First time DM looking for a bit of advice.

24 posts / 0 new
Last post
Hey all! I'm currently setting up a campaign for my first run as a DM, and wanted to get some feedback.

Basically, I want to tell a legitimate story, but not shut down my players' choices. Right now I'm basically figuring out all the background info on the various NPCs they'll be running into. My goal is to have a group of characters with specific goals and personalities, such that the NPCs can react fluidly to the players decisions while still maintaining their own goals (some of which will not be known by the players until a twist is revealed), and thereby advancing the story.

That said, I don't want this to be a campaign "on rails", as I've seen referenced in the forums.  I guess my basic question is: With the approach described above, would those of you with more experience say that I'm on the right track to telling an engaging story while still letting my players make their own choices and help develop their characters' stories, as well as the overall story?

I can post some of what I've got written up so far, if any of you would like to take a look at it. 
Hey all! I'm currently setting up a campaign for my first run as a DM, and wanted to get some feedback.

I hope we can help.

Basically, I want to tell a legitimate story, but not shut down my players' choices.

That's doable, but not the way you might think. You can't write the story in advance and still give much weight to player choices, unless they're involved in writing the story with you. If not, then either you keep them "on rails" to retain the story, or you scrap the story to adapt to their choices.

Right now I'm basically figuring out all the background info on the various NPCs they'll be running into. My goal is to have a group of characters with specific goals and personalities, such that the NPCs can react fluidly to the players decisions while still maintaining their own goals (some of which will not be known by the players until a twist is revealed), and thereby advancing the story.

It's okay to have NPCs with goals, but it's not advisable to become too attached to those goals (or the idea of them either remaining secret, or being entirely clear and meaningful to the players). I recommend collaborating with the players on the kinds of NPCs they think would be interesting to deal with, along with the goals and abilities those NPCs have.

That said, I don't want this to be a campaign "on rails", as I've seen referenced in the forums.  I guess my basic question is: With the approach described above, would those of you with more experience say that I'm on the right track to telling an engaging story while still letting my players make their own choices and help develop their characters' stories, as well as the overall story?

As you've probably gathered, no, I think you're on the approach to a game that spirals out of your control quickly (since a DM doesn't have that much control to begin with) and risks not engaging your players. This is what I've seen time and again when the "story" belongs to the DM and the players only operate their characters.

You don't have to collaborate with them as complete equals, but ask them direct questions and accept and add on to their answers. Say "Yes, and..." to assumptions they make, and facts they establish, and make your "story" freeform enough to allow you to do that. It takes practice, but I highly recommend trying it, at least to some degree.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Thanks for the response, Centauri! I guess I should rephrase my original post to a degree . . . I think I somewhat misunderstood how some people were using "rails". I want there to be a legitimate story/world that I craft and the players interact with. I want there to be a sense of mystery and discovery built into the story, which requires the players to NOT know the story. With that said, I have no intention of telling the players they can't do something, or shutting them down if they go in an unintended direction with it. Would you consider that whole approach just a non-functional goal in this game? Or is it more that I'm just running the risk of my players not giving a crap about the story I want to tell, and wanting to run off and do something different?

If it's the latter, that's a risk I'm willing to take, as I'm fairly confident in my ability to engage people with a story. 

If it's the former . . . Well, I guess I'm not entirely convinced that it can't be done well. But hey, I could be wrong. First time and all that. Smile


I should note that I am approaching this with the understanding that the players (even within "my" story) might do something completely out of left field throw my plans into total disarray. I'm ok with that, it just means I adapt the story to their actions, and have the NPCs react in a realistic manner (according to their various personalities).
I recommend spending some time reading Chris Perkins' excellent 'The DM Experience' column on this site.  His style of DMing is likely to work well for what you're trying to achieve.  Start with this one:

www.wizards.com/Dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4... ('The Invisible Railroad')

There's no one right way to DM, but you'll get a lot of posters here that will try to convince you that their way is the only way. As a wise poster once said "be careful of the advice you get from posters here".
That article is exactly what I'm shooting for, Litmus. Laughing Thanks for the post, you're right on the money.

Centauri, I've perusing some of the other threads, and I think I'm just gonna have to disagree with some of your approach . . . But I do understand why you're cautious about some of the style I'm shooting for.


I should also note that I'm attempting to do as a DM what I would want a DM to do if I was one of the players.
Thanks for the response, Centauri! I guess I should rephrase my original post to a degree . . . I think I somewhat misunderstood how some people were using "rails". I want there to be a legitimate story/world that I craft and the players interact with.

It could be that I don't understand what you mean by "legitimate."

