Last December, I started GMing (running) an RPG campaign with 14 friends. It concluded this week after 21 sessions and it was a major success! In this post I’ll share some background, what worked, what failed, and what might work better next time.

My Motivation

I’ve been playing RPGs for a year and a half and exploring different systems and settings. Over that time I’ve introduced RPGs to a bunch of friends and they all loved it. I’ve been GM much more often than player, which works for me as I love improv demands of reacting to the players’ crazy idea.

In my time playing, I’ve only participated in one campaign, the Lost Mines of Phandelver for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The campaign lasted five sessions and was a blast for everyone involved. It’s a perfect beginner campaign as there is plenty of supporting material for the GM and players. I just found out that a group of my business school classmates are playing through it - who knows, maybe RPGs will become the new golf (or new Settlers of Catan). My campaign concluded a year ago and I’ve been itching to run another one - I love the group dynamics, evolving story, and recurring jokes that emerge in campaigns.

It’s incredibly tough to coordinate calendars, so I took inspiration from West Marches and created a group of 15-20 players that rotated into games when they’re free. We held the kickoff in December and then averaged about one session per week.

We played the official D&D adventure Princes of the Apocalypse (D&D 5th Edition) because I’d heard great things and didn’t have the bandwidth to create a setting or write an adventure from scratch.

The Setup and Tools

I created a Google Group for everyone and we used it for:

  • Coordinating play sessions
  • Asking rules questions
  • Undertaking side-quests
  • Exploring the characters
  • Posting recaps
  • Conveying plot information
  • Developing strategies and tactics for upcoming sessions

It worked very well and allowed players to stay involved even if they missed a few weeks of sessions.

Each session, one player would be the Scribe - responsible for taking notes and recapping the session for the rest of the group. This took some burden off of me and was an awesome creative outlet for the players. We had some amazing session recaps in the form of journal entries, ballads (from our Bard), and haiku (from our monk).

You can read through all of the recaps online.

We also used Google Sheets to track party finances and inventory. Most treasure was shared by the party and there was rarely a shortage of wealth for upgrading armor and weapons.

Finally, Doodle polls were insanely valuable in coordinating play sessions. We’d plan a few weeks out on a rolling basis and never had a shortage of interested players. Sometimes there’d be 9 players wanting to play the same day but that’s a good problem to have; I was usually able to rotate the spots around so no one went long without playing.

The highest number of sessions for a player was 15, though quite a few attended the majority of the sessions.

The Campaign (no official spoilers)

Princes of the Apocalypse was a fun campaign to run and pretty easy to GM. The book itself had over 200 pages of high quality content, including background on the region, NPC (non-player characters) bios, side quests, magic items, maps, and more. There were a few errors and contradictions but the publisher released an update and the player community has some great guides.

I wanted a strong motivation for the characters to be working together so I created an experimental peacekeeping force that the characters had joined:

Join the Inter-Factional Peacekeeping Joint-Venture, Pilot Program: Dessarin Valley Division (IFPJV-PP:DVD)

The Realm's five dominant factions have formed a provisional joint venture to help keep the keep the peace, defend the weak, protect trade, smite evil, balance nature, and promote greater prosperity. The IFPJV is recruiting for its first pilot program to test this bold new collaboration.

Recruits will travel to the exotic Dessarin Valley where they will be based in the charming town of Red Larch - Gateway to the North. There they will receive training under the famed Elyn Wesalt - hero of the Great Troll Wars. During your deployment, you'll have a chance to prove your skill and bravery as you banish bandits, oust orcs, and massacre monsters. But the Dessarin Valley is not all adventure, there will be plenty of time to sample local cuisine and enjoy the sights. Walk the famed Stone Bridge (two miles long and four hundred feet high), sample the fresh produce at Goldenfields temple-farm, and take a pleasure cruise down the Dessarin River.

Don't miss your chance to see the world and help the Realm! Sign up with any of the factions and start your legend today!

This group, quickly renamed GOOD (Good Order of Dessarin), provided instant team cohesion and was a great vector for me to deliver information and plot hooks. I had the NPC leader, Elyn Wesalt, deliver briefings via email or at the start of a session and they had sending stones (walkie-talkies) to get her advice mid-session. This helped the players when they got stuck and provided lots of world building opportunities.

Princes of the Apocalypse starts out as a bit of a sandbox (players can explore the valley in any way they want) and with lots of opportunities for social encounters and politics. The back half of the campaign is mostly combat and clearing out dungeons but there are still social encounters and some nice social side-adventures. I like a mix of both but definitely prefer social / political over pure combat. There were some sessions toward the end where play could have dragged but my players were so creative and engaged that we kept the momentum high.

