Over on Nerdarchy the YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted along with me hosted our final live chat of 2019. It was the end of the year and for now, an end of the Quests & Adventures live chat. Nerdarchy has kept up with this weekly chat for nearly three years, but it is going on hiatus heading into 2020 while we focus on creating better products and making sure Nerdarchy the Convention exceeds all expectations. Our exclusive Patreon chat continues every Monday evening at 8 p.m. eastern, and anyone is welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org with GM 911 in the subject so when we tackle your question we’ll send you an invite to the private chat. All this aside, there were two questions from our year end Quests & Adventures chat I enjoyed quite a bit. One came from a new Game Master, which we always make a point to address. The other question was about using random tables in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. From my perspective the answer to the second question covered both, so let’s get into it.
Knock it out of the park as a new Game Master
The new Game Master in the chat let us know they’d played D&D very little and were elected Dungeon Master for a campaign. This can feel like a big pair of shoes to fill! Even after running countless games over the decades, taking a seat behind the GM screen can feel intimidating at times. The beauty of tabletop roleplaying games stems from no one really knowing what will transpire at the gaming table. Every new Game Master should take pride though in stepping up to the plate. For better or worse a group of players places their faith in you to help guide their characters through the telling of a unique story.
Part of the question from this new Game Master involved how to choose the ideas, concepts and themes for a campaign. For some players there is an expectation of a grand saga about to unfold. Epic action and drama are on the menu and the GM’s job is to deliver the experience, right?
For a new Game Master the best advice I have is don’t look beyond your first session. Before the campaign begins, and between each game session, sure go nuts. If worldbuilding excites you, build your world. If amazing set piece battles against deadly monsters sounds like the juice, put in the time planning the elements to help players create these memorable moments. If engaging each other around the table through immersive roleplaying holds appeal, make sure to develop individual NPCs to interact with the characters through.
But if a new Game Master sets out to plan for every eventuality or potential choice a group of players and their adventurers might make, you’ll drive yourself crazy. I’ve said it so many times before — you can plan for a million things, and players will do the 1,000,001st every time.
The best advice I can offer to a new Game Master is distill your ideas down to a single word or sentence. Start there, and create a collage or sorts during the next step, which is throw everything you’ve got into a session. This applies to the first session for a new Game Master or the umpteenth session for a GM with decades of experience. At this point you’re brainstorming, and drawing inspiration from many sources.
The most recent campaign I’ve run is a bounty hunter campaign for 5E D&D inspired by The Mandalorian. I pitched to the players a campaign with characters who belong to a bounty hunter guild. They got on board with only that concept to go on. No campaign setting, narrative arc or even Five W’s answered. I found evocative art and maps on Pinterest and made a list of any ideas that crossed my mind about what a bounty hunter campaign could incorporate.
After cleaning up the brainstormed ideas a few strong elements emerged, guided especially by the mantra of The Mandalorian show — bounty hunting is a complicated profession. The setting would be one of scum and villainy (of course!) and straightforward contracts would grow increasingly more complicated. The world is full of scoundrels, including the player characters, and everyone in it tends to look out for No. 1 above anything else.
At this point, a new Game Master has a foundation for their campaign whether it’s a one shot, a set number of sessions or an open-ended story with no end on the horizon either narratively or mechanically. It’s not necessary to know every NPC, every shop in town, ever monster lair in the wilderness or every adventure hook. You’ve got a framework for the kind of campaign you imagine, and a strong set of concepts to support your idea.
But then the time comes to play a session and all you’ve got is bullet points. Now what?
Random tables to the rescue
The second question from the live chat asked how useful random tables have been for us in games, and I could not wait to answer this one.
Everyone’s game groups and experiences are different of course, and individual methods change over time but at this point in my gaming, I am all about those random tables. I tend to run a lot of one shots and short campaigns these days, mostly to explore different concepts. Antagonists and villainous plots emerge during play, but heading into a new campaign I’m generally armed with only a concept or theme, some worldbuilding elements and a handful of art and maps.