If by "story" you mean you want there to be things going on that, if the players weren't around, or fail to act, would unfold in a certain way, then that's certainly doable.

"Story" is mainly a problem when the DM thinks of the PCs as characters in a novel, who will act in ways the DM can anticipate and control (though I'm told not even characters in actual novels are this well behaved for their authors).

I want there to be a sense of mystery and discovery built into the story, which requires the players to NOT know the story.

That's actually not the case. Collaboration can lead to plenty of "Oh, my god!" realizations for not only the players but the DM. It's a beautiful thing when it happens, and I've seen it happen a lot more than when I've seen DMs try to surprise the players with their own inventions.

With that said, I have no intention of telling the players they can't do something, or shutting them down if they go in an unintended direction with it. Would you consider that whole approach just a non-functional goal in this game? Or is it more that I'm just running the risk of my players not giving a crap about the story I want to tell, and wanting to run off and do something different?

If it's the latter, that's a risk I'm willing to take, as I'm fairly confident in my ability to engage people with a story.

If it's the former . . . Well, I guess I'm not entirely convinced that it can't be done well. But hey, I could be wrong. First time and all that. Smile

The only times I've seen it work well is when there's a lot of buy in from the players, and a lot of them acting certain ways because they know it's expected of them. That's fine, but it left me wondering why we would do this dance. If the players have to be in on it for it to work anyway, why not actually bring them in on it?

I should note that I am approaching this with the understanding that the players (even within "my" story) might do something completely out of left field throw my plans into total disarray. I'm ok with that, it just means I adapt the story to their actions, and have the NPCs react in a realistic manner (according to their various personalities).

Yeah, based on your further clarification I think you're in good shape. Listen to your players, though, and ask them questions. They will always know what they like much better than anyone else ever could.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I should also note that I'm attempting to do as a DM what I would want a DM to do if I was one of the players. 

Of course. You would want the DM to give you an interesting story, with lots of cool discovery and mystery. Can't blame you. But how does the DM know what you find interesting, cool or mysterious?

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I should also note that I'm attempting to do as a DM what I would want a DM to do if I was one of the players. 

Of course. You would want the DM to give you an interesting story, with lots of cool discovery and mystery. Can't blame you. But how does the DM know what you find interesting, cool or mysterious?




I gotcha. I'll definitely be trying to keep plenty of dialogue going between the players and myself.
I should also note that I'm attempting to do as a DM what I would want a DM to do if I was one of the players. 

Of course. You would want the DM to give you an interesting story, with lots of cool discovery and mystery. Can't blame you. But how does the DM know what you find interesting, cool or mysterious?

I gotcha. I'll definitely be trying to keep plenty of dialogue going between the players and myself.

That's basically all I'm saying. This can be taken to various degrees, but unless it's there at some level there's little reason to expect one's game to be engaging to the players, outside of their own characters. Even writers of TV shows get feedback and input from their audiences, directly or indirectly, to guide the show's development. They can wind up in trouble if they try to please everyone equally, but they can also end up in trouble if they don't try to please anyone but themselves.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I think you're in the same position many DMs find themselves in when it comes to starting out.  You run into this situation where you would like the other players to participate in a story of your making, and at the same time you would like their choices to be meaningful and them to feel engaged.  With that in mind I'm going to suggest a half-way approach of sorts.  Obviously this is just a suggestion, and as all advice between people, should be taken carefully.


First two suggestions before you do too much planning:

1.) Ask the players what they like and what their expectations are.

Players are more involved with things they like.  If they don't want to play in a low-magic gothic type world, don't like western steam punks,  hate jungle or ocean settings, or any of a number dislikes try to avoid that.  Instead find some common ground and compromise on what the setting is like and how things function in the world. 

Also see what kinds of things players like doing in game.  If your group likes a lot of combat don't given them less of it. If your group likes large negociations and discussions then go for that.  Your players might not have enough experience to really tell you what they like from the get go, so just get whatever input you can from them now and maybe ask them again after some sessions.

2.) Keep the dialogue between all players.

If there is a problem make sure it gets sorted out.  Don't ever use in-game means to resolve an issue in the group, it almost never works.  Everyone is an adult, and should be able to come to compromises and express discontent. Conversely let them shower praise on you, and listen to people enjoy themselves as well.


As for the suggestion on style.  Plan your story, but only plan at most one session ahead.  Don't strictly stick to your plans, and change them based on the direction the group goes in.  Try not to force them back onto whatever your original plans are, and develop new plans based the choices they make.  Things don't exist until you make them exist.  A short example.

