D&D Stories | Sweet Dreams: Session #1

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Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These) is a homebrew mini-campaign I’m running for five level 4-6 characters. I anticipate it will take 8 – 12 sessions to complete. This Sweet Dreams series chronicles each session with highlights and lessons learned, while the mystery of the sleepwalking curse unfolds throughout! We’re playing Dungeons and Dragons 5e (D&D 5e)

The Sleepy Owlbear Tavern

The session begins in Somnium, at the Sleepy Owlbear — a well-maintained, dimly-lit tavern with a bar and hot food. The party of five adventurers recently arrived, finding a table reserved for their benefactor, Vargik Tomedelver — but no Vargik, yet. The most interesting feature of the taproom is its proprietor, a narcoleptic awakened owlbear named Godfrey dozing off behind the bar. The patrons don’t seem alarmed by this. Mercifully, the players took my lackluster intro of “you’re in a tavern, maybe you’ve already met each other or not or something,” and ran with it. A rocky start, but I hadn’t DM’d (and they hadn’t played) in months.

Street through a European style medieval town, representing Somnium.
Medieval Town 4 by Hetman80
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Achieve Flow with Prepared Facts

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Good Dungeon Masters (DM) are prepared. “Being prepared” means something different to everyone. Even so, every DM can benefit from really knowing the facts of their homebrew campaign, one-shot, or pre-made module. I want to stress right out the gate that good preparation does not preclude clever improvisation. I argue that by establishing your facts you strengthen your ability to pivot and improv, even when (especially when!) the players want to try something you hadn’t conceived. Set yourself up for success session-to-session with mastery over your campaign’s core facts, and thus achieve flow.

Identify what information will empower the players to make informed decisions for their characters. What key knowledge does the party need to know to progress toward achieving their goals? This is the purpose of organizing facts, secrets, and misinformation.

Handwritten notes on a desk, representing a Dungeon Master's campaign notes.
Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

There are two broad categories of facts. Facts you need to know and facts your players need to know. These tend to overlap. I write both types of facts in a sort of abstract, isolation. Most facts I jot down are standalone from a specific person, place, or time. I may tag them with an NPC’s name or some other modifier, but that’s more of a suggestion to myself than a hard rule. When it comes to quick facts and secrets, I don’t want them to be cluttered with a scenario or “if this, then that” instruction. That is the heart of this advice — facts and secrets are floating bits of information you weave in as you go!

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Sweet Dreams: Campaign Overview

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Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These) is a homebrew mini-campaign I’m running for five level 4-6 characters. I anticipate it will take 8 – 12 sessions to complete. This Sweet Dreams series chronicles each session with highlights and lessons learned, while the mystery of the sleepwalking curse unfolds throughout! We’re playing Dungeons and Dragons 5e (D&D 5e).

Start Date: 06/19/2021

Format: Discord w/Voice and Video
Tools: DnD Beyond with AboveVTT extension (Chrome/Edge, FireFox)

The Dungeons and Dragons Group

We’re a group of friends that have been playing D&D 5e together for three years and counting. While we started playing in-person around the same table, we’re now split across two states and leverage technology to connect us. Our group is comprised of three couples and we’re all in our late-twenties to mid-thirties. Sometimes we’re mature, sometimes we’re silly, and sometimes the DM (that’s me) yeets their monster off a cliff because it’s been a long day. It’s been a few months since I’ve run Dungeons and Dragons. This compact D&D campaign is my way of getting back into the groove before we resume our long-running campaign.

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The Freedom to Choose

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Sometimes, as Dungeon Master (DM), we have to be explicit with where to go and what to do next or we risk leaving the party either confused at the lack of direction or hampered by analysis paralysis. It’s important to know when to railroad the party to the next scene or point them the right way to keep the game moving. Often you can preface this with phrases like “you see…” or “you realize…” followed by something along the lines of “…that the only way to proceed is through the oak doors to the north of the chamber” or “…that the criminal you’ve been pursuing has gotten away and you’ll need to regroup at camp.” This is fine and sometimes necessary!

Otherwise, it is vital to give the party the freedom to choose their next course of action. What this looks like depends heavily on context. There should be more than one hardcoded way to proceed, to gather information, to diffuse or overcome a conflict. The important part is not to overwhelm your players with too many options at once.

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The Power of Opportunities

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As Dungeon Master (DM) you have the hefty responsibility of generating and running a world for your players to explore. Within that world, whether it be a simple tavern or an entire continent, almost anything can happen. Yet, almost nothing will transpire without you, the DM, creating opportunities for your players to engage with.

An opportunity can be something big, like a quest hook so obvious it has a glowing exclamation point punctuating it. Or something small, like a character overhearing a snippet of intriguing conversation.

Big or small, opportunities give your party a lead to latch onto and interact with in the world. These opportunities help the players gather information and push the game forward.

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Establishing Table Cadence

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This is the beginning of the Table Cadence series, a collection of posts aimed at both Dungeon Masters and players with tips for running flowing, organic sessions founded on the principles of establishing a cadence between DM and players.

There’s an elegant flow to Dungeons and Dragons 5e (D&D 5e) when the table is in sync and everyone is engaged. The Dungeon Master (DM) is on top of their game and the players are asking questions, interacting with the environment, and building off of each other. This is what I have dubbed “table cadence” and it hinges on an open line of communication between DM and party. This back and forth, this cadence, facilitates a smooth and interactive session.

In practice, the overarching structure of table cadence looks roughly like this:

  1. The DM describes a scene or a scenario
  2. [Optional] The players inquire further
  3. [Optional] DM supplies more information
  4. Players describe how they act in this scene, given what they know
  5. [Optional] DM prompts players for an Ability Check or Saving Throw, if applicable
  6. DM narrates the results, adjudicating as needed

Coincidentally, this lines up with the “How to Play” overview of Dungeons and Dragons 5e! Fancy that!

Screenshot of the D&D Beyond's essentials "How to Play" section. 1. The DM Describes the Environment. 2. Players Describe Desired Actions. 3. The DM Narrates the Results.
Source: D&D Beyond’s New Player Guide
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