In parallel with my campaigns based on official adventures from Wizards of the Coast, I also spent most of the year running a campaign for friends based loosely on the world of Dwarf Fortress. (This was the same group of friends in the Weyward Scions campaign, plus one addition.)
This post consists of two parts: a summary of our review of the campaign itself, and then a description of how I managed and ran the campaign.
After Action Report
We conducted an AAR session to review how the last two campaigns went and then plan what we would do next. For the Dwarves and Dweomers (also known as the Goatsbane Alliance, as the group called themselves), we determined the following.
The campaign focused originally on recovering artifacts and defeating monsters, loosely based around a cult of Orcus in a dwarven surface town called Traders Rock. About halfway through, the group decided they wanted less of a traditional D&D game and more intrigue and politics. So we went to another large city some distance away named Bladeforge to report to the Duchess about the reeve who was actually a warlock and uncover the corruption already festering in that place.
The group liked what they described as my comprehensive rules knowledge. We never really bogged down looking up rules, either because I knew the rule already or issued a ruling quickly and kept us moving. Perhaps surprising to some other DMs, they also felt combat balance was just right: challenging at all times but never overwhelming or boring. As I got my feet under me in the new style, they could really feel the storyline moving in the last half-dozen sessions. They also appreciated a world whose timeline moved on its own with their influence, rather than purely a function of the party’s actions.
As the DM, the style shift took me out of my comfort zone and I had to change my approach. It also threw off one of the players (ironically, one of those who most supported the change in tone). His half-orc Barbarian following the Path of the Ancestral Guardian just didn’t fit well in the Machiavellian dance among political factions in a dwarven city deep in the Underdark. We all ended up disliking the change of direction. More to the point, we (and I in particular) realized that changing the tone of a campaign partway through didn’t feel good. If we really wanted something different, it would have been better to come to a satisfying conclusion in the existing game, and then start a new one. It surprised me a bit when they also noted that the group lacked (in-character) cohesion. Only two of the characters really had an existing bond at the start, and they felt that the “friendship” between several other characters ended up being somewhat contrived. (For clarity, that wasn’t so much a criticism of the DM as a note that the players should have worked harder to create those bonds in Session 0.)
This particular group did everything over video chat, as we stretched across the US from the Pacific Northwest to the central Atlantic region. Everything took place using “theater of the mind” techniques, and we will continue not to use maps for combat very much in whatever we do next.
The players also leaned slightly to railroad over sandbox. When I questioned this a bit, it turns out that they want to feel like their decisions matter but that the campaign has a definite theme and focus. In other words, don’t just set them in a world and let them determine their own overarching goals, but have a loose plot in mind that drives the action forward.
And we all felt a very strong leaning to escapism. Our politics all aligned in the same broad direction (which is to say, liberal to varying degrees and in varying ways), and we just didn’t want to replicate some of the implied racism, sexism, and sometimes homophobia that form part of the core mythos of Tolkienesque fantasy and the history of D&D. I felt we did a good job of that in this campaign so that the political and even cultural factions didn’t split along racial lines. For example, the head of the Wardens that maintained order in the region around the city was herself a half-orc paladin with some moral complexity but generally fit the Lawful Good trope and remained loyal to the Duchess. More broadly, we all wanted to avoid grimdark themes because many of our own lives have enough problems and pain.
Tools, Techniques, and Procedures
Over the course of the campaign, I tried out several new (for me) TTPs to prepare and organize my material.
At first, the various random generators at Donjon helped me create content. Between rumors in an inn, NPCs to head up various factions, and occasionally just doing the treasure rolls for me, for a while I felt like it would just be a campaign based on Donjon and Dyson (which I still want to try again someday). Even if we didn’t share maps using Roll20 or anything, having a visualization in front of me for inspiration and keeping spatial awareness helped tremendously. The combat balance didn’t just happen by accident: every 5e DM should know about the Kobold Fight Club encounter builder. The new encounter charts in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (also released as an Unearthed Arcana supplement) helped quite a bit. When the group reached the city of Bladeforge and I needed to create that political intrigue, a faction generator at Chaotic Shiny provided the initial raw material that I could then refine and shape according to our needs.
