Since 5th edition launched, I have been playing D&D regularly, and loving it. The group consists of my son, a guy I played D&D with back in high school, plus his daughter, and a good friend I met after we both were pretty much done playing D&D back in college. It has been a fantastic experience, and I have been overwhelmingly happy with the way things have gone so far. My players seem to enjoy themselves, too.
I was chatting with the buddy I met in college about the campaign. He ran one session, and did a fantastic job of it. We love discussing ways to make the game better. I know storytelling and interaction are two things he really loves, and I asked him if he felt like the game was meeting his needs in this respect. What he said really threw me for a loop.
“I am having a great time, and please don’t take this the wrong way. But I guess what I’d really like is something more Game of Thrones, and less Time Bandits.”
I’m assuming everyone reading this knows about Game of Thrones, but Time Bandits is more obscure. Time Bandits is an 80s movie that could best be described as an eclectic time travel fantasy adventure. It is about as far removed from the grim realism of Game of Thrones as you can get.
Looking back at the past few sessions, I can see that our campaign went to some very odd places. The group had just used a gnomish diving bell to parlay with sea elves, whereupon they were swallowed by the Great Elemental Lord of Whales. They ended up in his diseased lungs, where a mad necromancer had set up a tower and was poisoning the creature in order to spread death and decay across the multiverse. They fought mutated worms, slimes, and a host of kuo-toa zombies before defeating the necromancer and claiming his trident of fish command as their own. The previous session ended with the group being spewed out of the blowhole of the Whale-Lord.
So, yeah, I suppose my friend has a point. That is, in hindsight, some nutty stuff.
When I asked him what I could do to improve, he said “I want something to love, something to hate, and something to fear.” While he admitted that the games have been fun and interesting, he felt little to no personal involvement with the unfolding narrative. He felt as if the story was happening to him, and didn’t feel much motivation to do anything other than sit back and watch.
His words were tough for me to hear, but I can certainly see his point. Playing NPCs “in character” is a weakness of mine, and he had not developed any sort of strong feelings one way or another about any of them. (Though he did admit he found a few irritating, like the gnome who inventing the diving bell, for instance. Which I suppose is good, right?) Without this emotional involvement, our D&D games were basically no more involving to him, story wise, than trips from one quest giver to the next in World of Warcraft.
As I thought about his advice over the next few days, as I planned our most recent session, I considered ways to increase his involvement. I was planning to set the new adventure on the Isle of Dread, which is wonderfully open-ended. Looking through my options, I came up with the following.
Something to love
The easiest choices here would be the Tanaroan villagers, plus possibly the rakasta and phanaton settlements. When the PCs made their way to the village, I did my best to make sure they were treated as honored guests and as curiosities, too. The villagers asked all sorts of questions about where the group came from, marveled at their powers and abilities, and basically treated them as friends. The rakasta, after challenging the group to a contest to secure saber-tooth cubs, agreed to assist the group in rescuing a kidnapped villager from the lizardfolk. I did much more direct “in character” roleplaying with voices and such for both the villagers and the rakasta, and tried to name more NPCs than I normally would.
Something to hate
The clear choice here was the lizardfolk. I have many lizardfolk minis from a Warhammer Fantasy army, so I wanted them to be a focus. I decided to use yuan-ti instead of humans in the City of the Gods, and that group, too, will make good villains. Attacks and raids by lizardfolk among the other, more peaceful NPC factions should raise the level of animosity the PCs feel. I’m also considering having the lizardfolk use captured slaves in battle after inflicting them with an enraging poison (inspired by the deranged ankylosaurus encounter). Dirty tactics like this should paint the lizardfolk and eventually the yuan-ti as evil menaces that must be stopped.
Something to fear
Right now, our campaign has no real arch-villain behind the scenes. The Isle of Dread has one inhabitant who should fit the bill nicely: the green dragon. I decided that the dragon is manipulating the lizardfolk to amass power, numbers, and weaponry in order to make an assault on the yuan-ti in the City of the Gods. The dragon wants a powerful artifact that is said to be lost in the City which will allow her to travel between the planes at will. The PCs, of course, can use this same artifact to get back home to the Forgotten Realms. Perhaps they will even find themselves allying with the dragon, which should certainly be interesting!
Being a DM isn’t an easy task. Being a good DM is even harder. One of the toughest things we must do is listen to feedback, both negative and positive, from our players. DMs have a responsibility to make sure the expectations of all players are being met. Getting shot out of a massive whale’s blowhole may be fun some some, but not necessarily all. Most player groups have a mix of players who enjoy different aspects of the game. Make sure combat, exploration, and role-playing each play an important part at your table. Your players will be glad you do.