(Image credit Larry Elmore, TSR)
Even with all its wonder and its magical, addictive properties, Dungeons & Dragons can become monotonous…even boring. I will say that there are several factors that can play into this scenario, but I’m going to put the onus on the DM for the moment, and help you come up with ways to shake things up and make the game exciting again for your players.
Because, honestly, the simplest solution is to create exciting material for the players – then they will become excited again. Let’s discuss.
Let’s say that your players’ characters are slogging through the story. Maybe they’re looking for something, or aren’t sure where to go next. Perhaps you, as the DM, didn’t present them with the right clues to help them along. Perhaps the characters aren’t feeling motivated enough to get moving faster. Or, maybe, they’ve been pushing and pushing at this storyline so hard and for so long that they’re exhausted and no longer want to pursue their current goal.
It’s up to you, DM, to bring them out of this funk.
I will try to keep this next portion as spoiler-free as I can, regarding the online show Critical Role. So, skip past the next block of text if you’re not at least past the Briarwood story arc.
My favorite moment from that show has to be the attack by the Chroma Conclave. It was sudden and unexpected – they came out of nowhere – and it was absolutely devastating, with death and destruction all around the band of adventurers. It was dramatic, it was emotional, and it was a very powerful moment.
Best of all…it set off a huge sequence of events that started Vox Machina down a whole new campaign path. They then had a singular mission and purpose: destroy the Chroma Conclave. This one event that seemed to flip the whole world up on its head also united the group to facing one goal, and that’s why I thought it was perfect.
Alright, no more possible spoilers.
If you need a break from the current campaign story, I’m going to provide some examples of “throwing a wrench” into your campaign for the purpose of reigniting the sparks in your players. I want to talk about how to come up with these yourself, and why this kind of thinking is useful in D&D.
Picking the Right Wrench
Not all wrenches are good for throwing. For example, players may be feeling exhausted because they’ve had so many battles recently…so, throwing a new monster at them may not be the best solution.
Try thinking creatively to come up with something that will challenge several or all of your players (not just the combat-proficient ones or the magically inclined ones). Bonus points for crafting a scenario in which your players get to use some of those Skill Proficiencies that often go unused (like History, Survival, Religion, or Nature).
First, look at your campaign. Try taking a step back and really looking at your campaign setting as a whole. How does it operate? Where are the largest seats of power? Where do the setting’s resources come from? Who transports these resources? …See where this line of thinking is going? Let’s build out on it.
Who is in charge of these transports? Can this person be bought? What are their motives, their faults, their internal conflicts? What party would stand to gain from an interruption of the flow of these resources? Who is in charge of that party? Can they be bought? Quickly, this snowballs into what could become a complicated mystery for your adventurers to solve.
The kingdom’s supply of wheat and grain has suddenly diminished, or stopped altogether. This could spell trouble in the near future, and have devastating results in the far future if the dilemma isn’t solved fast. The party’s patron – or perhaps the ruler him/herself – directs the party to get to the bottom of this. They discover, maybe, a supply caravan on the road that’s been ransacked. Survival and Investigation checks reveal a pack of orcs were here, then retreated to a nearby forest. Within the forest, the group slays the pack of orcs, and retrieves a bag of the grain to bring back as proof of their success…but finds that, in their absence, someone has set fire to the kingdom’s current store of wheat, destroying nearly all of it. There’s no way this was orchestrated by orcs as well, so immediately, the party figures out that there are higher powers at work here. Who is behind these attacks? That’s for them to discover.
So that’s just one example of throwing a wrench into the works. It’s a new problem for the party to solve, and the outcome could be devastating to the community if they fail (even if they succeed!). After the fire, there’s a kind of ticking clock, if you so choose, to minimize the damage done before the people start to run out of wheat and grain.
Let’s approach this from another angle.
Your party has been working for the kingdom for some time now, and has seen many successes in its name. They are now close to the king, or the ruler of this kingdom, and are receiving quests and missions directly from this person. All in all, it’s been a wholly pleasant experience, and maybe some of your players’ characters could even call the ruler their friend.
Then, a figure bursts into the throne room, demanding an audience with the benevolent ruler. The guards take up arms and move to protect their king, as do your adventurers – if everything plays out right. This man who barged in claims he is the true king of this land, and demands his throne back from the impostor. To prove his claim, he produces an official symbol or holy trinket of the throne, something that only a true heir could have. The guards…then start to shift positions as they come to realize what it is he holds. The current king could either do one of two things (or both in the end, if you wish): 1. he could continue to insist that he is the rightful king, and go through the process of proving his stance legally and correctly, allowing the characters to do their own research to try and aid either side – or 2. he could immediately reveal himself to be a horrible archlich, long thought dead, and attack the throne room! The rightful heir produces a magic artifact that envelops him in shining armor, and everyone does battle! But it’s no use! The archlich is far too powerful, and he escapes, only to become a new enemy to the party. OR…it could be both. Maybe have #1 go on and on until the rightful heir is proven to be correct, and THEN have #2 take place….
