Slice of Life

How Do DMs Stay On Track?

I am a virgin.

A D&D virgin, I mean. For however much I’ve waited and wanted to play D&D, to DM and whatnot, it’s just not happened for me yet. I’ve been waiting for so, so long to lose my virginity. Jesus, I didn’t even have this much hang up over my actual virginity. This is so sad. So sad and so geeky.

I won’t retell how much I’ve studied for this or complain about how I’m still just bumbling around in the world with no one to play with. It’s in the works, so I’m cool with it. I learn more every day, and it’s been great fun (despite sometimes having a mean brain).

That being said, my brother has greatly encouraged me to start writing a campaign of my own. He’s got more faith in me than anyone else, and by the gods I’m going to deliver, if not just for his sake.

Introducing: The Daleland Ashes
(It sounds legit and dramatic, right? Isn’t that the point?)

It’s a Forgotten Realms story that I’m slowly piecing together, with no way of knowing if it’ll ever see the light of play. Obviously, one can’t predict everything a party might do, but I can at least lay the foundations akin to the pre-written adventures masters and amateurs alike have put out into the world. So this is it’s debut?

I would greatly love any feedback, even those that don’t much care for D&D, at its core, it’s a creative writing assignment.

Guess the site will need a new category. I appreciate the blogs I follow that catalogue their campaigns separately, so I’ll follow suit.

Some Story Elements:
Pirates
The gods
Gooey love story
Chaotic physical realm with nature running rampant

Primarily, the story focuses on a story-specific made up god, but then I myself got sidetracked with the side-quests. So now there’s pirates involved. Guys, this is infinitely harder than I thought it would be… I want to travel around in the Forgotten Realms, too, dammit!

While I’m writing this as a playable campaign, most of the writings I see published on folk’s blogs are written as legitimate stories. So the episodes may change wildly. I can’t predict the future.

Seriously, though, how do DMs stay on track when writing their stories??

Fun fact: the banner with rainbow space dogs is the pattern on the 3-ring binder I’m using to hold all the campaign notes/writings. It’s freaking hilarious, thank you Target.

13 thoughts on “How Do DMs Stay On Track?”

  1. I try not to plot out a whole arc or campaign. I like to create a situation, something the players have to move to deal with and have the players make characters to deal with that situation and go from there.

    Good luck! I hope you get your ideas to the table.

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    1. A much more relaxed approach! I should look into this go-with-the-flow style. I bet that makes for a super creative campaign – not even the DM knows where the party will wind up. Hey, that sounds awesome!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even when I put a ton of planning into it, I never plan an ending.

        I hope to always be surprised. Seeing how my friends creatively solve problems is part of the joy for me.

        How’s your game going?

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      2. That definitely makes sense. A never ending story is the best way to go.

        I think there’s only so much planning I’m going to do. Maybe the first few scenarios, carving out the big bad, and building some hearty NPCs. Without players right now, it’s hard to determine what I need to build and where the story will go.

        I hope we get to play soon !

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I fully agree with Phoesha’s and David’s posts. Let me see if I can add anything else.

    As Phoesha said, don’t plan what the players “will” do… because they won’t. They will never do what you want or expect them to do.

    Don’t plan “if they do this, then that happens” either, because you’ll end up writing dozens of contingencies, most or all of which you’ll never use.

    So how do you prepare to present a dynamic situation and exciting encounters in a rich living world? Create powerful NPCs and factions who want things. Know what each of them wants and what they’re prepared to do to get it. And know how they are inter-related. Corrupt mayor A is secretly allied with warlord B, against mad wizard C, who is trading favours with thieves guild D, who is blackmailing mayor A? Awesome! Each NPC/faction will react to the PCs’ AND each other’s actions.

    Then, prep their resources. Minions? select their stat blocks. Mansion, dungeon or secret hideout? Hit Pinterest for some maps. And you’ll want stat blocks for the big-bads themselves. They probably have some special/magic items, right? And treasure, don’t forget treasure! Now you’re ready to react to whatever the PCs might do. You don’t have to specify what’s in each room of every map. You have the stat blocks for the wizard’s goblin minions, animated-artifact guardians, shadow-demon assassin and ogre body-guard. You can throw together encounters on the fly.

