Sticking the Landing

They say there are three types of writers in the world, those with problems with beginnings, those with problems with endings, and those with problems with the middle. For Dungeon Masters, I don’t think this usually applies. Getting a campaign started can be rocky, especially if you haven’t done a session zero. In a session zero, the players and DM get together to discuss what it is they’re looking for in a campaign. This is a good time for the DM to set up the social contract.

The social contract is very important for the smooth running of a campaign. Without it, you can end up with a party full of wary, distrusting, loners who all sit with their backs to the corner, wear dark hoods to conceal their faces, and who don’t like to speak about their past, their motivations for adventuring, or even give their true name. How a group with that sort of make up would survive that first adventuring foray to kill the rats infesting their favorite tavern’s cellar is a mystery! This is especially true if the first time your group gets together is the first meeting session.

So session zero and ground rules are important. You don’t want to railroad the players with your rules, but heading off a three hour stare down between all of those fish-out-of-water characters is excruciating to even think about. Help the players figure out what their characters have decided to leave the simple life of peasantdom or maybe have decided to sully their noble hands by taking up questing. With that reason in place, the beginning is set for the campaign to focus on the middle bit, when the adventurers become heroes and eventually legends.

If this was an audio recording, there would have been a record scratch after that last line. As any player of D&D or any role-playing game can tell you, rarely do games last long enough to allow the characters to achieve legendary status. Most games eventually fall apart because of inertia. Not the inertia of the roller coaster that has your stomach going left while the rest of you is going up and to the right.No this is the object at rest wants to remain at rest. For a D&D campaign, this is manifested in time off. Taking any sort of extended break from gaming, whether it’s the holidays, summer vacations, or everyone has come down with some terrible illness, the cancelling of sessions can slowly form into apathy. Nothing kills a game faster than apathy.

I’ve been pretty lucky for the last 3 1/2 years. My home D&D game has resisted apathy and inertia. However, I’ve been running the game, first weekly and then every other week for the whole run. With my players we’ve developed a deep, rich world that has allowed for everyone to get something out of it. For the players who just want to massacre legions of monsters, we’ve had those sessions. For the political players, we’ve got all sorts of machinations in the works. For the thespians looking to inhabit their characters, I’ve never backed away from having deep NPCs that will take the time to talk.

Every edition of D&D has a bit of power creep in it. Even from the early days this was an issue. How do you challenge a party with a wizard that can cast wish? Or when the fighter is nigh impossible to hit in his magical plate armor that also allows him to resist elements? Or when the cleric can literally speak to their deity and get a glimpse of the future?

Fourth Edition, like other editions, has this issue and some might say it has it more so than some of the other editions because of how the edition was designed. Balance was the clarion call of this edition, but not just between the monsters and the adventurers, but also between the classes that the players can take. In previous editions, a first level fighter could throw a dagger and kill a low level wizard, but if that wizard survived and made it to a high enough level, that fighter would find a disintegrate or finger of death spell focused on him. And all he could do was physically attack the wizard with a weapon that didn’t really do anymore damage than it did back at first level. Maybe the to-hit number was higher and maybe he had multiple attacks, but it was still a weapon attack.Fourth Edition gave the fighter more to do than just swing to hit. The fighter could now pick an attack that dazed or stunned, or maybe they were able to heal themselves as a result of dealing an enemy damage.

From a DM’s point of view, that’s not a bad thing, but the amount of options each player has can be a problem. Add onto that the increasing complexity of the monsters needed to challenge the players and eventually some of the fun starts to get sucked out of the game. Preparing for sessions becomes a bit of a chore and if the session is a combat session, it might spill over to a second or third session depending on the speed of each turn.

That’s where I am getting to now. I love the campaign, but we’ve lost the story from time to time to multiple session combats. But I want this campaign to end on a satisfying for everyone involved note. These players have been the most inventive group I’ve ever known. They’ve made decisions I never even contemplated and have built a small in game trading consortium. They’ve maneuvered themselves from being expelled servants from a minor noble house to being stewards named by the Emperor and the Crown Council for a constituent kingdom. They’ve managed to persuade a general formerly an enemy to align with them and march his army on his former grand duke. During our last session they came up with a plan to get into the keep of the grand duke and enact their lawful orders to depose him and either capture or kill him.

I owe them a good ending, I owe them a way to tie up as many loose strings as I can so that when we finally close the book on this campaign, everyone feels like they got to tell a good story. I don’t have a time table on when this is all going to wrap up. I imagine that it’ll take a bit still. If my players were nice, they’d finally let me have my TPK (Total Party Kill).

P.S. I’m going to start sharing some short bits of fiction that I wrote and shared previously with just my players. I used it as a way to give them some knowledge of the world they were playing in and for my own artistic edification. Any feedback would be great.

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