Aug 24

Running a Successful Campaign: Tips & Tricks

Weekly Tip/Trick for August 24, 2012: 


When I first started running games, no one really gave me any useful tips or general rules of thumb to go by.  All I had were the books and my own creativity.  Although the books help, they can also create headaches and overwhelm those new to running games (at least that’s how I felt).  Had this website existed then, perhaps I could have used the advice of others and avoided some of those embarrassing moments from my first few attempts as a DM (Dungeon Master).  With this in mind, for the next 10 weeks, I will be posting my top 10 tips & tricks for running successful campaigns.  Each week I will discuss some of the key tips & tricks I have learned through my experiences that have helped me out.  Please keep in mind when reading that these are my opinions and pertain mostly to D&D (Dungeons & Dragons).  I am in no way trying to say you have to use these guidelines in order to have a successful campaign.

  1. Avoid Being a Control Freak – The number one thing that frustrates me when I’m playing in someone’s game is when I feel like I’m being “pulled” into a particular direction.  Every DM I have ever met usually plans out a course of events he/she feels should/could happen.  What some DM’s don’t do is prepare for what happens if things don’t go according to plan.  The worst thing you can do in these situations, in my opinion, is “pull” the players in the direction you want them to go.  If you should ever find yourself in this situation (and you will) here are some helpful tips you can use:
    • Try to present a situation where the players choose to follow the course you had planned out.   For example, what if you had planned on the players going under a mountain and through some elaborate cave dungeon you spent hours creating, but they decide to take the long way and climb the mountain instead?  Instead of flat out saying, “The mountain cannot be climbed…” think outside the box.  One idea could be to make them roll a listen or spot check.  Make the DC low (10 to 12), and whoever succeeds could hear a scream from under the mountain, or spot a glowing gem embedded in the entrance of the cave leading under the mountain.  You could also have them roll reflex saves with a higher DC to avoid falling into the cave from the ground collapsing.  Just remember, you are creating the illusion of choice, the players need to feel like everything that is happening is a result of the decisions they made.
    • Have a contingency plan – I will go over this in more detail in next week’s post, but here is the general idea.  It is always good to have an ace up your sleeve in case you get in a bind.  The contingency plan is a plot device you create before the session that is only used if needed.  When I get into this with more detail next week, you will see just how simple and helpful this unique tool can be, but for now here is basically what could happen.  Using the example above, your contingency plan could be anything from a NPC coming down from the mountain to an occurrence of a strange event (ie sudden storm with high winds).   Now things just became interesting, the NPC could come down the mountain and say that the path ahead is blocked due to some rocks collapsing, so climbing would be foolish (If they still choose to climb, they’ve been warned..) .  Another event that could happen could be a storm as I mentioned.  In this case you would roll to determine the severity, but this is a contingency play, so your roll will basically just determine whether the storm will be severe or extremely severe.  The real purpose of the dice roll is to create the illusion that that storm was truly a random event.  Now, the “random” storm clouds that seem to be coming from the direction of the mountain would make the climb extremely difficult with the mud and falling rocks, created from the pouring rain and strong winds.  This would then force the group to seek shelter in your convenient cave.  Little did they know you had this planned from the beginning!
    • Allow them to pursue the course they want – This may be hard for some DM’s, but this is one of the reasons I love running games.  This forces you to think on your toes and be creative.  Typically, the example above is never an issue.  You wouldn’t have worked for hours on a dungeon, without having a plan for getting the group there.  Sometimes though, unusual circumstances can happen.  For instance, the group could accidentally kill the person who was going to give them the location to the cave mentioned above.  You could use your contingency plan to help set them back on course, but why not hold off and see what happens?  Worse case you use the cave dungeon in a later game.
    • Avoid using NPC’s that are traveling with the party to “guide” the players I’ve seen this done more by experienced DM’s than newer ones, not sure why.  This is the most obvious method used to “pull” the players where the DM wants them to go.  Here’s an example, the group runs into a NPC who says, “I’ll help you get to that cave.”  The group doesn’t know where it is located in the mountains, so agrees and they eventually head off.  Now the entire session feels like one big contingency plan.  The group eventually leaves with the NPC.  He then leads them into the forest, then over a bridge, and finally after 2 hours, the group arrives at the cave.  I’m getting bored just typing it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having a guide in the group, but a big chunk of the session should not be simply following a NPC.  All you need to do is add a few elements to it.  How about this, the guide begins to lead the group, but along the way, allow the players to make vital choices in the course of actions.  Have the guide assist them in making the decisions, not just make the decisions for them.  He could ask the group, “Well, we can cut through here and it will cut our travel time in half.  The only problem is the local tribe in that part of the forest has been known to cause some problems to travelers, so we would have to be on our guard.  If we go around it will take us twice as long, and will be a lot labor intensive.  You would then have the group help make other choices as you see fit or as they arise, like what to do when they approach the river and see that the bridge is out?.  Another interesting idea could be the same as above, but have the group roll a survival or knowledge geography check, to notice that the guide is actually leading the group away from the mountains the cave is supposed to be in.  He could be leading them into a trap?  All you have to do is ask yourself, “If I were the group, would I feel like the DM was “pulling” me or would I feel like our choices got us here?”
    • Use DM awards – Sometimes you get stuck in an unusual circumstance where the group is determined to go or do something a certain way, no matter what.  For example, if it is crucial to the game to “pull” the group in a different direction or prevent them from doing something, then at least award them for the DM intervention.   Keeping with the above example, you could say, “Your characters feel that going up the mountain would be extremely dangerous at this time and it would take you too far out of your way” and then award the group action points (aka hero points), experience points, or some other kind of reward you might think of.  I have only ever had to do this once and will only use it as a last resort.  At least this way they are being rewarded for being forced to pursue a different option.