    How are the players going to embroil themselves in your twisted intrigue? Start thinking about clues and leads. A clue is about the ultimate answer to the mystery. Clues are notoriously difficult for players to put together, and don’t do anything to keep your campaign moving forward. Drop clues, but don’t count on your players ever figuring them out. Leads, however, are vital. Leads point the PCs to another person or location that’s involved, and answers the question “what do we do next?” Drop a few leads in the first scene, to give the players options. For example, maybe the players stake out the library, and kill some goblin burglars. What do the goblins have on them? One is carrying a silver tobacco case with the wizard’s crest on it. Stolen from the mad wizard’s house? And one of them has wheat chaff in his teeth, and a pocket full of wheat grains. Maybe they were hiding out at the old mill!

    Don’t plan WHERE or HOW the PCs will find clues and leads. Just brainstorm a few ideas, keep the list handy, and drop a clue and a lead into every scene, more or less. Be generous with the clues and leads! You don’t want your players to stall out for lack of information. There’s no such thing as figuring things out “too soon” from a player’s point of view.

    So, for each session, plan a few “bangs”. These are things that happen, usually driven by the powerful NPCs/factions who, once they realize the PCs are involved, won’t be able to leave them alone. D attacks A, B kidnaps C’s son/apprentice/whatever, one of them sends a messenger to the party, and another sends assassins. You don’t have to use all your bangs, and some of them will become obsolete before you can use them.

    Between sessions, figure out how each of the NPCs/factions reacts to what happened in the last session, what they want from the PCs, and write new bangs for next session. Look at everything, figure out what assets you’re missing (stat blocks, maps, treasures) and get those ready. That’s it! Rinse and repeat!

    One more thing: you mentioned a gooey love story. Does this involve (one of) the players, or just NPCs? If a player(s), then I recommend having an out-of-game chat first, to find out if they’re interested in telling that sort of story. If they are, then you may want to “pre-play” it a little. One good trick is to ask them (in play) what sort of person their character would be attracted to. Then make sure the love-interest fits that description! I only say this because it’s pretty unusual for a player to decide that their PC has fallen in love with an NPC unless everyone already understands that this is going to be the sort of game with romantic intrigues. Also, you don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Ask about boundaries before play.

    Good luck and have fun, you’re going to do great!

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    1. Oh, ONE MORE one more thing. You asked about how to keep track of all this stuff! I used to do it all in Word documents, and they always got too long and I was constantly flipping pages during games, looking for info. Now I use OneNote, and it’s so much better. You can organize info into tabs (chapters), pages and sub-pages, and headings and sub-headings on a page. And you can cross-link to other pages and sub-headings. I gather that EverNote can work the same way. And Sly Flourish swears by Notion.so, which is (I gather) like a free version of OneNote.

      I took a screen shot of my OneNote file and put it here:
      https://outsidetheredbox.wordpress.com/2021/02/20/my-onenote-campaign-notebook/

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      1. I use OneNote for work daily! I should definitely switch my brain over and figure out how to use my beloved tool for some fun stuff. Good call, thank you!

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    2. Holy cow this is helpful. Thank you for the time and thought put into this, seriously. It’s already helping me to think about expanding the world and making it more real for me.

      Interconnectedness is key – i definitely will work on hearty factions/NPCs in order to drive the story. I think somewhere along the line I forgot NPCs are how the DM can “play” alongside the PCs. Thank you for this reminder, and I’ll be sure to build up some good “bangs” to get them started.

      Great advice on “figuring it out too early.” That was something I’ve been pondering for a while, and didn’t know how thick to lay on the clues. Your comment came at a great time, I’m currently struggling through some writer’s block. This honestly may’ve cleared some things up.

      As for the love story bit, no PCs involved. I think that would be weird for me and the thought of it kinda hits my comfort-ability threshold. haha I was thinking about having a god intercede for the PC party for the love of another god. That’s all. So he’d be a helpful character if the party drives his ultimate goal, which is based on a crush, basically. Still a good point, to get with the player(s) before hand, though.

