View Full Version : D&D Club On Campus: An Experiment and Results

2010-04-26, 04:51 PM
Hi, all. This year, I became an exec member of the McMaster Nerd Club which is a club for students to play things like Warhammer and D&D and MTG. In particular, I became the go-to-guy for D&D stuff.

A little background and motivation for the experiment
For many years, the club was run like this: there is one exec member who was in charge of D&D, one in charge of Magic, etc. In essence, the club is split up into smaller clubs that don’t really contribute to one another. I hated this idea because it meant that even though two people were members, they never saw each other or even talked. That kind of segregation went against our mission statement: to create a positive, social environment where people can enjoy their pastimes and hobbies.

D&D in particular was very anti-social. The “D&D Club Exec” would send out an email, asking people when they were available and then networked people together. You would get an email that said, “This DM can play with you on these days; are you free?” and that was basically it. We put people together and just let them do their own thing. There was never any feed-back and as far as I could tell, it didn’t work. From an impromptu survey, it looks like out of five possible games, one played on a regular basis. Of those five, three did not play even once.

This new system that I was going to do needed to address the following:
1. D&D had to be social. The DMs and players shouldn’t be islands; they should be able to interact with other groups, whether in character or not.
2. It had to be flexible. We’re university students; there are going to be times when we’re just too damn busy to make a session (including DMs) but the game should go on anyways. Stated another way, a person should never have to feel obligated to show up to a session.
3. It had to be friendly to people who have never seen D&D before but at the same time, enjoyable to “veterans”. It had to ease in new players to the mechanics while at the same time, challenging those who would optimise their characters (sometimes heavily).
4. The setting had to be flexible enough that a DM could set-up whatever kind of adventure they wanted.

The experiment
I wanted to bring our club together as a whole. I wanted people to really get that this was a social club – even though our hobbies are nerdy or whatever, we were still good people who enjoyed each others’ company. So rather than just network people together for D&D, I came up with this idea:

Our club members would all meet at one time, in one place and play together under the supervision of several DMs. We would run one-shot adventures, often on real-life time limits, with a central over-arching storyline.

We set two days a week (Wednesday and Sunday for completeness) where we would meet on campus at 7pm until about midnight. On these nights, everyone interested in D&D would show up. To start with, this was about 30 people. By the end of the year, it was closer to about 20 (some people simply stopped showing up).

Of these people, maybe about five were DMs (myself included). These people ranged in experience to completely new to “veteran” (DM’ing for many years prior). At the beginning of a session, we would write down on a white-board (anonymously) our one-shot adventure (hereafter, mission) along with some shot description. For example, one mission might be called “Cacophony in the Mourlands – Investigate abnormal music coming from the ruins of Cyre”.

Players would sign up to the adventures (again, not knowing who the DM was). They would customize their parties (“This party needs an arcane caster; wizard, are you willing to party with us?” etc.) and be on their merry way.

Loot was handled by expected character wealth gain (all DMs basically handed out the same amount of loot as the other DMs, with small deviations here and there). Experience was not given out; instead, we told players when they would level up. All players levelled up at the same time – including those that would miss some sessions. Loot was not handled this way; if a player missed a session, they did not get any loot.

We ran two sessions a week from the first week of January (week of the 6th) until April 8th with a one-week break for Reading Week (aka spring break).

The Details of the Game
We told the players that they were going to make characters that were part of a guild (“The Children of Fate”). In character, these very select people were special because they were the only version of themselves in all possible dimensions that became an adventurer. We told them to imagine that there’s a “spark” that makes someone become something great – then imagine that this spark was shared among many different versions of a person. Now, imagine that only one version got that entire spark. That person would be recruited into the Children of Fate.

