Friday, 6 September 2019

Lessons from the Unbroken Islands - my D&D campaign.


For two and a half years, I have been running a D&D campaign over discord - the Adventures in the Unbroken Islands. In the past week we had the final session, a climactic showdown with the big baddie that had been causing problems behind the scenes for well over a year. The campaign was run using slightly modified 5th edition D&D rules in a custom setting - the titular Unbroken Islands, a largely unexplored archipelago with many mysteries lost to time. It was also run in the style of a West Marches game, which meant a larger cast of players who would play as and when they could attend sessions, and a sandbox setting that player groups could explore as they liked in discrete single session adventures.

I was heavily inspired by the Rollplay West Marches series run by Steven Lumpkin, but I did tone down the difficulty and input required for navigating the world and passing on information by updating the world map myself and writing up a ‘story so far’ document with short notes on each session. This was primarily because I wanted the game to appeal to new players and players who could only make a few sessions every now and then, rather than just heavily committed players who would be there almost every week.

Anyway, the campaign as a whole went well, the players seemed to enjoy it, and the final session was suitably epic but the heroes got to save the day. I had a blast running it, but I did get a little burned out towards the end, and I definitely think along the way there were things I could have done better. To that end I have written up a list of lessons from the campaign, things that didn’t quite go according to plan, how I dealt with it, and what I’d do differently next time. Some of these lessons might only apply to this style of game, but some are applicable to pretty much any game.

Lesson: The game is not balanced around large, high level parties getting to have one or two encounters between long rests. 

This was probably the most noticeable issue in the late stage of the campaign, when the players all had many more powerful abilities than they could reasonably use in a single session. Having lots of abilities also slowed down combat as many players struggled to decide which to use in the moment. D&D 5E is designed for 6-8 regular encounters per ‘adventuring day’, between long rests where all their abilities reset, but this was next to impossible to achieve in a single 3-4 hour session once the players got to higher levels. 

The solution of course was just to make the encounters harder - but this resulted in even longer combats that turned most sessions into one of two basic formulas: either a roleplaying bit, then a big fight, or just two big fights. It also had the problem of really punishing players that had lagged behind in experience points (see below.)

In future I think I would have to find a better way to force players to conserve their resources. One idea is to limit long rests in some way, so perhaps players only get half their resources back between sessions, or they can only take a long rest at specific times. I have an idea for a campaign where the ‘hub’ that the players return to after each session moves around a map, and they can only get the full benefits of a long rest if it is in a ‘safe’ location. I think that could work well, because the time between long rests could be scaled according to the level of the party.

Lesson: Players gaining XP individually and getting ahead of the rest by attending more sessions isn’t a massive problem, providing the gap isn’t too far. 

I found that, as expected, some players played a lot, and some didn’t. As I gave out XP for those who played at the end of each session, this meant some players got very far ahead of others. A few levels either way didn’t cause too many problems, but having a new player turn up in a party with level 10+ characters did make it very tricky to give them challenging encounters that didn’t just instakill the lower level members.

I put a few things into the campaign to combat this. I slowly increased the starting level for new characters, so they wouldn’t be too far behind, I gave an XP bonus to the lowest level player in a party and I allowed players to have multiple characters if they had played long enough so they might have lower level options. This all helped but I still feel there were times when players were put off by how far behind they were. 

Next time, I think I would either put a level cap in place that would slowly increase, (e.g. Players start at level 1 and can go up to 3, until a certain point where both the cap and starting level increase) or I would just do away with experience points and use milestone leveling for the whole group. I think the experienced players would still gravitate towards taking charge in adventures and being the ‘main’ characters, but the other players would be able to contribute just as well when it came to combat and skill tests.

Lesson: Unlimited downtime is a problem.

At the start of the campaign I essentially let everyone do whatever they wanted between sessions, allowing them to build up their influence, craft magic items and even scout out upcoming adventures. This was ‘realistic’, but it quickly caused a few issues. Most notably it gave regular players even more of an advantage over the others, because they were always involved in plots and could craft themselves all sorts of cool gear. It also caused the big issue for me of becoming very time consuming as players pushed it to the point of practically completing the adventures in downtime.

This was largely solved by implementing a somewhat ‘gamey’ system of downtime actions. Essentially players were given a list of options, and could choose one to do, or two if they had not played the previous week. I was a bit disappointed that I had to limit the players this way, but I think it worked out very well in the long run. It also allowed me to modify the rules for crafting so it would be harder to spam out loads of cheap items, but also easier to create those rare magic items that, by the DM’s guide, should take over a year’s work. I left some of the options a little vague, and allowed plenty of leeway to let players do some unusual narrative stuff, but having a simple system in place really helped to focus the players on the game itself, rather than the time between the games.

