Running a first RPG campaign

Having just taken a group of players through the D&D starter campaign – The Lost Mine of Phandelver – and reaching the end of the module*, I thought I would sit back and reflect upon the experience. This will not be a particularly structured post, but hopefully will bring up some points which might inspire future blog musings, and generate some ideas for improving as a game master.

It was my first time as a GM and, at the beginning the campaign, still pretty unsure of the intricacies of the D&D 5e ruleset beyond the basic skill dice-rolling system and a rough understanding of combat. Now, twenty sessions on, I still don’t know much beyond what you might find in the quick reference PDF, but I feel a lot more relaxed about that. There have been plenty of occasions where I have felt able to just say, “let’s flip a (virtual) coin for it”. 

This mainly worked thanks to a splendid group of players who, all with varying levels of experience, are relaxed about how accurately the slightly more obscure rules were applied. Having not organised the oft-recommended Session 0, pretty much anything could have happened. This group is made up simply by the first few people to respond to an ad I put up on a Discord channel. Six strangers with nothing else in common but for a hankering to end the life of some imaginary goblins.

Internet, you bring much strife to the world but by golly, you are a marvel.

Despite the presence of many horror stories about internet-based RPG groups, these players have all played together amicably, and even managed a bit of PC-on-PC conflict whilst remaining amicable out of character. They all reliably showed up throughout the campaign, barring the odd interjection of real life, with only one falling off the grid after a good six months’ worth of sessions. We have recruited two more random strangers online to join in and carry on the adventure for perhaps a few sessions more.

It is the players who make a campaign succeed as much as it is the GM – it is they, after all, who grant the GM the ‘right’ to make a ruling and carry the story on. The world’s greatest GM would only be able to run a very poor adventure if their players took no notice of their storytelling.

So, as much as anything else, my thanks go out to my players.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver, from my experience, is a good campaign for those GMs with a propensity for over-preparation. It’s divided into suitable chapters, each of which, after a read through of the whole adventure, can be read and digested separately on an individual basis so that the aspiring game master doesn’t feel overwhelmed at the prospect of mass information retention.

What it could do with, though, is some advice for the newbie GM on how to cater for larger or smaller groups. I had five players saunter through most of the first two chapters, until I decided to go through the rest of the maps on Roll20 and add more monsters to provide a bit more of a challenge. I also had to up the power levels of the various boss fights ** to rescue the conclusion of various chapters from being anticlimatic duds. I have since discovered a tool which might have made life a bit easier.

The five players created their own characters for this campaign, discussing amongst themselves possible backstories and coming up with a group of drop outs from a travelling circus. Interestingly, none were human and every single of one of them had darkvision. One wonders how much easier this made the adventure as a whole, what with the odds of being ambushed underground having been drastically reduced.

Combat and skill checks, after some initial teething issues, have proved nice and simple to work through. I’m happy with going on in the same vein in future campaigns. With regards to role playing and narration, however, I feel there is plenty of room for improvement. From little things like noting which voices I’ve improvised for which individuals, to shifting from NPCs as quest-giving devices to characters in their own rights – I think my role playing was adequate but not great.

Narration has improved over the sessions, but I need some prompts to make sure I go beyond sight and sound. Also some thesaurus reading, because I really need some more ways to describe the rustling of leaves in a breeze.

Overall, though, the campaign has (so far) been fun and enjoyable. I’ll see how well these post-LMoP modules go before making any decisions about going homebrew- or module-based next time round.

* I would say conclusion, but having done exceedingly well all the way up to the last scene of the campaign, the party were unable to stop the arch villain from escaping, a variation the module itself does not take into account. So we are still going, now unfettered and unguided by a game designer’s advice.

** Though even that can fall by the wayside if you can’t pass a Wisdom save – in one gaming session which included the supposedly tough goblinoid boss of a keep I failed 14 out of 19 Wisdom saves, leaving all my toughest combatants either frozen in place or fighting for the wrong side…)

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