This is fun because it throws everything the characters know into disarray, and causes them to doubt their relationships – possibly even to each other. Questioning loyalties can be a really fun way to throw things around for the group. Just don’t rely on it too often, or it gets old, and your players will never trust anyone ever again. Then there’s the fun of having the adventurers search for clues, and research through the past records of history! Maybe there’s missing pages from the kingdom’s birth records, and they need to find out where those went! Maybe they have to get in good terms with the local radical church, who is famous for their conspiracy theories, and they would definitely know of a once-exiled royal family member who could come back to reclaim the throne.
Another great opportunity is to delve into the backstories of your players’ characters. Find story seeds within those. Find old enemies that the character couldn’t face from the past, or take something that exists there and twist it into something that’s horribly recognizable – like a close family member who is now forced into slavery, or forced to be a part of a necromancy ritual.
The Paladin’s estranged sister arrives in town with grave news: their family has fallen ill from a strange, foreign sickness. No one she knows can bring them out of it, and they’re quickly worsening. She says that upon using the last of her money to consult a sage, the illness was identified, but the ingredients needed to cure them are very remote and dangerous to find. She needs adventurers to help. Maybe, after finding all the ingredients (And, hopefully, patching old schisms between family members), they all return to the Paladin’s humble beginnings to find the family has been long dead, and the ingredients you’ve gathered are for a horrid necromancy ritual to be completed by burgeoning necromancer the Paladin’s sister!
Or, to avoid any twists, maybe they just succumbed to the illness. It’s sad, and a bit anticlimactic, and somewhat unrewarding for the characters – but that’s why you throw in a few powerful magic items that were found on the quest – and maybe now the Paladin and the sister are better for it. But maybe that’s boring. Go with the necromancer! Haha! Besides, maybe with the family dead, the Paladin becomes the owner of the land their family owned, and thus there’s a new source of income for the party! How’s that for not getting anything out of it!
Creating a very personal situation for your players is always massively effective. Again, look at Critical Role. The individual story arcs of Vox Machina are so good, and are a highlight of the show. Very seldom do those particular stories leave my eyes dry.
So, feel free to turn your world upside-down. Even if you’re running a book campaign! Suddenly kill off a major NPC! Figure out the ramifications later! Trust me, the shock value is worth it! Chris Perkins did it in “Dice, Camera, Action” while running Curse of Strahd! I remember watching that, muttering at the screen, “But- But- But– she’s important!!”
It doesn’t matter! Let the players figure out how to get by without this person, especially if they’re relying on their strengths and assets too much! You, as the DM, can twist and turn things around behind the scenes and figure out new possible paths for the party – you do have the whole adventure in that book, after all. Re-purpose other NPCs, or create a new one! In an upcoming campaign diary of my own game of Curse of Strahd, you’ll find out that I killed off a major NPC too! Hahaha! It was so much fun!
You’re the God of this world.
Another great possible shake-up to your stagnant campaign is a LITERAL shake-up! A massive earthquake! Perhaps this is unlike anything anyone has ever seen!! The amounts of damage are catastrophic and far-reaching! Surely, the effects of this event will be felt for decades – maybe centuries! Maybe chasms to the Underdark open up, and maybe the denizens of the subterranean world perceive it as as attack from the surface! And maybe vice-versa!! WAR is now brewing!
Perhaps some churches are perceiving this as an end-times scenario, and are starting to behave erratically! Perhaps the huge thieves’ guild takes over in the power vacuum left when the palace collapsed during the shaker! Now there’s an oligarchical martial law in effect! Just think of the possibilities!
I feel like not enough D&D campaigns deal with huge, natural disasters like this – earthquakes, floods, hurricanes (imagine a hurricane hitting the Sword Coast!), tsunamis, volcanoes, even a meteor! Those can all have similarly devastating outcomes on a fantasy setting. If a tornado can flatten some modern houses, think of what it’d do to a rural, medieval farming community.
Bottom-line…have fun. That’s what DMing is all about, having fun and making sure your players are having fun. If they’re not, feel free to take their temperature before trying any of these crazy shake-ups. Talk to them as a whole, or individually (depending on the personality types involved), to find out why they’re feeling down or bored with the campaign. Then, try to craft something that will cure their boredom.
A general rule that I’ve found to be true is…a DM’s enthusiasm goes a long way. If you’re excited about something, then most likely your players are too. And that’s in your control, your enthusiasm. Your excitement to play the game. That giddy feeling you get when you know something terrible is about to happen to the world, and your players are none the wiser. The players can feel that and feed off of it. There’s electricity at the table now.
It’s up to you to generate that electricity, my little eels. So, go…shock your players.
What earth-shattering events have you introduced to your campaigns to shake things up? How have you handled player boredom in the past? Or how about DM-fatigue? That’s a whole ‘nother matter for another time!
Until then – Well Met!