Rethinking a Campaign

“This starting gold’s a rip.”

14709_842496389153439_4449791469832993263_nI had originally planned to run Out of the Abyss. And I had even gone to some lengths to craft the location for the first chapter, as in the previous post. Yet as the glue and toilet paper were drying on the massive stalactite structures, I came to realize the impracticality of the terrain I was making. What’s more important than a faithful construction of a location is whether or not the players can see what’s going on and move miniatures around on it. Then I get word that a new player was joining us, which is great, but he’s a new player, as in he has never played before. Thus chagrined by my previous poor planing, I got to wondering if Out of the Abyss was the right game for the group.

Every new player brings with them a batch of expectations and preconceptions. Every new player has their own learning curve, and each one learns the game best in a different way. Over the years, I’ve taught or helped to teach quite a few new players, and the best way, after walking through character creation with them, is simply to immerse them in the actual game. Most everyone picks up the shared narrative aspect very quickly. But usually, indecisive players need options laid out for them and a little time to mull them over. 5e D&D has some pretty simple mechanics, with only three basic kinds of rolls, and simply adding some modifier to a d20 roll isn’t too hard to fathom either. Yet in the aggregate, all the jargon and  what all your character can and can’t do may be a bit overwhelming at first.

I figured a more traditional type of campaign might work best with a new player. It seems strange to try and break genre expectations before the initial expectations are even set. Out of the Abyss is much darker in tone. Its about dealing with madness and depravity. It’s not so much about heroics as it is about basic survival. Tyranny of Dragons is a fairly baseline type of action adventure campaign and one collecting dust on my shelf. It has a fairly linear, episodic, flow. And it seems the best choice for introduction outside of homebrewing something quickly.

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Well, game night rolls around. Our new player picks up on the concepts in fits and starts, which isn’t bad considering that even the crazy dice shapes were new to him. I was prepared to expect a wide gamut of possibilities. I sort of knew the modus operandi of the others. How much could one new player change the dynamic?

What I wasn’t prepared for was a complete upending of all assumptions! In retrospect, it makes sense. One appeal (and its a a large one) to playing role playing games, is the ability to try on new personalities, to do things, or say things, you would never do or say in the everyday world. And this, to me, is all fine and good within certain tolerable limits. For a new player to explore the darker side of humanity is neither here nor there. It just means (hopefully) that they have a flexible range. Yet for everyone at the table to do this at once was disarming.

The result stretched my abilities as a DM. There was little cooperation amongst the characters and everyone ran in their own separate scenes for the most part. I had to adjust the alignment of our new recruit twice, based on apparent outlook and actions, until his tiefling rogue was determined to be Chaotic Evil without a more accurate moral descriptor lacking. It was simply the closest term available. The most socially amenable character was played by my brother’s half-orc whose neutrality at least encompassed a pragmatic need to preserve others’ lives. Moreover, I had no “party member” NPC to voice any moral outrage at the possibilities of casual murder and human infant consumption. Greenest will never be the same.

“Evil” campaigns are a part of the D&D tradition. I recall my first AD&D session being a part of this sub-genre. Yet dysfunctional evil campaigns have a tendency to fall apart if everyone’s so evil that they are too maladapted to interact with society or each other.

In the end, and despite my distress, everyone had a good time by all accounts. While everyone looks to the next session with anticipation, I have to remain concerned that I can drive the central plot based on the purely mercenary (or rapine) dispositions of the characters. Perhaps in hindsight Out of the Abyss wasn’t such a bad idea? What we can take away from all this is that it’s important to feel out the characters’ motivations going into a new campaign.


Establish certain expectations. I think everyone deserves to play in the kind of game they want to play and not feel uncomfortable with the content and context of the story. A quick and collective consensus is all that’s really needed. Likely, you will already know the type of game you’ll play. Call of Cthulhu has a much different feel than D&D or Pathfinder. But the tone of the game is the unspoken factor. Ask for and establish a tone. likely, this may change over the course of play. Most book, TV and movie series seem to get darker in tone over time as stakes get higher and it’s reasonable to believe a shared narrative will as well, yet in my experience, there’s a certain consistency, typically established in the beginning. Communication’s the thing. If’ you’re uncomfortable let everyone know. Meanwhile, I’ve got to drum up some extraneous motivators the authors of Horde of the Dragon Queen could never foresee.


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