Building a Custom Campaign for Pure Player Enjoyment

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Picture by Teresa Stanton

As any good DM will tell you, the game doesn’t exist purely for the DM’s enjoyment; the game belongs to the players, too. Sure, the DM is the one who calls the shots, but there won’t be much of a game if the players aren’t having a good time. (Ever tried DMing yourself? It can be done, but it’s sort of like baking your own birthday cake – vaguely sad, and a bit pointless.)

One way to make your players happy is to design a campaign around them. This approach requires you to be flexible, but in the end, it gives players exactly what they want. Here are a few tips for creating a custom campaign tailored to your players’ wishes.

Don’t Plan Anything

Instead of sitting down for a session of character building, make your first game session a collaborative discussion. Don’t come to the meeting with any preconceived notions about characters or game theme and setting. Just toss ideas back and forth, and do your planning after the group has decided what kind of game they want to play.

Cooperative World-Building

Ask each player what they want from the game, and listen to their answers. Do they want a Planes game? An Underdark campaign? A steam-punk romp through Eberron? What about the theme? Some players like city-based games full of guild wars and intrigue, while others prefer a straightforward "kill all zombies" plot. What sort of role-play to combat ratio do the players prefer? Do they want to play in a world that’s heavily mapped out, or one that will require lots of exploration? Which alignment do the players want to be? The answers to these questions will be your blueprint for building the world.

What if They Can’t Decide?

Of course, not every player will see eye to eye. It’s best to let the players hash out their differences through organic discussion and debate. If they reach a stalemate, you can give each "side" a few minutes to summarize why they think their idea will be the most fun for the group. After they’ve delivered their summaries, put it to a vote. In the case of a tie, well, you’re the DM. Your vote is the final word.

The Game is Flexible

If you’ve got a game setting tha’s really near and dear to you, you can still incorporate the group’s wishes. Most game themes can be inserted into any campaign setting, and vice versa. It might require a little creative tweaking, but you’re a DM, so you’re probably good at that sort of thing.

Do It for the Players

Remember: at the end of the day, you want to make choices that will bring the most enjoyment to your players – and sometimes that requires compromise. If you just absolutely can’t stomach the thought of running a violent Chaotic Evil campaign (or a righteous Lawful Good one), be honest with the group and try to meet halfway. You’re the one who has to run the game, so don’t agree to something you can’t live with.

Are you running or playing in a collaborative game? What kind of experience has it been? Tell us all about it in the comments section!

17 thoughts on “Building a Custom Campaign for Pure Player Enjoyment”

  1. I don’t know if anybody is still reading this post, but Benjamin what a great set up you have! Most DM’s would die to have players that cared about their world and there place in it. You have that. Now use it.

    What evil intrigue will they discover at the duchery? Has the royal family made a pact with demons? Is the city plauged by a monster who steals children in the night?

    And what happened to the player’s fiefdom when they were out of town? Did someone steal their gold and magic items? Did the goblins lay siege to town while they were away? Was their favorite benefactor murdered and they are being framed for the crime?

    Often DM’s put obstacle in a place and wait for players to come across them. Instead let players go where they may and bring the obstacles to them. It let’s players feel they have control, but, more importantly, the all powerful DM is one step ahead!

  2. I live between Albany and Kingston NY, along the Hudson river. Albany has two stores that I am aware of and I think there is still a small one in Woodstock too. I used to own a shop in Catskill but I eventually had to close as I couldn’t make enough to support myself. A new shop has opened up recently there but their focus is mainly on Magic:TG and they hardly carry anything else. The owner is taking business classes and doesn’t plan on keeping the place open long-term.

    Locally, there isn’t much to do, so far as gaming is concerned. The people I knew who had an interest in games beyond simple D&D have moved away. I don’t have the money to go chasing CCGs again and, to be honest, I’m not in sync with the new local crowd.

    I’ve thought about running an event at the local library, who is interested in anything that encourages people to come in and see that they are more than just books, but my wife and I are house-hunting and I haven’t had the time to invest yet.

  3. Gaming Black Hole which part of the country do you live in, if you mind me asking Hunter Rose. Some areas of the country do not even have stores that are with in an hour of a cretin location. that may be to far for some players to travel. Right now I am not gaming because I am to busy with working as a software engineer so I am just setting back and reading the fourth edition rules the more that I read of 4th ED the more I don’t like the changes that have been made. Especially with the Forgotten Realms They Killed off one of my favorite Goddesses Mystra was her name, May she rest in peace after I read that they did that it turned me off from playing for a while.

  4. @ DandDGuy At 35, I’m the youngest in the group. Everyone else is within 5 years of me, I think. You may be right about their motivation. But I live in something of a gaming black hole and I’m traveling a half hour every Friday night to play with people I actually like, even if we don’t all see eye to eye. I still count myself lucky.

  5. Duude it is ssoooo about the players. I feed off of my players ideas and insights. Sometimes during a game they’ll be discussing possible plans my bad guys may have and I sit there and secretly take notes..,. Later when they “predicted” what the baddies did they strut around like they all that and a bag of chips.

  6. Well Benjamin here’s your solution for your sightseers.

    Oh there is a tree. There is a waterfall. There is a rock. There is a red dragon sitting on the rock eating his breakfast. Looks like Paladin was on the menu this morning. He sees you. Roll for initiative.

