Mastering Dungeons: #010 - on starting small

Welcome back! Today I want to talk about limitations.

So I get it. We  all want to be part of a massive Save the World from Total Annihilation  campaign, where we get to be the heroes that literally Save The Freakin'  World. I blame Tolkien, but that's another rant, er, post.

Anyways, most DM  build up this incredible, unique, massive world with continents  separated by oceans and huge kingdoms and cities with all these gods and  races and complex societies, blah, blah, blah. Don't get me wrong. I  think it's great that some DM's spend years of their lives developing a  world like this, but let's be realistic. Playing a three hour session  every other week gets you about 75 hours of game time a year. Let's go a  little crazy here and say your group is different. Your group is  die-hard. No one in your group ever misses game night, and they insist  on playing from 9pm to 2am every Saturday night. That gives you about  250 hours of game time a year.  I've heard of a group that's been  playing consistently for, like, 25 years, with the same characters,  trudging through the published Temple of Elemental Evil campaign module.  Even with this unlikely level of dedication, how much of your world is your  group actually going to see? I'm 45 years old and I've barely seen 4  states. Sure I've driven criss-cross from coast to coast a couple times,  and granted I've got a wife and kids, a full time job, and a mortgage  to pay every month, which your characters probably don't, and I guess I  know people in the military and church mission groups who've traveled  the world, so yeah, an adventurer is an explorer or wanderer by nature,  but still. They spend most of their lives in taverns or dungeons...

Wait. What was my point? 

Oh yeah, here it  is. You don't need to fully develop your world. You don't have to write  99% of it. Unless it has a direct impact on your plot, it doesn't matter  that King Fergus of Statham once slept with the wife of King Harkin of  Melnont, or that 1200 years ago the Dwarves of Westerlaven gave up the  forge and embraced music, or that the island of Zaberlee was named for  the Elf Queen who gave her life 999 centuries ago so that Umlusk could  become the God of the Ocean. The lore and history of the world will  likely have very little effect on the individual characters. Develop the  plot of your campaign first! Then, and only then, figure out what your  world needs to make the plot logic work. 

Even if your world  threatening scenario is that King Harkin summoned a Demon to kill King  Fergus, and that Demon instead killed King Harkin and now is trying to  open a rift to the abyss so he can bring in minions to take over the  mortal world, then yes, it might be slightly important for the players  to know about the adultery that led to the terror, but it still doesn't  change anything or even affect the plot. The plot is that they need to  stop a Demon from taking over the world.

What kind of lore or history are  important? The only things that are important are things that apply to  your plot- in this case, stopping a Demon from opening a gate and taking  over the world. For starters, they need to find a way to destroy the  Demon. Is this possible in your world? Or is the best option to Banish  the Demon away somehow? Or are they limited to simply Binding the Demon  in a prison of some sort? 

If it's possible  to kill the Demon, what do they need? Is there a mythical weapon already  in existence that they need to find? Write its creation and use into  the world's history. If the best option is a ceremony to Banish the  Demon back to the Abyss, then write that into your lore- How was the  ceremony created and why? Who performed it and how? When was it used and where? If there is a way  to Bind the Demon, again either through an existing magic item or  ceremony, then that's your lore. 

Did any of this  involve Dwarves? If so, then maybe you do need to include their sudden  shift from ironworking to song. Maybe they used magic to Bind a Demon  all those years ago and their song is what keeps it bound. If Dwarves  had no part in previous Demon fighting then leave their history out.

Did any of the  options involve the gods? If it did, and Zaberlee died performing the  ritual of banishment against a Demon eons ago, then include it. If the  God of Oceans fights against demons, then include it. But if gods or  elves have never fought a Demon, then leave them out, or minimize their  development and focus on things that do apply.

You can always  fill in details later for these less-than-relevant groups. Maybe all  your players want to be elves, or at some point in your campaign one of  the players suggests going to the elves to ask for help to find the road  to the Dwarves who have something. Then, and only then, do you need to create the Elven Histories  or Dwarves backstory.

As DM, I want to  be as surprised and fascinated as the players. I don't want to know  everything. I don't want to have to keep trying to force my players down  a necessary road to reach my  conclusions. If I did, I'd write a book, not play a game. I play a game  because I want the experience of discovery, just like the players have. Let your players develop the story!

If your players know that the characters need to defeat a Demon to save the world, ask them how they think this should be done. Yes, they can go to the Dwarves and ask them how they did it with song, or they can go to the elves and ask them how their gods did it, but ask the players if they have any ideas. Then sift through those ideas to see what you can use to make it work.

If your PCs know that the dwarves used song to defeat a Demon, and the elves sacrificed a goddess to stop a Demon, and they have no way of doing either of these things, then maybe they'll decide that they need to create an enchanted weapon of Demonslaying, or they'll need to spellcraft a Destroy Demon ritual or incantation, or they'll need to brew a poition of Protection from Demons, or...

Do you see where I'm going with this? Let them create the story, and you as DM will become a character in the adventure as well. The best mysteries, adventures, and challenges do not have solutions. Don't write the ending. Let your characters do that, probably through trial and error, and you'll all have much more fun.

As always, thanks for reading! 

~Tony  [email protected]