A cult strives to bring their dragon goddess into the world to wreak havoc. Demons from the Abyss invade the Underdark. Evil elementals build a powerbase in an ancient temple. A vampire holds sway over a cursed land. Giants compete to establish a new cosmic order. An archlich inflicts a terrible curse upon the world. Great campaigns all around. Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons players around the world have saved the multiverse from these threats countless times. And the upcoming Stream of Many Eyes will reveal the next campaign for adventurers to tackle. But it’s the How and not the What that makes these memorable campaigns.
The secret of memorable campaigns
Before our most recent live stream Ingest Quest D&D Spelljammer campaign session began, we were talking about what makes memorable campaigns. Live streaming or posting recorded gameplays adds a different element to the equation certainly, but at the end of the day the paradigm is the same — a group of gamers playing D&D or some other tabletop roleplaying game.
I asked Ben, the creator behind the Puffin Forrest YouTube channel, if the moments he shares in animated form were as interesting at the table, and how he chooses the memorable campaigns to give the Puffin Forrest treatment to. His answer really got me thinking. Ben explained how he generally ignores the Big Important Plot and instead focuses on what made the adventure standout.
“I skip over the ‘evil necromancer trying to take over the world’ part, because everyone’s done that before. I just jump to the, ‘and then he killed him with a rubber chicken,’ because that’s the part that’s unique.” – Puffin Forrest creator Ben
So true, right?
The elegance of tabletop RPGs is embedded there. The appeal of D&D isn’t so much that your party thwarted a villain’s schemes, but how they went about achieving their goals that makes for memorable campaigns. The Waffle Crew defeated Strahd von Zarovich by trapping him inside a doll on Dice, Camera, Action. Acquisitions Inc. took a side trek to the Wizards of the Coast office while combating the Acererak’s death curse. Nott the Brave killed the manticore cub on Critical Role. Eugustus Gloop slurped up the remainder of a planar jelly keeping the goddess Umami imprisoned on Ingest Quest.
The idea dovetails with the Game Master practice of presenting problems, not solutions, to the characters. Even in published adventures like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, with lead designer Chris Perkins running the game, the same problems exist as for any group running those adventures. What made for memorable campaigns is how the characters approached those problems and the developed their own unique solutions with the DM’s help.There are some limits to this procedure — it is still a game after all. Characters, NPCs, monsters and so forth operate within the bounds of their mechanical elements. A fighter can’t use their turn to slay the dragon, and a wizard can’t use a spell slot to cast a spell that stops the ritual and defeats all the cultists. A GM does have a certain fiat to control…basically anything in the game if they want. A great GM presents interesting scenarios, and great players build memorable campaigns through collaborative interaction with them. They use the tools and rules, including any exceptions or tweaks the GM introduces, and their imaginations to solve problems in wholly unique ways. The trick to being a GM lies in reacting to character actions in a reasonable way (reasonable is relative to the campaign).
To that end the D&D brand and the greater RPG community have embraced the storytelling nature of these games in a way like never before. One of my favorite examples of this activity is Penny Arcade’s The C-Team. DM Jerry Holkins guides his friends through amazing adventures, but the way the players participate with each other always stands out to me. Game designer and baby wizard Kate Welch, cartoonist Kris Straub, designer and illustrator Amy T. Falcone, and Penny Arcade Director of Events Ryan Hartman regularly encourage each other to explore situations with vivid description. Like any game of D&D the story moves in unexpected directions, and The C-Team leans into this deftly, constructing a rich narrative through everyone’s immersion and contribution.
Based on the reception to the Tomb of Annihilation, and its influence on content creation through the Dungeon Master’s Guild, the streaming community and the Adventurer’s League, I think we’re going to see some really innovative stuff with the next campaign release. As a diehard D&D fan, I can’t wait to see what the Stream of Many Eyes reveals about the new adventure coming later this year. Each of the published campaign adventures from Wizards of the Coast builds on what the designers have learned and how the game we play has evolved.
I can only speculate it has something to do with beholders, perhaps the Xanathar itself, and a multiuniversal threat. There’s a lot of discussion going on that it’ll be a fifth edition iteration of the classic Undermountain, featuring things like Waterdeep and Skullport. Currently there’s an ongoing internet easter egg hunt going on for clues based on the cryptic “no stone unturned” cipher at the end of the Stream of Many Eyes press release.
Whatever it is, I expect the adventure to present lots of intriguing new scenarios for characters to solve. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing about the memorable campaigns that emerge, too. After all, D&D groups who run the adventure will all face the same challenges, but how they overcome each one and save the day…that’s what the stories are all about. Who knows, maybe a party of brave adventurers will save the multiverse with a rubber chicken.
In the video below from the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted touch on a trio of common questions challenging GMs. Often, the way past these stumbling blocks is to embrace the collaborative nature of RPGs. The beauty of D&D or any other RPG is the way GMs and players overcome challenges — together — is what makes for memorable campaigns.
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