I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons for about 8 years, the majority as a player. I’m currently involved in two different campaigns: one has been going on for 4 years and the other for a year and a half.
From my time as a player, I know what works well in a campaign and what doesn’t, and what keeps the players involved.
Act like you know what you’re doing (especially when you don’t)
One of the most important things in a campaign is immersion. If your players don’t feel like they’re a part of the world, they will be distracted and pulled out of your universe.
If the party decides to go into a tavern, saying “Ugh, you weren’t supposed to go into the tavern” takes the party of the universe and punishes them for making their own choice.
Instead of announcing that you weren’t expecting them to go into the tavern, play along with it. Come up with a name for the tavern and perhaps the barkeep. Describe the scene inside the tavern.
Now, even though the party did something unexpected, they are still in the universe because you expanded its boundaries for them. If you really want them to follow your plans, give them a reason to.
Give your party members a reason to do whatever you want them to do
Remember, the members of your party are dynamic characters. Like people, they will only do things that make sense to them.
If the main quest of your campaign is to
rescue the King’s son for 50 gold per person
It might not be very convincing for your party. The party has no interest in putting their lives on the line for such a small reward, and may decide to do something that strikes their fancy instead.
Using larger sums as a reward can be more compelling, but colorful and human motivations are even better:
The King’s son was kidnapped by sorcerers who wish to use his blood for an evil ritual which could destroy the struggling logging village of Viltegg, where the party members reside.
This is a much more compelling story. The party obviously wants to keep their hometown intact, but they also might care about saving someone’s life (the King’s son, or maybe the good people of Viltegg).
Evocative, in-universe descriptions
Creating imagery for your world is what brings it to life. While it may feel all the same to you, skimping on descriptions can take the players out of your world.
If the rogue in your party sneaks up behind a foe and sneak attacks them, saying “He dies” isn’t very exciting. Make players feel good about using their abilities by describing them in detail.
Saying “You sneak up behind the man and your blade finds its way through the leather armor. As you pull your dripping blade out, the man crumples to the ground” makes the scene come to life.
Describing scenery and characters also helps immensely with immersion. Having a list of descriptive words and names to glance at can be very handy for describing a scene on the fly.
Don’t railroad, but nudging is ok
“Railroading” is when you strongly encourage or force your party to do something because you’ve planned a linear story that your party needs to follow. Doing this is not ideal, as your party will feel like they are no longer dynamic characters that have the ability to make their own decisions. Remember, this isn’t prose fiction; you aren’t writing a story. This is a collaborative effort.
However, sometimes the party gets “stuck” and is unsure of what to do. Instead of letting your party flounder, you can nudge them to make a decision. This can be done by reminding them of what has happened thus far, having a non-player character speak to them, or suggesting what they do by asking a leading question like “Do you get on your horses and ride to town?”
It’s ok if things don’t go “according to plan”
Sometimes, the party doesn’t catch on to hints or things you’ve laid out and they decide to do something other than what you had planned. This is ok, in fact, it can be very useful.
If your party is more interested in something else, try rolling with it! Though this is obviously not always possible, it can give you information on what your party is interested in and sometimes you can adapt to what your party wants.
If your party seems surprisingly interested in “the small coin of unknown origin you find on the elf’s body”, you can develop the story behind the coin and indulge the party. You know they’re interested, so make it interesting!
Avoid random encounters
As your campaign continues and monsters become more challenging, fighting can also take quite some time. If there is no story or role-playing reason to fight the monsters (i.e. they appeared randomly), the party can get burnt out on fighting and may lose interest.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t have your players fight! If the party decides to take a shortcut through a dangerous forest, they might encounter some creatures dwelling there along the way. But, this is not random. They party chose to take a more dangerous route and there might be consequences.
In addition, it’s also acceptable if the party doesn’t want to fight. Choosing to run from monsters or talk their way out of a situation is just as deserving of experience as a full-fledged fight.
Some of these tips might be more obvious than others, but they all have one thing in common: the players! Pay attention to what your players are interested in, what they get frustrated by, and if they’re having fun. You’re all in this together to create a story and you’re in it for the fun!
Happy DMing! 🐲🗡🔮📚