Behind the Screen
The Winds of Change
By Jason Nelson

In the last installment, we examined some of the dangers inherent in the way change and variety are structured into the campaign by the DM, including the importance of establishing a baseline (and what constitutes a difference or departure from it), deciding what players (and their characters) know or will have a chance to discover, and how to enrich your campaign with selective use of descriptions and background information. This installment takes that idea one step further and assumes that you have decided to make some changes or spring some surprises in your campaign, and it looks at some ideas for how and when to implement those kinds of ideas.

One of the frequent regrets voiced by long-time gamers is that they have pretty much seen it all and done it all in a gaming sense. They may feel that they have no worlds left to conquer or perhaps they think that the worlds all look alike. These feelings are, in some ways, an unavoidable artifact of experience in the game. You have seen and done an awful lot, and expecting your hundredth encounter with an ancient dragon to be as exciting as your first is unrealistic. Part of the blame also rests with the standard tropes of the game, and as a DM you are responsible for leavening your campaign with the unusual. The last column warned against going too far in this direction, since some value resides in those "old reliables" as touchstones of the gaming experience, and these touchstones form a necessary baseline for your campaign's standard operation. With that stated, you also must not get caught in the rut of the usual -- no matter how well described and contextualized -- and simply give the players what they expect.

You can direct many kinds of curveballs at the players, and this area is one of several where the modular design of D&D really shines. You can apply one of agaggle of creature templates or character classes (or even prestige classes, if the creature can meet the prerequisites) to a typical creature and create a bewildering array of possible allies or nemeses for the party. These abilities add on to the creature's normal capabilities to create something very different (and often very dangerous). Some combinations are obvious, like a handful of raging barbarians in the orc lair in the abandoned mines. Some are more cunning, like the orc illusionist who lures the party into an ambush of human-hunting orc ranger-rogues. Maybe the leader of the tribe is a ghost orc druid with a cluster of deadly vipers as his companions. The possibilities are endless, and because of the way the system is set up, you won't find it difficult to create a variety of challenges that are not be immediately obvious to players or their characters before you spring the surprise. You might create opportunities for research for the party to tip them off to surprises that are ahead, which gives them incentive to devote resources to finding out about the world in a context where they receive a realistic payoff; they are not just searching to find a bit of flavor text, but instead they are studying up on a future enemy (or ally) to help give themselves the advantage when they meet.

Besides altering the creatures in the campaign, you can change the choices the creatures make, the tools they use, and the things they do with their normal or natural abilities. Every orc doesn't need to use a longsword and spear. Try throwing a mixed group with reach weapons and missile troops, then have them swarm the PCs in an attempt to bull rush the party onto the waiting spears of their other soldiers. Try out different weapon and tactical combinations. Introduce unusual or unexpected allies. Instead of the usual ogres or wolves or giant lizards, perhaps your orc tribe has befriended an otyugh or has a group of trained hippogriffs or keeps a cockatrice in their treasure vault. Perhaps they even have a pact with an evil outsider. In the same vein, you can alter the environments where events take place; take the orcs out of the mine and give them a cliff-top home on a rocky mesa in the badlands on a sweltering summer day, or put them in a snowy valley in mountains that are cut through by a boulder-strewn icy river (maybe it's frozen solid enough to walk across and maybe not), or surround them with fog in a night-time forest. Take advantage of different environments, in terms of both terrain and weather, and create opportunities for characters to use the full range of skills available to them, including riding, swimming, climbing, jumping, and so on. Having to figure out how to adjust the normal modus operandi on something other than flat, level ground or dungeon corridors helps players look at the situation (combat or otherwise) in different ways and helps break up the unrelieved sameness that can make such events all run together. The principle here is to look not just at what you have in your campaign but also how it is being used.

Another valuable tool in broadening your horizons as a DM is to look beyond what you find within the basic rules set. The most obvious place to look for new ideas is in other "official" products specifically designed for D&D or the d20 system, whether they are adventures, class or race sourcebooks, or what have you. You might borrow some feats or spells from Oriental Adventures to import into your Euro-fantasy campaign or grab some PC races from the Forgotten Realms, or a magic item from an adventure module. Given the proliferation of other d20 materials being produced by other companies, you can find a wealth of source material. For that matter, a simple search of the Internet can turn up a great many D&D-related or d20-related websites, mailing lists, and newsgroups that can provide you with a bonanza of information and ideas for you and your campaign. Some websites, mailing lists, and discussion groups devote themselves to a particular setting or genre (including discontinued D&D settings like Birthright and Al-Qadim), many offer reviews of new published products, and some simply are run by individuals who have enjoyed creating game-related content and like to share with the general gaming community. In addition to game ideas they have implemented, you can sometimes read about the campaigns of others; such stories can be entertaining or, at the very least, may spark an idea about something to try in your own game.

