Art of a good DM is realizing that the more a player's action messes with your plans, the more interesting the game will be. #wotcstaff
— Mike Mearls (@mikemearls) January 17, 2017
i spend a great deal of time on my D&D hobby, that includes reading through various rules and source books, organizing campaign notes, updating a narrative account of my players’ adventures and maintaining our group’s Facebook page.
Outside of that, i watch a helluva lot of YouTubers and listen to podcasts related to D&D both for enjoyment and to glean whatever tidbits of tips, tricks and advice a DM might find useful.
The scope of variety in the kinds of games people play is endlessly fascinating. Whether a group plays together on a virtual tabletop like Fantasy Grounds; gathers at a customized gaming table with built-in computer screens; deploys intricate maps and minis; or shares a single PHB, set of dice and runs the entire game in their imaginations, the goals and results all share the commonality of enjoyment by weaving a fantastic tale together.
As a DM, it’s very easy to get carried away with story ideas between sessions, regardless of your group’s playstyle or the sorts of adventures you’re running. Part of the fun for DMs is expanding your ideas outward. Just remember to give those ideas time and space to contract, too.
With published campaigns, for example “Tyranny of Dragons,” “Curse of Strahd” or “Out of the Abyss,” it’s exciting to think ahead to when your players will confront Tiamat, Strahd or Demogorgon.
In a similar way, a classic dungeon-delving group hopefully survives long enough to leave Keep on the Borderlands and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan behind and tackle the Temple of the Frog or Descent into the Depths of the Earth.
And then there’s homebrew adventures, with the additional level of anticipation for the players to uncover the themes, plots and stories DMs devise (or “borrow” from our favorite media).
The important thing for any DM to keep in mind though is that the story that emerges from your group is never yours alone. In fact, it is entirely the story of the players. In many ways, the DM is essentially opening a toychest and letting the players decide which ones look fun. What’s inside the toychest is up to the DM, and includes lots of dangerous things that players might get a peek of and want to try out.
A DM can certainly let players pull out the hazardous stuff as they wish, but as the referee and guide to the action, an important function is conveying safety warnings ahead of time. For example, a setting like the popular Underdark is alluring to many players, and DMs alike look forward to confronting their players with mind flayers, aboleth and other nasty denizens of the dark. The Underdark may in fact play a huge role in the campaign, whether something like Night Below or a powerful threat of the DM’s design.
If a group of low-level PCs is hellbent on exploring the Underdark, its the DMs duty to relay a sense of foreboding about the place. Accomplished adventurers or survivors of drow slavepits could offer dire warnings for instance. But if the players agree amongst themselves and insist on braving the dangers despite the DMs fair warning, it’s perfectly all right to let the group’s story play out in that direction. More than likely, an unprepared group of adventurers will meet an early end this way.
But that’s okay.
D&D is a storytelling game, and certainly, innumerable would-be heroes live short, unfulfilling lives. Their individual stories may not have become epic legends, and it can be upsetting when character die. But after about 30 minutes, players come up with exciting ideas for new characters, and the story continues. These new PCs might even be related somehow to their previous ones, and incorporate the story of their short-lived adventures into the new characters’ backgrounds.
All this is a wordy, roundabout way of saying it’s a good practice for DMs to get into letting go of your anticipations and allowing the players to steer the ship. Away from the gaming table is the time for a DM to let their imagination soar. Reflecting on what the players showed interest in and their adventuring style provides a context for developing what comes next.
This is why so many sources advise DMs to start small. There’s no telling what the PCs will do, and more often than not they’ll do things the DM never considered – no matter how many possibilities the DM plans for! This isn’t to say it’s fruitless to outline the big picture of your campaign. But keep aware that the path you envision to reach the end will without a doubt take many detours as the players follow their own interests along the path.
In my experience, the best approach to a campaign is to keep distill your big ideas into a few major plot points. On the road to reaching them, the players will do their part to fill in the details. That way you’re preserving their agency in the game by maintaining the sense that they’re in control of their destinies. Through their actions and words, players let DMs know what they find interesting and those engagement spark the DM’s imagination in a continuous cycle of feedback and implementation in the game.
For an example from the 5E Spelljammer-esque game i’m currently running, there is an overarching story taking place in the spheres that the PCs have been exposed to in small tidbits here and there. For various reasons, both through the characters’ and players’ perspectives, they’re not overly interesting in engaging with that story. Instead, they’re having a blast with the logistics of running a ship, maintaining a crew, making a living taking on various jobs and building their reputation. The major plot points continue to progress regardless if they are involved. Since they never set out to be heroes in the first place, it’s not hard to imagine they wouldn’t selflessly pursue a traditional heroic journey, and we’re all perfectly fine with that. Along the way, they’re moving in whatever directions appeal to them as a group. In turn, they’re challenging and fueling my imagination and together we’re developing our own story and fleshing out a lot more of the setting than i’d thought of on my own.
One of the best D&D YouTubers out there, Matt Colville touched on some of these concepts in his most recent video. The focus of his discussion is the idea of “Fantasy vs. Fiction” and he explores two approaches to D&D storytelling – the world as a manifestation of the characters’ internal story vs. the characters are the products of the world. Intriguing stuff to think about.
Of course, there are lots of things to keep in mind for your game like railroading vs. truly open-world adventuring, the value of improvisation vs. preplanning and keeping in mind the veil of separation between what the DM knows vs. what the players and their characters know. Those and many more are all topics worthy of being explored on their own here later on.
For D&D DMs (or any TTRPG GMs) it’s important to keep in mind that whatever story emerges at the table is a result of players’ choices and actions. DMs present scenarios, NPCs, locations and plot threads that can be woven into a much larger picture…but it’s up to the players to decide what their story will be. They may be adventuring in your world, but the tale they tell is theirs to shape.
There are lots of tips, tricks and tools DMs can use to point the needle in different directions. Just as vital, though, is allowing the players enough agency to be able to move the needle as well.
Start small, and keep your big picture in mind while PCs adventure in your game, but give them the freedom to take the story in their own direction. Don’t stick to a rigid structure of where you as the DM think the game ought to go. Instead, leave the trail of breadcrumbs but feel free to get lost right alongside the players. Remember – you can always alter where the breadcrumbs lead to anyway!