This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
You posted an article about making games for younger gamers. Can you post an article about making games for older (30+) gamers? I guess the topic would be how to keep old timers still interested. I can always use more ideas. -- smoker, from Wizards message boards
It's a good question, given that a lot of gamers have been playing since way back when, some still running earlier versions of the game, some keeping up with all the latest supplements. It's also a hard question to answer, in that older gamers are generally more diverse than younger gamers. Almost by definition, younger gamers are going to be new gamers. Older gamers could also be brand-new gamers, or they might have played other games and are new to D&D, or they could be old hands. That's the group I think you're talking about in this question.
Power of Nostalgia
If you're dealing with players who've been playing D&D for a long time, you know that they've pretty much seen it all. One thing you can do is take advantage of that and tap into the power of memory and nostalgia. Go back to some of the ancient classics of D&D and either update them yourself or find some that have been redone by others (e.g., Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, White Plume Mountain, or Tomb of Horrors updates on this website, Dungeon magazine's updates of Isle of Dread or Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure). Experienced players might get a big kick out of playing old-school adventures with new twists and turns thrown in.
If you are doing it yourself, you can keep things simple and just update monsters, treasures, and challenges to fit with current editions. You could also replace the old versions with higher- or lower-level challenges suitable to fit the PCs in your campaign. Alternatively, you could add new plot elements. Maybe the original inhabitants of an area were pawns of another power that has now assumed direct control. If you assume that a significant amount of time has passed since the original adventure was completed, then new enemies could have established themselves in spots where the once-dreaded names of their predecessors have become no more than bad memories. You could even take a cue from the old Ravenloft Castle Forlorn boxed set and design the adventure so that it can take place in multiple timelines simultaneously -- depending on the PCs' actions, the adventure might be the 'classic' they remember, it could be an updated version, it could be a nearly empty complex just under construction or first being established, or it could be an abandoned, burnt-out ruin haunted by the restless spirits of the villains who once called it home.
That route is complicated, but it could be an interesting one to follow. It suggests another possible angle for keeping experienced gamers interested -- more complex or exotic plot elements. This is a tricky way to go, because it can create a sort of arms race as you try to make things more and more and more exotic and strange, to the point where things become outright bizarre. There's no way to know for sure when too much is too much, but always keep this in mind: people play D&D because they like to play D&D. While experienced gamers in particular don't want to keep rehashing the same tired plots and activities over and over, it still needs to feel like D&D. Too much monkeying with the works in an effort to customize, revolutionize, and 'keep it fresh' leads to an unrecognizable mish-mash of genres, styles, rules, and ideas that doesn't feel like anything anymore. Every gaming group needs to find that balance for itself.
New DMs... or Campaigns
Some changes are easier to make and lend themselves more to a consistent feeling of 'it's still D&D' without dipping into 'it's the same old D&D'. One is to rotate DMs. Have someone else run the game. No matter how good you may be behind the screen, anyone's style can get stale after a while. Spending some time as a player gives you a chance to see again what it feels like to be on the other side of the table and to watch how someone else runs things (while reflecting on your own DMing at the same time) while also letting everyone have a taste of something different. You could switch off for several weeks or months at a time, or you could have several campaigns running simultaneously. One week you might play Tom's campaign, another Jim's, another Pat's. Or let one person be the DM for a month, then another for a month, or for however long it takes to finish the adventure -- it could be one session or it could be ten.
You could also introduce rules to take away some of the familiar shortcuts in the campaign world. Do you wish that PCs would spend more time traveling overland like the heroes in The Lord of the Rings? Get rid of teleport spells. Do you wish PCs would keep the same equipment for a few adventures instead of always changing over as they improve, and for their items to have personality and color? Make all (or most) magic items into 'legacy' items as in Weapons of Legacy. Do you want magic to be affected by the cycles of the cosmos? Borrow the moons of magic from Dragonlance or the planar conjunctions of Eberron. Hate how characters come back so easily from death? Get rid of raise dead and resurrection spells -- maybe only wish and miracle can bring people back to life (though you might want to expand the death range beyond –10 hit points, especially at high levels, or look at other changes to avoid character's dying too easily). Sometimes changing just one or two rules can really alter the stale habits of gaming and make players come up with new strategies and new ideas about playing their characters. Even just emphasizing role-playing can do the same.
A similar idea is to switch campaign settings. If you're bored with the Forgotten Realms, try Eberron. If you're bored with Eberron, try your own homebrew world. If you want to stay in the world where you are, try going somewhere else in the same world. A Forgotten Realms campaign set in Thay will feel very different from one set in Cormyr, or Bloodstone Pass, or Waterdeep. This could mean restarting the campaign in a new place or creating reasons for existing characters to travel there. Rulebooks such as Frostburn, Sandstorm, Underdark, and Stormwrack provide a wealth of ideas for extended campaigns in settings where the environment itself is part of the challenge, making even high-level characters work for their xp!
Going a step further, you could switch to a campaign setting that introduces a whole new cultural outlook on life as well as some setting-specific rules. Kara-Tur (Asian), Al-Qadim (Arabian), Maztica (Mesoamerican), or something based on Africa, India, or a completely original culture could give the campaign a solid kick. The new culture could be located in a different region of your 'regular' campaign world -- perhaps literally on the far side of the world. It could have connections to the familiar, European-style parts of the world. PCs could be outlanders from the 'regular' campaign area in these places, or they could be natives of the area who have little or no knowledge of the world outside their setting. Alternatively, it could be a completely new world with no connections to the previous campaign, requiring entirely new characters and concepts.
You could even take the plunge into a completely different style of campaign world along the lines of Dark Sun or Ravenloft. The mechanics of the game would be D&D but with special rules unique to the setting and a very different flavor and style of play required for success. Players come with a less jaded attitude because things are not the same as they are used to. You need to avoid falling into your own old habits as a DM. If Dark Sun is just D&D with gith instead of goblins, kanks instead of horses, and psionic +1 swords instead of magic +1 swords, then you've wasted your effort. If you want it to be different, then run it differently. If PCs are outsiders dropped into this strange world, let them twist in the wind while they figure out how things work. If they are natives, give them the benefit of common knowledge.
In considering different ways to run your game, think about how game play will be different. Is it all about bashing monsters and getting treasure, or are there other rewards? Is it more important to gain honor and reputation? How do you measure divine favor or luck earned through heroic acts? Do you earn bonus feats instead of buying magic items? If magic items become rare rewards, how will characters handle monsters with DR? What other rules will fall like dominoes if you go a different direction?
What is the economy of rewards if you're not going with traditional D&D loot? Even if you de-emphasize treasure (as in a superhero game), what do you do when cash does come into play? Are looting the dead and similar staples of D&D just not done? What do bandits steal and dragons hoard? If you give the villagers back the money the bad guys took, what rewards accrue to the PCs? Can you build a society around a unique type of economy?
In a nutshell, D&D for older/experienced gamers is much like any other kind of D&D, except that you have the freedom and incentive to try novel concepts and ideas. Because they've seen it all (or at least a lot), they're probably willing to try new things and see how what happens. Your plans won't always work out, but testing the ideas is part of the fun. Share the load and let everyone have more input on the game, including running it. Don't be afraid to dig up old nuggets from the olden days to remind old-timers of the days when they were bright-eyed youngsters slinging their first dice!
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.
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