So I’m pretty sure I’ve been promising an article like this since we started the blog last August, and now I’m finally getting around to it. Some notes before we get started:
-This is intended to help DMs who want to write their own broad Adventure campaigns without placing restrictions on the kind of characters a person can play.
-If you play D&D out of “splatbooks” or self-contained campaigns you purchase from Wizards or your local hobby shop, this article isn’t for you. Just…do what the book tells you to do. I don’t advise the splatbook route, however, if you really want to get any creative mileage out of the game. Remember that you’re not the first one to pick up each book, and you won’t be the last. Maybe you have players who have played that campaign before, or maybe your players are the kind who might get their own copy of the book to “peek ahead,” thus undermining you as DM and ruining the experience to some degree. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but the best D&D I’ve ever played has always been the written product of another DM’s imagination.
-I play D&D 3.5 traditionally. In planning this article out I don’t think I intend to discuss anything that couldn’t be applied universally to any edition of the game, however. If I do, feel free to flame me in the comments.
With that stuff out of the way, let’s get cracking.
The bottom line is that D&D is a game with unlimited potential, but running an effective campaign often leads less creative DMs to impose restrictions on character creation to keep everything running smoothly. For example, a DM may declare that characters “must be non-evil” or “must be only Human or Elven.” The reason for this is simple. Usually there is something in the lore established by the DM, or in the projected arc of his campaign, that would make it unreasonable for a certain type of character to participate with others. Maybe the DM intends the main “quest-giver” of the early portion of his campaign to be a high cleric of the local church of Pelor. It’s unlikely that on the surface an evil character’s goals or wants would line up too closely with a group of Pelor-worshippers, so the DM says he doesn’t want any evil characters rolled. Maybe the DM’s “world” is largely dominated by humans, and members of other races are largely persecuted. It wouldn’t do any good for the one player stubborn enough to roll a Dwarf to be left out of stepping foot in cities or population centers out of intense prejudice, so the DM says he doesn’t want any Dwarf characters.
In summation, restrictions arise when the DM can’t envision ways to reconcile the world he has created with the choices a player/character might make.
How to Avoid Them
I’ve been DM’ing for a while now, and in my opinion what draws a lot of players both new and experienced to a new game is the ability to express themselves via some interesting character they’ve devised. Many players walk into a campaign with a preconceived notion of the character they want to make. Telling them “no,” even for a really good creative reason, is only going to hamper the player getting in touch with their character, which in turn will negatively impact the way they see the game and their participation in it. So here’s a little breakdown of how I keep widely different character motivated and on a roughly guided path without everything falling apart.
Before First Session: For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say you’re working with four characters. Two of them are Neutral Good, one is Chaotic Neutral, and one is Neutral Evil. We won’t get into their deity choices and personal philosophies, but it’s reasonable to believe that with such a varied mix of alignments, conflict might arise over how a number of game situations are handled. No matter how good a DM you are behind the screen, getting a party to move forward in disagreement is almost impossible.
Encourage your players to forge a deep conception of their characters by asking them questions. I typically have a “Question of the Day” for my players that can range from the heavily philosophical (“If your character were invincible, what’s the first thing they’d do and why?”) to the mundane (“What was the last thing your character ate?”). I’ll have the players write their answers on slips of paper and submit them to me. Sometimes I’ll even give a small XP reward for the best answer just to make sure the players take it seriously. The point of this is to have your players start thinking about their characters as real people in a real world. The truth of the matter is that breaking characters down to questions of alignment and worship can at best create stock stereotypes, i.e. “My character is Chaotic Evil, so he has to be a madman”. I’d rather have my players think about their characters in terms of details like their names and backstories. Patrick Brenner the ambitious sorcerer from the small fishing village looking to prove himself as an arcane practitioner has a better chance of tagging along with the otherwise Good and Neutral party than Patrick Brenner the Neutral Evil worshipper of Vecna. Even if they are the same guy.
First Session: Crafting a cohesive and strategically planned first session is important to keeping a diverse group together and focused. So what devices does one use to make this happen? Here are a few of my tried and true methods:
1.) Mortal Peril — When I anticipate discord and mistrust between party members (or their characters, at least) I use my first session to throw them into a situation way beyond their capabilities. The best example I can think of is the Kraken. The party starts off on an ocean voyage to X locale to do Y general task, and midway to their destination the ship is assaulted by a giant sea creature. Fighting the sea creature at their current level would be a big mistake based on the damage its appendages are doing to the ship and its crew, and before long the only remaining option is to abandon ship. Players in this scenario don’t get a chance to squabble about their beliefs, or about whether their “path” is Evil or Good, Lawful or Chaotic. They have to get off the ship, or they will die. They’ll have to get to shore, battling treacherous breaker waves, or they will die. Teamwork will vastly improve their chances. Hopefully, if your party is good about roleplaying at all, they’ll have saved each other so many times by the end of the session that they’ll have no problem working together.
2.) Mercenary Work — When you’re playing dungeon crawls, money generally takes a back seat to cool magic items and artifacts plundered from your various conquests, but a large campaign usually puts much greater stock in the copper, silver, gold and platinum. Whatever their alignment, most characters will need food, water and shelter, as well as to upkeep and improve their equipment. This means money is often a great motivator to mixed-alignment parties. Hopefully relationships will start to develop within the party before too long that will keep the PCs from tearing each other apart once you stop dangling the carrot in front of them, but in the meantime the potential for a large purse of gold should suffice as the glue that holds them together.
3.) Hidden Agenda — This one is largely untried by me, but I’ve heard of other DMs having a reasonable amount of success with it. If, even after pre-session backstory creation, you have a character whose motivations are unrelentingly and unabashedly opposed to those of the rest of the party, you could consider working together with the player to insert their character as some sort of infiltrator, going along with the party’s actions on the surface but secretly seeking to undermine them or bend their actions to his/her will. The obvious issue here is that if you’re too overt about the arrangement at the table, other players may start to feel disadvantaged, or like they’re missing out on something. Also, it will mean you’ll have to coordinate with that player on a regular basis to get an idea of what they intend to do given certain situations. This means you’ll not only have to divulge a little of your behind-the-screen magic to one of the players, but the player will also have some influence over what you do in a given session. I know a lot of DMs wouldn’t be comfortable with this, and I’m not sure I would either.
Using some variation on these ideas should be a big help for getting your diverse, unrestricted party through the first session of its grand foray into the world of Dungeons and Dragons. If I fancy, I may expand this into a series and provide some advice for campaign continuations and how to deal with some interesting situations I’ve encountered. Until then, always roll 20s, and always roll Community.