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D&D General How Do You Fix a Campaign? (Rime of the Frostmaiden spoilers)

Reynard

Legend
The actions of the PCs arise from the motivations of the PCs.
Or the motivation of the player. Not everyone is into personification and the player deciding to go into the dungeon not because his fighter is trying to earn money to start his own smithy but because the player wants to bash in some doors and heads is a perfectly viable form of play. What matters is some choices were made and the consequences thereof created a story.
 

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Quickleaf

Legend
I'll focus on what you might do going forward (2-4), rather than on what's already water under the bridge (1).
2) The adventure presented is a sandbox with many quests not linking directly to the main story. And when the main story is that sub freezing temperatures are destroying an entire region, cloaked in perpetual night, in the talons of an evil goddess, it's hard for my players to want to focus on anything that isn't connected to that.
Almost every side quest should dovetail back into either the main quest or into one of the PC's story beats, or even both. I haven't run RotFM, but when I ran Tomb of Annihilation, I read through the whole book and looked for weak points in the narrative. Then I devised ways to bolster these "side quests" by either tying them to the main story or to individual PC story beats.

For example, there was a Dance of the Seven Winds ritual wherein the aarakocra bestowed the PCs with magical flight. It just happens, there's no story around it.

Well, I had an aarakocra PC from that settlement.

And I also noticed that the villains (Acererak and night hags) were poorly foreshadowed.

And finally I noticed that the players were playing their PCs a little close to the chest in terms of revealing their flaws, ideals, bonds, and such.

So I crafted a story around the Dance of the Seven Winds ritual. The aarakocra who knew the ritual was the mentor of the PC aarakocra, but was suffering from madness induced by nightmares... which were caused by one of the night hags. PCs broke the nightmare effect, restoring the NPC's sanity so he could perform the ritual. Then we played out the ritual, wherein I had each player individual "face" a scene against multiple monsters in the dream mists. Each monster embodied the flaw of another PC in the group, and any damage dealt to a "monster" dealt a corresponding amount of psychic damage to the PC in question. Once they got it, the paladin PC confronted a dream version of Acererak who used power word kill on the paladin, ending the ritual. The PCs got their flight magic, and they also learned that Acererak likely had the ability to outright kill anyone with 100 hp or less, which informed their tactics in the final showdown.

In that example, I was hitting on (a) an individual PC story beat, (b) dovetailing the side quest to the main quest, and (c) foreshadowing the villains.

Not every side quest is going to hit on so many things relevant to the players, but the more that you can hit on with a side quest, the better. At least when it comes to these sorts of hardcover modules.

3) There are around a dozen towns, settlements, encampments, which are laid out in scant detail. The book might describe 2-3 locations and a handful of villagers in each town. This cursory detail makes it hard to bring the world to life and - as a result - harder for the players to feel a part of the world and their problems.
I added tons of detail to setting locations in Tomb of Annihilation. My players are very detail-oriented, plus we were exploring the non-human races (grung, goblins, lizardfolk) more than the module does.

If you don't have the time or wherewithal to fill in the details yourself, I'm sure DMs Guild has people who are elaborating on Ten Towns. Here's one I found with a quick search. I'm sure others can direct you to additional resources.

4) This lack of detail, unconnected quests, and perceived high difficulty carry over to the way the players handle their characters. There is little roleplay or character development (though they've really enjoyed this part of the game in past campaigns - homebrew and Curse of Strahd.) The mini-quests don't keep a consistent story arc going on, and the early character death made players not especially care about developing their characters' personalities.
I've addressed detail & connecting quests above. You also need to regain the trust of your players. If there wasn't, during session zero, a clear conversation and complete buy-in to "this is a deadly game, and you could die at any moment", then they probably feel a bit cheated and/or scarred after the first session deaths.

My suggestion is to dial back the pacing for a session, have genuinely helpful NPCs take concrete action to aid the PCs against a threat (manpower, healing potions, a spellbook, critical advice, a secret route, whatever), and focus on the story beats for whatever players have provided you with such that you can riff with. Dial down the deadly, slow down the pacing for a spell, dial up the player story, dial up the friendly NPCs. Listen and watch how the players react to this. That's how a DM rebuilds trust.

