Being that our name is DungeonMastering.com, we often get emails about DMing questions. Here’s some from one of our readers, Seth, who writes:
“So I am an aspiring DM who is trying to sort out my approach for an upcoming campaign. I would really like to dig into the meat and bones psychological aspects of adventuring and explore the feeling of a dark epic horror with less fluffy ‘ooo look they’re dark sorcerers’ and more
Growing up I remember spending a lot of time sitting around the table with an unconscious and possibly dying hero in front of me. As I’ve continued to play I’ve found very often that the threat of character incapacitation and death as a guiding force in player psychology is often completely avoided by many, if not most DMs.
So my thought is this: if I wanted to set up the party to be part of much larger group taking on a truly formidable foe which they would not truly be able to defeat on their own, how would one split XP and what would you recommend as far as DMing tactics for allowing them to both prove useful to the battle, but also still have an uncertain chance of survival?
I’m not opposed to killing a couple characters if I have to. I really think that the players should know, like their characters, that there is always truly a time to run away. There can be no heroes where there is no doubt.”
Hi Seth! Love that last line.
The first thing I’d say for any DM is that even before the dice start rolling, you talk about your ideas with the players. If they’re not interested in the concept or you can’t get them to buy-in to the tone you want the campaign to take, then that’ll be a problem for everyone. I’d start by sharing with them a piece of fiction or a movie clip that captures the vibe you’re hoping for. Not only is including the players in the process crucial to their being better involved, they undoubtedly will have suggestions to improve things. So don’t bother with a single character until you’ve had a session or two where everyone can talk about what they’d like to see happen for the campaign. After all, shared an RPG is not just a story but a collaborative story.
Ok, you’re looking for a way to have the party be part of an organization. One that is opposed to ‘dark sorcerers’ & while trying to stop them, is uncovering their motivations. They could be a clandestine part of a church or maybe just in the employ of a witchhunter or inquisitor. Either way, they’re trying to stop a growing evil that is causing corruption. You can allow their patron to come to their aid if necessary, but if they do need to call upon a benefactor then that assistance costs in terms of XP.
Now, when it comes to the meat/bones of adventuring, my feeling is that you want to make sure you start by conveying the difficulty of that as a profession. Track rations. Encumbrance. Make selling back any treasure an actual in-game activity rather than an auto 50% off tally. Then get into the real dangers of the job. The risks that need to be taken before the rewards. Have any critical hits cause lasting scars even after the cure spells & potions have brought back HP. Include rules for horror, psychosis, or other mental issues- Unearthed Arcana has guidelines for Tainted people/places & using Sanity (or rather, losing it) in D&D games. Finally, make death a permanent thing- ala what we mentioned when telling you guys about Diablo 3. That’ll make even the bravest PC wonder if it’s time to cut bait.
Well other readers, how’d we do answering Seth’s questions? What other suggestions would you give? Any questions of your own? Let us know!