The campaign took the players from Level 1 to Level 13. All characters leveled up in lockstep so there wasn’t any power disparity. If a player created a character halfway through, they would come in at the same level as everyone else and have a backstory that justified joining GOOD.

The party advanced 12 levels over the span of a few months (in game). This makes little sense from in-game logic but if you’re playing D&D / Forgotten Realms (high fantasy setting) for internal consistency, then you’re doing it wrong.

We held our final session last Sunday and the players were victorious. It was a satisfying end to the campaign and now I’m having players share epilogues for their characters.

Overall, the Princes of the Apocalypse was a lot of fun and the frame story of GOOD worked out great. Again, the player recaps are online if you’re curious.

Side Quests

One of the fun things about the big group of players was the ability to do side stories through email, without dice or game mechanics. These stories ranged from small errands and tasks to mini-adventures. My favorite was when one player’s character tried to infiltrate a cult and was pushed to do terrible things. You can read that transcript in Appendix A of the recap.
<p></p><p>Other side quests included turning a captured keep into a permanent base for GOOD, negotiating with other factions to build an alliance, and experimenting with dangerous magic items. Another memorable side quest was when the players decided to create a rehabilitation program for recovering cultists - hijinks ensued and they had mixed success.</p><p>These email based side-quests, along with in-character conversations and scheming, helped flesh out the world and made it feel uniquely ours.</p><h2>

Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition</h2><p>This was my second campaign with D&D 5th Edition and I feel like I have a good sense for the system. My opinion is that it’s great if you want a crunchy, combat heavy system. It is more streamlined than some of the other rules-heavy systems (e.g. Pathfinder) but there is still lots of detail for those who want to develop their characters or get in the weeds.
</p><p>There is still a heavy focus on combat, which can seriously slow down the pace of the game. It wasn’t too bad at lower levels but by the end of the campaign, one encounter could take a lot of time. As the game went on, character abilities got complex and there were a few too many rules for edge cases. That’s fine for some folks but not what I’m looking for in an RPG.</p><p>Finally, there’s a lot of inconsistency in how and why leveling, magic, and the in-game economy works. Some of this is tied to the setting, Forgotten Realms, which is a grabbag of every fantasy trope. It’s tough to justify why characters get super powerful so quickly while the rest of the world stays the same. A lot of this adheres to the fantasy genres that the game seeks to emulate but I prefer more consistent worlds.</p><h2>GM Tips</h2><p>This campaign may have doubled the number of RPG sessions I’ve run. I’ve learned a bit about GMing and how to run this specific style of campaign; here are some tips:</p><ul><li>Including a shared party goal as part of character creation does wonders to get the campaign off to a smooth start and keep the group aligned; we didn’t have any real player conflict
</li><li>Delegate bookkeeping and session recaps to the players - as a GM you have enough on your plate
</li><li>Aim to have some player overlap from one session to the next, this helps generate a stronger sense of continuity
</li><li>If there’s uncertainty around a rule, make a quick decision and keep the game moving. You can get the real answer afterward and share with the group
</li><li>Try to have a few clear hooks / options at the beginning of every session. This helps create a sense of agency among the players - they should be shaping the story and making meaningful decisions
</li><li>Make sure there are consequences for player actions / choices. My players ignored reports of rampaging Orcs for a few sessions; as a result, significant damage was done to the homesteads in one region of the valley and the party lost the respect of a local faction
</li><li>Bend the rules if something the players are trying to do something awesome or interesting. If a player wants to try something, find a way to roll for it (or just let them succeed).
</li><li>Have players take simultaneous combat turns whenever possible (if they are similar initiative and not trying to build on each other) - this does a lot to speed up combat
</li><li>It’s okay for a character to die if they are behaving foolishly - I had three characters die this campaign. Two of them were because the players repeatedly made bad tactical decisions and in all cases the players were okay with the results. This led to players being more thoughtful in their decisions and an increased sense of danger.
</li></ul><h2>What Comes Next</h2><p>I thoroughly enjoyed planning and running this campaign. My players were incredible and we told amazing stories together. I’ll definitely run something like this again but I need a bit of a break first.</p><p>We’ll probably play one-shots for a couple months before getting the next thing going. I want build on the lessons from this campaign and explore having multiple GMs as well as more structure for players to do things between sessions.</p><p>I have no urge to go back to D&D or Forgotten Realms but I would consider it if there was a great campaign to play. I’ve heard good things about Curse of Strahd.</p><p>Feel free to reach out if you have questions about this style of campaign, Princes of the Apocalypse, or RPGs in general!</p>