Dungeons and Dragons: Elements of a Successful Campaign

Hello to the flock of nerds following Flock of Nerds! My name is Chris and I’m a longtime friend of Myles and Kathryn, the brain trust behind the website. I’ll be participating in some of the Dungeons and Dragons related content on the site and I’m starting it all off with my first article. This is pretty basic stuff, but as we go along, we’ll get into some of the finer points of Dungeon Mastering, running a campaign, and some of the wrong turns you can take while playing the game.

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I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in my second-ish year of university with a group of friends, Myles included, who were previously playing Magic the Gathering. We had come to a grinding conclusion regarding Magic – it’s expensive. We loved drafting, but Cube wasn’t really a thing in 2003. It only really got going in and around 2005 (or at least it did in Toronto). I’d like to say that our gaming group was at the starting edge of the cube revolution, so it would be two years until we could take our collections and do something with them that wasn’t deck building and type 2 Magic.

Enter Dungeons and Dragons. I had never played before, but always had a pretty big interest in Fantasy settings for novels and movies. The group of players were ready to take the plunge. In our first game, we fought against some low level rats. We were playing incorrectly, and the rats MURDERED us. We had spent hours making characters and they were pretty much TPK’d (total party killed) by the rats. We figured out what we were doing wrong, but that experience stuck with me. Dungeons and Dragons was going to be a game that defied expectations, and was going to be pretty awesome, even if we weren’t playing correctly.

The first key element to a successful DnD game is the group. The group kind of has to be on the same page- if you really like the storytelling RPG (role-playing game) elements of DnD, you may not mesh super well with a group that just wants to simulate combats. Communication here is key- you have to be prepared to tell your DM what you like and dislike about their style, and you have to be prepared to listen to the rest of your group to get a sense of where the game is probably going, and whether you want to spend time in that world. This isn’t to say that you should get along with everyone in the group all of the time, but you should have a good idea of the kind of experience you’re going to get after a few games. If a group isn’t fun for you, find another group that meshes with your style and you’ll find your enjoyment of the game increasing.

 

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The second key element after you have your group together is the story. The story makes and breaks a DnD experience. If the story is good, you’ll find that it’s 4 a.m. and no one wants to stop playing until the game is over. If the story is crap, everyone will be pretty much done after about 2 hours. That’s not to say that the game should be run on rails (a game where the players have very little influence over how the story develops), but it should have a few arcs that will pique the character’s interest so that they go down a certain set of roads of their own accord. Maybe that means creating a main town where a number of threads could be pulled on over several games, but there remains a consistent core theme or characters. At the end of a few adventures, there should be a narrative that can be explained and the players should know what’s going on, what their motivations are for doing what they are doing, and there should be an easilyAi??recognizableAi??end goal.

For example, plopping a combat versusAi??previously unheard from vampires into a campaign that has previously been mostly kobold combats is pretty terrible story telling. Why are those vampires in that room just sitting around waiting for someone to come through the door and kill them? Why are they hanging around kobolds? In my opinion, the first appearance of a new kind of monster should be foreshadowed, or be a huge event. Maybe amongst the kobold rooms there were several already dead kobolds. Further examination would reveal that they had been killed via biting, maybe there’s no blood in the vicinity. If you want your players to fight a vampire, make sure that you’ve at least built up some suspense around the first appearance. Forethought and planning (even on the fly) are great ways to work story elements into a night of DnD.

 

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What’s the last element of a good DnD game? Roleplaying. As a DM, you should be giving the players chances to roleplay. Talking, using skills, investigating, getting an NPC (non-player character) to open up about details of the adventure, getting your players to make actual decisions about how they want to interact with the world will give players something to latch onto in the development of their characters. As your campaign evolves, maybe a thread from a previous game becomes a plot point. The roleplaying should evolve the story and there should be plenty of opportunities to engage in roleplaying events. If a member of your group speaks Goblin, and there are Goblins in a newly entered room, perhaps you shouldn’t have the Goblins attack immediately and wait to see if your players want to engage the room in a diplomatic discussion.

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