LARPers. Listed under fair use by Google Image Search. | Ralf Huels

So, this has crept up on me in the last year-and-change: I’ve been running a pretty successful, pretty fun, pretty interesting Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign with mostly the same group of players since April of 2016. The anniversary came and went without me even remarking upon it. Our game sessions have been somewhat infrequent – usually once per month for just two hours a session if we can at all manage it, with the occasional missed month due to my propensity for travel and my day job’s propensity to suck during busy parts of the summer. And, amazingly, we’ve been doing this entirely over, which is a very good online tabletop application which you should totally get to know if that’s your jam.

I say “amazingly” because the main impediments to me getting into campaigns in the past have been pretty much what I’ve just exactly described: A new system (in this case 5th, which I am DMing with for the first time here), vast stretches of time in between sessions that allow my addled interest to flag and thus for me to stop caring about creating the adventures, lack of face-to-face interaction around a physical table, shorter-than-average sessions that make a longer dungeon crawl – the true meat of D&D – challenging to manage. Yet, this campaign and the great group of folks I’ve played with have proven mightier than these usual stumbling blocks, and our adventures continue onward. We’ve gone from Level 1 rookies to Level 6 heroes who are rolling with tough abilities and fantastical magic items.

So what makes a good group, and a good adventure? I’ve been participating in tabletop games now for more than a decade, and I’ve learned several things that work for me and groups I run or participate in. I gave it some thought today after we had another really fun session Monday evening, and, well:

Good players

The author and some other poor folks who followed his game for literally years. | By the author. ca. 2012

But what’s a good player, you must surely ask. Well, for me, it is a player who:

  • cooperates with instead of competes against her fellow party members.
  • comes prepared and knows the rules surrounding at least his own character.
  • keeps a positive attitude even if the dice go against her.
  • doesn’t mansplain the rules even when he points out a lapse in somebody’s knowledge.
  • is open to joking and joshing but doesn’t let the fact she’s doing a bit slow down the flow of the game.
  • takes the role play neither too much more nor too much less seriously than his fellow party members or I do.
  • makes good and fun use of all the shiny items and special powers I spent hours inventing for her to give the game some unique flavor.
  • generally brings a good vibe.

Some of that stuff in that list is me being finicky, for sure. Other dungeon masters could be fine with some of the stuff I find to be an impediment to play. But I think the above set of dos and don’ts highlight the one underlying rule around the (physical or virtual) table: Respect, folks. Respect your fellow players’ knowledge, feelings, and time, and you’ll be picking up good vibrations during a play session.

Good prep

An example of a dungeon map with preliminary details and numbering for reference. | By the author. ca. May 2016

This is going to seem obvious to a lot of longtime DMs/GMs/storytellers, but it bears examination here. What I mean by “good prep” is more than just being thorough about knowing what traps and enemies you’ll be placing, or having backup plans for your heroes wanting to head west rather than east. One of the most crucial elements is knowing what I’ll call the “limitations of venue” that are at play in your session.

Do you only have time for two hours once a month at best? Roll up an adventure that takes that into account. If you can’t conceive of something that will finish up inside of two hours, leave a natural midpoint for your group to stop for the time being. And make time for your prep. Put an alert in your phone. Set aside an hour or two a good week before the session hits to sit down and really think things through. Don’t be afraid to ask the group to meet less frequently if it gives you more time to craft a better experience. I was meeting weekly in another campaign a few years back while also working a full-time job, and while we had grand fun and even got to Level 20 with a whole book’s worth of fond memories, there were times the game absolutely suffered because I was overwhelmed trying to keep up with it.

For those just starting out, here’s a checklist of things and the general order in which I find it most helpful to do them as you head toward game night:

  • Review things like treasure and XP from the previous adventure and get it all written down.
  • Think up the week’s adventure in broad strokes. Where will it take your party? What dangers will they encounter? What hook is coming to draw them in? Will you give them a choice of one or the other path?
  • Map time! Think of the purpose of the area your players will venture into, and then start drawing it out.
  • Figure out the granular details of your map. Place traps, enemies, and determine whether doors are locked or trapped. Write descriptions for each room so you know what players are seeing. I number each room and trap so it’s easy to reference while running the game.
  • What characters will the party encounter? By this point you’ve probably figured out whom the players will encounter, but here’s where you should put more thought into them: Names, backstories, a stat block if it’ll be needed. One guideline, very useful for quick play, is to decide what the highest modifier and the highest save you want the NPC to have should be, and how high it should be. Remember that, and then have them roll everything else at +0 or -1. This works pretty well in 5th edition, which has (thank heavens) flattened out the absurd math of previous editions.
  • If you’re having a boss battle, what wrinkles will there be in it beyond just “A bunch of enemies with lots of HP?” Come up with something that complicates the fight. If it’s not a fight, is there a harrowing moral choice? A delicate negotiation? A tense sneaking section? Find a way to make it more challenging than the norm.
  • Go over things one more time and think realistically about how much time it’ll all take. Is there a set-piece you could just cut? Your players are not going to be sad about missing out on overblown story or a tedious puzzle.

Maybe you have a different checklist! What’s most important is that you have one at all, I find. Designing an adventure regularly, especially one in which your interest might wax and wane, can really be drudge work. Having a standard operating procedure will make it go more quickly and also ensure you’re keeping your stuff up to the standards your players deserve.

Good repressing your own damn ego

Look, you should not be DMing if your end-all be-all for this activity is shaping your staggering genius into a story that’s in any way based on a rulebook about dragons and swords. One of the most important things to remember is to keep things centered on the players. Is this fun for them? Will this give their characters a chance to grow? Will this excite their deserve to solve a puzzle or come up with a creative solution?

Two examples of where I am glad my wit failed and availed me:

Just this week, I spent a good hour designing a massive cathedral filled with lore and puzzles on the first floor and then a treacherous dungeon crawl on the second. My players defeated the first floor with a Potion of Flying and 60 feet of rope and not a single roll of the dice. This would have profoundly annoyed more than one DM I’ve played with. Guys, I had to take it in stride. It was hilarious. It was the best illustration of this point I could possibly make. I’ll use that cathedral somewhere else.

Another time, a few years back with a very different group of players, I put the party in a cave with a goblin society on a secluded island. The story was that the goblin society had, long in the past, been sort of stewarded by dwarves whose long-abandoned technology still ran the place. I didn’t explain this at all, but the party members were quite astute and began to pick up on it. And in one part, the party encountered a dwarven machine I just came up with while spitballing. Long story short, it separated the salt out of sea water. These players were vets and the sort of dudes who will pick apart the plot holes in something. They loved this little detail of the world. That little bit of effort to explain how a bunch of goblins can survive on a secluded island totally sold it to the party.

In both cases, I put in the work and let players engage with it as much and as little as they cared to. That’s the essence of it, guys. You’re trying to host a fun time for folks who are putting their trust in you. Don’t make it about you.