One of the things about a great tabletop RPG is that a group story can provide bonding, friendship, and stories that last between friends for years. This also means there are many different moving parts, potential problems, and lessons to learn along the way. One of the interesting bits of conversation that comes up a lot with us is how much should player choices matter?
Now to be straight up: if they don’t matter at all there’s a serious problem going on.
But there does have to be some sort of a plot, right? There has to be some way to move the progress of the story forward, right? These are legitimate concerns “on the other side” of player agency and the best campaigns manage to balance both really well. So how do you encourage that balance?
How do you let players be active and independent while still putting in the cornerstones that you need to have to keep a campaign running smoothly.
If you want to see what a stuffed teddy bear’s D&D campaign looks like…well the opening of our video has this, as well!
Choices HAVE to Matter, Right?
Yes, absolutely. Player agency is important. The rule of cool is important. I think every decent DM and even every beginning DM understands this. Making it all work smoothly together, that’s important.
Braden and I both have very different styles as DM and part of that is because our strengths and weaknesses are very different. This means what he does well versus what he struggles with are very different things than what I bring to the table and what I struggle with.
So each campaign that one of us runs should look very different than the other’s. And how we manage players is going to vary with that accordingly.
What About the DM’s Story?
Some structure is needed. A villain, a quest, a world – that matters right? It does, and a DM does a ton of planning and commits a lot of time to moving the story forward.
But the best advice I got early on during my first time as DM actually holds really true to this topic:
“It’s not your world. You need to understand that no matter how well you think you’ve planned, the players are going to wreck your world and make it their own. As long as you’re prepared for that you’re good. If you grow too attached to your created world with how it should be, you’ll run into problems.”James, with some great sage advice.
This is a good thing to remember and helped me get into the right mindset of being excited for them to explore my world to see what it had to offer during the campaign (I custom made it from scratch) but also understanding they wouldn’t discover anything, the world would be BETTER if I let them shape and contribute things, and they were going to cause problems I couldn’t even begin to imagine…so just roll with it.
Some Parting Thoughts on Running a D&D Campaign
I’m always going to be a firm believer that when in doubt, player agency should be protected. The DM isn’t telling his or her story that players are privileged to be a part of. I think that’s the wrong point of view. The players are coming together to tell a story and you have the privilege of creating the canvas for the art, the pages for the writer, etc.
You get to facilitate the story and create a framework that then allows your players to make awesome memories playing another fantastic campaign that they will talk about for years!
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.