The Children of Fate is a guild run by a very old Steel Dragon (LN, also a Singer of Concordance, Dragon Magic; there was no stat-block for this, we simply decided he would be of god-like powers and interact very rarely with the guild). He has used his powers to create a demi-plane that would house the physical guild-hall. This plane (hereafter, the guildhall) has one actual door leading in and out – it leads to Sigil. For reasons unknown to the players, the Lady of Pain has allowed this. This was never explained to the players though there were enough hints that some players pieced it together. The guildhall has one “multipurpose” portal to which it can travel to any plane of existence (in game terms, any campaign setting be it Faerun or Eberron or a homebrewed setting, etc.). This portal leads to any multitude of places – it may lead inside a fireplace, out of a tree trunk, etc.

The purpose of the guild is to stop any threat that would threaten reality or anything of equal magnitude. In this campaign, we decided that Ragnorra (Elder Evils) was encroaching upon reality. However, we changed her to be an interdimensional being who threatened all planes of existence simultaneously. If she gets her claws into one plane of existence, it would only be a matter of time before she infected every other plane of existence until everything was remade in her image. Toward the middle of the game, this was revealed to the players in various ways.

The game took place as a series of one-shot adventures tied together by this Ragnorra storyline. On set days (about one third of the days, spread out through the entire session), we had “storyline days.” On these days, we would reveal something about Ragnorra or have a mission that dealt directly with this threat. The date of these storyline days were not revealed to players but every DM was aware of them. All DMs would run a mission that related to the storyline for that day. For example, the fourth Wednesday session was a storyline day in which the malshapers (Elder Evils, Ragnorra) mucked with the portal – the party had to fix this problem and the existence of malshapers were revealed. All the DMs used this idea in their adventure: one DM had her party transported to a mountain where they actually tracked down the malshapers responsible, my party had their portal mess up and send them to a coliseum where all the animals had become half-spawn, etc.

On top of storyline days, there were “global effects”. These were the signs of Ragnorra’s approach. For example, healing began to be cast at higher caster levels.

The DMs got together and built the guild-hall (including NPCs), storyline day themes, and a schedule (including when players levelled up, how much expected wealth gain there was, when to run storyline days, etc.) before the first session (during Christmas break).

This information was made available to all DMs through Google Wave. There was also a PDF version that was emailed to all DMs. Included were stat blocks for NPCs. NPCs included an arcane caster, a divine caster, an “oracle” (divine caster, only cast divinations), a loremaster, several martial masters, a warforged artificer, an all purpose steward (named Stewart). In addition, every DM had a “master” who essentially represented a high ranking guild member who was able to hand out missions. These masters were vastly different (as different as the DMs): there was a paladin, a defiant, and even a marine from Trenton, Ontario.

There was a hireling mechanic where players could hire an NPC who would fulfill an archetype roll (skill monkey, arcane caster, divine caster, damage dealer). We wrote up NPCs to fit every level category but in the end, we did not use them nor reveal them to the players.

Discussion and Reflection of the Experiment
There were a lot of problems with this system but it did do well in that it addressed many of the things outlined above. Players could leave and join whenever they wanted without feeling obligated to show up (almost, more on this later). DMs could show up whenever they wanted (we even had someone show up for one session to DM and then never showed up again). DMs could run adventures in whatever setting they wanted (for example, I ran the majority of my adventures in Faerun with a few in Eberron). After a few sessions, even new players were getting the hang of things and were (for the most part) on par with the “veteran” players.

However, there were many problems and each will be outlined.

Telling players when to level up worked very well and players responded positively. However, loot became a huge issue. Some players missed almost four weeks (that is, 8 sessions). They lost so much loot that they could not keep up. We were reluctant to show them the expected wealth table and tell them to just keep up because many treasure items were homebrew and the cost/value was not well defined.

Our proposed solution to this is to create a schedule for loot (much like for experience/levelling up). DMs will still be expected to stick to tables for treasure to hand out (making all DMs keeping their players are about the same wealth) but for players who miss sessions, they need only look at a schedule and say, “Oh, I missed the January 27th session; I better add XXXX gp to my inventory” where XXXX is some value determined to be 70% of the expected treasure earned. The downside to this is that it’s just one more thing that DMs need to prepare before sessions start.

