Worst Lord of the Rings d20 Game Ever: Lessons Learned

After reading through the previous two posts, one might be surprised to know that most of those players have still kept and that I’ve continued to GM for them.  Not only that but we managed to get two campaigns (one Star Wars, one D&D) to a stopping point that could be considered an ending.  Prior to that, there hasn’t been a single campaign that our group has finished.  So how did the lessons of the worst ever d20 game ever result in two rather successful campaigns?

The first takeaway was to evaluate my players and figure out what they wanted.  I could have asked but then, these are people I’ve been playing with for a few years.  Shouldn’t I know them by now?  So, I thought about their individual tastes.  Steve tends to like silly, comically dark settings littered with pop culture references (in our previous D&D session, he just got done hunting the eldritch creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood).  Gabe has a preference towards characterization and likes his encounters to have a bit of a challenge to them.  Knowing your players and what they want to do goes a long way towards a successful session.  This is opposed to my previous method of “I’m the DM and while I’ll consider your wants, we’re most likely going to do this since I’ve got a monopoly on the process.”

Unfortunately, knowing your players might not be possible for a new group.  That said, it is possible to find some common ground between each other.  While it’s important to let the players be the main focus of the game, the campaign needs to be something the GM is interested in.  So I proposed a list of campaign ideas to my players with a bunch of parameters that each involved.  Ideas like “epic high fantasy,” “low comically cynical fantasy,” “zombie apocalypse,” “steampunk Victoria,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “Legend of Zelda.”

Each campaign would have a different setting for the following categories:  fantasy, magic, power level, tone & mood and character freedom.  It’s worth noting that “fantasy” and “magic” do not always go hand in hand.  Magic usually correlates to fantasy but fantasy does not always mean magical.  Lord of the Rings is full of fantastical elements (walking and talking trees, dwarves, elves, etc.) but the actual magic is subtle.  Wizards aren’t plentiful and they don’t go around spell-slinging fireballs.  So, I defined fantasy as how real the world felt.  A low fantasy campaign would be lacking in many fantastical elements like elves, dwarves and would feel more real.  The campaign would almost play like an alternate history.  A high fantasy, on the other hand, is a world where almost anything is possible.

The level of magic would determine how common spellcasters were.  Since magic is often a game breaker, this could also affect a campaign’s power level.  A low powered setting would have nearly every encounter being a fight for survival, whereas a high powered one would have the players feeling they could take on the world.  Tone & mood were used to dictate what kind of story would take place.  A light tone and mood would be rather silly and not meant to be taken seriously.  A dark one, on the other hand, could be deathly serious or comically cynical.

The last category was character freedom.  Not wanting to repeat the Lord of the Rings disaster, I let some players know there could be certain restrictions on a campaign I was willing to run.  Star Wars, for instance, had a limit on the number (1) of PCs who could be a Jedi.  The Zelda campaign would have everyone being Link in a Four Swords campaign.  Some of the fantasy campaigns would have a restriction on spellcasting classes.  The epic high fantasy idea would have the players playing as one of four pre-created archetypes (King Arthur, Merlin, Aladdin and Santa Claus).

So, I submitted the list of campaigns I was willing to run, the parameters in which they would be run and let them choose.  They opted for a comically cynical dark fantasy, which has now begun its 2nd act.  We’ve also played a Star Wars campaign with a more fantastical flavor that has reached the end of its first act.  We’ve also played a zombie apocalypse one-off.  In short, it’s been a lot more fun and easier to GM now.

Also, being able to play for once has improved my GMing.  Normally, I’m the only person who does but we had a nice stint going where other people stepped up.  Ian GM’d a Star Wars campaign and Brandon ran a pretty awesome Pathfinder setting based off Season of the Witch (the Sean Bean Dark Ages movie, not Halloween 3).  Being able to play allowed me to recharge my own creative batteries, see things from a player perspective and was also a wish granted that I’d been hoping for sometime.

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