In 2017 I began running what would become a three year long Dungeons and Dragons campaign, one that promised to be weird, dangerous, and require great thought. My friends were up to the challenge as we delved into Tomb of Annihilation and survived long gaps between play sessions that included, among other things, a switch to digital play as a result of the global pandemic. After three years of play we wrapped the story with a suitably epic conclusion.
Here’s what I learned.
I learn a lot from every campaign I run, and this one was no different, after all, being a Dungeon Master (DM) is hard, especially when you have to figure it out for yourself. I wanted to share what I learned partially to have a record of it that I can come back to, and partially because these lessons might help some people out there get some tips.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation follow.]
A curse has befallen the Forgotten Realms that’s stopping all resurrection magic from working. Those who have previously been resurrected are starting to deteriorate. Your party is sent to the island of Chult to find the source of the curse and stop it. Once there, the party must travel through the perilous jungle to find the lost city of Omu, which houses the Tomb of the Nine Gods. The tomb was constructed long ago by an evil undead wizard named Acererak, and he’s recently constructed a device called the Soulmonger to collect the souls of dead and dying people as a way of gaining enough power to conquer the multiverse.
Never Stop Adjusting
I decided to go with a published adventure like Tomb of Annihilation because I appreciated that most of the work was already done for me. I’m not a fiction writer and I’m not a very experienced dungeon designer either. But I do love puzzles and dungeon crawls, so I thought this would be a good fit for what I wanted to do, and I was right.
This adventure, however, was designed for four characters, and my game had only three players for a majority of the run, so I had to start tinkering. Much of this involved taking one or two monsters out of a fight, or ensuring a puzzle was actually doable with the party we had, but the more I adjusted out of necessity, the more I realized how easy it was, and started changing other aspects of the adventure.
I added some homebrew magic items like weapons that gave them a permanent ability once a certain condition was met, and a few social encounters like a lycanthrope telling them her tragic story of being turned, and even removed entire rooms in the Tomb of the Nine Gods.
I asked myself if I would find something fun to play, and if the answer was “no”, I changed it.
The most important thing in all of this was communicating it clearly with my players and in consultation with them. Realistically I could have kept all of my changes from them–and I did keep a few secrets– but I felt it was only fair that they get a say because it was just as much their story as it was mine.
Milestone Leveling Is A Godsend
I learned to play D&D with an older edition, specifically 3.5, where the only way to level up was accumulating XP from encounters. It offers the same feeling as you get in video games, as you see your numbers go up as you get ever tantalizingly closer to the next level. I understand the appeal as a player.
Getting a concrete visual of your character’s progress and growing strength like you would in something like an MMORPG is certainly exciting as a player, but having now DMed more games than I’ve been a player for, I’ve really grown to love milestone leveling.
Milestone leveling: being rewarded with levels at fixed points of the story. Milestone XP is a system first officially introduced in 5e that lets the DM award character levels for plot progression instead of giving individual XP rewards for encounters.
While I do have a lot of fondness for the classic XP leveling system, milestone leveling has just made my life as a DM so much easier, as it avoids the necessity of a grind.
We started the campaign using the XP system but I found that it created a huge grind to make sure my party was at the appropriate level for what the adventure had in store for them. The jungle environment meant that the options for non-combat encounters were very limited, so I found myself making way more combat encounters than I really wanted, just to give them enough XP. I tried my best to keep the encounters varied but we spent months of real time doing that hex crawl when we could have easily abridged it into a few very memorable encounters rather than a host of smaller ones that were played out of XP necessity.
Combat Is Best When It Has Variety
During the wrap-up session where I gave my players free reign to ask any questions and give feedback, one of my players told me they were close to dropping out of the campaign at one point, because the hex crawl was taking so long with very little story progress.
That initially surprised me.
It was a real slog by the end, however, mostly because I was running out of ideas. They spent weeks of in-game time in that jungle and I had to come up with so many encounters that I feel like they started to blend together.
Instead, I could have made the combat encounters more unique, or used varying environmental hazards themed around the jungle setting. I did make sure to vary the monsters they fought, and I did make up a few social encounters that were not in the book but in general it was a lot of monsters jumping out of the bushes and attacking. More social encounters might have been welcome, but not a lot of people could realistically be wandering around the most dangerous jungle in the Forgotten Realms, so I was forced to choose between keeping a cohesive and immersive setting and keeping variety in the sessions.
Commit to the Bit
The best DMing advice I ever received came from Dale Friesen, who frequently runs tabletop games for LoadingReadyRun’s “Dice Friends” series: “It’s my job to sit here and say yes to things”.
I took that ball and ran with it the whole way through the campaign to the wonderful amusement of both myself and my players.
The most important balancing act you have to maintain while running tabletop games is the line between rewarding creativity and letting your players run roughshod over the whole thing. There are some things that are just not going to work no matter how much the players want it, and in that case it’s absolutely okay to say “no”. For example, some spells don’t work in the Tomb of the Nine Gods so some of my players’ plans relied on something that had no way of working. However, if they come up with something that you hadn’t prepared for but makes sense in the rules of the world and the game, you should at least let them try.
A phrase I found myself using a lot is “it doesn’t say it doesn’t work”.
This playstyle is almost baked into the design of games that are lighter on rules than D&D, and depending on the player, might cause some analysis paralysis when they first realize just how many options they have. But in my experience it also opens a lot of people’s eyes to the sheer number of wonderful possibilities tabletop gaming offers and they just start trying things. That moment of absolute delight is one of the moments that really makes the hard work of DMing worth it.
It’s Okay To Scare Your Players A Bit Sometimes
When we officially started doing the Tomb of the Nine Gods, a massive and challenging dungeon, I gave my players a warning that this part of the adventure was tricky and dangerous, requiring them to think things through carefully.
Heck, I even told them to make some backup character sheets, just in case things got away from them. I’m pleased to say that they all survived the adventure to the very end without needing those backup characters and I feel like it’s partially because I gave them that warning. I noticed that it put a little bit of fear in them, and that fear was key to their survival. Besides, it’s not like our favourite adventures in film or literature don’t carry their own ominous warnings!
Such a warning cut through the hubris of assuming everything would just work out for them, because I had mostly stopped pulling punches by that point. They solved their own problems because they knew they needed to be careful. I occasionally helped them out by thinking along with them but they always came up with their own solutions in the end, and I’m very proud of them for that.
Plus, what DM doesn’t enjoy saying you don’t have enough dice to roll damage?
Hylke Langhout has been writing about games since 2012 and believes in their artistic value and the social power of play. He plays both board games and videogames regularly and wants you to do so as well. You can find him on Twitter at @Gear12_Turbo and his WordPress blog (hylkelanghout.wordpress.com/)