Everything else develops through random tables and character reactions to whatever stems from results on them. For the purposes of this discussion, random tables includes any resource with a variety of potential results so things like encounter decks of cards fall under this umbrella too. For the bounty hunter campaign almost everything during a session develops from random tables. And most of the time it’s the players making the rolls. It’s no secret I love rolling dice and calling on players to roll them as much as possible. And when the players are the ones creating the results I’ve got plausible deniability!
If you are a new Game Master or an experienced one, random tables can become the muscle of your campaign, building on the skeleton you’ve created. The results from random tables are the meat of your adventures. What the characters do and how they react is the connective tissue for the campaign.
I’ll give you an example from another campaign, the Adventurers of Adventure. In this campaign the characters are fresh recruits of a startup adventuring guild, shipped off across the sea to a small coastal village where their task is to find adventures and help expand their guild. As they explore the untamed wilderness, their cool enamel guild pins begin to hum in proximity to adventure locations. During explorations I ask players to roll on random tables to determine what they encounter out there, and one of the results was a giant tree standing alone in otherwise flat plains.
They approached the tree they spotted from a distance and discover it’s quite massive, with a trunk roughly 80 feet in diameter and branches reaching hundreds of feet into the air. A couple of rolls on random tables from behind the GM screen determined this was a base of operations for kenku bandits. There is a secret entrance hidden in the trunk of the tree, but the characters failed to discover anything unusual at all about the tree.
So they decided to climb to the lowest branch, a thick limb about 60 feet from the ground. Immediately, the climb became a contest between the characters to see who could reach the branch the quickest. An impromptu skill challenge ensued, and all the while I’m considering how the kenku bandits inside the tree would react. The climbers surprised a couple of kenku bandit lookouts on the tree limb, and there was an altercation before Sir Finn Hornraven, a noble character, showed his family crest to the kenku who were intrigued by the horned raven insignia.
The party was invited inside the hollow tree, which they learned was an important location to not only the kenku but all birdfolk in the region. Stewardship of the tree passed through various clans whether through negotiation, tradition or straight up seizure through aggression. Sir FInn played on the kenku interest in his family name and crest to develop a positive relationship with the bandits, who shrewdly got the party to help them clear out a hobgoblin outpost and share the treasure kept there. (The treasure was determined via random tables too.)
Random tables also determined there were prisoners of the hobgoblins. Another roll on random tables made these prisoners knights from a distant kingdom no one had ever heard of, along with the quest they’d been pursuing when they were captured. The adventurers learned about new places, made new allies, discovered fantastic treasure like a helm of comprehending languages and a powerful cloak of displacement and even developed personal stories like Sir Finn’s family history — all through rolls on random tables. The entire session and the next, along with plot threads and adventure hooks for the future, all came about through random tables.
Tying worldbuilding and random tables together
With a few key concepts, some worldbuilding and a collection of random tables, the players and I created unique stories and adventures together during play. The setting remains largely unknown to the players, their characters and even me. They had a small village for a home base and a responsibility to find adventure in the unknown. In a way, the players are creating the world with me in a procedural method through the results of their rolls on random tables.
For a new Game Master or otherwise, you can remove a lot of the anxiety or intimidation of creating an immersive world and adventures by taking the work out of your hands and replacing it with random tables. These can work for you before, during and between sessions. When planning and preparing, anytime you feel stuck you can find a random table somewhere to push in a new direction. During game play, random tables create the “something happens” scenario for characters to interact with, and this becomes especially engaging if you tie the results to individual characters. Even better is when the players make the connections themselves, like Sir Finn taking a chance that his family’s crest might help make a connection with the kenku bandits. And between sessions the results of random tables continue to inspire your campaign development.
When we began the session with Sir Finn, the only direction I had was they’d be exploring the wilderness. Rolling on random tables gave us the tree and its inhabitants. The characters’ reactions to the scenario led to making new friends and allies, and another adventure entirely where they learned more about the world and got some awesome magic items.
I would love to hear about your experiences with random tables. They are a big part of the RPG experience! With a handful of concepts, a succinct theme and a collection of random tables I feel like a new Game Master has everything they need to collaborate with players and create memorable experiences together. Random tables takes a ton of prep work out of a GM’s hands and replaces it with the exhilaration of discovering how a campaign develops in the moment along with the players.