Players should play, and not be heard: Campaign Edition
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  1. #1
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    Players should play, and not be heard: Campaign Edition

    So .... is the title provocative enough? No? Does it need more paladin?

    Anyway, two recent threads had me thinking about how to choose a campaign, and, relatedly (and belatedly) how to choose a DM if you are a player. Take a gander-

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...ished-settings
    http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...et-in-Greyhawk

    One of the comments stuck with me- it was the idea of a DM polling the players to determine what setting to run their campaign in. And I thought to myself, "Self, that is precisely the opposite of what I would do. In fact, if a DM polled my table to determine the campaign setting I would run away faster than if the DM said, 'Hey guys, how would you feel about an all-Paladin campaign?'"

    Now, of course, I fully understand that different table will run differently. I am sure that there are tables where, for example, the players rotate DM duties and any choice of campaign setting would necessarily be collaborative.

    That said, for my personal preference, give me a DM with a point of view any day of the week. At the vast majority of tables, the amount of work that the DM puts in to the game is greater than that put in by the players, which means that I want the DM to be invested in what he is doing, and to be knowledgeable about his campaign; is there anything worse than a DM who is uncaring about the campaign setting, and less knowledgeable about the lore of his/her campaign than the players?*

    When I play, I want the DM to take ownership of the setting. To be honest, it doesn't even matter what the DM is running; it could be GH, FR, Eberron, DS, or some random homebrew where Mindflayers have enslaved humanity. Heck, even things that sound terrible ("All my vampires are sparkly!") will probably work out okay if the DM cares about the game they are running.

    Now, I understand the counterargument to this- what about the DM that sucks? What about the DM that is so invested with telling the DM's story that the DM doesn't allow the players to breathe? What about railroading? And these are all good points- sometimes, you will find that a DM who is heavily invested in their campaign is the same DM who demands that the campaign play out a certain way - and that's no fun. But the thing is- that can be true of any DM, even the uncaring ones. Or, to put it more succinctly-

    I've had terrible games with all sorts of Dungeon Masters. But the only great and transcendent campaigns I've played in had one thing in common- a DM that was truly invested in the game.

    In a way, I would analogize this to eating out. You can go to a cruddy restaurant anytime. But if you want a great dining experience, you go to the absolute best restaurant with an amazing chef. And if you eat there, you eat what the chef prepares; you don't try and substitute everything on the menu.** You want to experience that- and some times, you might find out that it isn't so great, and some times, you might have that transcendent experience. Now, this analogy isn't perfect, because eating food doesn't have the same interactive and emergent qualities as TTRPG, but you get the gist.

    So, in summation- the DM should pick the campaign setting that the DM wants to run. Period.




    *That doesn't mean that the players aren't creating stories in the interstitial spaces of the lore of the campaign, but rather that the players are more intimately familiar with the campaign setting than the DM, leading to table disagreements and mismatched expectations.

    **Yes, food allergies. Not my point.
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  2. #2
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    I largely agree. Disclaimer: we have been playing largely the same way since 1981 in that the DM creates his or her own game world and plug and plays modules and pieces they like from other campaigns into their game world. So I haven't really seen an scenario in person where the players decide what game world the game takes place in. Even with something like Ravenloft, back in the day we just put it into an exiting game world somehow with a tie in the DM came up with. Or it was just a one-off session to try something different.

    But to your point, as someone who DMs a lot, I would be much more effective running a game where I know how the campaign world runs and interacts with itself. A living game world is a big factor in my games, so knowing all of that makes me a much better and invested DM. If I were to have to run, say, Darksun, I'd be woefully underprepared, especially if one of my players was very knowledgeable in that setting. I know what would happen. There would be several times where the player would have to correct or update me on something. And who wants that break in game play?

    DMs put way more work into the game than players do, and always have. If someone doesn't want to play in my game world, they always have choices. We can have someone else DM, or they can find another group that fits what they want.

    DMs are like cars: They all do basically the same job (getting you from place A to B), but the style and options vary. I stress a living world where I'm an impartial referee as opposed to letting the players change and dictate the world and its inhabitants. Someone who doesn't like that style shouldn't choose me as a DM any more than they should choose an SUV if they would rather have a sportscar.
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  3. #3
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    While I agree with your thesis statement... "the DM should pick the campaign setting that the DM wants to run. Period."... there are definitely some DMs out there that do not "create" settings per se. They run their games and the setting "come out" of the games themselves. Matt Colville talks a lot about this-- he's run games where he basically has a starting town with a couple plot hooks and that's it. Anything else from the story to the history to the characters comes out of that starting experience.