Some players were already aware of this table and took it upon themselves to calculate their character wealth and simply add the difference (if there was any), or simply keep their surplus. The problem with this is that there are often homebrewed items that have no well defined market price. Players that did this were essentially cheating. There was no way to fix this save for calculating their wealth on a case-by-case basis (i.e. audit a player). This is impractical and works against creating a positive environment in which to play.

Power Gaming and New Players
We had players who clearly made min-maxed characters. The root of this problem came from the fact that we allowed the players to use anything published by Wizards (not Dragon magazine) that was 3.5e including some well recognized 3e books (Book of Exalted Deeds, for example) (note: we did not allow Tome of Battle or Magic of Incarnum because none of the DMs were familiar with the books; we also specifically disallowed Vow of Poverty). We did not proof-read any characters. For example, one character was a crafting artificer. He took feats from FR and Eberron to make crafting negligibly easy. He introduced wealth into the game that the DMs could not account for. In addition, players that did not fall on this character’s “good side” did not benefit from this increased wealth. Power was skewed horribly. The player of this character stopped using this character after several sessions (though the influx of wealth remained).

Another character was someone who used a Dread Necromancer that was also undead (Libris Mortis). There were some spells that he was using that I have never heard of but the player assured me they were 3.5 and in a book. In essence, they were Save or Die spells that forced the DM to make the CR of subsequent encounters much higher (note, the player had somehow raised the DC of these saves to something no suitable CR NPC could logically make – at least the wizard’s spells had a reasonable DC, only made unreasonable when significant effort was made to augment it through Fate Points, etc.). In addition, this character had several high CR fossilized minions. One DM expressed concern when that player used his fossilized roc (or something to that effect) to fly over the entire adventure to get to the final encounter.

Another player feigned interest in being a DM. After all of the DM notes were given to that player, he decided he did not want to DM and proceeded to make a character. Obviously, this gives this player a meta-game advantage over all players. For example, the party was in the middle of a grassy field (described as very pleasant with a forest on the horizon); said player then cast a spell, giving himself Aberration Bane and advised the rest of the party to do so. There was no reason for this (no information was given as to the monsters they would encounter, but because of the theme of the campaign, which was still in its infancy, the player could guess that they would fight aberrations).

In the future, all characters will have to be proof-read to avoid scenarios like this. DMs will not be looking for “optimized” characters to shoot down but instead characters that are using mechanics that would put their power level significantly higher than a “standard” character of that level. There is currently no way for us to gauge what a standard character’s power level should be. Instead, we’d be going with a consensus model, asking all the DMs if this character seems “okay” to them.

Variation of DMs
DM styles varied greatly. This was not a problem. Problems arose when some DMs did not take the expected wealth tables seriously or introduced homebrewed items that were much too powerful. For example, one DM introduced an item to a set of players that allowed them to take 20 on any one roll but then later, the DM would decide when that player had to take 1 on any one roll; there was no limit to this item’s use. This same DM introduced many sentient items that other DMs could not account for.

Some DMs gave parties less gold than expected. Players in these parties were slightly weaker than others. Some players began to calculate their wealth gain from items and when it came up short, would accuse the DM of cheating them. The DM responded by saying they “didn’t do everything they could to get treasure”; the player mostly dropped the issue though was clearly unhappy.

Some DMs had challenge ratings much too high for parties. For example, a DM worked with some “power gamers” for a few sessions then when those players weren’t there, the challenges remained much higher than the effective level of the new party. TPKs were a real threat.

Some DMs ran sessions that were too long. For example, one session ran from 7pm until 4am. We addressed this to DMs, saying that our sessions should not run past 1am – and if they need to, to simply stop the adventure, deeming it a failure on the players’ part, and aware less treasure. None of the DMs adhered to this (myself included).

