, when players can tie current events to past events when they initially seemed unrelated, and everyone loves a bit of foreshadowing that pays out.

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Creating Interesting Worlds For Tabletop Games

Creating a setting for a tabletop roleplaying game is a lot of work. Regardless of whether it is supposed to be the backdrop for an entire campaign or a temporary location your players find themselves, it takes a lot of work to get it ready. I have had a lot of experience creating worlds, given that it was always my favorite part of writing stories and running D&D games, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to do it effectively and quickly. Not every setting can be created quickly, of course, some things just take time to work out, but I have a few tips and principles I stick to that help me create something I can use without making it so rigid that there’s no room to improvise and adapt as your players (or characters, for written stories) explore.

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Musings of a Valheim Architect.

My main Valheim-playing associate, the same person who hosts our server when it is running, and I built a nice castle on the side of a mountain. It sits right at the edge of where the “Meadows” biome meets the “Mountain” biome, so we had to do a lot of work to keep it properly heated and safe from the various nefarious beasties of the mountain tops. There are a few exposed areas, but all intentionally so. One is the top portion of half the structure, set up as a landing with decorative crenellations looking over the approach up the side of the mountain to the castle’s main door. Much of the view is obstructed by trees or the rising slope of the mountain behind us, but it is a comfortable place to stand and greet anyone who might approach.

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A Very Satisfying Game

I love a good survival/building game. Played a lot of Ark when it first came out (even ran a server for half a year), I’m constantly going back to Minecraft, I’ve gotten a lot of fun out of Raft, and Valheim was a great diversion for a while and continues to be with each major update they put out. These days, I’ve started getting into SatisFactory which seems less focused on the survival thing and more focused on the endless production thing. I don’t need to gather food (though food-like things can be used to make stuff that isn’t food), monitor my energy, or even be too wary of natural predators. I can just endlessly pursue production and efficiency.

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Tabletop Highlight: Figuring Out How Much is too Much

The fun of inventing new societies, creating entire civilizations, and developing cultures is what draws me to storytelling, at least when it comes to what I get the most from. As a result, I really enjoy playing Dungeon Master and one of my favorite parts of running my own Dungeons and Dragons campaigns is the prep work. The thing is, preparation work, especially world building, is one of those things that will take exactly as much time as you’re willing to give it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as I’ve practiced storytelling, both as a writer and a dungeon master, is that there’s a fine line between over-preparing and creating a world that doesn’t feel real.

One thing that dungeon masters often need to do is create towns and cities for their players to encounter. If it is a sizable city, chances are good that there are multiple blacksmiths the players could hire to create them some new gear. Some of them might be better than the others, some might have a preference for particular kinds of work, and some might just hate adventurers. They all have names, pasts, business practices unique to their specialties and levels of experience, and they all have opinions about each other and each other’s work. You, as the dungeon master, can figure all of this out or you can spend the time working on the political situation that it is likely the players will encounter instead of the intricacies of business and the people behind said business that will mostly be ignored by the players who only want to know who the best smith is (which is usually easy to figure out). To be entirely fair, some players might be more interested in the business scene than the political one, so maybe that’s the system that’s more important to your next session. Or maybe they won’t be interested in either the business or political situations and will just want to kill some monsters and protect some peasants, so maybe you should spend more time focusing on the environment around the town.

The key to figuring out what you need to prepare the most is in figuring out what your players will want. I’ve never met a player who changed what they were interested in from one session to another aside from one player who was literally just doing it to point out the holes in the world and ruin everyone’s good time. All players, even the aforementioned asshole, tend to be very consistent. Your first few sessions with a new group might need a little more work because you’re not sure what they’re going to care about yet, but once you’ve gotten a feel for them you learn where you need to focus.

The way I view dungeon mastering is that I’m basically creating the world only about as far as the next few steps ahead of the players. There’s always a horizon, major geographical features, and a sense of society behind it all, but the majority of the world is an empty canvas I only fill in as the players move or discover. If you wind up preparing in the wrong direction or keep trying to push your players in the direction you want them to go in, they’re going to wind up walking into all of the blank spots and feel like the world isn’t as solid enough to really believe in. Some players are more willing than others to ignore the empty spots they find, but most of the reason most people play Dungeons and Dragons is for the immersion you can achieve when you set aside the concerns of the primary world and fully embrace the secondary world. These are the people I run for and this is the kind of player I am.

No matter what you do, there will always be hiccups. You can’t have every name ready and planning everything out in excruciating detail so you’ve got the name of every blacksmith and item shop proprietor prepared is a quick recipe for madness and frustration when 99% of it winds up going unused. I’ve even seen dungeon masters get angry with their players for not exploring and caring about the world as much as they did. I’ve even felt it myself, when I took the time during the week leading up to the session to prepare an exciting encounter and a new bit of the world for them to experience and then my players spend two hours dithering about who goes on what errands and what supplies they need down to the last copper.

It can hurt to put in a lot of work and not get to see it come out in your game session, even when you know it’ll come up in the next one or the one after that. It doesn’t hurt much, though, so long as you focus on making sure there’s plenty of world for the players to experience as they dither about and shop for really weird things you’d never have imagined they wanted. Really, it just give you a week off of preparation. If all you can see is all the work you’ve done going unnoticed or un-experienced, you’re going to eventually lose your temper.

Part of the problem is how the line between too much and not enough shifts from group to group and even from session to session. My players care a lot more about the names of the people around them if they know they’re going to be in the same place for a while. They also tend to care less about the actual layout of the town the longer they’re there or the bigger the city is. For over two years, they’ve gone through literally the same town every time they enter a civilized area without ever realizing that they’re all laid out the same. All I’ve had to do is scale it up based on how many people live there. I created my second city just recently because I needed something different for a future adventure they’re probably going to go on. They don’t care what the places look like because they’re more interested in the people and the plot than the exact geography, which works for me since I can create interesting characters with ease and I’ve got a list of random names sorted by race and status so I don’t need to spend any time trying to figure them out when I make up a new NPC for them to befriend/eventually fight.

If you’re trying to figure out where the line is for your group, I recommending starting with more detail and slowly scaling it back. That way, you can avoid subjecting your players to a campaign full of blank spots before you figure it out. Step it down slowly and you should be able to notice when your players start to feel like the world isn’t as real as they’d like. At that point, kick it back up a little bit more than you think you need to and work to achieve a level of effort you can still enjoy. You’re supposed to have fun, too.