How Much Input Should Players Have On The Campaign?

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 15, 2011

Different DMs embrace different ideas about how much input their players have on the campaign where some DMs run a sandbox campaign, other than major NPCs everything that happens in the game is left to the whim of the players. Others have a more restrictive idea about how much input players should have. Some do not allow player input at all, preferring to run modules or use adventures published through LFR.

The level of player involvement is usually determined before the campaign begins. The DM gives a rough idea of what the players can expect of the campaign. My normal practice is to provide my players with an overview of the start of the campaign and the central theme. This allows them to create characters that are appropriate. It doesn’t make too much sense for a player to create an urban Ranger for a game that is going to take place 90% of the time in the Underdark.

I’m of the firm opinion that unless you are playing LFR or other published adventures the players should have a level of dialogue in the campaign. While I’m not a fan of sandbox campaigns as I think they are too open, I do like to engage my players and have them participate in aspects of the campaign. The usual method for this is for the players to develop a back story, allowing me to incorporate elements of their story into the campaign. It’s a small part that the players play, however when they get the payoff of having part of their story play out it is immensely satisfying.

A major disadvantage of not soliciting input from your players is that you will never know what they would like their character to accomplish during the game. By asking them, you get that feedback. Very often as a DM we have the long term story, but it often has gaps that need to be filled. Thirty levels is a lot of play time. Side quests are a great diversion in between major plot points. Character back stories are a great resource for these side quests.

Another reason to seek player input during the campaign is reflected in character development. The most pronounced aspect of character development is the paragon path. Some paragon paths are very generic and fit into any setting. Your players really can’t go wrong by selecting them. Others are highly specialized and without a discussion between player and DM the player will get the short end of the stick. Of course one would also need to wonder why a player would select an undead themed paragon path if the campaign had not featured any major conflict with undead. The DM would be equally surprised when the defender selects a dragon slaying themed paragon path. There is nothing wrong with these choices, but if a player has a clear idea of where he wants to go with his character and it isn’t in line with the direction of the campaign a discussion is in order.

By discussing the direction of your character in advance the DM is given the opportunity to design some encounters to benefit your character. Perhaps the actual type of monster being fought is unimportant and as a result the DM can very easily make a substitution.

The key question a DM needs to answer if he is surprised by a player choice is how to handle it. If an inappropriate paragon path is selected how long does the DM wait to allow that choice to shine through? Is the DM there to facilitate the players in a shared experience or he is there to tell his own story? With published adventures there is an expectation and understanding that everyone is going to get whatever the adventure provides. However, when a DM is creating their own adventures some give and take is expected.

The best resolution is to have players declare what paragon path they are selecting and why. How does the choice fit with their back story and their experience in the campaign to date. If this dialogue is started early enough almost any option is available because the DM knows what the player is looking for in the campaign.

When you DM do you solicit feedback or input form your players? As a player do you find your DM open to ideas that you and other players present about your characters?

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1 Nathaniel March 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

How viable is it for an author to believe he has control over a plot where all the main character’s actions and lines are written by other people?

Either the author finds a way to make their input meaningless (a common approach) or the author accepts it and works to integrate it and the responses of the antagonists and supporting characters to suit.

I can’t think of too many people who would respond well if they knew to what lengths their DMs go to make their choices meaningless as players.

By choosing not to have a “DM’s story” that I’m committed to telling, I can work with the players to actual create the story in play. Even when I run a module, I read it as the starting situation and get a good understanding of what might happen if there’s no intervention from an outside force (the PCs). Then I run the situation and the player’s choices create the plot during play.

2 Kilsek March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Several weeks before a campaign starts is where various campaign options their particular theme or draw should be talked about and shared by everyone in the group. This helps get everyone’s tastes and playstyle out in the open, and with that information, helps everyone select the campaign everyone, as a group, would most enjoy playing in and DMing.

This is the approach we’ve taken in 4e, and it’s worked out very well. I like that everyone gets to have a say and have their playstyle acknowledged as we make our choice together. We start with a larger list of campaigns and their particular themes that everyone’s mentioned in some form, and the DM narrows it down to 3-4 that he’d be most willing to DM, and we narrow it down to 1 from there. A month or two later, we’re playing our first session.

Character backstory and motivations are very important to a healthy campaign. The PCs have a vision of their character, so it’s important for the DM to continue to go back to their character’s backstory, background selections, and most memorable and dramatic actions and continue to expand the campaign through the PCs.

However, we’re human, and sometimes we forget or neglect some details. So if the campaign’s getting stale or no one’s sure what to do anymore (player or DM), it’s usually very worth going right back to the character’s background, motivations and vision or dreams and integrating whatever’s happening and whatever’s about to happen directly into that backstory.

3 FutonSac March 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm

The tightly-knit crew I play with have all been exposed the powergamers and deliberately disruptive types enough times that, purely as a matter of respect, we try to work within the details of what our DMs put forth. The thing most powergamers seem to forget is that if the DM is not running a module, the game takes place in HIS/HER world. That individual is trying to tell us a story that he/she worked hard to produce. I, for one, like to see where it goes.