Let's say the characters are helping a prince in a contest to get married to a foreign princess.  In this quest the players run across a burned village, and decide that helping the villagers get justice is more important than the quest for the prince.   As a result you flesh out a bandit king and his thugs, slave pits, fortress, and some other towns he might have pillaged.  In the background you have the prince fail in his quest and the princess gets married to evil duke. 

It might have been different then what you originally had scripted for the prince princess story arc, but you keep it interesting by having things happen without player involvement so the world isn't static.  You also engage the players by building on things they like.  They might never find out the prince failed, or they might and they might not care and go about something else.  You still call the shots on what happens, but how they interact with it, or choose not to is up to them.
    


                 
The article posted by Litmus is spot on!  This is the tactic that I take as well.  I know what is happening around the PCs and in the world at large.  The PCs are free to explore any avenue that they wish and they may affect change in the campaign, though they often run into signals or "sign posts" that hint to them what is really happening and hopefully this motivates them to follow the signs to be a part of the major happenings in the world and have the greatest chance for affecting major change...ei defeating the BBEG and saving the world type stuffs.  My players are motivated by the chance of being great Heroes not to mention they realize that there is an overall theme and direction to the campaign and that the canpaign world will move around them even if they are not pursuing the 'main' story arc - so it is better if they try to find this arc and follow it to its conclusion with some side adventures on the way of course (see figure 3 of "The Invisibile Railroad").
"The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us." - Friedrich Nietzsche

It is important to collaborate with your players. Do you already know how many players you will have and what classes and races they want to play?! How do the characters know each other and what are their motivations and general world-view?


These questions help you to integrate the characters in your story, add to it and make it their own. Because every story/adventure is better, when it is about the characters -gives them background and depth!

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."


It is important to collaborate with your players. Do you already know how many players you will have and what classes and races they want to play?! How do the characters know each other and what are their motivations and general world-view?


These questions help you to integrate the characters in your story, add to it and make it their own. Because every story/adventure is better, when it is about the characters -gives them background and depth!




I whole heartly agree with this statement, but.... the dreaded but..... Do not expect that all your players will participate at this level (finding ways to integrate their characters into your world), but when they do it is quite awesome and makes the job of DMing that much easier.
"The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us." - Friedrich Nietzsche
I'm currently trying to approach DMing in the way you suggest. It's not very easy, but the players are having a great time and so am I. Chris Perkins has some great advice as Litmus states. It's a shame that "iserith" doesn't post anymore, because he's very good with freeforming adventures, even if his methods are not always something I'm comfortable with. Here's a list of things I do that work for me,

(1) I have a very basic idea for the story in my head or a few sentences on paper only.
(2) I prepare one session at a time, two weeks in advance, but no more. Because the players have taken paths I have not expected more often, over the time we have played.
(3) If I can't say 'yes' to a player request right away, then I try to intergate it at a later date.
(4) I run an adventure that focuses on one character at a time and something that appeals to the player.
(5) I make a list of the monsters the PC's might encounter if they take a coarse of action I have not planned for, with page references. The same can be done with NPC's that you can slot in where you need them.
(6) I allow them a tool to affect the story directly called 'Plot Twist cards'. It will take players a long time to learn how to use them for something other than combat bonuses, that's the only problem. It also requires the DM to think on your feet, which I still struggle with sometimes.
(7) I keep my adventure plots very simple and reasonably short so that players don't get bored.

This is some of the methods I use to run my game group, take what you want and leave the rest. I use other techniques, but they are still being tested and I need a history with them first to consider suggesting them. I can't really comment on your story or what you have prepared, from your first post. The first post is so general, specifics would be helpful.

It is important to collaborate with your players. Do you already know how many players you will have and what classes and races they want to play?! How do the characters know each other and what are their motivations and general world-view?

These questions help you to integrate the characters in your story, add to it and make it their own. Because every story/adventure is better, when it is about the characters -gives them background and depth!


I whole heartly agree with this statement, but.... the dreaded but..... Do not expect that all your players will participate at this level (finding ways to integrate their characters into your world), but when they do it is quite awesome and makes the job of DMing that much easier.

I find that players who might not integrate their characters in to my world will often jump at the chance to integrate their characters into our world.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

To the OP, it sounds like you have a good idea of what you want and where you want to go. I will promote my theory of less is more ( which other people on the boards admittedly disagree with). The point being to create sweeping, overarching plot elements but to let players fill in a lot of the details.

Example: Frodo needs to destroy the One Ring. He needs to get to Mordor to do it and a lot of things will accost he and his friends along the way. If youre on the rails you kead the party through Moria, kill Boromir, force the ally pcs off on another direction, meet Faramir, etc.