There is no one solution to this. This must be solved on a case-by-case basis.

Some characters died and there was not a whole lot we could do about that. We introduced a “resurrection” fund where players could invest gold to have themselves raised should they fall. The problem with this is that if a player died and was raised (by Raise Dead, for example), they would permanently be a level behind. Without experience being handed out, they did not naturally catch up with everyone else. They remained behind permanently.

The solution to this was to create a homebrew resurrection that cost only 4000 gp. If a player died, they could raise without losing a level – however, their race would be a random LA +0 race.

It was interesting when a monk died and raised as a sub-optimal race then proceeded to kill himself over and over again until he got a race he liked. The problem with this spell is that if a player dies as a human and raises as a non-human, they keep the bonus feat and gain the stat-bonuses of the new race, making humans a much, much better option than intended.

In the future, this spell will probably remain intact. The player, if human, will have the choice to keep their level 1 feat (for being human) in exchange for forgoing the state bonuses of the new race.

Time Constraints
One player was very, very verbal about how unfair sessions were to him because he had to leave at 11pm. He never got to see an adventure to its completion (except maybe once or twice). He constantly berated DMs on this fact, calling it a “logging out mechanic” – in the adventure, his character was simply teleported back to the guildhall when he had to leave. He claimed that the game should simply stop when a player leaves and the party should pick up where it started in the next sessions. Obviously, this contradicted one of the main goals of this type of style. This was not deemed an isolated problem and was not dealt with in any way. The player was invited to simply leave the game.

This player decided to DM his own game, advertising that it would be better than this guild-style one, and eventually made attacks on the DMs. Proper action was taken with the player.

This style of playing offers a new way to play D&D and it is certainly more social than traditional styles. All of our players became fast friends with each other (except those that simply were not enjoyable people to be around). However, as stated above, there are inherent problems. Some of these problems can be fixed with hard work and ingenuity and a bit of foresight – others are simply problems that spawn from the very nature of the game.

This experiment will continue again in September with different players, DMs, and even a new exec committee (I am now a graduate and will not be on this team).

If there are any questions or comments about this set-up or anything about it, please post below and I will be more than happy to answer to the best of my ability.

Lastly, I will state my reason in posting this (awfully lengthy) post: this system is appropriate to any club working at the college/university level that has a passion for D&D. It is certainly interesting to run and a very rewarding experience. Countless new friends were made and the bonds between old friends were strengthened. It was a good experience and I am personally richer for it.

2010-04-26, 05:59 PM
First of all, kudos on trying to improve things. It sounds like you are doing well. As long as most people are content, you should consider the experiment a success. There is no way to please everyone.

Also, I think having people who only play inconsistently makes it difficult to run a long-term campaign. You either have to level up for them or make allowances. Either way, it isn't always fair to the people who play consistently. After all, if they aren't at risk but level up, they don't have any negative consequences. If you don't level them up, they can get too far behind. It's bound to be a constant battle to keep things equitable.

Perhaps you should try some mini-adventures so that everyone is at the same level. Granted, it doesn't have the feel of a long-term campaign but a good DM should be able to pull it off.

Best of luck to you and your gaming buddies.


P.S. I wish I'd had this sort of club back when I was in college!

2010-04-27, 09:17 AM
Hi, and thank you.

I've already selected a member from this past year to take up the torch and spear-head this project. It'll be interesting to see where this goes and I'll be sure to post an update... eventually.

You're totally right about the levelling up and junk. It's hard to find that balance. I think with the new loot table that I'm suggesting the DMs use next year (70% loot goes to people who don't show up), there'll be enough incentive to go. However, the DMs may just have to start advertising that they're willing to help level up characters that are behind (we usually have one or two DMs playing PCs when there aren't enough of them).

Sorry, but what do you mean by mini-adventures?