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  3. Talk about ambition! You’ve never played D&D before, and yet you’re writing your own campaign! Mad props to you, my love; you’re a braver DM than I! 🙂 I’ve been playing and DMing for *mumblesomething* years and it took me a long time to feel confident enough to do what you’re doing right off the bat.

    One of the keys to planning out a campaign is to not plan out ANYTHING about what your players might do. Plan out what your Big Bad/other factions are going to do if left unchecked. If the PCs don’t do anything, what would the world look like? What would your Big Bad do? Would anyone else try to counter it? (And for what reasons?) What battles would happen? What’s the timeline? Once you know that, and you know what your Big Bad’s resources, motivation, methods, and capabilities are, you have them react to the PC’s accomplishments.

    Let’s say that the Big Bad sent a group of minions to raid a library for a specific magical book that has a ritual in it that they want. A nice, low-level adventure for level 1 PCs. There they are, minding their own business, and some rich noble asks them to stake out her library because she suspects that someone is breaking in at night, rummaging through the stacks, and sneaking out again when they haven’t found what they’re looking for. Nothing has been stolen yet, but she’d like figure out what’s going on.

    The players could: Option A) stake out the library, kill the goblins that are sneaking in to look for the book. Option B) stake out the library, capture the goblins and question them about what they’re doing. Option C) ask the noble about any special books that are in her collection, research them during the day and see if they can figure out what it is the sneak-thieves are after and then hide the book in question somewhere else, Option D) decide this is a boring assignment and go drinking instead, or, as David mentioned, Option Pi: burn down the entire library. Mission accomplished! Nobody can steal any books now!

    Then apply the PC’s actions (or inactions) to the timeline. How has it changed? Option A: the party killed the goblins, so the Big Bad will just send more goblins. Maybe with a hobgoblin this time. Option B: the PCs now have a few more clues as to the Big Bad’s plan. Maybe the Big Bad sends assassins after the disloyal minions who blabbed. Or the meddling adventurers who now know too much. Maybe the Big Bad abandons this particular line of research and turns to something else. Option C: the goblins tear apart the library and find nothing, returning to the Big Bad in defeat. Big Bad either redoubles their efforts to find the book (perhaps kidnapping the noble who owns it) or abandons it for another line of action. Option D: the Big Bad has the book! Their plans continue unabated. Option Pi: whatever is an appropriate reaction for such an unexpected turn of events. Change plans? Recruit the PCs as wildcards they’d rather work with than against?

    The point is, if you know how the plot would go without the PCs, it’s easier to keep on top of what happens when the PCs act. Yes, the story is going to change wildly. That’s the fun of it! But you need to know what it’s changing FROM in order to keep things coherent and making sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is hearty and healthy. I never looked at it from the Big Bad’s perspective. I think that’ll definitely help to keep things in check. Instead of getting flustered by all the unplannable PC deviations, I need to focus on big picture timeline and deviations from that. love it. thank you for the time and thought put into this, you’ve been a huge help!
      PS: ambitious? perhaps. brave? totally not. haha i’m chalking it up to peer pressure! haha

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  4. I have forwarded this to a few people I thought might have better comments than me. But I’ll say this with regards to DM’ing…Option Pi. Option Pi is how my friend and fellow DM Sarah describes what to expect of the party. It goes like this:
    You lay out a scenario where a reasonable course of action for the party to take would be Option A or Option B. You also take into consideration that the party may do things differently and have Options C or even D ready. Then you present the situation to the party…and they will NEVER choose any of the options you predicted or expected. Invariably, any given party at any given time, will choose Option Pi. Something so astoundingly random and unpredictable that all your hard work is rendered meaningless in <3.1415 seconds.
    You have been warned!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just want to drop another line here. You’re The Man, david. You and all the contacts here have been so wonderful and helpful. It’s so invigorating to see such a supportive and uplifting community. Thank you so much!

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