Variety is the Spice of Roleplaying

This week I offer some advice on adding variety to your campaigns:

Hello,

I am trying to make this setting, where my players will participate in some games, and right now I have NO clue what to make of them. I just have a general idea, for example: The First Test will challenge the cunningness of the party. With a huge set of traps, riddles and knowledge tests.  The Second Test can be of fortitude. Maybe go on for days hiking mountains, or rowing through the lake, some survival checks, fortitude checks. The Third Test and last one, will be, of course, about fighting prowess.

Maybe you can help me with some ideas. This is my first time DMing something like this. So any advice will come in handy.

Well, thanks man.

Alan

They say variety is the spice of life, and the same goes for Roleplaying.  As much as Players and DMs may have their favorite scenarios (i.e. fighting, puzzles, NPC interactions etc.), if life has taught us anything, it’s that too much repetitive behavior will make you go crazy and kill someone.  Most good DMs will attempt to add variety into their sessions, but unless they’re following a scripted adventure, sometimes this can be a real challenge.  To simplify things for myself, I break down all adventure elements into the following 5 categories:

1. Combat
2. Puzzles & Traps
3. Skill Checks
4. NPC Interactions
5. Detective Work

I try to include 3 or 4 of these encounters in every “Episode” of a Campaign, and all 5 over the course of Campaign.  Ultimately it’s up to you and your Players to decide what’s important and what’s not, but I can tell you from experience that having all 5 can make for the most memorable gaming experiences.

In the above question, Alan is actively trying to do what I’m suggesting, but in such a way that Combat, Puzzles and Skill Checks will all be separated from one another in a tournament.  This can be a dangerous thing depending on the length of each challenge.  If you plan to have each challenge span more than one gaming session (or even a single session), I would encourage you to incorporate more than 1 of the above 5 types of encounters.

A week long struggle through the mountains might sound epic, but if all that happens is rolling Skill Checks and the DM describing the PCs hardship, the Players are going to get bored quickly.  It would be more interesting to build other encounters and challenges around your central challenge. If Players are going to be hiking for 3 or 4 days, be sure to throw in a little bit of combat, and perhaps at some point they’ll come up against a puzzle to be solved in order to continue onward.  Don’t let these additions overshadow the fact that the major challenge is Fortitude, but make sure that’s not ALL it is.

The same goes for each of the other two challenges.  No one wants to be frustrated by puzzles and riddles for an entire session, and don’t make Fighting Prowess NOTHING but fighting for 2 days straight.  Even the most die-hard combat fans need a break now and again.  Now let’s take a look at each of these 5 encounter types a little more closely:

Combat
Variety in Combat is important.  Don’t just have combat be straight-forward hack & slash.  Allow for Player creativity, whether it’s taking advantage of terrain in some unique way (granting bonuses for higher ground), or utilizing the environment in order to kill (breaking a stalactite to impale a dragon).  Keep in mind, you may need to drop some hints to players if they’re not used to this sort of thing, but it does help keep things interesting, especially in lengthy combat scenes.  

Puzzles & Traps
I’ve already written an extensive article on effectively utilizing Puzzles & Traps, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Skill Checks
The important thing to remember with Skill Checks is to make them interesting and make them matter.  If the characters need to catch some fish one day in order to eat, don’t simply ask for one Survival check.  Also have them make a Search check to find the best place to fish, and a Craft check to make a fishing pole or net.  And be sure that each roll has some impact on the final result (i.e. number of fish caught), and that not catching enough fish will mean the rest of their journey is harder (a penalty from hunger).

NPC Interactions
Again, I have written quite a bit on NPC Interactions, so I’ll refer you to my previous blogs.

Detective Work
This final one may seem out of place or unnecessary, but I’ve found it to be one of the most important qualities of a good Campaign.  Simply put: Players love solving problems.  The thing to remember though, is that solving a mystery is only fun if it’s not impossible to do, and progress is made steadily.  Every mystery should have a handful of steps (at least two) that will take the Players through the mystery and reveal more and more information along the way.   Each step should reveal enough information to get them to the next step without making it obvious what the solution is.  The more steps you have, the more complex the mystery, and the more important it should be to the story.

I hope this was helpful, and if you would like me to delve a bit deeper into one of these areas, feel free to ask!

Good luck with the Campaign,
The Dungeon Master

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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