Collaborating with players in D&D

I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for my regular Dungeons & Dragons group. The adventure takes place in the Underdark, a vast series of subterranean tunnels and caverns inhabited by strange and often dangerous creatures. The adventure involves a lot of time travelling through caves between settlements, which I’ve found can be a bit tedious. Trips between different settlements can mean weeks of travel, which might mean four or five sessions if you run them as the published material suggests.

The last three sessions, my group has been travelling between the dwarven city of Gracklestugh and the trading post of Mantol Derith. For the start of the journey I useds an encounter from the book involving gnolls and hook horrors. For the next two sessions I tried something different. I gave each player the opportunity to nominate something that I needed to include in the journey. Once I had included all of them, the journey would be finished. Not everyone made a suggestion, and a couple of players gave me more than one option, but the list I ended up with was:

  • an elven community
  • a Belt of Dwarvenkind (which gives the wearer some dwarven qualities such as resistance to poison)
  • a Tome of the Stilled Tongue (a powerful and dangerous spell book associated with the evil god Vecna)
  • more information about the influence of the demon lord, Demogorgon
  • a giant goat

In doing this I wanted to reinforce to my players that they can contribute to telling the story, and that they can set challenges for me as the dungeon master. I’m also trying to find ways to make sure there is something for everyone in the adventurer. I’m pretty happy with how it went, and I would definitely use this method again.

In the first session the party met a group of surface elves who said they were investigating the influence of the demon lords (including Demogorgon) – but they turned out to be controlled by a mad mindflayer. Our githzerai monk ended up tracking down their master, who was unconvincingly disguised as a dwarven doctor, using a belt of dwarvenkind.

During the final journey session I had the party stumble across a disciple of Vecna who was was about to sacrifice a giant goat in a dark ritual. The elf fighter tried to rescue the the goat, which created tension in the group because the party cleric is also a disciple of Vecna and wanted to help her fellow devotee.

Many sessions ago, when the rest of the party had found out that their cleric was a follower of Vecna, they had forced her to eat a Tome of the Stilled Tongue that she had obtained. Her fellow devotee ended up reaching into her body and pulling the book out intact. The cleric then ended up losing the book again, but there’s a strong possibility that the book will be back and will have an important role to play. Interestingly, after that session it seems like the cleric is wanting their character to pursue a new (less evil) direction.

What I liked about these sessions is that they have felt a lot more collaborative and they’ve been unique to our group. I included a little bit of content from the published book we’re using, but the rest is stuff we’ve come up with ourselves together.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend?

On Easter Monday I ran a short Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Drums in the Marsh, which I mentioned last week.

What I found interesting was the question of who you can work with. If you have a good charcater can you cooperate with a evil character? (I touched on this when I was talking about nonviolence in D&D.

The series of adventures deals with the Cult of the Dragon, who are trying to summon Tiamat, the god of evil dragons. In this particular adventure, a black dragon who is part of the cult has deposed a lizard king and taken over leadership of three lizardfolk tribes. The dragon, Thostugrael, was making the lizardfolk raid nearby farms to work out which tribe’s chief should be Thostugrael’s representative among the lizardfolk. During the adventure, the players disovered that the lizard king’s successor Bogclaw was still around, getting ready to try and taken back the throne. The players had to work out whether they were okay with helping Bogclaw, knowing that lizard kings and queens tend to get their power from a demonic patron. Even so, with Bogclaw in charge, the lizardfolk would probably stick to their marsh, rather than raiding farms or helping summon an evil dragon queen…

Dungeon Mastering with cards

Two weeks ago I ran a two-hour one-shot D&D adventure for some friends who hadn’t played before. I’d been reading Sly Flourish‘s book The Lazy Dungeon Master recently. This book explains a method of DMing that requires a minimal amount of preparation. It also leaves a lot of room for collaborative storytelling with players. In this method you write notes on index cards. You make sure there are a few different direction that the could take by planning three locations that the adventurers might visit, three paths they might follow, three potential allies they might encounter and three potential enemies. Altogether, my planning only took up six index cards:

I think this worked well. This is something I could do every week if I was running a weekly campaign. I think the one limitation was that sometimes when a player asked a question I hadn’t thought about I’d take a bit too long to respond. But that’s no different to running an adventure straight out of a book.

Since I’m generally running published adventures (my regular group is gradually going through the Tyranny of Dragons expeditions) I was wondering about how I might use this method to run those adventures. I don’t think I can. The adventures are too complex. However, I think I can use some skills that I already have, which invovle metaphorical cards.

One of the things I used to do in my work in the city was lead tours, mostly for church groups. We had other workers who led tours for business people or students. In each location on a tour there were various different stories we could tell and questions we could discuss. We wouldn’t use all of the content for each location in one tour. It would depend a lot on where the conversation went with that group and what was going on in the space at the time. The way I learned to organise the content we had available for the tours involved ‘cards’. You imagined that you had a box of cross-referenced index cards. You had a card for each tour location and each of the location cards were cross-referenced. That way, if you had to change your tour because a location was too busy or not appropriate to the group, you could choose another location that would connect in. There were also story cards and question cards connected to each location – or some of them might be connected to multiple locations. So in each location you had a number of options.

Basically, you didn’t need to do much planning if you knew the connections between the cards well. You could respond to the specific needs or interests of the group if you knew the connections between the cards well.

On Monday (it was a public holiday here) I ran an adventure for my regular group, so I thought I’d try something a bit like the cards idea to organise the adventure. This is not exactly how I imagine it working the best. I think if I was running a more flexible adventure it would work best. But it did help me to give myself a clear reminder of the basic trajectory of the adventure. It also helped me work out what to cut out when we were running out of time. This was my plan for Drums in the Marsh:

I don’t think this really does justice to the kind of method I’m imagining. I’m beginning to feel more like I’d be up for running a flexibly-planned campaign. So hopefully soon I’ll be able to try it out in that context.