This is the third installment in the series and is focused on people wanting to homebrew their story. If you missed part two, check out Becoming a Dungeon Master.
Happy Friday, fellow Dungeon Masters! It’s that time of the week for D&D! In the previous installments, we talked about getting started in your journey of becoming a DM and about building your very own world.
In this entry, we will be building the brain of your game-nights; the campaign (if you want to homebrew your campaign).
Homebrewing your campaign is very, very tricky. I almost recommend doing a pre-made first before trying to homebrew an entire campaign. But, if you’re like me and like to challenge yourself to the highest degree, then continue reading!
I will first go over the pitfalls that I ran into when I homebrewed my first campaign. I will then follow up with how I fixed each issue and why it took more energy than it needed. Then, we will discuss some tips to employ so you can maybe avoid the issues I hit when writing.
If you get a little overambitious and start writing this amazing epic about your party, the big baddie and the events that happen along the way, you can easily find that you are letting yourself down because things aren’t going as you envisioned it. I fell into that, and it hurts as a writer. So, I am here to help you avoid that pain.
Writing the Story for your Players
Now, is writing the story considered a Dungeon Master pitfall? Well, yes and no. But, here’s the issue; you cannot write the story and expect your players to “perform” in the episode you have planned. And why is that?
It takes away agency.
You can write backstory, history and personalities for every single NPC and city in your game. But, once you start writing the story in the time and space your party is present in, then you will find yourself creatively cornered; you will want your players so desperately do behave in a way that fits your story and the “episode” you have envisioned, but they are rarely going to behave as you expect. This will lead to your disappointment. And if you try strong-arming them into doing things you have envisioned, you are taking away their free will.
This is called “Railroading”; forcing your players’ characters to do something for the sake of wanting a particular outcome.
Railroading can be useful in very, very rare moments when it is narratively paramount. And that is only when enormous and important turns in the story are to occur. And even then it is in conservative amounts. We will discuss when to do this in a later section.
How I failed
I was absolutely enamored with the idea that I was going to write an epic, when I first started constructing my campaign. Little did I know that my job was to tell the story with the players; not tell the story of exactly what the players are doing. I was stuck in this creative pitfall for the first few months of my campaign. This led to unhappiness of myself and, eventually, my players. And that was the most heartbreaking part.
I was so caught up in this story in my head, I expected my players to play the parts that I intended them to; to be mere puppets. I constantly found myself giving my players only options that I knew would lead them to people and places that they “had” to go to because that’s what I wanted them to do. This was unfair to them. It got to the point, where they would say comments like, “Well, I guess this is the dungeon we have to go into, because this fetch-quest requires us to get this specific item to continue absolutely anything.”
Yes. That was an actual quote. And it was in this moment that I felt like I have failed as a storyteller. Being so emotionally attached to my story I wrote dozens and dozens of pages on, that I felt the only way to deal with it is to turn in my DM screen; I was so deep into it that I was afraid to let go of my iron-death-grip on my campaign.
How I recovered
I had to close my eyes and let go. When I let go, it opened up my world to a trillion possibilities and story tropes. I learned that I didn’t need to write every encounter. I had to just accept that my players are exploring my world and helping tell the story through their actions. If I took away their agency and railroaded them, are they really exploring my world I want them to see? No.
When I let go of my obsessive grip over my world, my players really let loose on the literal endless possibilities of how they go about exploring and interacting.
An example of emergent story-telling and my adapting it to the overarching story, happened in a dwarven fortress town, where my orc player, Ront, simply stated, “I want to find the seediest tavern in the town”.
There was my hook.
“Sure!” I said with a sly smile. “You look around in the village square, hoping for a lead to the roughest joint in town. Roll for perception.”
“Natural 20!” he exclaimed!
“Alright, you see a short figure, about the size of a halfling, hooded, head-down and looking over his shoulder as he walks quickly towards a dark alley.”
What ensued was Ront’s goal of getting into this speakeasy-esque tavern that was located under a building, guarded with the classic steel door with sliding-slot cover requiring a password. When they finally entered the speakeasy, I made it so it ended up being the meeting spot for the campaign’s secondary bad guy group; the Twosies. The session ended with this huge bar-brawl and the recruitment of an ex-Twosie who provided crucial information about the main plot of the campaign.
And it all happened because I let go.
So you were able to rein back on your writing and are taking precautions against railroading your players. Good! But, you’re still writing every single encounter, every single dialogue piece and every single event that will occur in your campaign.
I applaud you for your creativity. However, this will, more often than not, encumber you. You have all of these specific details sitting in the back of your mind or taking up space in your notes. If you have them written down, you’re going to want to squeeze them in somewhere. Though, you may not be railroading your players, there will be instances when an encounter that you put a lot of thought into is forced into an encounter the players organically triggered. This will feel unnatural and inorganic.