    And some DMs just like starting games from that sort of blank slate. So the idea that a DM could come into the start of a game with nothing, ask his players for their "opening" state of genre or setting or style, and then create everything from only that point... is not something that I would ever denigrate or run from. That's not how I personally enjoy running games as a DM, but I imagine for the DMs that tend to run many different games for many different lengths of time for many different groups... after a while if you've run certain campaign archetypes into the ground for yourself... having a more open canvas in which to start might be a nice change of pace.
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    Quote Originally Posted by DEFCON 1 View Post
    While I agree with your thesis statement... "the DM should pick the campaign setting that the DM wants to run. Period."... there are definitely some DMs out there that do not "create" settings per se. They run their games and the setting "come out" of the games themselves. Matt Colville talks a lot about this-- he's run games where he basically has a starting town with a couple plot hooks and that's it. Anything else from the story to the history to the characters comes out of that starting experience.

    And some DMs just like starting games from that sort of blank slate. So the idea that a DM could come into the start of a game with nothing, ask his players for their "opening" state of genre or setting or style, and then create everything from only that point... is not something that I would ever denigrate or run from. That's not how I personally enjoy running games as a DM, but I imagine for the DMs that tend to run many different games for many different lengths of time for many different groups... after a while if you've run certain campaign archetypes into the ground for yourself... having a more open canvas in which to start might be a nice change of pace.
    Yes, that's often what I do. I do steal a lot of stuff from published settings and just general D&D lore accumulated over the last 25 years to make that happen, cobbling together the setting as it's needed and as inspiration strikes during play. I don't think one needs an entire world or even a large region to get going and I don't want to spend a lot of time preparing stuff I may not use.

    Two campaigns ago, I created a town-to-dungeon campaign this way ("The Delve"). From the simple structure and adventure location I designed and from the input of the players as we played, we added more and more detail to the setting until it became a reasonably fleshed-out town with a history in a sketched out region. Since the players' ideas were incorporated into the setting, they were naturally invested in it.

    When the campaign concluded and I began to ran a modified version of Red Hand of Doom, The Delve and its details were made part of the setting for RHoD. I later ran a 4e one-shot that was based on RHoD in the same region, but "in the future," so some of those details were added to the ongoing, now multi-generational tale. This all combined to create our own take on a Elsir Vale-like setting. I plan on revisiting this in our next campaign as I add bits of the Nentir Vale to it and run some converted 4e adventures.

    My current campaign remains an exception to what I normally do above. I tend to eschew published settings unless everyone at the table is familiar with it. But a unique opportunity presented itself that I couldn't turn down. With my current player pool, I had run a dungeon game and a plot-based, cross-country game. I invite the players have some say in what I run as it makes it a fun challenge for me (and it's instant buy-in from them), so it was decided I needed to run a city-based game, which I typically avoid. But nobody in my group really had any knowledge of Planescape and I figured I could run a Sigil-based game and play up the PCs as clueless Primes since the players had no knowledge of anything regarding the setting. So that's what we're doing now and it's going well. I hope to wrap this up at the 1-year mark in November and go back to the setting we've created together out of the previous two campaigns.

  5. #5
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    I've got an array of campaign ideas I'm keen to kick off when our current campaign ends (sometime this year hopefully, on a bit of a summer hiatus at the mo.) I'll be asking my players which campaign holds the most interest. If one particularly resonates I'll run that, otherwise I'll pick the one I'm most invested in.

    Campaigns in waiting:

    Curse of Strahd, reset in Innistrad with all-human party (to emphasize "against the forces of darkness")

    Tomb of Annihilation, reset in Zendikar and local party (no air-dropping adventurers) (the last roil destroyed the ancient empire that had ruled the land and a rough trading port has developed in the remnants mostly dealing in lost treasures of said empire)

    Tales of the Yawning Portal, reset as a future VR-style Ready Player One-esque campaign celebrating 100 years of D&D, teams compete to complete classic adventures and win some prize - quite an experimental concept - and bound to fail spectacularly

    I'm quite keen to run anyone of those and there's a good bit of variety - but the Strahd campaign is probably my favorite concept at the mo. So, yes I'm invested in the campaigns I want to run, but I also want my players to be excited too.
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    For the last umpteen years, every campaign I've run has been set in my home world and people don't really have much of a choice on that. However while I have my own unique spin on things, most changes to base assumptions are really about the setting, culture and tone. I have relatively few game-play rule changes from the typical FR or GreyHawk campaign.