EDIT: Also, just because a primary character dies early, doesn't mean their story arc dies completely. You see this happen in fiction all the time. In D&D it can take the form of family members of the deceased making an appearance, the DM framing a bit of downtime at the tavern or campfire "your conversation turns to the deceased Thraindor and what you each remember most about him...", an unexpected connection being revealed between the dead character and a living PC, etc.
 

Reynard

Legend
A lot of folks spending a lot of time and energy ensuring the "narrative makes sense."

Real question, no snark: is that really that important to you, as a player or as a GM?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
A lot of folks spending a lot of time and energy ensuring the "narrative makes sense."

Real question, no snark: is that really that important to you, as a player or as a GM?
As a DM, I make sure my timelines and BBEG plots make sense. If they don't, they're hard to interact with - nobody can figure out what's going on or how events relate. So, yeah, as a DM making sense is important.

And from a player perspective, I try to make sure my own PC's narratives make sense from the standpoint of being a believable, if fantastic, adventurer.
 

I have not run this adventure but I do read the alexandrian, and he has posted some advice on this recently:

One thing that makes 5e hard to parse is the poor layout and formatting. The headings are too close in size to one another, location information will begin or end in the middle of a page, and important context will be buried in the text making it hard to remember.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I feel like this line of discussion is relevant to the OP, though, because the near-TPK was highlighted as an important factor.

But wait, I want to check on something--are there really DMs that aren't trying to tell some kind of a story? And how could character continuity not be a part of that? I'm not asking rhetorically, since there are all sort of games and ways to play them, but I always assumed that, even when running one of these extended published modules, the assumption is that you knit them into a story as you go, and one that relates to the characters. But do people play them as narrative-free sets of challenges to be overcome, the way you'd run through a new area in an MMO or videogame RPG?
PRESENT. The story is Not of Bob the Barbarian saves Icewind Dale. The story is revealed as Bob and buddies tried to save Icewind but Bob got eaten in the second chapter by a polar bear. We mourn bob but Rob has a nice polar bear cloak. And polar bear meat is Yummy. Just remember to remove Bob bits before cooking. Isn't that right Chef Betty.
I am GAME DM (Videogame in your words) the story comes out what happens at the game table. OR if that is not clear. This is War story but who lives or dies is not know until the dice have been rolled and the character sheets burned.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Okay here are some fast rewrites to the book.

1 keep the two big two towns and the loch ness monster town.

2. Loch Ness monster leads to the white moose leads to the frost druid. Story change Frost druid will be nice an ally for the group

3. The beserkers are now the groups enemy and can be use as spies or road blocks as needed.

4. Keep the deep dwarves and Cauldron of plenty quests. Deep dwarves need to cauldron to feed the incoming troops.

That should get you to Chapter 3.
 

Or the motivation of the player. Not everyone is into personification and the player deciding to go into the dungeon not because his fighter is trying to earn money to start his own smithy but because the player wants to bash in some doors and heads is a perfectly viable form of play. What matters is some choices were made and the consequences thereof created a story.
If the player isn't roleplaying then the motivation of the character defaults to the motivation of the player. If the player wants to kick down doors and fight monsters then so does the character. Plenty of fantasy characters like that (right Boo?).

My players, they like to solve mysteries. Which means I need to create one, plant clues, etc. If I don't do that, I know from experience that the consequence is "nothing happens".
 


MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Well, I'd say since Dragonlance.
Before that, dungeon crawling with XP for treasure was the name of the game.
Nah. It's been there since G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Look, here's a adventure which is followed by another adventure which builds to a big reveal and then keeps going.

How tightly they're plotted changes, but the idea that adventures can tell a story has been there for a very long time.

Cheers!
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
2) The adventure presented is a sandbox with many quests not linking directly to the main story. And when the main story is that sub freezing temperatures are destroying an entire region, cloaked in perpetual night, in the talons of an evil goddess, it's hard for my players to want to focus on anything that isn't connected to that.