How I failed
In the middle of my campaign, I was over-writing a very large amount; I had dialogue “choices” and responses for all of my NPCs, specific encounters that I felt, not only compelled, but obsessed to include, and events that I wanted to happen no matter what. This did lead to some off-beat encounters. And maybe even the cardinal sin of writing; deus-ex machina.
The party was at the dwarven village of Volëk where a convoy of food, weapons, armor, medicine and gold was in need of escort to the capital. Though, I didn’t railroad my team, I still desperately wanted them to escort this convoy, as I wrote every single line I could think of for every NPCs, including Captain Kontra, leader of this mission.
When the party took the hint that this escort was important, they felt like they “had” to, even though they could do whatever they wanted to in the D&D world. Eventually, they complied, because I had so much dialogue about the convoy written, that I subconsciously (read as: desperately) shoehorned that dialogue into NPC interactions around the village to keep “reminding” (read as: pestering) my players.
They didn’t come to this decision on their own accord; I over-wrote the scenario. I over-wrote the entire encounter, which led to me almost “lecturing” the team about the lore and background of this convoy when it was unwarranted. So, not only did I over-write the encounter, I over-wrote the sheer amount of facts that I “programmed” my NPCs to disclose. This lead to glazed looks of my players.
How I recovered
I couldn’t salvage that encounter. I had to let it run its course until the team ran into an ambush of dryads. But, that’s where I learned from my mistakes. When I concluded the session with the convoy being held at
gun-point arrow-point and had the week to think of this arch. And I did not let myself over-write.
Yes, I wrote brief details about the dryads and why they “kidnapped” little girls (spoilers: they didn’t; the children were orphans and went to the dryads for family). I gave the important dryads some names and a quest that spun off of that. The quest was not a “main” story quest; they were requested to free a cleric from Maliterra. Though, the quest did pose some importance to the world and war at hand, it wasn’t required.
Because I didn’t over-write my encounter or characters, I had a lot more breathing room to improv and make NPC-PC interactions feel organic and natural. I didn’t have urges to force-feed lore, nor did my players feel pressured to do what I wanted. They did what the organic situation called for.
Aimless BBEG and Players
Sometimes we get so caught up writing for our players, the world, and the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), that we forget everybody’s motivation. Why are your player characters (PCs) here? And why should they be invested in saving the world?
If you over-write the story too much for them, then the PCs don’t have to exert much energy, because the DM/Fate/God/The Universe/The Force will simply push them to the next episode in the story.
If they feel like they don’t have a reason to be invested in the fate of the land, then they become aimless. And what happens to aimless players?
They become the dreaded Murder Hobos. Now, this may not be an issue with some DMs who are writing a campaign for those types of players. But if you’re wanting to tell an epic story with a compelling narrative, then these are the last players you want. “Just kill, kill, kill until something happens! Then we kill again!”
The players aren’t the only ones needing motivation. Oftentimes, we tend to forget about the BBEG. Why does he want to resurrect a Lich? What will he get out of slaying the Dragon who protects the kingdom? Who is it that this mad king is obsessing over, so he sells his soul to Orcus?
The Big Bad’s motive is important because it serves as two things: reason for players to want to defeat him. And it is the engine that drives the game; if you have a motive, you can get into his mind and react to how the players are thwarting his plans. This leads to a very organic development in the Big Bad’s reactions, his adapting to the world, and gives you something to build off of when you inevitably have to improv his actions.
How I failed
This is more focusing on the BBEG’s motivation, because that’s the individual that requires you to write it for him or her. And I failed in that at the beginning. When I heard Hud (who was a new character who came in after Mondae the halfling died) ask the rest of the party, “The forces of Maliterra seem to be attacking just for fun…so why should we care? Why do they care? Let’s just sail away”.
I knew my player was dropping a George Lucas-caliber subtle hint (spoiler alert: that’s not very subtle). During that session, I did ask myself, “why should the players care about the Kingdom? Why is Maliterra attacking Sonnewelt? And why Sonnewelt in particular?”
How I recovered
I was devastated with myself. Here I am, thinking that my world was so lush with life, story and lore, that it offered a lot to the players. But when I realized it lacked reason and purpose for my players, it lead me to honestly reevaluate my Big Bad.
When I looked through my over-written notes, and sifted through a stupid-amount of dialogue and encounters, I found that I had nothing written for my BBEG. Yes, I had backstory, but no motiviation. Over the course of two weeks, I reevaluated my BBEG and the world my players were in. After some tweaks and readjustments to the story (which I will not spoil in this article just yet!), my players started to feel compelled to make world-changing decisions. My players felt like they had a purpose, and weren’t just insects killing things without recourse.
