5 Ways To Breathe New Life Into Your Campaign
From John Grigsby
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #563
Every DM has experienced it. Your idea well has about run dry and needs a recharge. Your players have just finished rescuing another captive princess for the umpteenth time and are complaining how adventures seem the same.
Here are five means to vex your players and breathe life back into your campaign.
The secret to these little tricks is moderation. If you overuse them, they will lose effectiveness. Don’t use more than one in a single game session, and switch them up. Let a few sessions pass before pulling out the next trick.
Split the Party
It’s an adage as old as adventuring itself. There’s even been a song written about it! (No, seriously, look up “Never Split the Party” by Emerald Rose.) Everyone knows when it comes to dungeoneering, you never split the party, which is why you as DM should do exactly that!
Separating the group is a basic tactic that makes them rethink their situation. It works in any genre. Deprived of any means of communication and with the players physically separated, the game have just become suspenseful.
And if you can get a single party member alone, the rest may never trust them once they are reunited. Just tell the lone player to wait elsewhere for a moment and you’ll deal with them. Oh, and make sure they bring their dice. Even if all you do is toss a few dice during the discussion, the others will be alert for treachery. Paranoia will run rampant.
Separating them is easy. Sliding walls or hidden chutes in a fantasy or horror game, becoming separated in a crowd and subsequently lost in a city in a modern setting, and the door of a spaceship suddenly slams shut with a character on the opposite side of it in a futuristic campaign.
In modern and futuristic games, there is the problem of radio or cellular communication, but we’ve all seen the horror film where there is no cell service, and solar flares and magnetic fields can wreak havoc with communications.
Be sure not to let any one group sit too long, or they will become bored and lose interest. The party should not remain separated for more than five minutes – just long enough for you to work your evil magic. Then, bring them back together and watch the fur fly!
This tip works best if the characters are hunting something like a doppelganger or something that can control its victims (like a vampire), or if they are exploring a creepy old house or dungeon. But even if this isn’t the case, it can still be a lot of fun to plant the seeds of suspicion by having someone disappear and return later, seemingly unchanged.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
This has been used countless times in novels and movies, simply because it works. In this scenario, the heroes are forced to join forces with their enemy to combat an even greater threat that could defeat both of them.
Take, for example, a group of heroes sent to defeat a local despot, only to discover the despot is under the command of a demon whom he fears and is willing to cut a deal with the heroes in exchange for leniency.
Neither group can defeat the demon by themselves, but by working together, there is a chance. And, of course, the despot can always turn on them or flee after the battle is over, while the PCs are still weakened and depleted.
As an alternative, have a major henchman of the master villain be defeated, but not killed. After some appropriate persuasion by the heroes, he agrees to lead them to his master. Having seen the light, he’ll even fight with them against his cruel master.
Of course, he is just seeking to make himself look better in his master’s eyes by bringing them to the master and then turning on them. Or maybe he really is a changed individual and wants to undo his misdeeds (see below).
Mix Up the Stereotypes
If your players have grown tired of rescuing the helpless princess, try mixing the stereotypes a little. Maybe the helpless damsel isn’t so helpless (and not much of a damsel, either).
Instead of fainting, squealing, and being ladylike, she fights alongside the heroes. Or maybe she doesn’t fight, but instead of being grateful, she insults the heroes and points out the flaws in their tactics.
Who says that a master villain must be hated by those he enslaves? There is a real-life phenomenon called “Stockholm Syndrome” (after its first occurrence) in which captives come to view their captors with sympathy and see them as protectors, even turning against their rescuers. This would work great in a game where a master villain has enslaved an entire town of people who view him as a benevolent (if slightly prone to anger) ruler.
Imagine the looks on your players’ faces when they finally track down the horrific troll they have been hired by the townsfolk to find and eliminate, only to learn he is actually quite eloquent and aspires to be a bard!
The horrifying wails and cries the townsfolk hear each night are him singing. Killing the poor creature would be an evil act, but how will the townsfolk take to knowing a singing troll lives nearby?
I’ve used this tactic many times in my campaign, taking something the characters think they know well and twisting it into something else entirely.
Make the Abnormal Normal
As humans, we are accustomed to certain things that are simply the accepted norm. When things happen that aren’t the norm, it sends up red flags and triggers suspicion. Put this to good use in a game.
Think about a country where everyone owns an undead servant (a zombie or a skeleton). Even the simplest commoner has a skeletal field hand, and wealthy nobles keep several undead on staff as butlers, coachmen, maids and so on.
Magic is used to keep them from decaying, to control the odor and to keep them docile.
This seems strange and abominable to us, but it could be normal in this realm. But how will the players react to seeing a skeleton or zombie stalking a human on the street in broad daylight? And what will the NPC do when they destroy her servant?
If you want something less extreme, try a city where magic is illegal. Even casting a simple cantrip is sufficient to draw a fine, and anything flashier than that is worth a stay in the local jail.
Gods help you if your magic hurts someone! Once the players become adjusted, hit them with local thugs who want to lighten the PCs’ purses and see how they deal with it without resorting to magic. And if they do violate the law, the thugs will press charges against them.
Everyone has to sleep sometime, and that’s when you can have some fun with your players. Even elves enter a state of reverie, so don’t let them tell you otherwise. Once sleep takes them, the real fun can begin.
A dream can be as simple or complex as you, the DM, want to make it. I’ve run dream scenarios that encompassed an entire adventure, and I’ve run dreams that involved the passing of a single note.
One particularly memorable dream took place while the party was traveling through Ravenloft. If you aren’t familiar, Ravenloft was a realm of gothic horror, full of all the clichés of such.
My group had stumbled into this realm and were already on edge, certain that just being there would turn them into some horrible undead or other beastie. All I had to do was add a dream….
One of the party began having dreams of ravens. It started with seeing ravens everywhere in her dreams. Then she began dreaming of flying, her arms becoming raven’s wings. All of this was handled with a simple note each time the party slept.
After the fourth night, she was convinced her character was becoming a wereraven. She even took to having the party tie her up at night so she could not soar into the sky looking for victims. Of course, it was all just dreams.
Dreams also give you an opportunity to foreshadow, provide a glimpse into the future or past, or just have some fun. In a dream, anything can happen, it doesn’t need to make sense.
The dream should make some sense if you don’t want the party to suspect they are dreaming. However, I’ve run an entire adventure within a dream, in which the group figured out they were dreaming and began controlling the dream.
Comment From: Johnn
Great tips, John. Thanks very much. I especially liked the dream sequence with the wereraven. Neat idea.
We are creatures of habit. We enter into patterns without even realizing it. Switch things up in your campaigns once in awhile, just to keep players on edge.
You want them to consider your past tricks in the back of their minds when confronting new challenges, just so they are not jaded and blasé about the game.
Aim for a trick every four times to start. That is pretty frequent, but should shock your group into learning things have changed in your GMing style because of what you’ve learned. Once your group is excited again and pensive, ease off to 1 in 10, though test to find the sweet spot for you and your players.
If you have any tricks like John’s mentioned about to keep your adventures fresh and unpredictable, I’d love to hear them! Just hit reply and tell me all about it.