As we get ready for season 2 of Adventure Is Nigh, I’d like to look back at season 1 and go through some of my DM thought process – decisions I made and things that I learned about the players and about the story that we’re all telling together.
Have a Plan, Then Be Willing to Drop It!
As many of you may know by now, the “Pilot Episode” wasn’t supposed to be canon. It was a test to see if we could make anything entertaining out of us playing Dungeons & Dragons together.
After the warm reception episode 0 received, the decision was made to just pick up where it left off. What this means is that all my plans for season 1 went right out the window.
I won’t get into too much detail (because I might want to reuse these elements), but originally the plan was to have Daberella, Grinderbin, and Sigmar start in a small town. The townsfolk would be besieged by (Florafolk) bandits and need some heroes to save them.
The idea here was to have the party stumble on Mortimer as they cleared the bandits, and then the four of them would dispatch the bandits and return to the townsfolk. Later we might find out that Mortimer was actually working with the bandits and saw the tide change and chose to align with the heroes… DRAMA!!! The episode would end in the town with a huge cliffhanger: a colossus robot running through the town causing untold destruction and dropping gold pieces and magic items in its path.
The idea was that this would give the players incentive to chase the robot, whatever their goal. Mortimer would want the gold, Grinderbin would be interested in the magic items, and Dab and Sigmar would align on the more heroic side and want to stop the rampage.
That was my rough plan at the start of Adventure Is Nigh season 1, a plan that would never happen as episode 0 is now the start of the adventure.
There’s This Idea in Improv…
As a small aside, I perform professionally at an improv theater here in Milwaukee, ComedySportz. I’m there performing or practicing sometimes four days a week and spend a lot of my off-time reading up on comedy and improv theory. In short, I am admittedly insufferable when it comes to improv and will find a way to bring it up in nearly any conversation. This is not an apology because it’s something I genuinely love… just a warning. So with that said:
There’s this idea in improv, because it’s not scripted, that if you start a scene you should “come in with an idea.” So, if the suggestion is “cattle auction,” then I would come in with an idea of my being an auctioneer and my scene partner just bought my favorite cattle. But what happens if my scene partner starts? Maybe she says, “Dad, I almost have enough money to buy a new steer!” Because I’m a good scene partner, the thing I do is completely abandon my idea and accept the reality offered to me. It’s me actively listening to my partners, and it’s the exact thing that a good DM should do.
Bringing this idea back to Adventure Is Nigh, I could have had the giant robot stomp through the clearing that the players were in after they let the undead horde loose and basically keep the same adventure. I could have kept all my ideas, but I learned things about my players that made me willing to drop it.
Notably – they loved talking to people.
All the players had so much fun interacting with the NPCs: Grinderbin and Daberella played so well off of (everyone’s favorite character) Jeremy Goodsex. Mortimer and Sigmar had great rapport with Viscountess January Farfell. There was a little energy drop when it got to puzzle-solving time and a sense of relegation when it came to combat.
So as the DM, I’m listening for what my players are reacting to, and my original plan was pretty combat- and puzzle-heavy.
Mortimer the Con Man
The other thing that became clear was Mortimer’s strong character choices as a gentleman thief / conman. While Jesse, Amy, and KC gave me some information on their character, it was Yahtzee that gave me a solid base to play off of. Sometimes all a DM is looking for is a solid direction. And if we had a thief… then we needed a heist.
I suppose this is advice for players: “What motivates you to adventure?” “Why are you risking your life?” That was something that was fuzzy with characters like Daberella and Sigmar. Daberella wanted to be a good cook… so why go into a dungeon? And Sigmar was an outcast with a grudge against the ruling class… so why would he get involved in anything? As the season went on, I was able to get more information out of them, so I was able to play with their characters’ wants a little more. But initially, that wasn’t a lot to go off of.
On the other end of the spectrum, Grinderbin and Mortimer had very similar wants from different sides of the law: They wanted things! Grinderbin was hoping to find magical items to sell in his shop, and Mortimer just wanted the money. These might seem simple, but for a DM, it’s gold – it’s a starting point. Now I knew that I needed a prize, a magical item that is worth a lot of money: the Jade Homunculus!
The Heist That Went Sideways
So now I knew that my players like talking with NPCs and that at least two of them would be heavily motivated by finding an expensive, magical MacGuffin. That’s when I figured out that I had to drop my idea and go along with the obvious story that presented itself, which leads us to another improv concept: “If… then…”
If this is true, then what else must be true?
If an undead horde is released, then that horde would eventually run into other people. That gives us a two-for-one; it’s a way to connect the story and show that actions have consequences.
Speaking of… Davorty Cornhole!!
Again peeling back the screen, I’ll admit that my original plan was to have the whole heist take place in the keep. I was drafting out several underground layers that my players would work their way through. But then I received the gift of distracted players.
When the team got busy fighting a stove, I made some rolls to see if Davorty’s stealth could beat the players’ passive perception… and he rolled well, so he was gone.
Davorty leaving was a split-second decision, but I think it worked out well. I did a couple quick pro/con calculations and ended on the idea that it was better for the players to get out of the keep so they would have more people to interact with. They liked talking to NPCs, and they were having way more fun going back and forth with the centaurs than they would fighting them.
This goes back to that flexible nature of “Come in with an idea… and be willing to drop it.”
I had a simple dungeon crawl heist planned – some traps, some monsters, and a big jewel at the end. But then I listened to my players; I listened not to what they were saying, but to when they were having fun. So again I dropped the original idea and gave them more people to interact with.
The Big Lesson
Listen, that’s the big lesson.
Follow the fun by listening to when your players are engaged. So many ideas at my table are stolen from my players. They’ll say, “Oh man… is this going to happen?!?!” and I say, “Yep, that’s what I had planned!”
If it’s not what I had planned, then I do whatever this is anyway because that’s what got my players excited.
It’s hard while you’re in the middle of a game to slow down and listen because it’s a skill that takes practice and note-taking. When you slow down and take in what the people around you are saying, you’ll react better. You’ll “yes… and” better. And most importantly, the game will be more fun for you and the players.
Good luck and I hope you have happy playing. We sure are with Adventure Is Nigh season 2.
Hey, speaking of which, episode 1 of Adventure Is Nigh! season 2 is available today to Escapist YouTube members! And it will be available to the public next Saturday.