This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Too Much Information
I'm playing in a game where the DM has done an extensive amount of very good work --painted maps, elaborate setups, and detailed cities. However, our party is bored to tears. Somewhere during the second night of playing we finally stumbled onto the adventure hook after wading through tons of red herrings. He's inviting us to interact with his world and find our way, but we have absolutely no reason to do so. We finally found a pack of goblins and were thrilled to actually fight. We've played three times and are still Level 1. Basically, how do I get him to make the game more engaging without hurt feelings?
-- Epic42 from AskWizards.com
The beauty of D&D is that the possibilities for style of play and presentation of the campaign are limited only by the time, effort, and interest of the people sitting around the table. The tragedy of D&D is that sometimes we confuse time and effort with interest or think that the amount of time and effort we spend somehow earns us a certain degree of interest. Here's a news flash for all DM's out there -- Your players, for the most part, are not nearly as interested in your complex plots and elaborate setups as you are.
And you know what? That's OK.
The game offers different rewards for the different roles involved in playing. Since the beginning of the game, inside jokes and small nuggets of amusement have been dropped into adventures and rulebooks that, unless the DM takes pains to point them out for the players, no one will ever notice or get except for the DM. I did this with an adventure I wrote for Dungeon magazine that contained a number of hidden references and gags. Some people on an FR message board eventually noticed the pattern of the 'Easter eggs' I had hidden in the adventure and howled at how having noticed it just destroyed the entire flavor of the adventure.
But that is true only if you were actually reading the adventure closely, as a DM might, and spending time puzzling over anagrams and faintly familiar details that crop up -- the sort of things you can notice when you are reading but that would slide right by without notice on hearing, especially when you encounter the bits and pieces of the puzzle over the course of several weeks (or longer) of play rather than in the space of an hour. Some things are for the DM, and the players (if not DMs themselves) will rarely if ever notice they're there.
That's all well and good for published adventures, but what about your friend, who is right there in front of you putting in all this work, creating visual aids, developing complex plots, and creating an obscene amount of detail? The truth of the matter is that he is wasting a great deal of time and effort if he thinks you are getting the same thing out of it that he is. That, however, may not be the case at all. He may just be doing it because he enjoys it -- he likes to paint, he loves to create maps, he enjoys city development, and so on. If that's true, then that is part of his reward as the DM. He gets to spend as time as he wants creating. Sure, your party will never, EVER, visit any of the six different butcher shops he has painstakingly detailed in the city of Townopolis, but if he had fun creating them, then more power to him.
The problem comes when, having created those six butcher shops, he tries to railroad you through every one of them in a misguided effort to validate his investment of time and trouble.
What's the solution? Part of it falls on you, the players. You need to recognize your DM and the way he runs a game. He has shown that he wants to have a dynamic and interactive world where you have opportunity, so you need to get off your butts and do something. The world is there waiting to be engaged -- go out and engage it. Stop waiting for the DM to spoon-feed you the plot.
That said, this is balanced with a warning for the DM -- Don't make things so complex that they discourage engagement. If players keep trying to make things happen but every effort runs into a dead end or a wild goose chase or a secret betrayal, the players will get frustrated and stop trying. You want them to engage, but you punish them when they do.
You are in a standoff. Both the players and the DM want the other side to give them more to work with. You want the DM to be more direct and the meat of the campaign to be more accessible. Your DM wants you to work for it, to spend time pushing buttons and twisting knobs and kicking tires -- manipulating the machine of his campaign. To make the campaign fun, you both need to come off of your entrenched position and make some moves toward the other side.
This starts with having a frank and open conversation about style of play and expectations for the campaign, players and DM alike. Talk about speed of advancement, frequency of combat, investigation and 'talking' adventures vs. kick-in-the-doors 'hacking' adventures. Heck, talk about what kinds of skills, feats, and character classes are likely to be relevant in your DM's campaign, and talk about your ideas for the kind of characters you would like to be and the kind of adventures you want to have. Most importantly, find out what you can and should do when the players are out of ideas. While you, the players, don't know everything the DM knows about the campaign, your characters for darn sure know a lot more than you do, especially ones with high Intelligence and lots of Knowledge skills or related class abilities. Use Knowledge and Gather Information and Sense Motive and Diplomacy and Intimidate to sift through the pile. Don't let it devolve into a battle of wits and wills between players and DM. You are playing D&D, you have a character -- use it!
Your DM has created an elaborate campaign world with lots of things (including many surprises) for you to see and do. He doesn't want to tip his hand and just tell you what to do and what is going to happen, but he needs to give you more clues. The DM is playing with a stacked deck, because he knows the background information that makes those surprises relevant. The players don't, so they have no motivation to look for the surprises. What's worse, without the needed background, those surprises won't have any real impact when they do appear. If the DM wants his elaborate ideas to matter, he must be forthcoming with context while still being careful to avoid burying you in details and in-campaign history that you will never remember (and, cheapest of all, then nailing your character ten sessions later because you forgot to write down some detail that your character would have known since childhood).
The difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is not in how much he knows or can recite but in the ability to present it with the organization and connections to other things that gives students something to grab onto and a means of sorting and retaining what is important. This is what your DM needs to learn. Don't just blame him and make him do all the work -- he's already done plenty, though he has more yet to do. Honestly give a good effort, using both your imagination and intuition as players and your resources as characters to find out where to go and what to do. If you really are lost, don't be embarrassed to ask for a recap, a reminder, or even a suggestion. Your DM wants to run a fun adventure as much as you want to play one, so remember, in D&D, you are ultimately all on the same team.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.