Note: For any of my players in the Smelly Quest campaign (hey that's what they call themselves) be aware that this post has spoilers!
At the start of the pandemic, a group of friends approached me wanting me to DM a group of 5th Edition D&D. After speaking with all of them and running a Session 0, here's what they were looking for, our restrictions, or we otherwise aligned on:
- Many of them had never played before and they wanted to try it, so were wary of committing
- Many of them have young kids and wanted sessions that could be drop-in/out in case something came up
- One player lived on the literal opposite side of the globe
- The group was not sure what sub-genres they were interested in: mystery, war/epic battles, political turmoil, etc
- The interest in the main game pillars (combat, exploration, and social interaction/roleplay) was spread vastly across the group
- Work for a couple of folks was in flux because of the pandemic, with one player at a work camp that didn't allow personal devices on the network and being very stringent about what apps they used
- Only one of them could commit regularly
- Despite these restrictions, they still wanted an overarching campaign or story
Do you see what I see? Yep, there was a commitment problem, and it all sounds a bit wishy-washy.
What I tried to do was break this problem down a bit. First and foremost, I wanted to play at least a single session with them, teach newer folks some basics, and see how they jived as a group and if they actually had more alignment than they all realized. Maybe a common goal would bring them together!
I think failing fast, or in other words, just trying something (in this case, playing a session) is one of the most important things you can do if you haven't even played a game together yet. All the talk, planning, and hypotheticals in the world will never really save you from the players. They might come together, or they might break everything. That's both the beauty and the terror of DMing, and you have to not just let it happen but encourage it, watch it, and learn from it as it does happen.
Solution 1: Get started - OPDC Hold the Mushrooms Please
My friend Colin introduced me to the One Page Dungeon Compendium a couple of years ago. Ever since I have been hooked, and you should definitely check it out. It's what it sounds like: dungeons that fit on one page, and generally, they're simple enough that you could run them in a single session. As a further aside, I am absolutely going to submit a dungeon one of these days!
Anyways, Colin had run me and a few others through a little dungeon called Hold the Mushrooms Please by Charles Olivier Rocher and Myriam Demers Olivier from the 2015 One Page Dungeon Compendium. I absolutely loved it and thought I could adjust a few things here and there for this group. Your group goes down this hole to save some children from weird rock people in a mushroom-filled cavern and fights a "vine stag." We went through it pretty quick with that previous group, what could go wrong with this group?
Well, what we went through with Colin in one session took about four with this group. Thankfully, the group had more commitment upfront before it dropped off a bit and we faced the main challenge the group thought we would which would be coordinating of time due to schedules, timezones, and children. One thing I learned quickly about this group was all but one of them was terrified of everything! They were almost frozen in fear, thinking most things would squish them. I actually introduced a couple of NPCs– a friendly rock monster, and a cleric father of one of the children, just to encourage them forward in different ways.
I think overall this was a good discovery and plays into why they had trouble committing to begin with, and why many people have trouble with commitment– stigma and fear. As DMs (or referees, or whatever term you use), we have to help people, by building up their confidence, teaching them, dispelling myths, building healthy habits and behaviours, and so on.
Solution 2: The playground - The Feis Atolls
I was determined to make something work for this group, whether we had to lose one or two people along the way, or a few folks including myself had to compromise. Now that I knew more about them, how they worked together as a team, and we had built up their confidence, I had a bigger plan coming together. The fact that the One Page Dungeon took many more sessions than expected ended up allowing me to plan and make contingencies.
As they navigated the mushroom caverns I started to have them find the odd trinket, a mysterious note, and so on that acted basically as adventure hooks for other small adventures that I had found on the DM's Guild, or one of the lower-level adventures from Tales from the Yawning Portal. I wanted them to start unraveling a plot, even if I didn't know what that plot fully was yet either. They didn't need to know that!
To string all of those smaller DM's Guild adventures together, as well as the Tales from the Yawning Portal, and make it so that we could evolve things into one of the official 5th edition campaigns, I invented the Feis Atolls, seen below.
What's going on here?
What's pictured here is a literal map of the Feis Atolls that the Player Characters (PCs) have given to them by a guard as they get off a boat in the town of Binbibo, arriving on the Atolls. Most of the places are actually just placeholders for DM's Guild or Yawning Portal events or adventures.
That's the gist of the little pieces, but how do they start to get woven together? And how do I start to help push them towards a common goal or overarching campaign like they were interested in but knew full well themselves they may not be able to commit or align on?