It's worth noting that there are a couple of Wizards adventures recently (Storm King's Thunder) that make a few assumptions about how they're played that aren't spelled out. (Or are derailed by other stuff in the adventure).

I view Rime of the Frostmaiden as starting as a "adventurers making a living in a harsh environment" adventure, which only later turns into a "save the land" adventure.

Storm King's Thunder, when played well, does the same thing: You're regular adventurers, doing quests across the land, and only gradually do you realise that something is wrong - there are giants everywhere! - and as you get to grips with the giants are all doing different thing and perhaps something is badly wrong does Harshnag come and bring you to the main "save the land" plot.

This is as opposed to Tyranny of Dragons or Princes of the Apocalypse, which work best when you are sent first to "find out what is wrong" and slowly uncover all the clues and discover the truth of the situation and then try to stop it. Neither Tyranny nor Princes work that well when you're just jobbing adventurers.

Incidentally, the GDQ series, even in its original form G1, G2, G3, D1, D2, D3 and Q1, follows this second template. (You are given a job, and everything that follows leads from that).

So, with your players, they're expecting the second type when the early stages are the first type. So, how do you fix it?

Basically: You give them a patron that sends them on the quests that matter.

Which quests matter? Ah, now you need to examine the adventure! :)

Cheers!
 

Reynard

Legend
Absolutely essential, both as a DM and as a player.
I like that there is this story when we're done but I also don't mind that it is a mess and full of plot holes and dead ends -- or would be if it was a novel or a film, but since it isn't those are just "what happened" in play.
 

Larnievc

Explorer
What would you suggest to improve my campaign? It can be specific to Rime of the Frostmaiden or not.
For relatively new players keep it focussed and simple. The vast majority of the first few sessions in my campaigns are just about getting the characters working with each other doing a little quest that doesn’t really have any world building.

Focussed, simple, short.
 

GlassJaw

Hero
I have not run this adventure but I do read the alexandrian, and he has posted some advice on this recently:

One thing that makes 5e hard to parse is the poor layout and formatting. The headings are too close in size to one another, location information will begin or end in the middle of a page, and important context will be buried in the text making it hard to remember.
Was just about to post The Alexandrian link (the best RPG blog IMO).

I haven't run Frostmaiden but I've read quite a bit of it and have read some different guides for it. Biggest takeaway is that it's a really cool (no pun intended) setting and campaign backdrop but the adventure itself is a bear to run and has some BIG missteps along the way.

Pretty much all of the WotC campaigns require some degree of rework and prep, and Rime certainly has its fair share..
 

Retreater

Legend
We did our first "trying to get back on track" session last night after a brief discussion (most of the conversation was via email.) The plan I had to send the party out searching for the lost verses of the Rime worked like a charm. Completely changed the tone, giving them direction. I had two lengthy roleplaying encounters, letting one of the replacement characters take the lead in discovering the mystery that started everything.
Then there was a battle with a frost giant on a mammoth. The party - despite bad combat tactics and a foolish opening round by the most experienced player - managed to use a series of debuffs to save their skins and live to fight another day.
 

Reynard

Legend
We did our first "trying to get back on track" session last night after a brief discussion (most of the conversation was via email.) The plan I had to send the party out searching for the lost verses of the Rime worked like a charm. Completely changed the tone, giving them direction. I had two lengthy roleplaying encounters, letting one of the replacement characters take the lead in discovering the mystery that started everything.
Then there was a battle with a frost giant on a mammoth. The party - despite bad combat tactics and a foolish opening round by the most experienced player - managed to use a series of debuffs to save their skins and live to fight another day.
Glad to hear it appears to be working out!
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I like that there is this story when we're done but I also don't mind that it is a mess and full of plot holes and dead ends -- or would be if it was a novel or a film, but since it isn't those are just "what happened" in play.

I know it’s a weaselly thing to say but I think it really depends on the particulars. In my current campaign, which is all about faction conflict, the PCs did a deeply unwise thing that wound up killing off the main big bad group in their area, totally cutting lots of long-term plot threads I was laying. An interesting only-in-RPGs twist, but also genuinely really not great for the campaign’s full arc, since they’ll probably never know what and how much awful stuff they averted, and some major NPCs are just deleted before they could really develop.

