Unfortunately the real world often gets in the way of our free time. The last month has been particularly busy for me, leaving me with little in the way of free time outside of the little time I spend on my campaigns. The little time I have had has largely been devoted to getting a campaign wiki up and running for my homebrew game. Although 4ed makes preparing for a game, and DM'ing in general, fairly easy, when time gets short, we often forget to do one of the most important aspects of running a campaign. That is, evaluating the state of our game. Its this evaluation that I want to discuss today.
As DMs we tend to spend a lot of time in creating a story, designing a campaign world, crafting adventures that tie into that overall story, building entertaining encounters, etc. All of this is apart from running the actual game and can often tie up most of our extra free time. However, its important to take some time out every so often to turn a critical eye toward the campaign as its played out so far in order to ensure that we build the best campaign possible. The key here is to be honest with yourself when you look at each aspect of your campaign and to think about how you can improve those areas that need improving.
Providing meaningful choices can often be a difficult thing to do. Often, even when we think we are providing meaningful choices, we really aren't. In my homebrew campaign for instance, I was trying to run a fairly open-ended campaign throughout heroic tier. Upon looking back though I realized that there really were only one or two instances where I provided my players with a true choice in terms of where the campaign would head next. I don't think the game was on rails per se, but looking back at the plot hooks I fed the players, it was pretty obvious what choices the players would take. To combat this, now that the party has entered paragon tier, I'm taking a much more open approach to my campaign. I've fed about four or five major plot lines to the party, the resolution (or lack thereof) of which will definitely impact the campaign world going forward. More importantly, like Dave Chalker recommends in his excellent article on the 5x5 method, I am filtering those plot lines through several common locations. This will let the players really take control of the campaign and follow the paths they prefer, rather than just the path that I lay out for them. The key here is that I need to be flexible with those plot lines so that they can be run at any stage during the paragon tier. This may mean that I have to change the level of the monsters in the adventure, or even choose new monsters.
Tie the Game to the Player Characters:
Nothing makes a campaign as interesting (in my opinion) as tying it into the different backgrounds of your PCs. Now obviously, this can be tricky as there is always the risk of providing one player too great a share of the spot light when you target his or her background. If you are good about spreading the love around though your players will no doubt love it (provided they care about story and character development, which not every player does). Every so often, its a good idea to take a look at your campaign arc and see how you can tie it into the backgrounds of your PCs. Frequently this will be easy. Perhaps one of your PCs has a particular dislike for mages. In a case like this, its fairly easy to turn one of your BBEGs in an adventure into a mage and to drop hints as to that NPC's arcane leanings. This will definitely make this particular adventure of particular interest to that PC and will do so without causing him to hog the spotlight. More to the point though, it is usually fairly easy to craft story elements that do not necessarily dictate an entire adventure per se, but definitely give a particular character a chance to shine. Got a PC from a remote island populated by particularly reclusive gnomes? Then why not craft your campaign in such a way that the party must travel to this island at some point. If the PC's departure from the island was particularly scandalous, then so much the better.
Keep the Game Fun:
This is perhaps one of the more difficult elements to examine. The problem here is that fun is definitely in the eye of the beholder. More to the point, it can be fairly easy to miss the body language of your players while you are busy running monsters, adjudicating results, reading boxed text, etc. Additionally, your players will often be hesitant to tell you when they are not having fun out of fear of offending you. The easiest way to guage this element is to just keep an eye on your players' body language. Are they busy playing with their phones? Building dice towers? Making random die rolls or talking to their neighbor when its not their turn? These are all classic signs that your group is getting bored. It can be hard to pinpoint what it is about a particular session that is leading to the boredom. Perhaps they are not invested in the current adventure. Maybe they are more interested in combat than in roleplay.
If you see these signs, the best thing you can do is to talk to your players about it. Hopefully your players will be glad you asked and will clue you in on what is bothering them. The other key here is that in most cases, if your players keep coming back to your games, then in the main they are likely having fun.
There's no formula as to how often you should engage in this evaluation, but ideally, you'd do this after every session. What went well? What didn't. Certain aspects of your campaign will naturally take you longer to evaluate. Its hard to evaluate the reception your overall campaign arc is having on the players after each session for instance, but in general, if you take a few minutes after each session to take a look at your campaign, odds are that you will be able to create a much more engaging campaign for your players.