I recently received two related questions from a long-time reader. I responded to him quickly, though I also wanted to expand on the answers as the topic seems universal to gaming groups. The questions focus on how to alter the routine of a gaming group when it feels like the sessions are no longer quite as fun and the thrill is gone. You can find the questions and my answers below, and please contact me if you have other questions!
I’ve been running a game for about 14 months now, and my group took about half a year to complete Phandelver. We hadn’t played before, but I believe we’re doing well. Upon finishing, we decided to start anew with Out of the Abyss. Because of the unusual setting, I find it rather hard to DM that campaign, and the group is a bit frustrated with the limited resources and equipment. We recently played a one-shot with the Phandelver characters and everyone was very nostalgic. Now there’s Storm King’s Thunder, and I believe the Phandelver characters could just transition into that setting. I feel the temptation to rest the Out of the Abyss campaign and start Storm King’s Thunder instead. Is that a legitimate idea? Or can I be confident that Out of the Abyss will become more “likeable” over time?
I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the question, and the obvious care you have about the gaming experience for all of the players involved in the sessions. To provide a clear answer immediately, yes, your idea is legitimate! I believe it is the DM’s job to monitor the enjoyment level of the players (and him- or herself) and adjust accordingly. There are several options available to you, and I believe any of them are legitimate to pursue.
First, you mentioned you are finding the Out of the Abyss setting “rather hard to DM” because of the “unusual setting.” There are resources available to aid your efforts if you wish to continue running Out of the Abyss, such as Sly Flourish’s aptly-named series, Running Out of the Abyss. He has written seven detailed articles about individual chapters in the Out of the Abyss campaign, and his first article in the series addresses how a DM can adjust to make the adventure more forgiving to players.
Personally, I am also most comfortable when the campaign is tethered to a typical fantasy environment. I have taken campaigns into the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Elemental Chaos in the past, and those sessions tend to be a bit more challenging for me to run effectively. When the environments, creatures, and obstacles become more fantastical, I find I’m less confident in my descriptions of events and how the world “works.” When in doubt, simplify the elements from the campaign book or reduce the number of bizarre elements in any given session to something that feels more suitable and familiar to your style.
Second, you mentioned “the group is a bit frustrated with the limited resources and equipment.” One option to engage the group more in this adventure is to give them more resources and equipment. In other words, make it a bit easier for them. I have not run Out of the Abyss though my understanding is the beginning of the adventure is quite brutal for low-level PCs. As the DM, don’t be afraid to skip over sections where the PCs are meant to struggle just to survive. Get the PCs to a spot where they have some choices, and respond to their ideas instead of what is only in the book. For instance, if they are groaning about a lack of equipment, then make up some quest that would give them better gear. Bluff and make it seem like it’s part of the adventure all along because even the darkest dungeon has crates, webs, and graves that can be searched for treasures and equipment!
Third, the idea of shelving the current campaign (and characters) to return to a campaign (and characters) that the players enjoyed certainly seems like a worthy option. One thing to remember is that even though the player in the DM role is often seen as the driving force behind the campaign, the game is fueled by ALL of the players at the table. In times of possible trouble, lean on the support and feedback from the other players. We DMs tend to take on too much responsibility, and this is a clear example when soliciting feedback from other players would be incredibly useful. Feedback can be gathered in real-time during the next session or through email; you could modify questions from this new-player interview document. As the DM, you could summarize your thoughts about the current campaign and present a few options. Players could vote for how they want to spend his or her gaming time, and they could even decide to bounce back and forth from one campaign to the other. Maybe their is a brilliant option one of your players has that you have not considered yet. So don’t try to “save” the gaming group on your own. Ask for help!
Fourth, you pondered if you can expect Out of the Abyss to improve over time. Again, not having run the adventure, I cannot give you a direct opinion on that. As you read through the adventure, are there sections that get you excited? Are there NPCs you can’t wait to play at the table? Are there challenging situations you’d love to see how your players overcome? If so, then tracks those on a sheet of paper or mark them in the book somehow. If those moments are plenty and spread throughout the adventure, then it’s likely you’ll find joy in the campaign. However, if there are not many interesting scenarios, monsters, and NPCs to you, then it’s highly unlikely your enjoyment will suddenly blossom just by playing it more often. A good tip for running any adventure is to highlight the pieces that seem really great and streamline the rest. Don’t feel beholden to every word written in the book! I ignored early sections in Hoard of the Dragon Queen and I believe the sessions were much better for it.
One of my players has ambitions to DM himself, and we discussed the option of me continuing the Out of the Abyss campaign, and him taking over the old Phandelver party in the new Storm King’s Thunder adventure. Depending on who had more time to prepare, we’d play a couple of sessions in one adventure, then switch over to the other campaign. Do you think this could work?
Yes, yes, yes! Yes! YES!
This is a wonderful solution for multiple reasons. First, it unburdens you as the only DM and “facilitator” of the gaming group. Share the load with another player and get them some experience in the DM chair. Second, it allows you to jump into the game as a player, and I believe playing regularly helps you as a DM. When you are a player, you notice the rhythm of the table in a different way. You notice rules that seems cumbersome or adventure hooks that fall flat. Playing a character in another adventure will make you a better DM, and DMing from time to time will make you a better player.
Third, it breaths life into the gaming group, as each DM will have their own style. Each DM has her own pace and manner when running a game. For example, as much as I try to mix things up during sessions, I probably rely on the same set of NPC voices too often! Regardless of how much I try to change my voice, I end up sounding like I’m doing a bad Sean Connery impersonation. Switching DMs can continue to change the energy in the gaming group, and that can be a good thing.
Good luck, and let us know the outcome!
Thank you to Jared Stone for supporting my Patreon campaign, which is designed to produce more content such as today’s article. Jared’s UK-based website, Revouchers, hosts a collection of coupon codes from around the internets that can be used at various stores including LEGO Store and Toys R’ Us. Those might come in handy for me since our son will be born soon and
I’ll he’ll need some toys!