Campaign Notes: Talking to your DM

In an earlier post I quoted one of my favorite Dungeon Masters, Fritz. He was talking about how to get players to connect to his “stuff”, that is, the story he wanted to tell. Every DM has a story. It can range from epic (think Lord of the Rings) to gritty (think Thieves’ World). Your DM may have all the details worked out, or plan to ad-lib, or depend on you—the player—to fill in the gaps. That’s where the DM’s individual style comes into play. These factors, among others, will influence how you talk to your DM when you’re playing in a campaign together.

I’ve been lucky in 30 years of gaming (on and off) to have DMs that were easy to talk to. I’ve had DMs with a wide range of stories to tell. And, I’ve had varied success telling my character’s story in the contexts they have provided. That’s another factor to take into account. You probably have a vision for your character. How does that vision fit within the context the DM provided for the campaign? Did you develop your concept independent of the DM’s campaign concept? If so, do you or the DM see any obvious conflicts? It’s a good idea to talk to your DM before the first session and ask these questions.

Some DMs provide background information, either their own home-brewed history, or published material, that will give you some context. Be sure to read this. Think of some character concepts, and bounce the ideas off your DM. Try to phrase your questions at this stage so that your DM can give you a quick “yes” or “no” answer. Keep the context of the game in mind (e.g., “epic” versus “gritty”). If your DM provides a questionnaire for character development, look at any other background material the DM provided and use that as a springboard for more detailed development. For example, if Rivendell is a location in the game world, feel free to say that your character lived in the “third house east of the Bridge of Leaves, the one with the oak-leaf shutters.” Those kinds of details complement the DM’s vision.

Cooperative storytelling is fun. You did it when you were a young child, playing with your friends, using Barbies, Legos, or plastic army men. You likely sat around and narrated these stories to one another. Do you remember wrestling over details?

“The sergeant shoots the spy.”

“Nuh uh, the spy dodges the bullet and knocks the sergeant out!”

“No way, you can’t dodge a bullet!”

Hopefully you’ve matured enough that you’re not repeating this part of the experience in your D&D campaign. But, it’s the same essential experience. You need to cooperate to move the story forward. That means give and take, so at the beginning look for ways to complement the DM’s story. Ask some basic questions about context. This should start your journey off on the right foot.

Riding the Railroad

Depending on the DM, in a campaign you may be facing a staged series of encounters and experiences that are sometimes referred to as a “railroad”. In some cases (e.g., epic campaigns) that can be a good thing. It’s clear where you need to go, and what you need to do. But you’ve still got an opportunity to tell your character’s story within the context. Talk to your DM and outline your vision of your character’s role. Are you the sage advisor to the party? Ask your DM for historical information that you can reveal to embellish the context of your quest. Or, ask for permission to invent those details within the context provided. Maybe you’re the staunch defender that ensures the party gets through the encounters along the way? Ask your DM for a chance to shine in the party’s moments of desperation. Maybe it comes in the form of an extra Action Point that you have license to spend, or a special power or weapon that you bear.

Sometimes your DM may offer these elements to you. If your DM has a very specific story to tell, these offerings can make the situation feel too much like a script. You end up just acting a role in a movie, instead of cooperatively crafting a story. Talk to your DM about the roles the story provides, negotiate for the role you would like to play, and proactively propose mechanics that would benefit (or even hinder) your fulfilling of that role.

An epic railroad ride can be fun for everyone, but it still needs to contain the element of surprise. In epic tales, the heroes usually survive. It’s the guys in the red shirts that do all the dying. That can take a little bit of the edge off of D&D. Do you have what it takes to be a memorable red shirt? How would you feel if your character dies? You and your DM may have different opinions about this, and it is probably worth discussing as a group as you get going deeper into the campaign. D&D offers many safeguards to help prevent permanent character death, but being clear with your DM about your feelings will make it easier for everyone to deal with when (or if) it happens. Deal with this one early, before it becomes an issue, and everyone will have a better experience.

Playing in the Sandbox

A free form campaign, in which you the players are free to choose your direction of travel and the quests you undertake, is sometimes referred to as a “sandbox” campaign. This type of campaign can put a lot of burden on the DM, and can lead to burnout without proper precautions. A few of those precautions are things you as a player can take responsibility for and run with.

As a DM, I’ve asked one of the groups in my Dominium campaign to give me detailed information about certain NPCs and locations in the game. I’m running it in a sandbox style, but depending on my players to provide details in certain cases. I let them know before we started the campaign that this would be the style of play. At times, I’ve asked them to describe to me what they see when entering certain locations. This was sort of a radical departure for me as a DM. I had previously run epic-railroad campaigns exclusively, but found I was burning out on the amount of preparation required. Looking for inspiration, I read the rules for some other game systems, including Mouse Guard. Knowing that my players included a number of DMs and very creative folks, I turned to them for input. Some of the players agreed that it’d be fun to play in a more cooperative mode.

As a player in this situation you will be called on to provide a lot more detail. What you put into the game will benefit all the other players as well as yourself. As a DM, I’m taking character background information, NPC and location descriptions provided by my players, and crafting encounters that are very personal to them.

In this style of game, the vision that player’s have for their character forms one of the building blocks of the campaign. In Dominium, we’re playing without an epic background quest. The reputations of the characters will be forged by their actions. As they become more successful, they will face greater challenges. What those challenges are will be up to them. I’ve asked the players to look for opportunities for storytelling. To identify an issue or cause that they’d like to explore as players. Perhaps you want to know what it’s like to be an escaped slave, with the eventual goal of wiping out slavery in the country or world in which you’re playing? Or, you want to become an explorer investigating the world beyond your humble village of origin with the eventual goal of journeying to another plane of existence?

A sandbox campaign can be molded by the players, in cooperation with the DM, to suit almost any narrative need. It all starts with communication, and a commitment to cooperative storytelling. So, don’t just assume that your DM has all the details waiting for you to unwrap them like presents. Dive in and see what you can create together.