Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Opening Module

UPDATE:  This post has been updated and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

My blog passed half a million page views yesterday, so thank you everyone.   In appreciation, I'd like to offer you this 'module.'

This is for all the DMs who claim that when they've tried to run a sandbox campaign, they've had players sitting around without anything to do.  This is for those DMs who are unhappy because they have to create hooks to get people interested, or paint road signs, or club their parties over the head to get them going.  This is for those DM's who use that as proof positive that sandboxes simply don't work, no matter how good an idea they are.

The next time your players are sitting around without anything to do, say this to them:

"Gentlemen ... Ladies ... May I say that I recognize that things may seem uncertain and unclear for the moment, but might I suggest a few things to start you thinking in a positive direction.

"To begin with, I have chosen to make you utterly free persons.  You owe no responsibility, no fealty, no loyalty, to any given person anywhere in my world.  You are completely and utterly apart from the heirarchical structure, no force or entity knows anything of your existence, you have a completely clean slate from which to start.

"You may do, therefore, anything you wish.  If you wish to participate in a hack and slash campaign, then after all remember that this is D&D.  You know where the monsters are - you do not need me to tell you.  The monsters are in the wilderness, they are in the mountains and hills, they are at the bottoms of lakes and lagoons, they are in caves and at the bottoms of ravines, they are in the sewers of the largest cities ... and well you know, where there are monsters, there will be treasure.

"If you prefer to play something more 'civilized,' let me remind you there is an entire world of crime open to you.  Become murderers, become arsonists, become racketeers or smugglers, examine for yourselves all the dark arts of flouting the law and living fast on your feet for fun and profit!  Or if that seems immoral and undesirable, consider the possibilities to be found in catching criminals.  Bounty hunters are always in short supply and the act takes courage and inventiveness.

"Then again, perhaps collecting other things strikes your imaginations better - rare objects, books, art, magic items, what have you.  Create a library, create a zoo, travel the world wide gathering together all you need to make it the greatest ever.  If you seem in short supply of ideas, there are always mages aching to make your acquaintance, to pay you hard coin for things they know they need and know where to find.

"Or travel for its own sake.  If this part of the world isn't your cup of tea, strike out for warmer seas, or jungles, or deserts, or polar climes.  There are always wandering monsters, always people needing brave souls to defend their villages, always opportunities for meeting strangers and making them either friends or piles of meat.  It is up to you.

"Together, your party represents something rare and wonderful in the world.  Imaginative, ambitious persons, completely loyal to one another, ready to unite in a single cause, ready to break the spine of any enemy, bring down the evil house of any ruling family, raise edifices of grandeur, raise a religion of your choosing, unleash hell upon earth or raze the power structure to the ground.  All you need do is decide upon your course of action, raise wealth however satisfies you, take it upon yourselves to apply that wealth to your goals and succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

"I'm prepared to run any sort of game you wish.  Talk among yourselves.  Ask any questions, I shall do my best to answer them.  Take your time deciding.  Come to an agreement.  I will be in the kitchen getting myself a cup of coffee."


  1. Every so often you post something that perfectly encapsulates what you've been preaching about all this time. This is one such occasion. I intend to use this along with the excellent weather tables and character generators you were so kind to share (my promised return should be in the mail tomorrow, it's been a helluva busy week, my friend) when I kick off my Beneath the Broken Moon Campaign later this month.

  2. You keep writing them, I'll keep reading. Nice to read about the possibilities within this game and what a bit of imagination and intelligence can create. :D

  3. As Bill S. Preston says "Whoa."

    Definitely words of wisdom to consider.

  4. In the words of Sweet Pea: ... And finally this question, the mystery of who's story it will be. Of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance? Who drives us mad? Lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that does all of these things? Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we will never die? Who teaches us what's real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us? And who holds the key that can set us free ...?

    It's You.

    You have all the weapons you need.

    Now FIGHT!

  5. Excellent post. If things slowed down in the game I played in high school the DM would roll out the map and say, "Where do you want to go" and wherever we went there was something to do.

  6. "The storyteller makes no choice
    Soon you will not hear his voice
    His job is to shed light
    And not to master."

  7. First thing my players did was go to the tavern asking for a job.

    The owner told them he needed some dishwashers.

  8. Players like that ... they've had their imaginations excised. They don't trust themselves, or you, the DM. Endless prepared adventures have made them passive.

  9. One of my favorite posts on this blog. Without a doubt.

  10. Is this advice is supposed to be like fill in the blanks where instead of generic fantasy tropes your talking to the players about specific interesting facets of your universe?

  11. Well timed post for me. I'm starting work on the guidebook for the game I'm playing around with, and I was already thinking about a player's introduction that looked something like this. Thanks for the inspiration.

  12. I like this post because it lets players know you aren't afraid to let them run wild. The intro said to me: "I am a DM who isn't going to try and keep you in a little box of my devising".

    From your previous posts recently, it seems that many players need to hear this, since they've become accustomed to a very different D&D due to previous experiences.

  13. I would parrot James C: "Every so often you post something that perfectly encapsulates what you've been preaching about all this time. This is one such occasion. "

    But I won't stop there this time. This is a truly inspiring speech, and one that your players should hear at least once (and why not many times?). But it has to be followed with the next one, lest they become subject to Analysis paralysis. "Listen, if you need more context, just ask, I will tell you about the kinds of things I'm able to deliver: I can take you through the Silk Trade Route, but I cannot deliver trade tables for each and every city" (I know you can, Alexis, but I couldn't). Or: "I can closely model a heavy combat-based role like a fighter, but I'll have to improvise a lot you're going to try a career on foreign diplomacy" (The case, I'm sure, for many DMs out there).

    In fact, you made a few such pointers in your speech already. E.g. "[...] strike out for warmer seas, or jungles, or deserts, or polar climes." If you just tell some players "go anywhere in the world" they won't know where to start. But the moment you mention a certain option (let's say "frozen tundra"), suddenly some clicks inside them and they know that has been the dream of their character all along.

  14. Wow, I'm really late to the party on this one.

    That was amazing, and I wish I had had that when I started my current campaign. I don't know if my players would have used it, or understood it though.

    My players were a bit more used to a more scripted, quest-based, rail-roady D&D. So with this campaign I started them in a little town, with a quest.

    But their quest could not be completed in that town, and as they travelled they saw more of the world, and more of the possibilities and conflicts in it. I let them know that there is no doomsday clock, and that if they are interested in things they should explore them. The quest will be there when they get back.

    Now it's months later, and they are making their own plotsm setting their own stakes, measuring the risk and reward of their actions, and often defying my expectations at least once per session. They've embraced the sandbox I lead them in to, and they've barely thought about that first damned quest.

    This will be useful to remind them with every now and again though. It will also be a nice to have for the next game that I start.

  15. Good stuff! I've read at least half of the content on the blog, but first time I've run across this one. Games I've tried to run in the past really could have used this as an opener.


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