That’s not to say adaptability isn’t an important trait for a DM to have. A lucky crit can change everything. A creative use of an ability can send your “boss” fleeing in terror.

In a recent 3.5 game, our DM had a world in which there were many gods. The players needed to cross a river governed by a demigod by boat. The demigod asks that all who cross make a tangible donation of something that has meaning to them. Two of the players were in possession of the shattered remains of a godly sword they were trying to reforge. Understanding they couldn’t, they donated the remains.

The DM’s eyes opened wide, then he left the room to decide what to do next. Resigned to the knowledge of what that particular demigod would do with that legendary weapon, he decided he had no choice but to make a monumental change to his world.

The demigod appeared before them moments later with the sword reforged and thanked them. Time stopped, and the demigod proceeded to slay all of the other gods easily, and thus monotheism was born in the DM’s world. This changed the aims of our party instantly as three of us were particularly devout to gods that no longer existed.

By the next week, our cunning DM had a whole new story planned out for us, and the game continued for three more months with plenty of excitement the whole way.

4 Sunyaku March 16, 2011 at 1:51 am

Since I started with a group of completely new players last fall, I created a quiz with questions based on player types outlined in the DMG. It was kind of interesting, and I found out a couple things I didn’t know about the group… for example, a few players REALLY hate puzzles, so I haven’t used many of them.

One thing that is always important to consider though– some people know what they want, and many people only “think” they know what they want.

My goal with this new group was to provide a series of adventures to get them thru level two, and then have enough world building and a “full enough” toolbox ready to open up the world and see where they go. And if I need to, it’s not hard to weave a premade adventure into things. The last session of the preplanned adventures is this Sunday… we’ll see where things go after that!

5 Rednightmare March 16, 2011 at 5:34 am

I guess no campaign really only exists in the head of it’s DM, players will always challenge your plans, every single session (like dying to some snakes on the road). But I also like the idea of letting your players decide some things about your campaign.
DMG 2 talks about sometimes letting your players take the “DM wand” and create a part of the world. one of my players loves doing this, sometimes unasked, and it has even got him considering to start DMing himself.
As for broad input, I like Chris Perkins idea in the last “Dungeon Masters Experience” of splitting your campaign up in “seasons” and asking the players at the beginning of each season 3 things they would like to see happen that season. I plan on using it and have asked them that exact question yesterday after our session. I’m very curious what they come up with.

6 Wimwick March 16, 2011 at 11:03 am

@ Nathaniel
Some great insights and I do agree with you. Outside of a published adventure the session should be a compromise. However, unless you are playing a total sandbox campaign the DM is still going to have the players gravitate towards decisions he has already made. The question is will the DM be open to the directions players want to move in for subsequent encounters?

@ Kilsek
I operate much the same as you. Several weeks before the campaign starts I provide an idea of the overall theme of the game. I also ask the players to talk to one another when making characters so there isn’t undo overlap in roles.

@ Sunyaku
Great point there about what players want. My aim, try to give each PC something in every level. Even if it is just an encounter there character can be dominant in.

@ Rednightmare
The idea from Chris Perkins is a good one. However, if a few players don’t participate then suddenly the campaign appears to be themed towards the other players. Though in truth it would be there own fault. Still an idea well worth investigating.

7 Nathaniel March 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I run with no scripted plot even if I run a module. I read the module to set up the original situation, but that’s it.

!! Orcs of Stonefang Pass Spoilers !!

For example, I recently ran Stonefang Pass and the PCs ended up taking care of other interests mid stride. So all the dwarves were long dead by the time they got to them. There was no one to tell them the means of defeating Stonefang. By the time they got to Stonefang, he had already assembled a group of orc followers and the end encounter of the module ended up being very, very different. They almost joined forces with him at the end, believing the dwarves to be corrupt devil worshipers and almost buying Stonefangs claim of victemhood in the matter.

I’m not really interested in compromising with the players where I have to give up what I want and they have to give up what they want. Instead, we all approach the game with a “let’s find out what will happen together” attitude. I don’t know if that distinction makes any sense. And I’m definitely not intending to be a jerk and grabbing on to a single word you used– if that’s what I’m coming across as please chalk it up to the limitations of internet text as a communication medium.

8 Neuroglyph March 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

I also take a more collaborative effort to my D&D games. I start off with a premise for my endgame superplot, and figure out a few steps on how I might get there. And then utilize the character’s background information and stories to back-fill the plot, wherever possible. I encourage my players to come up with as much detail in their backgrounds as possible, because they have come to know that I will pull it into my “over-plot” in some fashion. That way the players feel their characters are bound into the storyline – that’s their input – and I still have the autonomy to take the plot to its penultimate conclusion -and that’s my input. Everything else in between is sandbox-y, with characters sometimes asking to go on quests or adventures that interest them, me occasionally dropping adventures in their path that advance my plot and/or sometimes making spotlight adventures that focus on one (or rarely two) character(s) and making him or her the star of the show.

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