A few weeks ago, my homebrew campaign was starting to feel like the gears were struggling to turn, plot-wise. Trying to make things work was becoming less fun and more like, well, work. Based on some communication I’d had with my players, I decided that the best way to deal with this was to put the campaign on hiatus and take a different approach to the game. I didn’t make this decision lightly. This is the second campaign I’ve suspended for plot reasons. I could spend all day debating whether I’m just not good at plot pacing, or if it’s just the cliché of plot not surviving contact with players. Let’s not do that. That’s boring. Instead we’ll focus on what I did do: went Essentials only and took what I’m calling a “back to basics” approach to the game.
Making the “Essentials only” call is, in addition to being part of my simplification effort, largely an experiment to see what these rules have to offer without having “core” elements confusing the results. Partly to that end, I’ve also done away with house-rules. I’m running this campaign RAW. Like a lot of people, I’ve had the long combat thing happen at my table. I’m four sessions into the new campaign and I can say that in our usual sessions of about 6-8 hours, we’re getting through 3-4 combats plus role-playing in between. That said, I don’t think I can say that Essentials is necessarily faster. We’re getting through about one more combat per session, and my players do seem to have less choice paralysis during their turns, but those things might also be due to being back in the Heroic tier from Paragon.
What definitely feels like a success, though, is the “back to basics” part. I should probably explain what I mean by that, so we’re all on the same page. In my previous two campaigns I took a plot-first approach, with a focus on making the PCs the “heroes” of the story. I had things mapped out from Heroic to Epic and, with occasional exceptions, planned my encounters and events around that. I’ve done away with that method for this Essentials campaign. I’m running published adventures from the Essentials products and things published with those rules adjustments taken into account (like Madness at Gardmore Abbey). Most importantly, though, I’ve abandoned long-term plot work.
I am simply running things that I think will be fun, and making slight tweaks here and there based on what the PCs do and just letting things happen as they will with no attachment to outcomes. I’m not doing elaborate planning any further than a session or two in advance. I’ve found it satisfying and a real weight off my shoulders as far as stress goes.
I’ve also told my players I won’t fudge rolls. If they make mistakes, or if the dice are against them, that’s how the cards will fall. In the very first adventure I ran, there was nearly a TPK. Two PCs died permanently. To be fair, it was a tough adventure and the final encounter was level 6 while the PCs were still level 2. The difference is that in my previous campaigns I would’ve felt like I needed to tweak things to make sure the PCs survived for the sake of the plot. That feeling is gone, now. And it’s a relief.
Game prep doesn’t feel like work anymore, even when I’m mapping things out in Masterplan. As much as I love my homebrew campaign (like I’m sure any DM who has crafted a world does), this just feels like it clicks with my players’ style of play better. For the first time in a long time, I am not feeling like I’m crawling up hill when I’m running the game. I think I’m able to transfer that saved energy into more enjoyment for my players, too. I made one of them crack up laughing at the table at our last session. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before!
So, what’s my point in all this? You ask that as if I need a point to ramble on about something. Okay, fine, I guess what I’m saying boils down to this, and maybe it’s an obvious thing I’ve just happened to discover now: an epic (not the tier), sweeping plot isn’t really necessary for D&D. The game seems to shine when you just run the thing and stop trying to make it do things that it is arguably not really built for in the first place.