As I'm sure you've heard me relate if you follow this blog at all, I've been a Dungeon Master and Game Master for the better part of my life. Running adventures and telling stories is in my blood, as I am also an author and a consumer of tons of movies, books, and shows. I'm guessing most people who subscribe to this blog are the same, if perhaps not with the same exact circumstances, we all must share much the same spirit and love of story. After all, a DM is a narrator, guiding other storytellers through a shared narrative experience. In most cases, DMs aren't actually playing the game - they're improvising. Some are great at acting or doing voices, others are good at keeping organized, still others are great at making maps, and some are seemingly (and frustratingly) good at everything. But have you ever known the sheer joy of a player expressing to you how much fun they had during the session? This leads me to the main point of this blog post - how do you ensure that your adventures *STICK* with your players? Let's dig in.
A SOOTHING BLEND OF STRUCTURE VS FREEDOM
Ultimately, gaming groups fall under no "one" umbrella in terms of what the most successful concept is between open world and structured. However, I am here to make the case for the story to be structured in a similar manner to many video game RPGs that exist out there. The best ones have an amazing story with different acts, but they also have a large element of open world exploration. Think of some of the most recent best-selling video game RPGs like Elden Ring or Skyrim. There are a few key elements that go into a method using open world exploration and structured story blended together like that, though.
STORY: With the blended method, you still have access to telling and delivering an amazing and even structured storyline just as if you were intentionally railroading your players. With the added benefit of open world exploration, any railroading you do as a DM will hopefully be really camouflaged by the open world aspect. You just need to have patience as a DM and try not to make it so obvious that you're pushing them in the right direction. If done well, they will start to feel like their choices are directly causing the main plot points to happen, even if they aren't.
EXPLORATION: If there are a lot of open world elements, your players will really feel like adventurers and that their characters possess some modicum of agency. This can create a lot of extra work for you as a DM, but it's worth it later on for a larger emotional payoff and investment by the players. To save time, use town generators and things like that if the location or NPC or item in question isn't going to stick around, and it's guaranteed that in most cases once the players realize they can explore anywhere that the initial novelty will wear off and they'll want to actually "do something" and that's when you can tactically railroad them.
INCITING EVENTS: An easy way to break up the exploration and indulgence of the party is to create events that spur the action, but which feel natural. The players spending too long in town? One example of how I handled that issue one time was that the group's healer wanted to stay in town and heal wounded soldiers, but increasingly over time I had the wounded men and women become jealous and covetous of his abilities since he could only use his healing spells a certain number of times per day. This led to there being a riot in the barracks between wounded soldiers and civilians, all believing they were worthy of getting healed first. The party left town the next morning. My goal was to get them out of town, but because it was a result of his character's actions, the players thought it was their idea.
ROLEPLAY: No, not everyone is an actor. However, I think it's important to pepper your sessions with little moments in which the characters get to roleplay amongst each other, even if they're only "explaining" what their characters say or do as opposed to acting it out. One of the hallmarks of every video game RPG is the tranquil moment of peace your characters often are able to enjoy around a campfire with their traveling companions, bickering or joking or entertaining one another. As a DM, if they are roleplaying amongst each other for like 10-15 minutes, it gives you a chance to organize your notes for the next section of story you'll be moving through. Just remember to take notes about any particularly useful information that is revealed through adventurers interacting with one another. You could also go the alternate route of having the players just come up with some sort of funny thing that happened between them and another player's character before they all went to sleep, and that eliminates the need to roleplay. If people are traveling overland, there are tons of little moments that people have during the travel where they bond, or chat, or perform various tasks together. I recently did a section hike on the Appalachian Trail and I still have several moments in my mind where I interacted with my companions, whether I was helping get the "bear bag" down from the tree for one of my hiking companions in the morning for them to make coffee, or whether I was helping another one hold water bottles to fill from the creek while he pumped the water through a filter - we had small moments where we connected and conversed and that can help fill the times in between exploration and story and make the characters and players connect.
STORY IS KING
A huge aspect of keeping players invested in the game and coming back every week or month or however often your game group gets together is going to be story. Sure, your players are going to have downtime, they're going to have in-between times if you run multiple campaigns with them, and of course you're going to want to let them explore a bit - but unless you have some story mixed in then your game can become just a kingdom or city-building simulation. Nothing wrong with that if that's what your players want, but ultimately most people are going to want to further the story and the stories of their respective characters. In fact, there may be multiple stories if you play with your group long enough. I introduced my grad school friends to D&D back around 2016 or so and since then, we've done two entire campaigns together with me as the DM and lots of little forays into other games or one-shots and in some cases even attempted other campaigns which failed for one reason or another (mostly real life interfering). But there are a few things you should try to strive for with your stories.
