Wayfarer's League

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Running My First Campaign: A lesson in realising you know nothing!

Where do I even start? I’d only been playing for a year and a half and then only played two characters. I wish I could say that I read everything there was to read but really, my journey as a GM started with drawing a maze on a piece of grid paper. I didn’t even plan to draw a map, I was just having fun doodling.

I took one look at my elaborate labyrinth thinking to myself, “What would be more challenging/fun than being stuck in a maze!?” I borrowed Sarah’s DM’s Guide and got to work. I asked myself a lot of questions… How can I pull the player-characters into the maze? Who is going to be the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy)? I set to work coming up with a kick ass story hook, I drew a whole lot of maps and named every NPC. I had (according to me) the perfect story and some super fun/silly encounters.

In our Session Zero, I loved what the players came up with for how their group was connected. They were a failing circus troop! AWESOME! I could really work with this. I was pumped! I had been throwing myself into writing this campaign and was so eager to kick everything off with a bang.

The first session came round and it all started really well. There was plenty of moments where we all lost ourselves with laugher and everyone had a great time. I would say the first month of sessions went this way. All my planning had paid off!

But then… they got to the maze… I didn’t realise it would take them months to get through. Much of my time was spent trying to explain what direction they were going. And to make things harder on myself, it was an elemental maze that was caught between four different planes. We had some great moments, but I found that I had just made it WAY to big. I ended up having to add a lot of encounters on the fly, which always turned out to be the best moments, but the maze itself just dragged.

I loved the group. However, I had one player who had played D&D for years and they liked to get into the nitty gritty of the rules. This paused the game play an awful lot, and because of my lack of experience, I didn’t have the confidence to refute; after all, they knew better than me.

9 months later, the group eventually made it through the maze, rescued a village and became heroes! …..only to (in the very last session) destroy the village by planting a magic bean in the town centre. This “bean” proceeded to sprout a massive pyramid containing the tomb of an ancient mummy!! The villagers promptly abandoned their town. It was amusing, but not the glory any of them were expecting. Which is always part of the fun of TTRPGs, it isn’t always a happy ending.


What I learned from this, is that there is SO much I would change!

I should have:

  1. Paid attention the each of the PC’s backstories. I was thrilled by the group’s backstory, but failed to give each character a story hook that would have driven them to have more investment in the quest.
  2. Limited magic items. As a player I love finding magic items so I figured I would add heaps. This made the PCs a bit OP (over-powered) from the very beginning, and the fact that it took no effort for them to find the items in the first place meant they weren’t as special.
  3. Scaled down the maze. I was way too ambitious. The maze could have been a lot more fun, and the game a lot shorter, if I had just shrunk everything, made the space a lot more compressive, the players could’ve been a lot more captivated by it. There was a lot of mystery but ultimately the endless corners, high walls, and dead ends became monotonous.
  4. Be more confident in my rule calls: D&D is all about having fun and some of the long discussion about rules in game were just not that fun. I know now I need to make a call and stick to it. In my opinion, it’s more important to keep the story moving and make sure all the players are engaged.
  5. Not be afraid to kill off characters: I had a bad habit of not playing the enemy characters to their fullest to keep characters alive. Since then, I have played in campaigns where characters die and they end up being some of the most intense moments in game. My fear denied my players potential drama.

On the other hand, I discovered that I love GMing and that there were some aspects of the whole process I particularly enjoy:

  1. When players go off book. I love the chance to improvise a situation. It usually turns out to be the most memorable moments in the game.
  2. Being Descriptive. I am more than happy to use as much theatre of the mind as I can. If I could, I would run all my games without any maps, bar battle maps or for dungeon crawls. This isn’t aways good for some players, so I have learned to adapt.
  3. Writing. I never really thought of myself as a writer of fiction, but because of D&D, I love it. I love writing the story hook and working out the end game. I love creating a world and watching what players do with it and rewarding them for their creativity.

That said, the biggest takeaway is that at the end of the day, whether I’m running a campaign or a one-shot, it is important to remain humble. I may have an idea of how things should go, but ultimately it isn’t my story, but our story.

We want to hear your stories. What are your experiences being a GM? Do you have any advice for anyone running a game for the first time? Let us know in the comments.

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