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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.