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  1. Jared,
    Good stuff. I like the tips&tricks idea. Looking forward to the next installment.


    • Jonathon on July 9, 2013 at 2:14 pm
    • Reply


    Yes… The control freak is an annoyance. Sounds like most of the ‘Living’ campaign modules/adventures.

    At least the DM could help out by saying, “You think that it might be a better idea to go by the way of the cave instead of climbing the mountain.”; instead of saying, “You are going to go by the way of the cave.”

    In an adventure I wrote, I gave the PC’s three choices (land, water, air) to go the direction that they wanted to go in order to get to their destination. At least that way they thought that they had a choice in the matter.



    1. We just ended our Made Men Campaign which was an experiment of sorts for me. Could I run an open-world game? Turns out I can, but not very well. The game started out as a small Soprano’s game and ended . . .well, I don’t want to spoil it yet. There are about 5-8 (depends on editing) episodes left. We did a whole post-mortem Dungeon Talk which I will post after it’s over as well, on how it went and how it got to where it got. I still love that game and think it might be one of the best i’ve ever ran but there are soooo many places where if I had taken a break to think through the next step rather than just going with it that we’d likely still be playing it.

      Oh well . . . I think the rails vs. Sandbox is a debate for the ages. There is no one right answer, but each decision point could be weighed and in some cases limited choices would be better and in others limitless choices would be best. The key will be recognizing these points as they are coming up.

  2. I look forward to hearing the Made Men campaign, as it seems to be a big topic among your group every time I join a game of yours.

    For me, I only run Sandbox games, because I only run games the way I like the games I play in to be. No restrictions/barriers for the players. This of course, is a lot more work, but in my opinion, a lot more rewarding as a DM. Options are great, there’s no doubting that. There are times when I write out several scenarios and some are never taken, to me that’s ok, but some DMs may not like this. You have to stick to what you know I guess, but my regret is not being in Michaels one and only sandbox game. The next time you feel like running another one, let me know. This is where I really try to shine as a roleplayer.

    Thanks for all the feedback you guys. I will try to check back often. There are a few more things I have learned in the past few months I hope to incorporate into another article. I have three games I’m working on, so this is sucking a lot of my time.


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