These days I’ve been getting back into Dungeon Mastering with a vengeance (that’s running Dungeons & Dragons adventures, for all you sad non-nerds out there). In addition to DMing for two different groups at the same time, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of helpful content put together by other awesome DMs (shout out to Drunkens & Dragons, The Angry GM, and Performance Check).
I started keeping notes to keep track of what I’ve learned, and I thought you, savvy reader, might want to learn along with me. Although I use 5th Edition D&D to run my games, these lessons should be useful for any brand of tabletop RPG.
What you’re looking at up there is the aftermath of “The Clockwork Dungeon,” my latest adventure. I’ve gotta say, I’m darn proud of the rotating gear-based cipher puzzle I came up with for this one (you can see the decoder in the foreground), but if I ran this adventure again, I’d make one important change, which is the subject of today’s tip:
Keep it Short. Keep it Simple.
The Clockwork Dungeon was pretty short (about 4 hours), but it could’ve been even shorter and a whole lot simpler. The main map, as you can see from the photo, consisted of two large rotating rings connected by a dozen smaller rotating cogs. The scale of this place was daunting—it contained more than 20 rooms to explore (most of which held nothing of importance or interest to the players), and it was filled with over a hundred potential enemies. I say “potential” because most of them could be avoided as long as the players were cautious.
I expected the players to stealth their way toward the obviously important area in the center of the map, skipping past the stuff that was there just to provide context and atmosphere. The thing is, players (being paranoid perfectionists at heart) are inclined to explore every 5-ft square of your setting and over-plan every step of the way. Plus, even if they’re trying to avoid unnecessary encounters, there’s always the chance someone rolls a 1 on a stealth roll and all hell breaks loose.
Clearly, in retrospect, there was no reason to include all those rooms and enemies if most of them were supposed to be ignored. Several times throughout the session I had to nudge the players past the things that weren’t important so that we could get to the cool parts. So what was all that clutter doing there in the first place?
Quite simply, I got carried away. I imagined an immense clockwork complex tended by a swarm of automata. I designed the complex based on what its architects wanted it to be, rather than streamlining it to suit the needs of the adventure.
The truth is I could’ve condensed the whole shebang to maybe five rooms and a handful of enemies, and it still would’ve made sense in terms of the game setting. The players would’ve been significantly less distracted. Moreover, my prep time would’ve been cut at least in half, and the adventure would’ve been more balanced in terms of the campaign world. The players discovering that there’s an army of mechanical wonders nestled inside a nearby mountain has major repercussions for later adventures.
So here’s a summary of what I learned from this and other similar experiences:
- Keep it Short. If your situation is anything like mine, your group can only afford 3-4 hours every other week. You want each of your players to feel like they had fun and accomplished something by the end of the night. Also, keep in mind that however long you think your adventure is going to take, it’s gonna go at least an hour longer than that. A good rule of thumb is to keep your plans down to about 5 scenes, encounters, or rooms.
- Keep it Simple. What do you think is really cool about your adventure? Focus on making those aspects as cool as possible and throw out everything else. Avoid including content because you feel like it logically should be there, even though the players aren’t supposed to interact with it. I’m constantly surprised at how long players can get distracted by some random detail I included just to flesh out the environment.
I think keeping these two points in mind will save me a lot of prep time and help me deliver fun, fast-paced adventures from start to finish.