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DM Tips & Tricks: The Basics

Dungeon Mastering Index

Art by Joakim Olofsson

Recently a reader sent me a message that caught my eye: "Hey, I just read your page, tips and tricks. And I thought it was really helpful. But I was wondering about campaign Ideas. I have the tendency to make mercenary campaigns. Kill the monsters, get the treasure, congratulations, you win. You get me? Im looking for more depth to my campaign, and im unsure as to how to pursue that. So, If you can, Id appreciate an email with some tips or tricks to make a deeper campaign."

I'm always interested in the feedback people send, either through e-mail or my Facebook page. I read everything and try to spend some time thinking about points that are raised, and I answer questions, if I'm able. A question like this is a golden opportunity to talk about actual techniques for adding depth to your games. It's one thing to talk about a rich world and interesting NPCs and another thing to try to build them. And how do you introduce goals that aren't the usual "kill it and take its stuff," anyway? These things can seem daunting, especially when you've never done it before and you don't have someone you can ask.

If possible, work on adding depth and facets from the very start of a campaign. The beginning sets the tone for everything that follows after and lets players know what to expect. If you take a long-established campaign and try to change its tone and methods in major ways, players might feel like you've pulled a bait and switch. They might feel like they have been shanghaied into switching gears with characters they would rather not change. But if you go into a fresh game and state that you would like to work on moving beyond the same old patterns, your players will be signing up for a change from the start.

Location, Location, Location

Setting your game in a well populated place can help encourage more interactions and negotiations. Starting in the wilderness usually means less social interaction and more straightforward options that rely on violence (though that doesn't have to be the case). But a city (or at least a town) offers politics, laws, secrets, and plans great and small, as well as consequences. It also offers people, with all of their quirks and troubles. This doesn't mean that you can't have wilderness nearby; it just means that you should try to make populated areas seem important. Give the PCs real reasons to stick around, like favors they can earn and guilds they can join. Draw up a city sketch that sets up the major powers and rivalries of the location, as well; you can add to it later, but it helps to have some major ideas.

For instance, when I first started my evil campaign, we began play at sea but with the goal of returning to their power base in Eltabbar. When they got back to their home city, the PCs found a place built on the careful rivalries of noble houses. The political heart of the country has many rules designed to stave off a giant bloodbath, so the party was also faced with laws and customs they would have to maneuver around. I also chose the city because it is a major religious center and a major slaving center. There are many benefits to keeping house there, even for those nobles who travel abroad for some of the year.

Putting some extra thought into the setting can pay off very well. This doesn't mean that I'm encouraging anyone to plan out the garbage routes for every city in their campaign. If you have enough time and patience to pull off that level of detail, more power to you, but I certainly don't. Rather, I encourage Dungeon Masters to generate quick details that will give each place a distinctive flavor. Just a little thought about the type of government and alignment can generate complications (for more, have a look here). A little more thought about the mix of races can lead to adventures, as well (the PCs could show up on the verge of a riot between local half-orcs and the elf tribe that visits the market). Throw in a few notes about major local religions, and you've got a good start. If the player characters stick around, you can add more details later.

Allowing player characters to own and control their own home, business, or other location can make them feel excited about a place. Sending religious characters on quests that grant them an abbey or shrine can make them feel like important local figures. Let player characters know that they can use some of their extra gold to start a business (perhaps through characters they've acquired through the Leadership feat), and they'll have a place where people can reach them with plot hooks. They might have an easier time dealing with local people (read as: a bonus to Diplomacy rolls) or gain discounts with merchants they've helped.

Social Networking in Fantasyland

Setting up a network of people who are somehow related to the player characters is another important step. You can set up a few major figures right away (like the leaders of a city), but most of them will be easier to design once people have made their characters. You can ask your players to come up with some of their character's family and friends. You should let them know that you are not just asking for the information so you can kill off everyone they know because some players have had bad experiences that way. You might want to offer a bit of starting experience for each person they create, just to provide some incentive if they're wary. And keep at least brief notes about the characters that the PCs meet so you can use them again and build a recurring cast.