Solution 3: Domains of Dread - A big baddy
I decided to make use of the Domains of Dread rules from one of my favourite source books, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (VRGtR) to start creating a baddy– an overarching evil thread tying all of these adventures together and problem that the player's could slowly uncover and grow to want to solve. If you're unfamiliar with Domains of Dread, it's okay, especially since I was only loosely using them. The basics are that each Domain of Dread has its own central antagonist and prisoner: its Darklord. The Darklord generally contrasts your character, and their memories, desires, mistakes, and evil deeds shape the domain’s twisted lands, inhabitants, and features. What I decided to do different was instead of vampires I decided to go the route of ancient sea beasts like aboleths.
If you notice on the map of the Feis Atolls there are two sea monsters. One in the top-right corner and one in the bottom-right corner. Gus and Abbey. One of these is the big bad. The characters learn a lot of lore about both as they travel through the Atolls, and it seems like Abbey, in the top-right, is the big bad, whereas Gus who is often seen helping shepherd ships to the Atolls is seen as benevolent. The twist, of course, is that Gus is an ancient and evil aboleth that leads people to the Atolls. Abbey is actually an image of Bahamut that's trying to lead the odd ship away from the Atolls and challenge Gus, however...
It gets a little bit more complicated. But only loosely.
Like Domains of Dread with their mists, nightmare realms, and more, there's interesting magic and the aboleth's psionic abilities at play here. The idea is that Gus the Aboleth, growing physically weak but mentally more powerful over time, became more physically inert and stopped at a certain point in the ocean. This point became almost like a Bermuda Triangle, with ships getting caught by Gus. Before they can free themselves most crew of ships are dropped into a dream state, which is when they find themselves arriving on the Feis Atolls but with no recollection of this happening. Meanwhile, Gus is siphoning energy off of them mentally and using their own memories and experiences mixed with his own to build the Feis Atolls.
What does this mean?
Okay, but really, that's a lot of creative mumbo jumbo. What allowances did this actually afford me with the players?
- Any existing Faerûn City can be placed anywhere on the Atolls
- Remaining in the Atolls depends on Gus maintaining his illusion over people
- Once they realize it's an illusion, they can choose to come and go, effectively allowing the player characters to choose if they are ready for the real campaign world of Faerûn or if they are still afraid/not-commital and want to stay in the homebrew safety world
- There are several nudges, like Abbey actually being an image of Bahamut, pushing them towards their campaign (Tyranny of Dragons)
- They have a non-commital "drop-in/drop-out" game world we can play in together made up of mostly smaller DM's Guild adventures
Solution 4: Bumpers - Using knowledge from my job
My last solution to helping the players overcome their fear & stigma, to help them commit, to mitigate when folks couldn't commit and needed to drop in and out, was to use skills from my day job.
I've worked for years in the tech and product world, leading products teams, doing user experience design, and most recently working in the realm of design strategy and and helping a couple of companies with product-led growth. In a nutshell, all you need to know is a large part of this deals with enabling the client or end-user to help themselves by making the end-goal super clear, nudging them back and forth on both sides towards that goal whenever they get side-tracked, and adhering to tried and true frameworks, checklists, and experimentation.
The rough map you get is something like this:
You've got all of the regular chaos of running the game in the middle-far-left, and you're trying to reach the middle-far-right. To combat the chaos, you have "bumpers" of positive things you consistently do or try. For me I had a checklist of things I'd run through at the beginning of planning, at the beginning of each game, end of each game, and a framework I was iterating on to help run better games with this group.
Through just getting started (the most important recommendation for any problem), a playground of interconnected drop-in adventures from the DM's Guild, a big baddy, and using knowledge from my real-world job to form "bumpers" to keep nudging the players back towards their shared end-goals, we kept a game going through the entire pandemic and since (though paused for a wee bit after one of our main players adopted a child, woohoo, congrats).
After they built up their knowledge of the game and confidence my ideas around Gus and the Feis Atolls worked and they've been chasing that big baddy towards a sort of side campaign as well as a Tyranny of Dragons main campaign. They love the DM's Guild adventures that can be tidied up quickly (now that they have the confidence not to tiptoe through everything) but also like pursuing something larger. Meanwhile, me as the DM and an aspiring game designer got to work through many different interweaving concepts, like generating temporary modular game worlds from existing pieces, and the bumper framework. Plus, I really like the Feis Atolls, Gus, and the lore that started to be built up there. I think I'll start to share a bit more about all of that.
If you liked anything in this post, give me a shout on twitter at @bugandclaw!