There's a running joke between Ssalarn and I about our tabletop games that his aim is to crush any plans I make. While he and MoreGun were part of our regular group, I grew a great deal as a player and a DM. Looking through some of our older posts, I found the genesis of that joke, which is actually one of the more poignant lessons I learned as a DM. I hope that this tale of group dynamics, railroading and lack of planning helps some of you aspiring dungeon masters out there.
We’ve been running a 4th edition feywild campaign at home. Our party is a traveling circus troupe that performs outlandish shows for the various fey kingdoms and courts. As one would expect from any circus, the characters that make up the party are an odd group of professional misfits. We have an unscrupulous Changeling ringmaster, a distinctly Russian Dwarf who doubles as strongman and Displacer beast tamer, a sadistic fairy illusionist, a Goliath bearded woman (who primarily performs burlesque acts), a perpetually drunk and indignant Satyr Bard, a Drow ranger with questionable aim, and a vampiric fairy who acts as our stage and prop manager.
Needless to say, this band of ruffians makes a planned game very difficult at the best of times, and nearly impossible at the worst. The sessions we have tend to become at least half-improvised, but usually follow the basic arc I’d set up for the night. This last game however… well, it just didn’t.
It started with a Brownie. Our troupe was travelling through the forests, on their way to the Goblin Kingdom, when they came across a Brownie crying by the side of the road. The Brownie, who had had his most prized possession taken from him, told the group tearfully that they should kill him to free him from his misery. Rather than ask him what was wrong, our strongman obliged the poor fey fellow and crushed him like a grape. Yes, five minutes in, and the group has literally crushed their first story hook.
The rest of the game was a mess. I hadn’t prepared for this sort of thing. I spent the majority of the evening trying to recover from the initial derailment, only to further the destruction and chaos.
The party ended up in a Kobold village, the biggest damn Deus ex Machina I could come up with. Already on the trail of the Unicorn lost by the Brownie, and stomachs full of magical Unicorn poop (my amazing wife actually made Unicorn poop cookies especially for the evening’s game) the group was growing bored and toying with the idea of moving on.
The Kobolds arrived just in time to capture our heroes and force them to help recover their stolen livestock from the very same bunch of miscreants that stole the Unicorn. Right? Of course not. Rather than go peacefully after realizing they are outnumbered, the Illusionist manages to transform our dwarf into nothing short of Kobold Christ.
So, the group strode into town like an apostolic A-Team. The Kobolds went crazy; their messiah had come and they didn’t even know they had one. The shaman was summoned, and a feast was declared. The party was given sacred hallucinogenic mushrooms (meringue mushrooms, again prepared by my super awesome and incredible wife) that were a part of the original arc, though not meant to be encountered in this fashion.
The feast devolved into absolute chaos, mass hallucinations and debauchery. The Ringmaster became addicted to the mushrooms, traded the party’s circus gear for the village’s supply of them and swore that he was the father of a very large egg. There were bribes, blackmail, kobold on changeling action, and several utterances of “never again.” Then the party set out to find the Unicorn and the livestock.
In the end, the troupe managed to recover their gear, defeat the baddies and gain a Unicorn for the show. They never bothered to bring the livestock back to the Kobolds.
The best thing to remember in moment’s like this is that a larger campaign, even one that’s more silly than serious needs to have some kind of ultimate goal. This is not to say that a campaign must stay wholly true to that goal in every session. Any RPG worth playing has sidequests. You might have had a character that embarked on an important task separate from the main story. Your party may have been distracted by a dragon, a noble or a story about an item. All these things are fine.
It’s when a group gets bored that you see things like our last session. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the brownie or the kobolds. They wanted to get to the goal we had already set. They knew where they were going and they were ready to play the Goblin Kingdom. I led them away from their goal despite the expectation that it was imminent. Although the group did enjoy the game, they were ultimately unsatisfied. The game filled time, not story.
A bored group is a group on the edge. I’m lucky the group managed to have so much fun with session. It could have been much worse. Always foster your group when they have their eye on the prize. Never punish a group for being on task.