And to top it off, my Big Bad’s motivation is a small detail that I am very, very proud of. When I asked myself, “Why?“, I was able to get into my Big Bad’s head. And in doing this, I freed myself the burden of writing around their goal. Instead, I can easily write in reaction to my players’ actions.
And I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun to think like bad guy.
Techniques to Try
Those are only a few pitfalls to avoid, as a flowering Dungeon Master. I felt that those can be glaring ones, in the eyes of forward looking DMs. So, let’s get into the good habits and techniques I recommend, shall we?
Roll for performance!
Pre-Load NPC Names
You can knock out two birds with one stone by having a list of pre-made NPC names; brings fluidity and natural interactions when your players interact with someone unexpected and it keeps you organized.
If you have a list of names, you can organize who you want as important plot-driven characters and secondary “unimportant” characters. Say you have a list of names, you can now notate with a star or write a quick note like “She holds the key to the basement!” next to their names. As your players move through the world, they will talk to NPCs. All you have to do is glance down at your list, grab a name, and introduce the NPC without missing a beat.
Doing this also gives you a loose structure to your campaign, so you don’t run the risk of over-writing your story or forcing a railroad down your players throats. Having your plot-driven note next to a name in your list, you can just wait for the perfect contextual moment when it is important to drop the hint;
“Hello there! Yes I am *glance at paper* Bartey Shoster, and you are? Oh, good, nice to meet you! Well, no I haven’t noticed anything odd around here, honestly. But, some people have been acting odd, for some reason. Like just yesterday, I ran into Mother *glances at paper* Chori. She *glances at paper* hurried off without her purse when she saw me. I’ve never seen her act this way…strange.”
Boom; fluid introduction of a key character with a plot hook to give your players a simple nudge in the right direction. And it’s all because you had pre-loaded names and notes associated with them.
Story-beats and Railroading
You know how I said you should avoid railroading except for in very, very rare circumstances? Well, yeah that still applies. This is where we are going to discuss those rare circumstances as well as story-beats!
When to Railroad
Railroading takes control away from your players; it gets rid of their agency. At first glance, this seems to fly in the face of what Dungeons & Dragons is all about; role playing in a fantastical world where you can literally do anything you imagine. While this is true in D&D and in real life, there are instances in real life where the universe technically rail roads you.
Sometimes, you can’t avoid getting into a fight with a thug in the street; they approach you and you have to defend yourself in some fashion. Other times, when a meteor is crashing to Earth’s surface, you find yourself, more often than not, running away from the impact. And finally, when you are speeding and you get pulled over, and the cops think that the mason jars you have in your backseat are for making moonshine, when in reality they were full of caramel from the previous night’s wedding you went to, and you will be arrested. And when you’re arrested, that takes all agency away from you.
There are rare instances to railroad your players, but that’s only when it is imperative to the story. Take for example my party, once they arrived to the capital city of Zamek Wilk. They arrived to their destination with the caravan they had to escort. Before I let them do everything they wanted in the city, they had to see the king. So, I gently narrated that the characters walked through the gates of the city, through the trading district and approached the castle gates where they were greeted by the king’s representative. The characters were then led up the steps and into the throne-room where dialogue began.
When I did this, it set up the next important “chapter” of my campaign.
When the party met the king and was introduced to the capital city and the current chapter of the campaign, this particular railroad set up a story-beat to the campaign; behind the party was a grueling two in-game weeks of combat, survival and escorting of the caravan. Now, the story-beat is that of jovial city-dwelling where the party can trade, shop, and relax as they recoup themselves.
However, this peace was interrupted when Enki, our sailor-rogue, stumbled upon a sting operation! He went to buy some drugs from a fence, when he was mistaken for a trouble-making druggie mage who was causing havok in the residential district. After that interaction, Enki, Veles, Guaq and Hud all set out to capture this individual and clear Enki’s name.
The story shifted from high-octane and dark to an almost film-noir natured investigation. They found their man through investigating his art and stonework and when interrogating individuals around the city. They cornered him, killed his goblin cohorts, tied him up and brought him to the guard captain for his reward.
The point of this example is to show you that there is nothing wrong with letting your players’ characters relax and live their lives, from time to time. Even in Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship had beats in their adventure when they were able to sit down, rest, and pass around a few jokes.
Your campaign does not need to be 100% written and 100% action and adventure. Though, the action and adventure should take up a decent portion of it, throwing in lulls in the story can catch your players off guard and set up for some very natural impromptu mini-stories (like the drug sting!).
Here is my biggest piece of advice; let your iron grip go. Do not end up like me and only just discover the true freedom D&D has to offer late into your first campaign. Trust your players and they will trust you when you do grab the reigns for important narrative bits. The more you hold on and try to control them or the situation, the less they will trust you as a DM and less fun they will have.