Technique: Five Room Dungeons
Once we discarded the “artifacts and monsters” direction, I still had to organize encounters in a meaningful way. Each scene more or less took place using the Five Room Dungeon technique first created and popularized by Johnn Four. Don’t think of this as five literal rooms, but five encounters or parts to the scene:
- Entrance with Guardian: Some challenge to start things off. I usually had an idea of whether this would involve combat, but sometimes the players surprised me in finding non-violent methods like deactivating construct guardians before they could attack. More often, it meant a puzzle or trap or even just a domestic servant who answered the door and needed some reason to fetch the householder.
- Puzzle or Roleplaying: Again, an encounter that didn’t start off with “everyone roll for initiative”. A few times, it ended up that way because of players drawing incorrect conclusions or just getting impatient. That’s part of the fun!
- Trick or Setback: Just when you think things are going well, here’s something that makes them… not. Maybe an ambush? Maybe an unexpected bit of information or clue they uncover that makes them reconsider their approach and assumptions?
- Climax: If there was to be a boss fight, it would happen here. Sometimes it meant a challenging set piece combat. Sometimes it meant a confrontation with somebody who had something they wanted but violence simply would not solve the issue. Either way, everything before had to lead to this moment in terms of theme, pacing, and clues.
- Reward or Revelation: You did good. Here’s a cookie plus another clue or twist that changes how you see the situation.
Not everything would always occur in this order, and the players had the freedom to approach things as they liked or even bypass some challenges in their own ways. Clever thinking and Rule of Cool matter more than playing out the narrative I expected. Even when we did get into combat, since we weren’t using maps, the cycle was very simple:
(I don’t agree with Mike Shea about everything, but he has a lot of useful thoughts, and even the stuff I disagree with is useful to think about!)
- Think about the characters for a few minutes. What would make this session fun for the player of that character? What have we learned recently about the character that I can work into the session?
- What will pull them into character right away? That could mean starting in media res or maybe just receiving a message from an NPC that sets them on edge and gets them thinking.
- What scenes do I think they will get into today? Anything that I haven’t already prepared get organized using the Five Room Dungeon technique above. Make sure these have some cool environmental things happening that will keep the players’ minds in the game world.
- Any secrets or clues I want them to discover? I might have some initial assumptions about where and how they could learn these, but if they try something new or different then these could be a reward all on their own.
- Review the important NPCs. What do they eventually want? What are they doing right now? What will happen if nobody interferes with them? Also, how do they look and talk? Factions are almost NPCs in this sense, by the way. (If this sounds like Dungeon World fronts, that’s because it’s effectively the same process.)
- Pick monsters. Sometimes I already knew what I wanted them to face. Sometimes I needed to do some research. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes came out halfway through this campaign and helped quite a bit, since we had a strong demonic theme already. Encounter balance also happened here, if I still had time. If I didn’t, the XGtE guidelines could be used on the fly.
This sounds like a lot to track, but I had a method to organize the madness: Trello. As GeekDad has previously described, this tool basically replaces index cards (at least for this purpose – I still have fistfuls of them around my desk for other reasons).
Basically, Trello allows you to have a board with whatever lists (columns) you define, and then you create cards within those lists. You can tag them, link them, drop images or files onto them, etc. My lists included Player Characters, NPCs, Potential Scenes, Secrets, Fantastic Locations, Ideas, Thematic Monsters, and Factions. Each card had everything I really needed, plus links to whatever other related cards I needed to hand, such as a location that belongs to a faction and has a key NPC there.
When a card no longer has relevance, you just archive it. Of course you can pull it back if that NPC or location does become important or needed again, but clutter can become a real problem. For NPCs, I might go find a portrait on Pinterest; for locations, either a thematic image or a map. Notes on a card help me run a scene directly, including links to monster stat blocks, maps, etc.
What works for me might not work for you, but hopefully something in all that mess above at least inspires you for something that does!