It’s with a heavy load of regret that I announce this is my final Dungeoncraft column. It’s the 31st column I’ve written in this virtual space, and it’s seen the birth of two campaigns—the second of which is still going strong. I enjoy writing about my campaign, I like sharing my insights into running the game as I discover them, and I like hearing feedback from readers who share in the pleasure of those discoveries.
On the other hand, my job has changed significantly at least twice since I started writing this column almost three years ago. When I started, I was the Lead Story Designer for D&D, sort of the right-brain partner of left-brain Rob Heinsoo, the Lead Mechanical Designer. About a year later, I was promoted to Design Manager, and a year and a half after that I made a lateral move to be Creative Manager—which is not too different from Lead Story Designer.
I mention my job shifts because of the sad reality that Dungeoncraft has increasingly fallen into the cracks—I end up writing it in the last moments before it’s supposed to go online, squeezing it into the midst of a very full schedule of design, management, and meetings. I can’t keep that up—it’s too hard on me, and it’s not really fair to readers. You come to the pages of Dungeon magazine expecting thoughtful, insightful advice that’s going to help make your game better. I’m glad for the extent to which I’ve been able to provide that, but I certainly feel like I could’ve done more if I’d had more time to devote to each month’s column.
So I figured I’d end my run in this illustrious chair (previously occupied by the likes of Ray Winninger and Monte Cook) by summing up my philosophy of campaign building, to end on a pithy note that ties it all together.
I think a sentence I uttered during our annual “Art of the Dungeon Master” panel at PAX Prime this year sums it up pretty well:
“If no one is paying you for writing your campaign material, plagiarize everything.”
At the panel, a well-meaning DM asked if it was all right for him to reuse material he wrote for one campaign in his next one. As if, somehow, he’d be depriving his new group of players, robbing them of the experience of having something new and wonderful created just for them.
Art patrons get to enjoy that experience, because they pay for it. Hence my answer: If your players are art patrons who pay you for your work in creating your campaign, by all means, earn your keep. Create new material just for them. Along similar lines, if you’re planning to publish your campaign material and thus earn money for that work, it had better be original material or you could end up in legal trouble.
But unless one of those two rare circumstances applies to you, you have to remember this very important fact:
You’re playing a game.
(Of course, if you’re in school and writing papers for class, for which you are not getting paid, don’t plagiarize anything. We’re talking about your D&D game, not the real world.)
There’s nothing wrong with spending time on your hobby—that’s what hobbies are for. But no one should dictate to you how you spend your hobby time, and you should never feel obligated to spend more time on it than you want to.
Thousands of pages of published adventures and campaign settings are available out there. Thirty-five years’ worth of material created for every edition of the game represents vastly more material than any one group of players could ever use. Use it!
For my Greenbrier campaign, I talked about stitching together adventures from three different editions of D&D to form a campaign revolving around themes of corruption and Far Realm intrusion. For Aquela, I’ve done something similar, adding my own past work on that world into the mix, aiming toward themes of chaotic annihilation, lawful domination, and magic gone awry. One of my goals throughout has been to show how you can use all the D&D books on your shelves, whether they’re brand new releases or classics from the past, to build a campaign that’s uniquely yours. I’ve talked about looting cities like Silverymoon from published campaigns and using character backgrounds to tie published adventures into the themes of your campaign. Essentially, I’ve been trying to encourage the process of rampant creative pillaging. Maybe a better way to put it is creative laziness—don’t do more (creative) work than you need to, and especially don't do more than you want to.
If there’s one theme running through the Dungeon Master’s Guide that I think defines my perspective and sets it apart from past editions of that book, it’s that even the Dungeon Master has a right to a life. I’m in my 40s, married with a young teenager in the house, working full-time and trying to make time for hobbies like music and theater that aren’t D&D. One of my key goals for the 4th Edition D&D game was to make sure that the game allowed people like me to be DMs. Through the history of the game, it hasn’t always been easy to be a busy (or lazy) DM—even if you only ran published adventures and plagiarized everything, sometimes the rule books (and the community of players) would make you feel guilty for it. I cited these past DMGs in an article I wrote for the release of 4th Edition:
“What lies ahead will require the use of all your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time.”—1979
“Creating a campaign of your own is the most difficult, but most rewarding, task a DM faces.”—2000
“Planning an entire campaign seems a daunting task, but don’t worry—you don’t have to plot out every detail right from the start. You can start off with the basics, running a few adventures (whether published or those you design yourself), and later think about larger plotlines you want to explore. You’re free to add as much or as little detail as you wish.”—2008
One of the themes I keep coming back to is that, despite my past experience with the game and my current employment, I no longer believe that a DM’s most important and illustrious work is world-building. For the purposes of your game, a few strong themes, evocative place-names, and memorable NPCs will get you a lot more bang for your buck than a world map, extensive history, and dozens of unique cultural details. Tolkien was a world-builder, and generations of DMs have longed to follow in his footsteps. There’s nothing wrong with that—what’s wrong is making more practical, busy, or lazy DMs feel bad if they don’t share that aspiration.
From that perspective, I’ve hit a couple of highlights of creative laziness:
Start small: Start the campaign with a small area and build outward from it.
Steal maps: If you, like me, hate drawing maps, then steal them and modify them as necessary.
Pillage creatively: Steal elements and opponents from published adventures even if you don’t use the adventures as written.
Hit the library! The fact that something was written for a past edition of the game is no reason not to use it in your current game.
The D&D World: [link to #20, 10/09] Three different DMs can take the same basic starting material, found in the DMG, and turn it into three very different campaigns.
Steal from yourself (and steal more from yourself)! If you had good ideas in past campaigns, there’s nothing wrong with using them again.
Assist your brainstorming: I coined term "assisted brainstorming" to describe my process of generating ideas for my new campaign by browsing through notes from my old campaigns.
Weave in published adventures: Putting the DMG’s advice to use in making a published adventure part of your own campaign themes.
What Else to Say?
Given that my major theme for this column has been, “Don’t do more work than you need to,” I feel that I’m running out of things to talk about. In the final analysis, that's much more important than the numerous tasks competing for my time in retiring from Dungeoncraft: I think I’ve made my point. Belaboring it runs counter to the whole message. If making a campaign is easy, I shouldn't need more than 30 columns to tell you how to do it!
So there it is. Thanks for reading all over the years, thanks for your input and feedback in forums and conventions, and thanks for taking on the not-as-hard-as-it-used-to-be-and-really-quite-rewarding job of Dungeon Master. I hope it remains rewarding for you and you keep having fun, whatever your level of time investment in the job.
For all the stress of getting this column written month after month, I’ve had a lot of fun with it. Most importantly, my game has gotten better because of it. My hope is that the same is true for you.
About the Author
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for D&D R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition D&D and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.