I’m reconfiguring things, and I hope it all still plays out in an interesting way, but I have to accept that the campaign might have lost its momentum. I don’t want to do the annoying “let me tell you about my campaign lore!” so let’s just say it’s a bit like if the main big bad in Highlander got murdered with a lucky swing in act 2 of the movie.

But I also think it’s a matter of zoom level. When you step back and look at the campaign once it’s done, were there themes or big character arcs. Even if a campaign doesn’t have a general (though still malleable, of course) endpoint, and is more about episodic encounters, will you think about it years later in a sort of retroactively knitted-together narrative, or is it more about how that second of your three PCs got that sweet critical that one time? Did the protagonists change, the way they do in most narratives, or just get more powerful? And when it did end, did it feel like the climax pulled threads from throughout the whole campaign, or was it mostly about the final challenge level?

Im not saying it’s bad to have a campaign be fully episodic and almost procedural, in the video game sense. Just that I think there’s a way to nudge and plant seeds that make a campaign feel like a story—however chaotic and un-novel-like—when it’s all done, without scripting or railroading.

That’s really what I was curious about, whether that sort of approach is not the default for folks, and most are running campaigns where PCs can come and go, get replaced as needed, and you either go till a book like RotFM is over or until the campaign sort of peters out due to scheduling, setting burnout, etc.

Asking in part because this is a very D&D-centric community. A lot of indie gamers seem to have moved toward super-short campaigns (too short for my trad tastes!) but the way 5e is presented I can’t tell if things are tilting more toward sweeping Critical Role-style narratives, where any character death is monumental, or largely sticking to more traditional die-and-replace play, which necessarily makes it harder to wind up with big character-centric stories.
 

Reynard

Legend
Im not saying it’s bad to have a campaign be fully episodic and almost procedural, in the video game sense. Just that I think there’s a way to nudge and plant seeds that make a campaign feel like a story—however chaotic and un-novel-like—when it’s all done, without scripting or railroading.
In my experience, that "way" is to let the player do it. The real stories happening at the table are the character stories, individually and as a group. Your big bad that never was doesn't matter. What matters is that Bob got his family's estate back, or that Brenda created the first 10th level spell, or that Argus the Unready finally got ready. What I think big predetermined plots do is steal energy from player goals and character stories. If you let the narrative grow organically from player motivations and random rolls on the encounter table, the "story" will be ugly but it will be far more satisfying.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
In my experience, that "way" is to let the player do it. The real stories happening at the table are the character stories, individually and as a group. Your big bad that never was doesn't matter. What matters is that Bob got his family's estate back, or that Brenda created the first 10th level spell, or that Argus the Unready finally got ready. What I think big predetermined plots do is steal energy from player goals and character stories. If you let the narrative grow organically from player motivations and random rolls on the encounter table, the "story" will be ugly but it will be far more satisfying.
I agree in the abstract, but are you saying an RPG shouldn’t have big bads that last more than one set of encounters? No Saurons, in other words, or larger narrative framings? And no settings with a larger trajectory or endpoint, like a doomsday situation? I’m just trying to figure out how fully sandbox you’re going/advocating, and whether you think that’s sort of inherently the most satisfying approach to running, because otherwise people aren’t embracing what makes TTRPGs unique.

but also, gotta be honest—some of those notional story beats sound hella boring to me! Somebody made a 10th level spell? I would fall asleep at the table if that was the big epic conclusion of someone’s character arc. I’m maybe unfairly harping on one example, but if that accomplishment didn’t somehow tie into Bob’s estate recovery or other big goals, then to me it’s really just characters sort of pursuing things in parallel, and hanging out together for purely transactional reasons.
 

Larnievc

Explorer
Im not saying it’s bad to have a campaign be fully episodic and almost procedural, in the video game sense. Just that I think there’s a way to nudge and plant seeds that make a campaign feel like a story—however chaotic and un-novel-like—when it’s all done, without scripting or railroading.
I agree with much of this. Episodic can be good if you sprinkle in monster of the week and lore episodes at the right ratios to keep the players invested.
 

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