WORDS TO THE WISE:

1. Provide a sense of normalcy, but don't always give the players what they expect.

2. Experiment with ideas within the standard rules set (weather and terrain effects, unusual weapons and attack forms, templated or classed creatures).

3. Include ideas from outside the standard rules set: supplemental products for D&D, published products for other game systems, websites and discussion groups (rather like the gaming version of freeware or shareware).

4. Consider whether you want to alter any points within the standard rules set, but be careful with how you handle change.

5. Keep a log of your campaign to remind everyone what has gone before and to ensure consistency in how things work.

In addition to actual D&D or d20 publications and forums, you may find a great deal of value in game products made for other systems (including previous editions of D&D) that you can adapt for your campaign. Most often, the setting, style, and presentation of such ideas are truly important; you may not need game statistics for many such imported ideas. You can also use a set of imported ideas to add unique flavor to a particular part of the world. Perhaps the vast desert of Anauroch in Faerūn resembles the Dark Sun campaign setting, or maybe the wizards of a particular land use spells and create magic items adapted from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or elves use spells and items from Middle-Earth Roleplaying. Adapting ideas from another game system obviously involves a bit of work for you as the DM, but the payoff can be well worth it in terms of the sense of atmosphere and break from routine that it provides to your game.

Finally, you can make things up yourself. Every DM has noodled about ideas for how they might have done this or that differently. In your campaign, you can do it differently. Above and beyond simply ruling on what "official" rules will or will not be in play during your campaign, you could invent entirely new classes, change existing races, reshuffle spell lists, change how certain creatures (or perhaps a particular subgroup of those creatures) fit into the game world or their basic nature and powers, and on and on. You may find that this is a very rewarding path to take since it allows you to flex your creative muscles, and many DMs and players who have gone in the direction of homemade campaign worlds or D&D games that are heavy on "house rules" love it and find it the most fulfilling way to really play out the fantasy element of a fantasy roleplaying game.

All of the above are valid and useful avenues to use or even alter the basic rules set to improve the enjoyment value of the campaign, but you should approach the road to change with caution. Changing things can be a touchy subject with some players, who may feel frustrated if you change things that they feel end up invalidating much of the stuff in the rulebooks they've sunk money into or spent time and effort in reading and learning. For many, if it's not by the book, then you're not playing "real" D&D. That may seem like a silly oversimplification, but if one of your players holds that view, you need to respect and deal with it. You should have a clear rationale for your changes, even if it boils down to aesthetics, and you must be wary of the potential "domino effect" of changing elements of the game since one change then alters a balance or relationship with another. Unless you do a radical revamp of everything, you must pay careful attention to how your changes or additions balance with what's already there. On reflection, you may find that your change solution doesn't really improve things as much as you had hoped. Even if what you are adding is all "official" and theoretically balanced, you should consider offering players a chance to adjust their characters in play when you introduce new opportunities or ideas; otherwise, prerequisites for those new options may put them out of reach for most characters, making your "new options" no option at all. As a player, that is no fun.

SPECIAL TIPS: BE CAREFUL WITH CHANGE

1. Make sure that everyone (including you) understand the changes you have made; address points that anyone feels are unclear as soon as possible.

2. Pay special attention to the interaction of your changes with the basic rules set.

3. Be consistent about the changes you make.

4. Give PCs their due credit. Allow them to make use of the knowledge and experience they have acquired about the campaign world and how it works.

5. When you change something, know the reason why. Don't be capricious and don't use changes to try to entrap the players or their characters.

Setting aside design issues, when you play the campaign with the changes you have instituted, remember that change should not be capricious. Don't use variety to entrap the players: If they've met a thousand orcs and they've all been evil scum, it is reasonable and justifiable for them to attack orc #1,001 on sight even if you chose to make him an ultra-good orc paladin (who just happens to look exactly like every other orc warrior they've ever met); you shouldn't expect the players to adjust to changes that they could not realistically be expected to know. It can be equally frustrating for players if change comes suddenly in a way that impacts their characters. Changes may undermine their character concept; that is, if they had known about a rule change earlier, they might have designed their character in a different way or pursued different goals in their adventuring career.

Change and its aftereffects are hard to measure, so it behooves a gaming group (or at least the DM) to keep some record of what they have done, where they have gone, and what they have learned, especially when rule or setting changes have been made. This helps make sure changes work the same way each time and that the new (post-change) baseline remains relatively stable. Records can assist both the DM and the players remember what has gone before, and records can ensure that both sides give proper credit for in-game experiences. Even if you play every week, between sessions you may forget something that happened just minutes or hours ago for your character. Remember that players have real lives and should not be held to a perfect standard of memorization by DMs. The same goes for DMs. To sum up, here's a good rule of thumb when thinking about making changes: Don't bite off more than you can chew. Change can be a wonderful tool, but, if overdone, it is one of the easiest paths toward the ruin of a campaign.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!


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