D&D 5E Who Picks the Campaign? DMs, Players, and Choice


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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Welcome to the occasional in a series of posts, Snarf Presents Hawt Taek Thursdays. Today's edition is brought to you courtesy of the number 6 and the day Monday, for reasons.

I've sometimes seen people discuss how they choose to start a campaign in D&D- not to mention seen it many times in my own life. And while I've seen a lot of different ways to make this initial decision, I've seen one comment that 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, "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-Bard campaign with the goal of helping the elves take over the world?'"

I get the impulse. Tables are necessarily collaborative. This isn't an issue of DM fiat, or a DM saying, "My way or the highway." People can, and should, discuss the type of game they want to play as well as their expectations for the campaign in 5e. There should be reasonable tradeoffs - maybe try X this time, and agree to try Y next time.

That said, for my personal preference, give me a DM with a point of view any day of the week. At the 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 she is doing, and to be knowledgeable about her campaign; is there anything worse than a DM who is uncaring about the campaign setting, and less knowledgeable about the lore of her campaign than the players? Having a player that isn't invested in the campaign can be a tragedy, but when the DM isn't invested, that's a campaign-killer.

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 Greyhawk, Ravnica, Exandria, Theros, Eberron, Dark Sun, or some random homebrew where a Mindflayer/Flumph alliance has enslaved humanity. Heck, even things that sound absolutely terrible ("All my vampires are sparkly!" or "Forgotten Realms, but with even more Elminster!") 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 her campaign is the same DM who demands that the campaign play out a certain way - and that's no fun. No one wants to be a token in the DM's boardgame, or a character in the DM's creepy fiction. 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 of D&D I've played in had one thing in common- a DM that was truly invested in the game she was running.

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 TTRPGs, and the restaurant table isn't part of the process of preparing the food, but you get the gist.

So, in summation- the DM should pick the campaign setting that the DM wants to run. If the DM cannot be bothered to even decide on a campaign setting, that is not a DM I would like to play with. This has nothing to do with player input, or talking to the table, or player style, or even whether the DM and the players collaborate on choosing the campaign setting. I just want to make sure that my DM cares enough to at least decide on the world that we are playing in. Because if a DM can't even make that single decision, and farms it out to the table, that bodes poorly for the play experience. IMO. This doesn't guarantee a good DM, but I'd never play in a game where the DM can't be bothered to select a campaign world that she would like to run.

Otherwise, someone at the table (and it will probably be Brad) will demand that everyone gets a cannoli. And I am done considering those.
 

Lyxen

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

In general, I would agree with you, unless the campaign chosen is really a no-go for some of the players. LIke Athas, which can be really deadly and has that post-apo feel, or, for me, everything mixing Sci-Fi in (I still have nightmares about Expedition to the Barrier Peaks ;) - no, just joking, but I like my fantasy "just fantastic". or Ravenloft which does not go well with my idea of horror when they are supposed to act scared and horrified all the time. But a DM could possibly convince me for a one-shot or a short campaign, it's just that when we start a campaign, it's two years min (we have multiple ones in parallel) and I don't relish the prospect of forcing myself a bit for that long a period of time.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
As DM, I'm open to running whatever the players want, though my preference is to avoid plot-based games (e.g. adventure paths) because they feel kind of gross to me to run. But I can run them and don't find that doing so detracts sufficiently from my enjoyment of the game that I have an issue with burnout.

Generally, I poll the players, offering some suggestions of my own. I did this recently and the feedback from the players is that they wanted to revisit their characters from three campaigns ago, so I'm putting together a big adventure for those characters (not a campaign). Once that's out of their systems, we can collaborate on what follows.
 

aco175

Legend
I find that sometimes a DM is burned out with the current campaign and would like ideas on the theme of the next from the players. This may help them come up with ideas to become more invested themselves. The DM may not know where he wants to go, but knows he does not want to run X anymore.

There is also knowing your players. My group has been together for a while and I know that drifting too far from Sword Coast or generic default D&D is not what they want. They do not want a Chult campaign or Kara Tur campaign and not a Maztica campaign unless they are displaced from the main continent. I think most of the problem is learning the new terms and I keep getting asked what is a fighter called again or why can't I cast a fireball.

If I do not have anything cool lined up I may ask if a campaign on pirates or undead sounds better, since I know ninjas and dinosaurs would not work. If the group wants a pirate theme, I take if from there unless there are some suggestions about a trap-filled secret tomb of the Dread Pirate Roberts or such. I do not expect the players to come up with the home base or NPCs or hideouts under the tavern.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I agree with you in general, in that when a DM is excited about a setting, players tend to get a rich experience.

In the specific, though, I most get excited to run games in which my players collaborate on the setting! It really drives my creativity to take elements players are interested in, weave them together into the structure of a setting, then leave lots of room for player ideas and creations.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I still have nightmares about Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Veggiemites.png


Come on in to the elevator! Sweet dreams!