Naturally Occurring Stories
When you write your campaign, do so with broad strokes; don’t write minute details of specific minor events that “need” to occur in your campaign. Instead, write notes as you’re daydreaming at work or driving home. If a neat encounter, story-beat, or side-story/quest pops in your head, jot it down! You now have it in your arsenal to naturally insert into your campaign as your players make their way through your world.
Again, broad strokes. Draft up important, huge and story-twisting events that do need to happen, but allow your players’ decisions get to those beats naturally.
What it boils down to is this; tell the story with your players; five to six brains are better than just your one! Your players will come up with some cool ideas that you can use to your advantage! They will make comments, ask questions, or say asides that will inspire you or make you smile and say to yourself, “Huh, I never thought of that”. In those moments, again, jot those ideas down! And incorporate them later down the line. What that will do is make your player jump up and down in glee, exclaiming, “I KNEW IT! I SODDING KNEW IT!”
It will make them feel powerful and competent.
The Players Won’t Feel Pressured
Also, letting go allows your players to truly explore and let emergent stories be born. Now, you have to guide them and make the world interesting for them; you cannot just sit there and say minimal things such as, “You’re in the town square…uh…what do you do?”. Instead, frame it more along the lines of,
“You find yourselves in the center of the town square. The cacophony of market-stand owners shouting and the crowd hustling from point to point swims in your head, as you try to peer through the crowd. You catch glimpses of brightly colored fruit stands, shaded tents with runic signs suspended above, and a band standing on a platform, playing in hopes to fund that night’s dinner”.
Don’t ask “what do you do?”. Give them the scene and the area with interesting things that catches their eyes. Paint as best of a picture for your table so they not only delve into the cinematic mind you have, but to pique their interest in literally wanting to physically explore the area. If you make it interesting and not force them down a pair of iron tracks, they will surprise you with decisions that you have to react to.
DMs Need to Have Fun, Too
Remember this very important rule:
YOU, TOO, ARE PLAYING A GAME. YOU, TOO, ARE HERE TO HAVE FUN.
What fun is it if you’re just reading notes to your players to tell a story? Especially if you have a predetermined outcome. In doing that, you have no reason to roll dice, no reason for your players to explore, etc. And most players would not find that particularly enjoyable.
The players are reacting to your narrative as much as you are reacting to them; it’s a constant back and forth. When you give your players complete freedom, you have to play the game with them.
Did your bard just decide to try to lull a lone guard outside a building to sleep by playing a soft sonnet on his lute? Well, you certainly didn’t see that one coming! So, you tell them to roll for performance and you make a constitution saving throw for the guard. Your bard succeeds! Now that he’s asleep, your bard will state what he’s going to do and why.
“I’m going to see what exactly he’s guarding”.
You didn’t write a single thing about this specific house! You have to think on your feet! How do you make this interesting?
So you tell your bard that he walks in on two guards rummaging through a family’s belongings, with the family tied up in the corner.
Now you have a story of crooked cops hiding amongst the honorable guards in this busy city.
And there you have it. An interesting miniature story you are writing in real-time with your bard. You are waiting for your players’ actions as much as they’re waiting for your story to unfold. And they think you’re a genius, because you fooled them into thinking you had it planned out all along.
I can go on and on for pages after pages of the many things Dungeon Masters can fall victim to. I can give you dozens upon baker’s dozens of campaign ideas, tips, and tricks to help you avoid classic and common mistakes. But those mistakes and missteps happen to literally everyone; new Dungeon Master and veterans alike! It is up to you to make those mistakes and learn from them! In fact, I encourage that you expect yourself to make mistakes and to constantly learn from them.
When you learn from building your campaign, you can mold it from something dried out and ugly, to something curvy, with twists and turns. You can make it into something absolutely gorgeous and profound! Writing a campaign is no easy task; that is why the pre-mades are so beloved and expensive! They require an artistic eye. And if you are taking on the challenge of homebrewing a campaign, then I can only commend you for it.
You have your materials…
…your players, world and campaign. You are ready! You are giddy and eager! You’re so excited, that you daydream about all of the possible stories that will come out of your Friday night sessions, while you’re at work during the week! You find yourself counting down the days, marking off the calender until you reach your circled Friday; Session 0.
It’s Friday afternoon, and you are driving home from work. You have your radio, pod-cast or audio-book off. You smile to yourself as you let the stress of your work week melt off your shoulders and seep into your car seat; tonight is the night. Your very first campaign.
The trees streak passed your window, and the mesmerizing and repeating lane lines slowly morph into monstrous serpents as you let your imagination take over. You’re at a stop light and you see an abandoned strip-mall to your left.
You think to yourself, “Now, that could make for an interesting dungeon…”. You snap back to attention when you hear the blare of a truck horn. But…was that the honk of a semi truck? Or was it the roar…
…of a dragon?