If you let the players choose, they may go talk to the eagles, spend some with Tom Bombadil, circle around the Misty Mountain, and construct a catapult to launch them over the walls into Mordor.

Either way Sauron is still trying to find the ring, sends bad guys after Frodo and is generally causing mayhem in the world, but you let the players decide THEIR course in things.

Also, I really hope you know Tolkein, or my example is a bust... 
I find that players who might not integrate their characters in to my world will often jump at the chance to integrate their characters into our world.



A fine but important distinction!


@Prom: Can you explain more about the "Plot Twist cards"? 

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."

To the OP, it sounds like you have a good idea of what you want and where you want to go. I will promote my theory of less is more ( which other people on the boards admittedly disagree with). The point being to create sweeping, overarching plot elements but to let players fill in a lot of the details.

Example: Frodo needs to destroy the One Ring. He needs to get to Mordor to do it and a lot of things will accost he and his friends along the way. If youre on the rails you kead the party through Moria, kill Boromir, force the ally pcs off on another direction, meet Faramir, etc.

If you let the players choose, they may go talk to the eagles, spend some with Tom Bombadil, circle around the Misty Mountain, and construct a catapult to launch them over the walls into Mordor.

Either way Sauron is still trying to find the ring, sends bad guys after Frodo and is generally causing mayhem in the world, but you let the players decide THEIR course in things.

Also, I really hope you know Tolkein, or my example is a bust... 



Haha, I'm very familiar with Tolkien. What you've described there is the general approach I'm shooting for.
Haha, I'm very familiar with Tolkien. What you've described there is the general approach I'm shooting for.

That should work fine. Plan ahead with your players for what happens if the equivalent of Sauron obtaining the Ring happens in your world, and make it as interesting as you can. That way, the "story" goes in an interesting direction regardless of how engaged the players are with the main "plot."

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

This old thread is a true gem for every DM - especially the questions at the beginning:

community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/758...

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."

I find that players who might not integrate their characters in to my world will often jump at the chance to integrate their characters into our world.



A fine but important distinction!


@Prom: Can you explain more about the "Plot Twist cards"? 



Plot Twist cards are not that new anymore, I've been using them for over a year. I believe that WotC might have something very similar in the product line. Here are a few links on information,

paizo.com/products/btpy8b8m?GameMastery-...

I wrote a blog on them some time ago, but maybe another update articled would be helpful. But for now here is what I have on found out about using them.

community.wizards.com/prom/blog/2012/04/...

I'd like to point out that it was not all roses when I started using them, but now the players and I have intergrated them as the norm.

I don't want to say anymore here as it is not what the OP asked for.
Running a first game can be interesting.  Sounds like you have a good idea of what you want to get out of it, just aren't sure how to get it.  Well, part of it depends on the players, and part depends on you.  The essential thing as a DM is to know what your players are wanting and enjoying.  If you want to have an epic Lord of The Rings-style storyline, but you've got four people who just want to dungeon crawl, your game will fall flat.  It's a huge letdown when you have a folder full of notes and ideas, but all anyone wants to do is fight goblins. 

An easy mistake as a DM is trying to overprepare a game.  There's no reason to have the whole campaign mapped out...what you do need is a good pool of ideas you can draw from when something comes up.  I like having some premade NPCs of various types, a few treasure ideas written down, anything else I can think of I can throw into the game quickly.  You may plan out the story, but it's not the DM who tells it.  I think of the DM as the director, but the players are the writers and actors. 

Instead of having it all premade, and taking the PCs on a rollercoaster ride (which is fun for the DM and no one else), think of ideas for what could happen.  Then change your story by the player's actions.  It takes some practices and ingenuity, and I've seen games derail because the DM couldn't adapt to the players.  It's essential that you know how to do that. 

Most of all, match your style to your group.  Make it fun for everyone, including you.  Tell a good story in the background if you need to (I always do), but the real story isn't yours, it's the PCs'.  So give them the game they want to play, whether it's hack 'n slash or deep immersion role-play. 

Plot Twist cards I suppose can be interesting, I've looked at them, but I don't use them.  I did at one time make a storyline generator I called "Cliche Maker" for setting up new missions, but I prefer to improvise.
Thanks Prom for explaining about the "Plot Twist Cards" - that sounds intresting. I guess just like action dice it gives the players an extra edge when luck is needed most.


Otherwise I second Dralenan's excelent post: Don't overprepare!   

Panartias, ladies-man and Jack of all trades about his professions:

"Once, I was a fighter -

to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.

Then I became a thief -

- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.

And finally, I became a mage -

- to enchant her face with a smile."