You’ve laboured over your new campaign for months, meticulously going over the various details of the world. You’ve planned out the campaign’s major points and can’t wait until the PCs are required to rescue the Twilight Princess from her prison in the Nine Hells.
As you reach that pinnacle in the campaign you realize something disheartening, your PCs don’t really care. All the work you’ve done, all the creativity and detail you’ve put into this grand moment is going unnoticed by your PCs.
They haven’t bought into the campaign.
Moments like the ones described above can do one of two things; they either break DMs down, ruining the gaming experience for them, or they turn them into better DMs who are able to then run truly engaging sessions.
How do you develop an engaging gaming experience. One where the PCs hunger for more? One where the next gaming session simply can’t come soon enough? An experience where the time between sessions is filled with a multitude of emails between the PCs plotting their next move?
Creating these experiences is an art and not all DMs hit this mark with every session or even every campaign.
It requires pacing, timing, tension and action. Surprisingly, it doesn’t require a great deal of detail about the story or background of the campaign.
Sometimes simpler is better.
This past week my gaming group started a new mini-campaign. These are the only details the DM provided before we began the first session:
- The PCs were starting at level 8, standard RPGA rules for character creation.
- The campaign was set in Eberron and the adventure would start in the city of Flamekeep.
- The PCs all belong to an adventuring guild and that’s how they knew each other.
- The campaign would last approximately 4 weeks.
- The PCs would level at the end of each week.
Not a lot to go on in terms of creating a character. No additional background information to use in creating a character. I’m not going to bore you with the details of my character, after all this isn’t an article on character creation, the focus here is how the DM hooked us.
The setup of the adventure was very simple. A contact in our adventuring guild advised us that an individual named Felix, had a job for us in Flamekeep. We met Felix and agreed to rescue an Artificer colleague of his who was being held captive by unknown forces.
Here’s the breakdown of the encounters and how the DM built tension. In short, this is how the DM hooked us.
- We proceeded to the location where the Artificer was being kept, an abandoned inn outside of town
- The first encounter was a bunch of giant rat minions, rat swarms and a dire rat. An interesting NPC combination that forced the party to expend more resources than they anticipated. It also asked the question, why are there all these rats?
- The second encounter was in the cellar, against some creatures who can only be described as bear-men (Furbolgs if you play WoW). The tactics here again kept the party on their toes. Alchemists were attacking from range and applying conditions on the party. The melee NPCs had reach 2 and were able to avoid getting bunched up by the PCs. One PC fell unconscious and failed two of this three death saves, only to be stabilized with a heal check.
- After finally locating the Artificer we gave him an apple to eat. It was a fairly important apple as it freed the Artificer’s imprisoned mind and triggered his ability to begin a teleportation ritual (my PC really wants one of these apples).
- As the ritual was in progress the DM advised the party that we heard movement from upstairs. Within minutes the party had barricaded themselves in a room (skill challenge) to keep soldiers from Thrane out.
- The tension was palpable as we raced against time to secure the room while assisting with the ritual. In the end we escaped, but not before some of the PCs were seen by the soldiers.
All of this left the PCs with the following questions:
- Who is this Artificer really?
- Who was holding him prisoner?
- What did the soldiers from the Church of the Silver Flame (the PCs don’t really know who was there) want with him?
- Why did the PCs run if this was legitimate authority?
- Are the PCs now fugitives from the law?
- Where did teleportation ritual take us?
In short, we were hooked. The combat was fun and engaging. The skill challenge at the end was fluid and organic. It made sense that we needed to assist with the ritual and barricade ourselves in if we were going to finish our job. The level of tension rose each round of the skill challenge as the “enemies” were trying to breakdown the door.
All of this was accomplished because the DM paced his encounters in a very precise way. He built the encounters with dynamic NPCs that played well off each others strengths and weaknesses. Finally, he provided more questions than answers which has left all the PCs hungry for the next session.
When was the last time your DM drew you deep into a campaign and left you begging for more? As a DM how do you develop encounters that are engaging and leave the PCs with a perfect cliff hanger?