I am going to start a new campaign for OSE in about a month and I have begun talking with some of the potential players. They are starting to have “ideas” for characters, and wanted to begin writing backgrounds. Normally this would not be a big deal, in fact, in the past I use to offer my students bonus XP for having a background. I had rules, that it could not be over 500 words, it could not use trite, overused troupes like; your parents were killed in a raid, you are an orphan, you are searching for a lost relative, or you are seeking vengeance on the man that harmed you in the past. The grammar had to be good, and it was to be treated as an assignment you would turn into a professor, but was completely optional.
|Have to take a honest look at my mistakes.
The last campaign was supposed to be a pure dungeon crawl sandbox (for reference Morgansfort), but it ended up being a sandbox that started to take a narrative life of its own. I started to add portions of the character’s backgrounds into the overall world, and I started to tie characters together. This actually led to me changing my style of campaign as things happened. I grew attached to the characters that the players had, and I liked the stories that were being produced. I found myself taking it easier on the characters, and even fudging a few things here and there, because I wanted the stories to continue in a certain way.
|Should have kept it simple.
The game collapsed with in-fighting and a general toxic feel to the game. I got the people so invested in their personal story, that they did not see themselves as part of a group anymore. I had tried to snake plotlines into the game that set the group at odds with one another, trusting that they would take the narrative option to form together and defeat evil. This did not happen, many paid lip service to the party, while plotting the doom of other PCs. The game ended when players got so upset over each other’s actions, that they either tried to get themselves killed to leave the game, or try to kill other players. It was a mess, and an absolute failure as a DM. When the campaign was simply about going into dungeons and getting treasure it was fine, but eight players seeing themselves as the main protagonist in a larger narrative ruined the game, and I fed that notion.
|Actual picture of my campaign.
With DM’ing, as with most things in life, it is important to look at your failures as well as your successes. I ran half a year’s campaign that was prosperous and focused, then I changed the focus mid-stream, assuming I was amazing enough to counter ANYTHING that could come up and I was wrong. I allowed players to get far to invested in their characters, to the point that they took things personally. I allowed some toxic behavior at the table, assuming that I could mitigate it with time. I thought myself immune to the mistakes a younger DM could make, and in all my advance techniques forgot about some of the basics. Keep the game focused. Keep the game understandable. Correct toxic behavior immediately and firmly. Let the player’s decisions matter. Remember it is just a game.
Moving forward I am going to focus on getting back to the basics, literally. I will be using B2 Keep on the Borderland to introduce a new group of students to the wonderful world of D&D. First thing first, no backgrounds. I actually want less investment in the characters, because the characters are disposable. We will forge the narrative of the characters as we go. Also, they will likely die, but the group will go on. Emphasizing the success of the group will be the most important feature. Keep the sandbox an actual sandbox and allow the players to dictate what direction the game is going to go in. Do not switch the game mechanics mid-stream. That does not mean I cannot house rule or modify, but the core mechanics should not change. Do not get cocky and realize that you might need to re-examine the campaign at regular intervals to see what is going on and make sure that you are on the path that is good for everyone. No “world-ending” events, play should consist of a local area, and a localized threat.
|Going back to the beginning.
It is easy to write and discuss the victories of you DM’ing career, it is actually quite hard to take a look and realize that you did not do as well as you could have done. It would be easy to turn this on the players and say that they did not do well, or they made certain decisions that drove the game in certain directions, but at the end of the day the buck stops with me. So I made some mistakes, I have hopefully learned from them. In my second year running the school campaign I will do better.
EDIT: This article proved to be very popular. I went ahead and created a Facebook group for the blog, if you are interested the link is here.