  7. I started a game with my bro in law and his friends recently and let them use the character builder to create their characters. They are all new to dnd, but hardcore console gamers so they picked up pretty quick on how character builder worked. I started by asking them who their characters were, what their goals are, and why they are all adventuring together, were they mercenaries? adventurers? tribal warriors?

    They all decided that they were lone wolves…

    The advantages of collaborating a setting began here. After some ideas being tossed back and forth around the gaming mat the story became they were rivals who had earned each others respect after coming together to save villagers from an undead attack. They managed to save eight villagers and the game began one month later. During that time they were traveling to safety but were being constantly harassed by a pack of rot hounds who picked them off slowly. The game began as they were in the ruins of a town square taken over by the forest and vegetation, they stood over the body of the last villager, slumped over a dried out fountain guts torn out and completely maimed. Eerie howls trailing in the distance gave away the rot hounds location. If there is one thing lone wolfs are all about it’s revenge.

    That’s how the first sesh began, we’ll see how it goes though, games are irregular due to work, school and babies.

  8. This is actually the approach I’ve been taking with campaigns lately. The first sesh begins with character building and then moves on to shared world building and story telling that ties the players characters together. For the first sesh be ready to improv a two hour adventure with simple do you want to do this, or that type of choices.

    Frequently asking the players questions about their characters connections with one another and about their characters goals can help resolve future problems early such as the ‘lone wolf’ syndrome and ‘i aer uber awesomeness’ characters.

  9. If you have a steady group of players that have been through a campaign or two, I think a collaborative effort on planning the next campaign is a great idea. The only problem I see is where there is some conflict in the direction of the game where 2-3 people want something completely different. I’d handle it with a bidding process.

    Have each player formulate 3-5 points. Make them fairly broad and taper them to specific ideas. Say, start with the over all campaign theme (steampunk, high fantasy, sword and sorcery). Then think about the world setting (a ‘real’ world, elemental shifting geography, plane hopping adventure). Finally consider the overall political/social structure (Is there a war going on? Is it peaceful? Is it a new world colony? Is there a major religigious crusade happening?).

    Give players 10-15 poker chips and each round of ‘ideas’ have the players bid for their idea. Highest bid wins the round, giving up his bid in chips. The next round follows suit (with the DM deciding ties). You may have people that want an Eberron setting and don’t care about anything else. Some might want a war-centric campaign, but don’t care about the setting. After the main points are decided, have the players hash out some details to help the DM with filling in the world environment.

  10. I’ve done this and it worked out well for a while. Now it seems like the players aren’t doing anything. We built this world, they’ve got a nice and sound base of operations to work from and there are several different places they could go for adventure or two and they just sit around doing nothing. I’ve introduced several interesting locations, a goblin infested forest where there seem to be different tribes gathering under one banner to attack the humans, a swamp where an ancient human civilization used to live which is now infested with lizard men, ancient dwarven mines recently re-opened and found to be infested with monsters.

    Instead of going forth to investigate something interesting they are instigating trade negotiations with a near by Elven kingdom and going on a sight seeing trip to a nearby duchy. All the while complaining that there’s no monsters to kill.

  11. I’ve had the exact same idea. The tough part is the varying degrees of participation and creativity of the players. I’ve also had the thought of having some campaign secrets. Things the characters don’t know but will become a big part of the plot. Each player writes down an idea or two then the DM grabs a couple from the stack and let the adventures begin!

  12. Capt_Poco, That’s one of the faults that I have with 4th Ed they have removed a lot of the role playing aspects of the game and made it into a miniatures game. Give me 2nd ED or Red Box A D&D any day over 4th ED. Don’t Get me wrong I have read the 4th ED Books have them in PDF format I did not see the need to buy the hard covers. That was before wizards wanted to pull out of the PDF market and just sell the hard covers. I have noticed recently that they have put the PDF’s back on the market at Drive through RPG and I am quite happy that they did.

  13. Hunter Rose what is the average age of your group. It could possibly be that they just want a stress relief from the week or whatever. I remember playing with a group like that once and I never did it again. because it was very boring to me after a few sessions of it. I am one of a rare breed that Happens to enjoy the role Playing aspect of the game and deep immersion I happen to like the story if a DM is a good story teller I hooked.

  14. I think most of this almost goes without saying, though it is nice to hear it said, and it does need to be said, especially to the new players: D&D is a cooperative storybuilding game.

    Of course some kind of planning is probably a good idea. The DM should have a good grasp of how his world works, to be able to improvise stuff. I think the DM should do at least as much, planning wise, as any player.

    As I said, I can’t really conceive of D&D being played any other way, but I guess some people have a tendency to confuse D&D with a miniatures game, or one of the Worlds of Warcraft. Hey, it has orcs and it’s played with miniatures, so it must be World of Warcraft the Miniatures game, right?

  15. *sigh* I wish my players were more collaborative… All they want is to show up and kill stuff. Even then, they don’t seem to want it to be too challenging (tactically). It’s actually kind of frustrating sometimes.

  16. I have done Home brew D and D in the past and in my opinion it is the best and most enjoyable game that I have ever run. Because the players and the DM are working together to crate a world that you will get hours of satisfying game play out of.

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