Back to Basics

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.

No more of this.

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.


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  1. BlindGeekUK

    I think Essentials is definitely the right way to move forward with new campaigns, and for the most part, it’s what I did with my Thunderspire game (Bladesinger, Scout, Cavalier, Warlord). I’d like to see a simpler Warlord released for Essentials, and there are some I wouldn’t use – the Hexblade just doesn’t click with me, and I prefer the original Assassin.

  2. Jerry "Dread Gazebo" LeNeave

    I’m in the same boat, as newbie says: “Don’t try to be Tolkien”. Its too much work setting up huge plots only to have your players stray from them entirely anyway. I’m also pro-essentials only (with a few exceptions of my own as well). Hopefully this + new players for me will make for the best game in a long time.

    Glad good things are on the horizon for you, man. Keep us posted as to how things unfold.

  3. Jaron

    I like the summary: “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.”

  4. Frank Foulis (@DarthJerod)

    As we have tweeted back and fourth I was glad that you are still running a game.

    When I started up my first TRUE 4e campaign I was in the middle of running D&D Encounters Keep on the Borderlands and while I love Essentials some of the new players wanted to try some classes from PHB2.

    I ended up with a mix. I have a Warlord (who is dying this weekend to end a plot thread he wanted) Bard, Warden, Sentinel, Slayer, Scout and Arcanist (who I am trying to have him make a Mage)

    It works well. I am doing almost no houserules except for things like Fate points from The Weem’s site and halving Hit Points to speed up combat since we only play for 4 hours a week.

  5. Spyder

    It’s funny how liberating it is to hardly plan. At the beginning of my current game (which started in January) I didn’t plan after the session at all. I just found things and threw them at my players. Eventually pieces started to click together and we now have a truly awesome game that now has an overarching plot. And even then it’s just a list of events that I know the bad guys will do, regardless of PC actions. And even then it only works because I know the PC’s can’t actually touch the main villain til well into epic tier.

    Hhhhmm… I might write a blog post about this too. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Icosahedron

    It’s true that not planning is liberating, but you can still suffer from burnout.

    I’ve been running a campaign for a couple of years, and I’m sick to death of it. We’ve just entered paragon tier (we only play a couple of hours a week).

    Of course, I think that part of it is the adventures we’re using. The Scales of War adventure path is very linear.

    I’m going to take some time off, and when I come back, I would like to pursue something more sandbox, like Gardmore Abbey or convert the Pathfinder Kingmaker series to 4e.

  7. Frank Foulis (@DarthJerod)

    I only plan so much as for something as, ‘I would like to see this happen, let me try and fit that in’

    I will get many ideas over the course of the week between sessions where ideas will hit me and I will try and fit it in. Also on game day those very ideas could change if a player did not show or I thought up something better or even a character decision.

    I have started blogging on the wotc community for my players (and others to read) about my decisions behind the choices I made all from the perspective of like a DVD special feature. I have deleted scenes for ideas that never happened and original intentions for the session. My players love it and think it is a cool feature. I am very candid in it and if a spoiler happens then it happens.

    For this weekends game they now know something bad is going to happen beyond me saying I am going to kill them all, as that threat no longer works. I actually talked about my thought process and why I did what I did and how those decisions are forcing my hand.

    I have run the Harkenwold series, and slaying stone, not in that order along with things from Dungeon Delve and the basic adventure from the DMG. I have spiced things up, picked and chose what to include and omit and pretty much am having a blast.

    It is liberating to not be tied down to a RAW game or even the adventures themselves. It is probably why I chose the Nentir Vale. I can do what I want and avoid all the Realms stuff.

  8. DigitalDraco

    @BlindGeek I’m still not entirely sold on Essentials. It works, but I agree with you that there’s still some things missing from the “core” and that prevents me from saying it’s a good replacement for those rules. Granted, that’s mostly on the player end of things. Like you, I miss a few of the “old” classes. At least they finally gave the bard some attention in the Feywild book. I have no complaints as a DM, though. And to be fair, none of my players are complaining, either!

    @Jerry I think there could be a way to approach long term plot work in D&D. At this point I’m thinking it requires either far more adaptability than I was able to muster or possibly working on it from more of a ground-up approach instead of top-down. Might be fodder for a future blog post. :)

    I hope your new group and campaign works out for you!

    @Jaron It still takes effort to tame my desire to tweak things (apart from little details), but I’m glad it seems to be working for us!

  9. DigitalDraco

    @Spyder That’s about exactly what I am hoping to accomplish with my current campaign: starting out small and then using that to build up something larger, instead of visa versa.

    I like the idea of having some pre-set events for antagonists. I’ve heard that as advice from at least one well respected game designer as well, though I’ve not yet tried it myself.

    @Icosahedron Burn out can happen no matter what you do. But there are certainly things you can do to help prevent it, I think, like not working at cross-purposes from your players (not PCs) goals at the table.

    I can certainly see how a strict progression in the adventure could be tiresome for all involved, though. And Gardmore seems to be excellent for allowing the DM and players leeway in how things unfold.

    @Frank To be honest I was skeptical about Essentials at first, having heard it really over-simplified things as far as classes went. Now, I think if I have a “next” D&D 4e campaign, I might allow a few select classes from the PHBs again and let Essentials mix with “core”.

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