STORY ARCS: In my opinion, the first 10 levels of a character's development are the most fun for everyone involved, and the most influential with players when it comes to evolving their characters. By level 10, the players will in most cases have created a concrete foundation for their characters and will have most likely achieved some sense of narrative satisfaction with their characters without the need to develop them further. This is why I like to have various story arcs going in my game. I'll usually have a "big picture" plot, which the players can pursue once they reach level 10 or so if they want, and the "formative" plot which occurs from levels 1-10 (which may be comprised of several sub-plots). The idea is that you can close the first story arc with a sense of accomplishment for the characters and players, and if they want you can move onto another set of adventures with different characters, or even an entirely different game - or you can then involve them in higher-level adventures and unravel the "big picture" plot with their current characters. The distinction between story arcs allows for some breathing room for the players to come to terms with having done something meaningful and impactful with their characters, and they then have time to celebrate and spend their money, develop their kingdom, or even retire from adventuring if they wish. A good reference for how this works is in the D&D officially published adventure campaigns Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and The Rise of Tiamat. The two campaigns are meant to go together, but ultimately you can do all the events in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and never finish The Rise of Tiamat, or vice versa. In this example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen would be the "formative plot" while "The Rise of Tiamat" would be the "big picture" plot.
SUB-PLOTS: Don't forget to set up sub-plots for your characters to explore. They may not explore all of them, and some may not even be directly related to the "formative" or "big picture" plots, but it should give the players a chance to stave off exhaustion from the main campaign story, as well as develop some NPC contacts or set themselves up for some of those inciting events I mentioned earlier. Make sure to mine your players' backstories for any possible threads to use for sub-plots in order to give each of their characters a time to shine. Don't be afraid to sidetrack the main story with a side-trip to your Cleric's main temple, or your Fighter's father's house. Your job is to enmesh the characters into the world you've created, so take any opportunities to do so.
PUBLISHED MATERIAL: As a DM, I love creating my own worlds and stories, but a lot of the time I like to take a published adventure or campaign and just change things about it so that it feels more like something in line with things I'd create myself. Using published material will give you a great and solid foundation from which to scaffold other things on top of. When I started my grad school friends off with their first ever D&D adventure, I used The Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is a very small beginner's adventure booklet. By the time we finished that story arc, I had tripled the material inside it by adding NPCs, different places to go, and I also tied in all of the characters' backstories and gave them all a defining event. In the end, it was no longer "just" The Lost Mine of Phandelver but a mishmash of that plus various things I'd had in my head, and various things the players had spurred on with their decisions and connections. Yes, we could have still played with a completely homebrew creation, but the structure of the main module really gave me something to work with that didn't require me initially to put in a ton of effort. In my current campaign, I began entirely with homebrew and then eventually moved my players into a published campaign adventure by D&D called Storm King's Thunder. I took everything from my homebrew scenario and lifted it into the published adventure and stuck them together. Until I told them, the players had no idea they were playing a published adventure. As it stands, the main adventure is almost entirely different from the book, but still retains its structure.
TREASURE AND THE RULE OF COOL
One of the biggest things that I feel is necessary for a great adventure or campaign is to toss as many cool things as you can at the players, and to also reward them with treasure. However, I like to make the treasure meaningful and set it apart - and I like to make my NPCs have memorable quirks as well. This is the rule of cool.
DON'T BE BORING: Listen - if you give your players treasure, their ears become accustomed to only caring about magic items. Money, mundane items, mundane weapons, they may as well not be given half the time because players don't care. Why say "You found a pouch with 7 precious gemstones inside, tied to the Barbarian Chieftain's belt" when instead you could say "You notice a rugged, weathered sack tied securely to the chieftain's belt. Its coarse fabric, stained with the marks of countless battles, seems to have weathered the harshest of conditions. As you reach to untie the knot, the sack emits a faint jingle, hinting at the treasures it holds within. Loosening the knot, you peer inside, discovering a cache of gleaming gemstones, their brilliance catching the light and dazzling your eyes. The sack contains seven precious gemstones. They vary in color and shape, showcasing the beauty of the earth's treasures. Some are vivid rubies, fiery and passionate, while others are sapphires, cool and tranquil like the depths of the sea. There are emeralds, their green hues reminiscent of the lush forests, and diamonds radiant and pure as the sun's rays. Each gemstone is polished to perfection, their surfaces smooth and lustrous, reflecting the glory of their former owner's conquests"? The second example is more work, but think how often you examine items in your real life, and ask yourself why that wouldn't be the case in D&D as well? After all, the players put in a lot of hard work to defeat that barbarian chieftain, and telling them they get a "greataxe and 20 gp" is very unimaginative. You already do a ton of work as a DM so my suggestion would be to use AI for one of the uses that isn't theft and create narrative descriptions for your items. Then you need only copy/paste and maybe edit them to your liking. If you go a step further and also develop images of the items using AI, you're not benefitting financially and it's just for home use so there are no bad faith ethics involved. I recommend ChatGPT for the narrative text and Bing for the images (powered by DALL-E).
NPC BEHAVIOR: Nobody likes a boring NPC. Similar to the items I mentioned above, you want each NPC to feel like they belong in the world. Again, not everyone is an actor but as a DM as long as you can set them apart in some way, the players will latch onto and remember the NPCs longer than you expect them to. Whether it's a BBEG villain, or a mentor - you should try to give them some qualities that help them to stand out from the rest of the pack. You could give them a trademarked attack, or a cool magic weapon, or you could describe their clothing style, or even maybe just keep mentioning a particular way they have of speaking like perhaps a speech impediment or maybe they slip in and out of speaking Common and Elvish back and forth. It's really up to you, but don't be afraid to experiment!
Overall, it's going to vary from session to session what your players latch onto while you play. However, if you can keep these basic things in mind, there's no doubt you can run a successful and memorable campaign or adventure on game nights. Let me know if you think of anything else by posting it in the comments below! - Joe