...you're welcome.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
My current campaigns are both hodge-podges in a homebrew where I chose and developed the setting and choose the adventures (though PCs are free to disregard a hook and go in a different direction). My hope/plan for the next campaign I run (now that the newbie players in my main group are more experienced) is to pass out a survey about what they liked most about the past game, what they liked least, and what they wish had been included, and use that to develop skeletal outlines for 2 or 3 possibilities that I am invested in and the players can vote on.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
The majority of my groups have multiple DMs, so we usually have a couple people pitch ideas for campaigns to DM and the group picks the one that has the most buy-in.

But we do always have the DM be the one with the kernel of the idea for system and topic; we don't have the group vote for a game and setting and them make somebody run it.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Yeah, I'm definitely with you. If it were a heavily improvised one-shot game, I could definitely see letting the table deciding what the game's going to be about. But I cannot imagine that working for anything approaching campaign length. The DM puts in 99.99% of the work...the vast majority of it up front. If the DM isn't heavily invested in running that specific game, then there's no chance it will last.
 


soviet

Adventurer
I've done it this way and it worked out great. Think of it like an iron chef campaign; the players suggest the initial core ingredients but it's still the GM's job to turn it into a meal. That's still a big development process and involves mixing different things things together in particular ways, adding new ingredients and side dishes, etc. The GM will absolutely still have ownership of how that meal turns out and about what happens with it going forward.

The most successful campaign I ever ran derived from a group-suggested world where the PCs were representatives of 4 different elemental races in a world of perpetual night menaced by the unseelie. In my prep I fleshed out the leaders and forces of each faction, a hidden backstory of precursor races who built a flying pyramid that combined the elements, a new revelation of upstart replacement races waiting in the wings, secret agendas, places, enemies, and more. The game started as the fellowship of the ring, became the war of the ring, and ended as the transition to a new age. It worked really well because it took the seeds of what the players already wanted but grew it into something they had never expected.
 

mcmillan

Adventurer
Like Aldarc said, for when I've started a new campaign I've often had couple ideas of in mind, any of which I'd be excited to run. If that's the case I'd rather find out what the players are most interested in before I spend much time developing the details. In the game I'm just starting up the pitch they decided to go with was to use a seed I came up with (rebuilding a city after an epic good vs evil war) and use a round of Microscope RPG to fill in the details. In this case the players came up with some cool setting ideas I probably wouldn't have added on my own that made me even more psyched to run it.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
...I've seen one comment that 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, "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-Bard campaign with the goal of helping the elves take over the world?'"

...

That said, for my personal preference, give me a DM with a point of view any day of the week.

It seems to me that you're assuming that polling the players means the GM will not have a point of view, or be invested, or know the setting. If so, that's a huge mistake.

I don't know about others, but I don't find I have any difficulty in building a thing I am invested in around what the players want. Indeed, I find that my investment and effort is wasted otherwise.
 


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I only run games that I actually really want to run. D/GMing is a lot of work and I know that I'm only going to have fun if I'm engaged in the game at hand. I also know that if I'm not having fun, it's likely that neither are my players. I'm happy to (and frequently do) solicit some level of player material to add to things, but this is in the form of addendums and details, not larger items about the campaign. WHat that looks like depends largely on the system and the players in question. Beyond the above, I simply am not capable of summoning up the energy to prep and run a game I'm luke-warm on, it's just not gonna happen.
 

soviet

Adventurer
It seems to me that you're assuming that polling the players means the GM will not have a point of view, or be invested, or know the setting. If so, that's a huge mistake.

I don't know about others, but I don't find I have any difficulty in building a thing I am invested in around what the players want. Indeed, I find that my investment and effort is wasted otherwise.
Yeah, me too. I find it much easier to build on, complicate, and get excited about an idea supplied by others than to go from zero to 60 entirely on my own.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I would be fine creating and running something I had no investment in at all or, indeed, even actively dislike. For example, I wrote a whole scenario based on shopping in D&D just because I hate it so much and took it up as a challenge to see if I could make it fun (and also make fun of it). I ran that about half a dozen times already for different groups to great success.

So I think it would be unlikely or impossible that I will be unable to find something engaging about whatever the players propose. It's just another interesting challenge to me.

Except for anything Forgotten Realms obviously because it sucks out loud.
 

jgsugden

Legend
There are a lot of ways to determine how and what will be run. If anyone tells you the one true way it should be done, they're giving you bad advice. There are too many factors that play into the decision for there to be a best way. It is like telling someone what the best food is.

In some situations I have come to the group and told them, "Hey - I want to run X ... interested in playing?" In others I ask them to tell me what interests them and I build around their desires. In others, people pitch something to me and I decide whether to run with it. In yet others, I step in when a DM quits and I take over something I did not plan where I have no idea where the threads were intended to go.

I've had a lot of fun with all of those approaches, and I've had lesser degrees of success with each of those approaches. There isn't a "right answer".

My best advice: Use whatever process you want to decide on what type of game to run,but at the end, check with your players to find out if they are 1.) Comfortable, 2.) Happy, and 3.) Invested in the choice. If the answer is no to any of those three questions,take feedback and revise either your approach, or your group members, to make sure everyone is comfortable happy and invested.
 

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