    But given that I'm not playing an Eberron or Dark Sun campaign, I still ask my players about what kind of campaign they want. I like to throw out campaign ideas during the session 0 or even long before the campaign starts. Want to run an all gnomish paladin party? Sure. Want a big over-arching story? City based? I can work on that. Adventurers are just out to loot dungeons? OK ... that's more of a motivation than a story, but I'll see what I can do.

    I do set some limits, such as no evil because I wouldn't find that fun to run and my wife has veto rights on the campaign. I won't revise my campaign world, previous campaigns still matter and may impact the current campaign. Fortunately I have a lot of empty space in my campaign world so that's normally not an issue.

    Finally, I also find it doesn't always matter what I think the campaign is going to be about. While certain things may happen no matter what the PCs do, whether they care or get involved with those events are completely up to them. If the players seem bored or uninterested in something I had planned, I may pick up a different thread they were interested in. That, and sometimes the game just kind of takes on a life of it's own. I've had a couple of campaigns completely derail because when it got to a certain point an NPC made a decision I would not have anticipated ahead of time but that made sense. Sometimes NPC surprise me just as much as PCs.

    TLDR: As a DM I set up the campaign world and setting. The players have some impact on where in that world they are and overall campaign flavor. What the players do with that is up to them.
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  7. #7
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    Who says that a DM who polls the players about which campaign setting they want to use doesn't care about the game he's running or isn't taking ownership of it?

    I can think of probably half a dozen campaign ideas that would work equally well in two or more of the published settings, and I'd love to run them in both. I also enjoy the challenge of creating something whose rules and parameters aren't entirely generated within my own head. I know all the worlds in my head, and sometimes it bores me because there aren't any surprises left -I know the worlds intimately enough that I already know how any move the players make will turn out. I like having something that makes me have to think "What if?" or "How would that work?" - that instills in me that same sense of wonder and curiosity I got when I originally explored the worlds in my head.

    Even if the players vote on which campaign setting they want to use, or what type of campaign they want to play, I'm still going to be running my version of it, my vision of it. Even as great a creative genius as I am, I still need input - materials to work with, tools to use - and if the players say, We'd like to do this..", I'm going to say, "Yeah - I can do something with that.", and then make it my own.
    Last edited by Mad_Jack; Monday, 21st May, 2018 at 04:39 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mad_Jack View Post
    Who says that a DM who polls the players about which campaign setting they want to use doesn't care about the game he's running or isn't taking ownership of it?
    Me.
    Last edited by lowkey13; Monday, 21st May, 2018 at 05:40 PM.
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  9. #9
    my approach as a regular DM of some years, is to make a pitch to the players of what campaign I want to run.

    This is usually two pages of A4; has a few pictures to set the tone; a quarter page piece of flavor text; any special rules or house rules that apply to that campaign; any variants to normal character creation (e.g limited classes or races, higher points but etc) and a brief description of the opening scene.

    I normally send this out a month or two before the campaign starts so the players can discuss characters or tell me that the pitch stinks. However once the pitch is excepted then we play the campaign as the DM envisions it. Provided the DM was clear and upfront in the pitch then I dont think the players can complain and receive sympathy.

    For instance when I ran a pirate campaign which involved the PCs stealing a ship and becoming pirate lords I made it very clear that the Players had to bring to the table a character who was prepared to be a pirate and do some piracy. No paladins bringing their angst to the table or clerics of Tyr. If they had, Id be within my rights to say, go back and design another character.

  10. #10
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    My contribution here would be to offer this opinion.

    As a player, I don't think the most important thing is that the DM is invested in the setting. I think that it's more important for the DM to be invested in the players themselves and to be socially minded such that he's not going to flake on the group due to feeling some responsibility to them. As such I'd not run away if the setting was malleable, but I would if there wasn't an understood social contract for the group that covered some expectations around tone and duration of campaign (e.g. how long should I expect the game to run and how often.)

    It still kind of shocks me when I hand players a table guide at their first session and they ask what it's for. The most important thing to do in a group is to manage expectations and it's not really mentioned in most guides to being a DM.

    On the matter of existing v emergent worlds; the truth is that anything the players don't interact with doesn't exist and most DM's are best served growing the game by letting the narrative develop the world over time.
    In my case, I have a setting that I've developed slowly over the past three decades, but it sees significant edits every time a new player or new group joins based on the ideas, needs and social sensitivities of the people involved as well as the version of the rules used. Because I think that every DM is somewhere between old crone and new DM every DMs setting is going to be more or less developed based on experience but will still need to adapt based on his or her players.

    Therefore, the correlation needs to be "The best DMs are the ones with the most real experience with a growing stable of players on a consistent basis over a long period of time." Look at their table trends and how they care for and maintain their friends, not necessarily the setting.

    Be well
    KB
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