Engaging Your Players

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on November 5, 2009

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?

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1 skallawag November 5, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I think good D&D sessions are like TV Shows. Good plots, some action/adventure, some deep thinking to bring the story along and then a cliffhanger!

2 Wimwick November 5, 2009 at 7:54 pm

@ Skallawag
I’d be inclined to agree, thanks again for a great session!

3 Rook November 5, 2009 at 10:41 pm

For each session, I couldn’t agree more with Skallawag’s comparison to tv shows. But to keep everyone engaged over the long term campaign I think it’s important to really attempt the following:
-Try to incorporate a piece of each PC’s background into the story, at least from time to time.
-Alternate focusing on each character, giving each player a chance in the spotlight.
-Give them a re-occurring villain, someone they can love to hate. I don’t think anything gets the players invigorated more than a NPC that gets the better of them or pisses them off.
– Don’t lay out all the answers to their questions at the end of the session. Keep them guessing. Mysteries are intriguing and keep’em hooked.

That’s just a few tips off the top of my head.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..Of Wishes and Wizards =-.

4 Mike November 13, 2009 at 7:56 pm

Our DM has done a good job combining familiar elements (standard d&d tropes, fairy tales, etc) with some interesting twists. This has let us think we have the upper hand plot-wise until the surprise comes in. I’ve enjoyed just seeing how things fold out as we go around foiling the villains.

5 Hekjes June 27, 2013 at 8:21 am

First of all I’d like to say that I am a new DM (so new in fact that I have done 2 weeks of deskresearch on some storystuff and my new books are waiting for me in my study, seeing as I have just ordered them) and I have found a lot of inspiration in your blogposts and the Network.

Now…I have seen a load of skill challenges being described on Dungeon’s Master but I can’t seem to understand how they work. This might be because I haven’t had my DMG up to now but I would like to know how they work from a storytelling point of view.

I guess you don’t just say ” skill challenge, round 1, start on a history check” or something. I’d find that rather lame to be honest 🙂

Can anyone explain the system to me/ give me an example so I can get a better understanding of the concept?

Thank you and may the dice be kind

6 HK March 7, 2015 at 4:08 am

Imo, skill challenges can be tools for deciding how the players move towards their goal, what obstacles get in their way, how do they overcome them.
Eg. Your players have gained a treasure map with several locations in some arcane language and are looking for a specific site. 1. they’ll need someone to translate the locations- they’ll have to do it themselves or find someone and pay/persuade them. Depending on the success they can get the right interpretations and start navigating toward the site or lose time and get into some trouble by misinterpreting the names and going to the wrong place. This can lead to more fun. This specific example is from Esperresper’s youtube channel where he outlines his 5e prep and adventure design.
Since I run a more sandboxy campaign, it is hard to plan every step the players are going to take, so there are locations and situations and you can use common sense on the spot if they go into areas that you haven’t thought out ahead. LazyGM tips are great for that, if you have a bunch of npcs, locations and hooks printed out, you can throw something their way and keep them engaged while they deal with situations and have the agency to make their own choices when it comes to which way are they going to go with the story. But since my players are quite new to the hobby, it is hard to engage them in a way that they’d be excited enough to plan things out of game. I threw a bunch of hooks their way, and the thing they chose was something completely unexpected, leading to a players’ initiative campaign to take on a barony, gain allies and power to bring him down, having sort of a dragon age-y feel to it. When they have clear goals that they chose, it makes them more motivated to pursue. No matter that in the meantime much more dangerous foes are furthering their plans, they made the coice and provided me with more material to build upon.

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