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Veteran players can be one of the greatest challenges you’ll ever face as a Dungeon Master. But at the same time, veteran players are already enthusiastically invested in the hobby—so they can be a liberating opportunity as well.
Over the years, I’ve run D&D games for players with a variety of experience levels—from fresh-faced novitiates to thirty-year vets. And while I’ve enjoyed every minute of my gaming, I’ve found running games for experienced players to be especially rewarding. This installment of Behind the Screens looks at four broad strategies for maximizing the fun of playing with experienced players.
Make the Familiar New Again
Veteran players have seen it all. They’ve explored—and likely perished many times within—the Tomb of Horrors. The Ghost Tower of Inverness is a distant memory. Ravenloft, Planescape, Birthright, Greyhawk, Al-Qadim, and the Forgotten Realms are all familiar stomping grounds for these folks. Perhaps they’ve even taken to the stars in Spelljammer or tromped through the jungles of Maztica. They’ve fought every monster in every manual ever written, them come back for more. So how do you keep the game alive and fresh for these stalwart heroes?
One easy option is to take familiar characters and iconic adventure elements and put them into new settings. So the characters have conquered Strahd von Zarovich on his home turf of Castle Ravenloft—but did they know that he could be found haunting the streets of Waterdeep as well? Find a campaign villain that the players are accustomed to encountering in a given manner and switch that up. Get creative with it. The elder vampire becomes much more formidable when his vampire spawn are legion, creating an undead plague that threatens the folk of the city both above- and belowground. Imagine using the Xanathar Thieves’ Guild as a quest giver in this situation. Even beholder crime bosses can’t have vampires running rampant on their home turf.
Provide Focus for the Players’ Efforts
My home game is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world in which the population of a single large city managed to relocate (using no small amount of magic) to a place where the cataclysm that destroyed the rest of the world couldn’t reach. The downside? The location is so remote that those living in the city can’t ever leave it. Push the timeline forward a hundred years, and the denizens of the city have managed to turn their self-inflicted prison into a relatively independent and self-sustaining civilization.
So where’s the adventure? In this setting, all the characters are either members of the city’s constabulary or contractors who work directly with the constabulary on a case-by-case basis. Imagine Victorian London with no way out, or perhaps the TV series COPS with a touch of steampunk. I’ve observed that veteran players thrive on putting as much into the campaign setting as the DM does, so by providing an interesting structure for your campaign, you and the players can all focus in on stories that’ll bring the milieu to life.
Whenever the outside world starts seeping into my fantasy city, all manner of problems occur. One of those problems is a race of mutant fish folk with a paralytic poison attack and the ability to implant their eggs in a host body—which then explodes if the eggs are given time to gestate. These creatures broke into the city by way of the sewer, becoming a real problem in a section of town called “the Pontoons” because it floods whenever there’s too much rain.
Now, this might sound like a creature that took a lot of time and effort to create. But it’s actually not so hard when you take the bullywug, add the poison from a carrion crawler, plus a modified version of the red slaad’s ability to implant its eggs with a melee attack. By kit-bashing these three classic critters, you can create something horrifically unrecognizable to even the most experienced players. Do keep in mind that when you create something new like this, it can play havoc with game balance. So start slow and introduce one or two such creatures to see what kind of effect they have before swarming your players with them.
And the Road Goes Ever On
There are so many stories you can engage with in your game, so don’t be afraid to include outside influences if it means you can have fun with them. Veteran players are often more flexible about such things, willing to explore all manner of rules options and paradigm changes in the interest of experiencing something new. Let the players know that you plan to monkey around with game elements in your efforts to do something cool. Missteps are inevitable, but they can also lead to unexpected fun. Don’t be afraid of failing before you start, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments on the fly if things aren’t quite working the way you want. You never know when sudden inspiration will turn into a fresh experience.
About the Author
A member of the Dungeons & Dragons brand team, Chris Lindsay is focused primarily on product development, which is a lot like herding cats in a darkened room with no doors and no windows.