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Playing in the Deep End
Dungeon Editorial
by Chris Youngs

As long as the game’s been around, D&D has been played the same way, more or less. The editions have changed, campaign settings have come and gone, and the starting level of your character might have varied, but the basics were the same.

Someone decides to run a campaign. He or she gathers up some friends to play in it. The DM creates and runs the adventures. The players respond to the DM’s stimulus and follow the trail of hooks he or she leaves from adventure to adventure.

There’s nothing wrong with this basic formula, at its heart. But you might have noticed lately that a number of folks on D&D Insider have taken an opportunity to propose a new way of thinking—the art of saying “Yes!” What do these things—the classic campaign archetype and the “Say Yes” strategy—have to do with one another?

Here’s the thing: I think, more often than not, DMs try to shoulder too much. DMing gets arduous, and as a DM’s interest in his or her own creation begins to flag, so too does that of the players. DMing should be as much fun as playing. We’ve all been in campaigns that have quietly eroded away as interest fizzled out. What’s the answer?

In my view, it’s immersion. A player who is more immersed in the campaign—the combats, the world, the story, the adventures, the characters—is likely to maintain interest. It seems obvious, but providing an immersive experience is perhaps a DM’s toughest challenge, among a host of tough challenges. How do you do it? I can’t say how all DMs approach this, but I know how one DM does it.

Chris Perkins, himself a proponent of the Say Yes strategy, runs our Wednesday game, and by the folks in his two campaigns, he’s widely acknowledged as one of the best DMs in a building full of good DMs. His campaign worlds are ridiculously detailed, his NPCs rich and complex, and his stories full of unexpected twists. Our characters always have more goals to pursue, in more corners of the world, than your typical world leader. Chris’s campaigns run for years, with mostly the same core of stable players. Some of the current crop in the two games have been playing in his campaigns for nearly ten years.

Chris’s biggest contribution to our immersion level is choice. He lets us choose our own fate. His goal in giving us so many choices and decisions to make in the campaign is to give us a sense of control. We have the ability to choose our fates and thus make an impact on the world in the places where we feel the most contact. It’s why, despite running two campaigns, with two different groups, in the same world, our two groups have diverged so much. The players in each group value different hooks and stories, so we pursue those to the exclusion of others. As a result, we are fully, completely immersed.

This is one of the many reasons why I’m so excited about this month’s launch of the Caves of Chaos project. This is a campaign designed from ground zero to be about player choice. Our story is broad, general, and deliberately filled with holes to fill in. The players have the opportunity in this campaign, unlike many others, to really choose their fate. Do they go into a tough cave or an easier one? Do they pursue the purple glowing dungeon or the one that appears to be the source of a massive pool of mud? As they venture through, what sorts of stories draw them in? What makes them sit up and pay attention?

And what about you, DMs? What tricks and tips do you use to immerse your players? Send us your ideas!