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The Near Perfect RPG Session
by Mike on 13 February 2023
Thinking back over the games you've run, which ones do you consider your near perfect games? Which ones hit just about every mark? What was it that made them near-perfect?
We're avoiding "perfect" games because often our self-defeating attitudes won't let us pick any game as perfect. But near perfect? We've had a few of those.
What criteria define a near-perfect game? Only you get to decide. Write down your own list and see what you come up with.
Here's my own list of criteria for a near-perfect game:
- The players are all engaged most of the time.
- Players walk away excited by what happened and excited for what happens next.
- The characters have agency to make meaningful choices.
- Every character had an opportunity to shine both mechanically and in the story.
- The pacing of the game was spot on and the game ended on time.
- When the story and direction of the game goes in an interesting direction no one could have predicted.
What Brings You the Most Fun?
A Reddit thread entitled "What part of GMing gives you the greatest pleasure?" covered similar ground to this question. The top comments offer comparable results to our near-perfect-game criteria. These included:
- When the players are so in the moment that THEIR emotions rise to the front.
- When finally revealing a big secret or plot twist.
- When a player wants to talk about the campaign even outside of the session.
- When the players "live" in the world by interacting with NPC's when they don't have to.
- When we GMs get to shut our mouths since the players are so engaged in talking to each other in character.
- When something happens we didn’t plan or expect.
- The table wide cheer that goes up on a natural 20 or when a hard enemy goes down.
There's some common ground in these top comments and my own list. It leads us to the practical question for this thought exercise:
What can we do to pave the path for a near perfect game?
How can we focus our preparation towards a near perfect game?
It's important to consider that a near-perfect game relies as much on the players, maybe even more on the players, than it does for DMs. We must also consider that some players may love a game that others didn't care for. That's ok, we can still pave the path. How?
Prepare to Improvise
I think the greatest fun during a D&D game comes when the game takes a turn no one expected. We can prepare for this by focusing our preparation to support improvisation. This means having what we need to react as things change. Here are a few things we can do (some of which will be very familiar):
- Write out one-line secrets, clues, bits of history, and other lore the characters can discover anywhere.
- Prepare interesting locations, populate them with NPCs, plan some goals, and set up situations. Let the players choose their course.
- Have a list of monsters the characters might encounter anywhere.
- Have a handful of locations ready to run should the characters go somewhere you didn't expect.
- Be prepared to build NPCs quickly and easily depending on which NPCs catch the characters' attention. At least with a list of random names.
- Know what your villains are doing and how they'll react as things change. Get into the heads of your villains.
Focus on the Characters
Players love their characters. A character is the focal point and interface between a player and the world. The more time you spend understanding the characters, both mechanically and in their own story, the more you can draw the players into the game through their characters. Here's a few things we can do:
- Read up on each character's story.
- During downtime and rests, ask the players what their characters think of the current situation and how it reflects on their past.
- Ask the players what mechanics they love about their character. Write it down.
- Build encounters that show off those well-loved mechanics.
How will you prepare what you need to set the stage for a near-perfect game?
More Sly Flourish Stuff
This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Scarlet Citadel Session 14 – Lazy GM Prep and Designing Vampires for MCDM's Flee Mortals.
Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
Patreon Questions and Answers
Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:
Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:
- Develop locations, fill them with inhabitants, give the characters a goal or two, and enjoy how the game unfolds.
- Let the characters of missing players handle secondary activities off-screen. Maybe they’re keeping the get-away clear or maybe they’re transferring useful information from a high tower.
- Build encounters from what makes sense in the story. Worry about difficulty only if you may inadvertently kill all the characters.
- Guards are guards whatever level the characters are. Just because the characters are 7th level doesn’t mean all the guards turned into veterans.
- Your 5e game is your own. There’s nothing “official” and nothing “third party”. Use any 5e material you want to make your game awesome.
- Have a backup plan if your favorite digital tools fall apart or start to suck. Relying on only one platform puts your joy of the hobby at risk.
- Enemies don’t always act optimally. They can be as confused as the characters are.
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