I just finished running my first home-brew D&D session at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comic and Game store in Williston, VT. I’ve run several published D&D adventures, and run a home-brew Star Wars: EOTE adventure (which I discussed in earlier posts), but this is the first time I’ve tried out my own ideas in D&D. I’ll have a series of walkthrough posts soon, but first I wanted to present a few general takeaways on the process.
These started as notes to myself (a newer DM, who gets the rules but is still learning how to run the game), and I thought others may be interested.
- Keep it simple
I, like most newer DMs, felt pressure to prove my creativity. I wasn’t creating a world (this was set in Forgotten Realms), so I wanted to express myself through the plot itself. It was a straightforward “stop the monster threatening the town” story, but there was complex political intrigue, red herrings, an open-ended structure and difficult moral choices.
It basically worked, but it was tough. The open-ended structure led to some unexpected events, which can be difficult for a DM to improvise. Handing out the necessary clues sometimes distracted me from game mechanics (and vice versa). And the red herrings led my players to head down the wrong path (which I guess was kind of the point, but I’m not comfortable enough as a DM to do that often).
Again, it went well, but for my first adventure I wish I’d had a simpler plot. There is pressure on DMs to not just create great dungeons, but to come up with compelling mysteries and memorable social encounters. We should keep doing this, as it broadens the scope of D&D. But for our first home-brew adventure, a well-thought out dungeon crawl with some good puzzles and memorable NPCs can help us hone our craft before trying a sandbox thriller.
- The players will screw up all of my plans
I knew this, and have been told this so many times, but I forget how supremely players can mess up what I’m doing. Some of this is natural—the game is open-ended and based on creativity, so players may readily come up with solutions to encounters that I hadn’t thought of. Some of it is also mischievous—players like to do things their own way, not follow the DM’s lead.
Two quick examples will illustrate. In one mini-dungeon (a bandit camp dug into a hillside), I’d prepared an ambush. The entryway was guarded by sleeping goblins, and when players became confident and rushed ahead, they’d bump into a guard room of orcs and ogres. But the players had their warlock turn invisible and investigate, then, when he reported back, they shouted down to the goblins to ask if they could come in. So I had to think up how goblins and orcs would negotiate instead of running my great ambush.
The second was the boss battle. I had prepared three stages, following The Angry GM’s advice. The boss would appear defeated, but reform and attack with new powers or allies in each stage. The goal was to get the boss through a portal to Shadowfell. The group’s fighter decided she would try and grapple and shove the boss into the portal. Her roll worked, and I didn’t want to say “no” (see below), so the boss battle was kind of easy.
There’s nothing to do about this, besides being adaptable…and not placing your boss next to the portal it needs to be shoved through.
- Work out how encounters will resolve
This sounds obvious, but can be easy to forget. When creating monsters to fight, you want to think about their motivations and goals, otherwise it’s just attrition-fight after attrition-fight. This is even more important when it is a social interaction or clue-finding encounter, as there are several different ways it can be resolved.
This came up a few times in my home-brew adventure. One encounter involved the group “rescuing” a woman from the aforementioned bandits, although she hadn’t actually been captured. I had to improvise what the bandits and woman wanted, as I hadn’t completely written this out. At another time, members of a law and order society show up to intimidate the group into following their plan. Again, I was a little vague in my notes, and had to resolve this in an ad hoc manner.
These encounters may be fine if you’re ok with improvising through social interactions. But I suspect many newer DMs (like me) aren’t, so some guidance is needed. The published D&D adventures have “Development” sections in encounters that can go multiple ways, and a brief write-up like that will help a lot in the future.
- Don’t be afraid to let characters die
There were a few times the players were overwhelmed. In one fight I had way too many monsters so the group started falling. And after my failed boss battle (see above), I had the group try to escape the dungeon—which was actually a castle submerged sideways in mud—before it sank. This was really fun, as various characters got knocked over by mud flows or sailed through the air when the castle shifted. It proved difficult, though, as poor dice rolling could cause characters to end up buried alive in the castle.
In both cases I helped them out. In the first, I tweaked some die rolls to save them. And at the end of the escape encounter, one player flubbed his acrobatics check to jump through a sinking and spinning window. Every else made it. Technically, he should have just sunk with the castle, but I felt bad and let him jump into the mud and claw his way out.
Some of this is being a newer DM, as I am afraid of my players getting mad at me. But in the future I will let characters fall—it adds urgency to the game.
- Lay out all ground rules in advance
This is kind of similar to the well-known Same Page Tool, a set of guidelines to calibrate different modes of play. But this is more about making sure the DM’s preferences for a lot of unwritten or optional elements of play are known.
In this case it had to do with multi-classing. In between adventures the characters leveled up. One player asked if he could multi-class his character and I said no, as there wouldn’t be any opportunity to learn a new class while the group was travelling between adventures. I didn’t realize that another player had multi-classed his character without asking, though. This wasn’t a big deal, and the first player wasn’t upset, but in the future I’ll make it clear that any multi-classing requires an in-game explanation.
So when starting a new home-brew it’s worth thinking through any situation that would require the DM to make a ruling, and set it out in advance. This includes Unearthed Arcana content, classes and races outside the PHB, use of feats, among others.
So those are some things I wish I had known before I started. To be fair to me, I did some things right, which may also be useful to newer DMs. Here are a few (briefly):
- Prepared an adventure portfolio
I scanned relevant pages from the Monsters Manual so I could easily access states, and printed out the maps and adventure module I wrote. This way I didn’t have to flip through multiple books while running encounters.
- Never said no to players
This really got to me with some previous groups—we’d keep raising possible actions with the DM and he’d say “no, that wouldn’t work,” over and over. So with my group, I never said no. Some things I knew wouldn’t work—like casting a spell through a dimensional portal—but I didn’t tell them unless they performed the relevant knowledge check. Others I didn’t want to work, but if they rolled well enough we figured it out. And some ideas I hadn’t thought of, but I let them try. This made for some pretty fun failure scenes, like when a fighter tried to run and grab a flying monster but rolled a natural 1, resulting in nearly leaping off a bridge into lava.
- Adapted based on player feedback
After the first session of this adventure, one player noted the combat was a little one-dimensional, as I was relying on groups of similar monsters. So I changed this up in the concluding session by having different types of monsters fighting together. This isn’t always possible (especially in published adventures) but it’s worth trying to incorporate player feedback into session as you go.
So there are my takeaways. I’d be happy to hear any thoughts from your experiences.