One of the first lessons I learned as a DM (and one of the hardest really) is that you have absolutely no control over your campaign. As much as I joke about being god or the master of fate, I have little to no control over the week to week happenings in my kitchen. I am merely a facilitator. I am just the means through which my friends play Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, without me, there would be no game, but the opposite is also true.
Because of this, writing an ongoing campaign can be a tricky thing. No matter how well you lay your plans, no matter how deep your narrative is, no matter what you have in mind, it can all go wrong. Players make the choice you expected they wouldn’t; bad (or good) dice rolls change the course of the game. You never know what will happen when you sit at that table.
When I write, I try to anticipate these things, if a skill challenge fails, I have a plan for success or failure, if there is a situation where there is more than one choice, I plane for all of them. But, you can’t plan for everything.
Here’s an example from the Eberron game.
The players are currently trying to prevent the terrorist organization known as the Swords of Liberty from performing an attack on Sharn. They were there during the first attack (more on that later) and have fought two groups of these terrorists. The first group was the one that performed the first attack and was supposed to meet another cell to get orders for the next attack. After they killed the first group, the players decided to pose as them so they could get close to the Swords of Liberty. Aha! Here’s something I planned for! I had put together a skill challenge for just such a situation (and an encounter for if it went bad). They went through both (they failed the challenge) and killed the second group after getting the information they needed, where the Swords of Liberty had their base. They head for the sewers, hoping to enter the ruins under Sharn and are attacked by a shifter who has nothing to do with the Swords of Liberty known as Black Claw. They defeat him and ask him for information, he tells them what he knows (which isn’t much) and I fully expect them to now murder him. They’ve built a track record of murder leading up to this moment.
Nope, they take him hostage saying he might be useful later.
I had no plans for this…
But I will. The players have taken the game in a new direction with their actions. I had plans for what would happen, but now that’s changed. I’m not sure whether they’re going to regret kidnapping Black Claw yet or not, but it’s going to lead to something. It’s my job to reward their ideas. If I were to just let them take him and have nothing happen, what fun would that be?
I like to start my campaigns with some excitement. In the past I’ve done things like pirate attacks or murders, but this time I really wanted to draw my players in and to start things off with a real bang. So I decided my players would witness, and then be heavily involved with, an airship crash. I then decided they would witness the Swords of Liberty agents shooting down the airship. I went through a few ideas of how it would play out. One was a skill challenge where they would have to escape the wreckage while helping to save people but I couldn’t come up with an alternative to success that wasn’t death. Another idea was they’d fight the Swords of Liberty as the city came down around them, but I decided that they should chase down the terrorists before fight them. But this idea was closer to what I wanted. I wanted them to fight and also to save people. I thought about the flavor for Lyrandar airships. Lyrandar airships are powered by bound fire elementals and I thought ‘well, what happens to that elemental when the ship crashes?’ I decided that the players would fight the enraged elemental. I also decided, because I wanted to keep the saving people element, they’d have the option of helping the unconscious crew of the airship during the fight for extra experience. Now I just need a really good location for the fight, I decided to place them at the actual scene of the crash, fight the elemental on the downed airship as it hung precariously between two buildings; I used the Essential City dungeon tiles made by Wizards of the Coast and boat tiles they produced to set the scene. Now all I needed was a monster. I thought I’d use a monster that I’d put to use before and just re-flavor it. I went with this:
This is clearly not a fire elemental. I decided to switch some of the damages and tone down some of the powers (this monster was known for killing players and I didn’t want them dying during the first encounter of the campaign). What I put together was this:
This monster is much less brutal, yet, I felt still challenging. I got rid of the pushing ability because I didn’t want them falling to certain death, I dropped the ranged attack because I felt his melee attacks were already doing enough damage, and I toned down the aura because I felt the original was just too punishing for a first encounter.
The players responded very well to the overall experience. They liked the monster and were really into the location for the fight. The dungeon tiles really brought it to life for them. The added challenge of trying to save the crew also added more to the fight for them. Overall, I’d say it was one of the better encounters I’ve run, not the best, but good.