By Colleen Nachtrieb
I must preface this post with a little background information on my GM style and history. I have always been the sort of GM that tosses the rules out the window and focused on the player experience first. I see my role at the table as an enabler of my players to create a good story and conflict in each session. I gravitate towards systems and games like Apocalypse World, Lady Blackbird, Fate, Kids on Bikes and others in which the mechanics rely on the player driven narrative. So, it came as a great shock to me that several people I knew requested that I run Dungeons and Dragons for them.
D&D is a classic, and a game that has gone through many different iterations in the last several years. It is a game driven by brutal, random chance. Up until recently I have played in many D&D games but never as Dungeon Master. I steered clear of DMing it in fear of rules lawyers. But recently I played in a 5th edition game and had a blast, which in turn resulted in me running the Waterdeep Dragon Heist Campaign. This would also be the first time I had run a prewritten campaign; the closest I had to running anything prewritten was Lady Blackbird (just a page and a half of suggestions and paragraph on the setting!).
Not only did I commit to running D&D 5th ed for a group of new players but I also agreed to run the same campaign with a group of experienced players at a different time slot. The following is the first part of my journey running this campaign for these two very different groups. I will cover the differences in the first chapter between both of the groups and main takeaways when running for these different groups. In an attempt not to spoil the story of Dragon Heist for those who have not played it, I won’t be going into great detail on the events or structure of the campaign write up.
Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to both groups, which I have lovingly named:
Table - Old Skool Gang
The Table Composition: A group of experienced D&D players who have played through most editions of D&D and have a solid understanding of the setting material such as the Sword Coast and Waterdeep. Careful and meticulous in their actions, they are rarely surprised by spell effects, but relish in figuring out what tactics are being used by various NPCs.
The Rock Genasi Barbarian, goals include: Protecting their Grandmother, Escape being in the fit pits/debts
The Half elf Rogue, goals include: Making a profit, Finding information on his father
The Half elf Fighter, goals include: Helping his half brother (the other half elf), Finding information on his father
The Gnome Warlock, goals include: Understanding magic and becoming a grand illusionist
Table - Adventure Time
The Table Composition: A group of first time D&D players and inexperienced roleplayers. One player had played a few other games but never in a full campaign. All players were used to playing video games and had played World of Warcraft or console games. They know nothing about Waterdeep or the D&D setting. They are often rash, impulsive and wonderfully surprised by the story’s turns and twists.
The Halfling Fighter, goals include:Being drunk, Owning a tavern, Drinking and being swole
The Dwarven Druid, goals include Transforming into every creature he sees, Being intimidating
The Half elf Rogue, goals include: Stealing, Not taking any lip, Finding her Dad
The Old Skool Gang immediately lunged at the hook of the prewritten campaign, and oftentimes when I would describe locations such as the Yawning Portal, they would excitedly add their own knowledge of the setting to the table. Within the first session of the game they completed Chapter One and advanced to first level. They searched every room in every map I threw at them, and the questioned NPCs on related subject matters that would then become rolls of investigation. I found that running the pre-written campaign for this group led to them easily following the outline of the adventure. They jumped to similar conclusions that the author did in what possible actions they would take or skills they would use. The only hitch I found in designers’ expectations was the assumption that the some of the players would be good aligned or predisposed to doing “the right thing.” This was not true in either case. All my PCs fit squarely into the Neutral category. The result was that I made the City Guard more of a conflict than a point of contact for information, and I ended up making an additional faction of thieves that they could work with if needed. The game remains focused on politics and close encounter combats.
Team Adventure Time finished the first Chapter in two sessions. They beat up the hook and stole his money. In fact, every elderly man they have encountered has been either pick pocketed or lit on fire in some fashion. I found using the prewritten campaign for this group to be a hindrance to the style of play they inherently display. I ended up falling back on a lot of my narrative “Yes, and…” tactics to give them agency.
To Be Continued…
What both groups have in common and my main goal in preparing this game for all of them is the players’ need to tell their story. The Waterdeep Dragon Heist is a great story that has little to do with the player characters personally. My real work as a GM is to make the story about them. Both groups can follow the story along but it won’t be impactful unless I make it personal. Tune in next time for Chapter two where the campaign attempts to give the players agency, and I give them personal hooks.