Our play group is coming up on a gameday soon, and we’ve been kicking around what we want to play. We’re kind of LFR’d out for now, and we were thinking about trying out some new RPG systems. What we eventually settled on was a 4th Edition homebrew that uses Greyhawk as its world. We’re still discussing the finer points, but one of the main things we’re sure of is that we will rotate as DMs.
This got me thinking: how do you preserve continuity across a campaign with multiple DMs? It’s something I’ve written about before, but I began brainstorming again when we started discussing a multiple DM homebrew.
This is certainly a relevant question for any living campaign, and living campaigns have historically dealt with it in different ways – for example, LFR doesn’t do anything to address continuity beyond unrelated regional “story arcs,” while Ashes of Athas has a very structured “you should play all the mods in order” storyline.
But it’s also a relevant question for any campaign where DMs will be rotating – and possibly an easier one to solve, since it’s only your small group that has to agree on how to address it!
Here is what I came up with; keep in mind that this is just a brainstorm, and possibly not even something that my group will adopt. It is also completely untested. But I still think it would work.
This idea hinges on two things:
- Players taking a little bit of time to think about their background and current motivation.
- DMs understanding (and utilizing) the “yes, and” mechanic of improvisational group storytelling.
The basic idea is this: each player comes up with what I will call a Quest Card. This Quest Card, at the top, will detail in three sentences or less the character’s current quest. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the campaign’s storyline, especially at level 1. Also attached to the quest will be one item that the player would like for the character. This item must be named in some way, with its “mechanical” name only listed in parenthesis for DM clarity. So, for example, a Quest Card header might look like this:
- Quest: My character is part of a rebel group looking to overthrow the current king. He is currently travelling undercover as an adventurer, trying to find where the rumored “Kingslayer” sword is. He hopes the sword will aid the group in their coup.
- Item: The sword named Kingslayer [Flaming Sword]
The item doesn’t have to be integral to the quest either. In fact, that might leave more opportunity for DM improvisation (described below). For example:
- Quest: My character is looking for his father. His father sold himself into slavery to pay off a debt so the family’s house wouldn’t be taken by the debtors. Although he promised to work his way out of slavery and return, the family hasn’t heard from him since.
- Item: Boots owned by the mad Gnome Snirfblen [Acrobat Boots]
Note that each quest is specific to a character. Players could certainly collude ahead of time to make quests overlap in some way, but that’s not at all necessary. And I will repeat, these quests probably won’t have anything to do with the DM’s planned storyline. That’s ok.
A couple of other things about these quests: they’re one per tier, and they will not be completed until mid-tier, at the earliest. They will definitely be completed by the end of the tier. So you create a new quest card at 1, 11, and 21, and you have your item (and closure of some sort) by level 5, 15, and 25 at the earliest, 10, 20, and 30 at the latest.
So what happens with the Quest Cards in a Multi-DM campaign?
Have you ever gone through a group storytelling activity? It might go something like this:
Me: Once upon a time, there was a dragon who lived in a cave. The people in the village were very afraid of the dragon.
You: (yes, and) What the people didn’t know was that the dragon was actually very sick. Too sick to leave his cave, but desparate for a cure to his sickness.
Bob: (yes, and) One day, a small girl was picking flowers near the cave because she didn’t know it was the dragon’s cave.
And so on. I’m sure you can figure out what happens next. But that’s the thing. What YOU think happens next, and what someone else thinks happens next are probably two very different events. Maybe you think that the dragon calls out to the little girl to try and convince her to help him. Maybe I think that the dragon gathers enough strength to capture the girl and hold her hostage. And even if we both think that the dragon calls out for help, we both might have different ideas as to the dragon’s motivations.
You’ll notice that, in parenthesis, I added “yes, and” to each bit of my example above. That’s the essence of improvisational storytelling. You always build on the story, taking what went before (even if it’s not what you would have done) and adding to it, instead of saying “no, that’s not what happens, THIS is what happens.” One is cooperative and constructive, the other is adversarial and destructive.
So, back to our Quest Cards and the DM’s role. At the beginning of any given session, the DM looks at all the player’s Quest Cards, and chooses (randomly or not) one or two cards whose quest will advance. On each card, there’s a list of events that have already taken place to advance the quest, and the DM decides what the “yes, and” will be for those Quest Cards. Here’s the thing: these events don’t have to be the focus of the adventure; they can be on the periphery of what is happening, and the DM can continue with what he has planned for the session with maybe a few very minor changes or additions.
For example: in the course of the session, the character learns that Kingslayer is a type of sword, not a single, named sword. He also learns that they are made in the Tiefling forges of Arkerack. This doesn’t have to have anything to do with the main purpose of the adventure, and can be inserted by the DM at a whim. At the end of the session, the player adds this information to his Quest Card so that the next DM can see what turns the quest has taken. The next DM might decide to advance this quest in his next session, changing one of his NPCs from an Elf into a Tiefling from Arkerack, and seeing where that interaction would take them. The players adds that to the quest card. And so on.
That’s why the quests are only limited to three sentences, and the items are limited to a name (no background). It leaves a lot of room for the DMs to say, “yes, and.” It might not be exactly what the player had in mind, but as long as it’s consistent with what went before, that’s fine. The player should embrace the contribution of the DM towards their character’s story development.
At some point, a DM might become so intrigued by a character’s quest that they begin to skew their story towards completing the quest, or even write an adventure aimed solely at its completion. And that’s when you know you have a shared story. It doesn’t just belong to the player/character anymore because there’s been real investment in its advancement by multiple people.
Of course, one of the neat things about making a new quest card for every tier is, once the characters are embedded in the campaign, the quests should begin to reflect what they’re interested in following up on; this is the inverse of the previous idea. Instead of the DM finding motivation in helping a PC complete a quest, the PCs are now finding motivation in advancing and building on ideas and hooks that the DMs have presented. Again, shared storytelling.
Players make Quest Cards for their characters with a short quest they’re on and one item they’d like to find along the way.
DMs (in a multiple DM campaign) add a narrative below that on the quest card, one at a time, moving the character closer to that quest. Adventures don’t have to revolve around these quests, characters can find “breadcrumbs” in the middle of a completely unrelated adventure.
The Quest Cards provide a thread of continuity for each character in a multiple DM campaign where strong continuity might not be otherwise present.
In conclusion, when there’s good solid shared storytelling, everyone has a real investment in the campaign, even if the campaign doesn’t have a single DM with a single storyline. Everyone wins!
PS- I really think this would work, with a little more fleshing out of rules, in a living campaign. But that’s just a hunch.