If someone refuses or tries the lone-wolf routine, feel free to think about people who are connected to the character whether they like it or not. Perhaps they have an old flame, an ex-wife or a rival from their schoolyard days. They could bump into a former teacher or the friends of their parents. You don't have to provide statistics for all of these characters - that would take way too much work for people you might not even use - but you should take basic notes on who they are and how they might engage the PCs in a situation. Always remember that NPCs are walking and talking stories and problems, waiting for the chance to collide with the PCs.

For my evil campaign, I asked my players to create characters from a single noble house. I let them choose their noble house out of a quick list that I had drawn up. (But it still had 90 entries to choose from, and each house had its own primary area of business for flavor.) I then asked how they wanted to be related to the house, and they formed their connections: two of them said they'd be brothers, and they even agreed that they should have a younger sister. The last player said she was going to be a cousin of the brothers, and that she would have her own little sister. I took it from there and sketched out a family tree (with more detail than was strictly needed, but I was having too much fun to stop). For more on creating and portraying NPCs, have a look here.

Stuff To Do

When it comes to designing scenarios and adventures, consider intangible goals, like gaining influence with a group, convincing someone to help, or gaining permission to enter a warded place. Maybe an NPC needs an escort to a civic function, or wants to prove themselves worthy to the PCs. Perhaps the PCs need to spread rumors that will stick to a particular NPC, or prevent someone from doing something rash (like killing themselves). Searching for a person (or creature) who's gone missing doesn't always end in a dungeon, and revenge doesn't always end in a death. Think about how people try to meet their needs and how many things can go wrong along the way. Environmental dangers and natural disasters can also come into play, as well as riddles and non-combat competitions (like games of chance or skill, creating items, or performances).

Think about how many things people do that don't involve killing everything in sight but could involve combat if necessary. If a wizard needs a new desk for his lab, it might be no big deal - but if it needs to be made from a slab of special stone that the dwarves consider sacred, he might just need help to get it made. A fierce battle between two groups ends in death all around. The cause? A battered cookbook that is supposedly written in code and contains a recipe for the equivalent of gunpowder. Do the PCs try to decrypt it? If so, rumor has it that the favorite neice of the author grew up locally and might still be around. Do they turn it in to the local church of knowledge for free, or to the church of artificers for a reward?

These are things that PCs might try to use magic to solve, but magic won't always be an option. (Trying to charm someone in public could get you in a lot of trouble, after all.) Instead of relying on rolls to resolve all social matters, encourage players to explain things in-character and leave rolls secondary. While players should not be expected to be master orators or tacticians, they can be expected to try to think their way around a scenario. See if you can come up with some nonstandard rewards, as well, such as information, favors, titles, servants, buildings, or membership in a group. Be sure to give the party enough treasure to keep up with the bad guys they will encounter for their level, but surprise them with something different when you can.

Another thing a Dungeon Master should do is take notes of individual interests the player characters have so they can be worked into the mix. Since the PCs are their own people, they will probably have their own goals and interests if they are involved in the game long enough. Sometimes you will know what they want to pursue because they will seek it out on their own. Other times, you won't be sure what personal goals the player characters have, so take time to ask. Every now and then, ask each player to write down a couple of long term and short term goals for their characters. It won't take long but could pay off handsomely.

Building Up Layers

You can start out with a small-time focus, generating details for a couple of places and adventures and seeing where things go. As the PCs interact with an area, your notes will become more detailed and you will build on the skeleton of your initial ideas. Look for ways that different elements can interact and fit together (how the local laws deal with the mixing of races, for instance). Try to build a sense of consistency when you can so that the setting starts to make sense to the players. Build oppositions and friendships between NPCs that will help or hinder what the PCs plan to do. Show the PCs other groups of adventurers that are seeking their own mysteries. Every now and then, throw in a pregnancy or a birthday or a death to show the players that the world is moving around them, whether they are making things happen or not. Over time, you will build up layers of details, reasons, and experience that will give a campaign a real sense of its own nuanced history - something you might need a book (or a web site) to explain to outsiders.

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