Over the last 2 years since starting GMing D&D in earnest again, I have been on a journey learning what engages me and what doesn’t.
I started running a regular campaign again just under two years ago – September 2017 – with a group recruited on ORC Edinburgh. I had visited my mother in Forres towards the end of August, and I was driving back down the A9 to Edinburgh – about a 4-hour journey – so I had plenty of time to think, and I was thinking about the fact my wife and daughter really weren’t into D&D. They had tried a few times over the previous year, but really to humour me, and it was clear they were just putting up with it for my sake. They definitely weren’t engaged – in fact my daughter could only put up with it by bringing her crochet to the party…
But I had really got back into it, I had the new PHB, DMG and MM, and I had invested in and read the PDF scans of all the gazetteers on DriveThruRPG. The world had developed in my mind – I wanted to share it. And that was where I got the idea that maybe there were other players in Edinburgh who might be interested and would take the strain off my wife and daughter. Once I got home, a quick search found the Open Role-playing Community (ORC) Edinburgh and once I posted a “Looking for Players” it didn’t take long to assemble a group.
Session 0 in cafe taught me just how ephemeral a group can be – I started with half a dozen, one didn’t turn up, another dropped out after the session 0, a third only played for a session or two then I never heard from again, but I had a nucleus to start with.
The characters started in Threshold with backgrounds that inter-meshed and various rumours, including some foreshadowing events that still haven’t occurred, and we started with Creighton Broadhurst’s Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands, placing it near the mountain pass on the road between Threshold and Verge. This took the group back and forth between the town and the keep, investigating on behalf of the town council, reporting back, clearing out, tugging on heartstrings, interacting, getting attacked by gnolls, buying horses (that was a whole session, and boy did I have to swot up quickly…my research then might turn into a leaflet for GMs…). New players came, some players left, but we had a good core. You can see some of the adventures on Obsidian Portal under Melestrua’s Mystara.
It was all going so well, that over Christmas I responded to several people wanting to start a new game and set up a second campaign on the alternate week…although by the time I actually got the campaign going, most of the original posters had evaporated and it was a different group made up of people who responded to my “er, I was going to have a campaign, but it’s looking a bit thin – any more takers?” This campaign was set in Darokin with a disparate group of characters who all happened to be passing through Rennydale when a merchant’s caravan was attacked. Tracking down the attackers led to hints of more, including assorted props and documents starting to point to a shadowy figure in the background. Again, you can see the initial adventures on Obsidian Portal under Melestrua’s Mystara. Heroic Maps‘ map of the month March 2018 “The Dungeon of Mydstep Keep” was just perfect for the session where they caught up with the main attacker – so much so that when they sent a preview out to Patrons, I got in touch saying “that’s exactly what I was going to do on Monday”, and amazingly they let me have it early. This inspired me to create the keep on top of it to work out how the ruins on top would look, which has led to a collaboration (which I really must finish so they can see some return from it; just artwork left now, but it’s taken rather too long).
Around about this time, a third group posted, saying “help, our GM has disappeared”, and after an initial meeting to chat about what they were looking for, I agreed to take it on, and found them incredibly inspiring. After an initial session or two bringing them into Karameikos and introducing them to the world, I realised that trying to create three campaigns simultaneously was too much so I started on Horde of the Dragon Queen, setting it in the east of Karameikos. This gave me a chance to test-drive Ragnar’s Keep as the castle in chapter one, and tweak some of the details. I also started offering some of the situations I had developed on this blog.
Gradual attrition and the realisation that preparing two home-brew sessions plus another in parallel was too much for me, led to me combining the two home-brew campaigns. I had had the module X2 Castle Amber back in the early days, and been really inspired by it. It never returned after I loaned it for a 24-hour sponsored D&D session, but I had found it on DriveThruRPG and got the POD version. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to bring it out – since the characters just go to sleep on a journey and wake magically transported to the mansion in an alternate dimension, it seemed a great way to bring everyone together from their two different locations.
It worked out okay to start with. They arrived, got to know each other, started exploring the mansion, encountered the mad French-speaking residents. Then things started to go a little sour. There weren’t enough clues as to how to get out. I had read the section “for 6-10 characters of levels 3-6” and missed the bit “with a total party level of 26-34” so my party of six 3rd-level characters were rather under-powered, and there was one occasion I had to revise the monsters on the fly because we were heading for a TPK, and the monsters were faster than them so they couldn’t even escape. Then the story began to drag, all a bit samey and it still wasn’t clear how to escape. I also felt constricted because we were in a parallel dimension which just existed of this house, so I couldn’t bring in any of the campaign. And I started losing players again.
To cut a long story short, we’re still in X2 Castle Amber, but have escaped Castle Amber itself and progressed to stage 2 Averoigne, so it’s a slightly larger world, and I can bring in more of my own elements. I’ve had an almost complete change of personnel, and now just have 2 of the original players, plus 3 new players (having also got through another 2 who each came for one session then decided my style wasn’t for them).
But then because it’s a world with again not so many pointers, they’ve had a couple of sessions of hexcrawl which have also been uninspiring (for them and me – I thought background colour would add, but I presented it as encounters so they expected to actually interact with it; I should have stuck to a quick narrative of what they saw instead). Now my focus is on getting through the remainder of Castle Amber as quickly as possible, focussing on action. Then I can return to the world and the campaign.
So that has been a year-long lesson in engagement – both for me and my players. What I love is the world-building and story-crafting, and running a module in its own closed universe has prevented me from doing that and left me frustrated. So it’s time to get back to what I love as quickly as possible.
If things go well, we might get through in the next 3-4 sessions. I’m already inspired planning what comes next…