Lesson: Some players do not like being ‘left behind’ in the story. 

I’m not entirely sure how much this is linked to the experience point gap discussed above, but some players who played infrequently did not want to come back after some time away, as they felt the ‘plot’ had moved on without them, and they wouldn’t know what was going on. The ‘Story So Far’ document was meant to address this issue, but I think the nature of the setting was that it was quite hard to keep up. I think in future it would be helpful to have a single overarching goal that all players are working towards, so there would always be an anchor point for anyone returning. “How are we getting on with defeating the evil wizard?” “We’ve found out where he lives, but his tower is too well defended for now, we need to find allies.” Something like that.

Lesson: Some players don’t like leaving ‘unfinished’ areas. 

Players would often see a dungeon or similar area and thing they should be able to explore it in a single session. While sometimes they could, some areas were designed to be returned to multiple times, but players often felt a bit unhappy to leave at the end of a session, especially if they still had many resources available. I think it was immersion breaking as much as anything, to suddenly have to go home for no in-world reason. Sometimes they would come up against a powerful enemy and be forced to flee, if only because the fight would take far too long to resolve.

In future I intend to split dungeons into discrete sections, be it levels or locked doors or whatever, to signal to the players that ‘this is a session’s worth of content’ without explicitly saying so. I’d also be sure to telegraph the size of a dungeon where possible. A single tower might reasonably be a session’s work, but an underground labyrinth could take much longer.

Lesson: Most players don’t want to write a report or update a map between sessions.

As mentioned, I tried to remove some of the player homework required for this kind of game to lower the bar of entry, but I was still keen for players to convey information to each other about what they had discovered. While early on players often wrote in character write ups of adventures, for which I rewarded XP, this tailed off towards the end of the first year.

I could think of a number of ways to further try and incentivise write ups, but I don’t think it really solves the issue. What I’d like to do in future is have some kind of wrap up at the end of each session where players each get to place a note on a map, or leave one piece of information to put into a report. That way the information given is player generated, but I can ensure it is shared with the group as a whole.

Lesson: Players like random loot, but generally they do not use the stuff they get. 

Towards the end of the campaign we had an ever growing pile of unused magic items because random rolls frequently gave out things no one wanted or could use. In addition, they all got so much money that after a while they could pretty much buy or craft whatever they wanted anyway. Partially this is an issue with me giving out too many magic items but it’s also the result of random magic item tables that are not geared towards a specific party (because the party would change between sessions).

A simplified loot system would help - perhaps random elements but with player choice for specifics. E.g. roll up a magic weapon, player gets to choose the type of weapon. I also think there could be some situations where magic items are time sensitive or specific to certain locations, so players would want to use them and then be forced to discard them, rather than hoarding them all.

Lesson: Players often like to role play character disagreements, but sometimes too much!

This is of course an age old problem with roleplaying games - when players decide their characters don’t get on, and as a result the session comes grinding to a halt while they play out a lengthy scene and the other players just have to wait. The thing is, we all love a bit of drama, it’s what makes these games special, and characters in conflict is great drama. But it can get too much. I thankfully had very few issues with ‘that’s what my character would do’ causing people to be upset, but it can happen even with people who aren’t wangrods.

My preferred solution, which I would try to implement in future, is to have some defining characteristic unite all the player characters. Perhaps they are all members of the same mercenary company following the same orders, or they have all had their town destroyed by the same evil wizard. Whatever it is, they should have a shared cause that would force them to, at very least, work together while they bicker.

So that’s what I learned, and some of what I’d do differently next time. I hope that was helpful to some people, if only to show that if you play a long running D&D campaign there will be issues to resolve, but that doesn’t mean it will be a failure or that people won’t have fun. It is always a learning experience and the more you learn, the better your game will be.


  1. I recognise all of those problems from 3.5! Looks like the game hasn't changed that much...

    DnD is a great roleplaying game entirely spoiled by the depth and complexity of the rules, especially at higher levels as you say. Combat is fun, and a game in itself, but I often found it a slog to get through. Still, as long as everyone is having fun!

    1. 5E is a lot better than 3.5 on the complexity/book keeping side, but it still builds up pretty quick after a few level ups. Part of the problem is the way D&D’s experience works - you just suddenly get new abilities and more resources every few sessions.

  2. Hey. Just to let you know that I semi-brainstormed and replied to your blogpost on my blog. Thanks for sharing all that knowledge and experience at running WM campaign !

    1. Nice post, and thanks for the shoutout. :)

  3. Regarding unlimited downtime:
    "One of the things stressed in the original game of D8D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in a campaign. In ad&d it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."
    Gary Gygax, 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (emphasis in the original)

    Advance the dungeons when the players aren't there. This may also help with the player experience imbalance a bit as the absent player characters will have more down time activities.