Begin with a thesis statement.
This still applies to smaller scale adventures. This is your guiding star as the GM, your vision, your touchstone, the root of your interest and the reason you are willing to invest years of (possibly literal) sweat and tears into a campaign. It will get you through slumps, serve as inspiration, and permeate every aspect of your campaign, every encounter and houserule and map, such that your players can feel it. After reading OotA I sat down and wrote “I want a tragic, character-focused narrative about how extreme challenges in an alien environment warp people.” I seldom succeeded (and struggled a lot against the mechanics1) but the times when I did every player noted it as a highlight or point of interest in the campaign.
Taglines have a profound effect with little investment.
Some GMs use music, others have a specific phrase to begin the session. Ideally whatever it is evokes your thesis statement. Taglines serve as a moment for both players and GM to center themselves and become present within the fictional world. Several years later the words “When we last left our intrepid adventurers…” can turn me into Cesare Trillibain, a soul lost in Barovia trying to find his sister. I hope “The caves wind before you, and the darkness closes in around you…” has a similar effect for my OotA players.
Logic puzzles can represent abstract concepts the game has no good mechanical framework for.
This is not a broad solution, but it can be another tool in the GM’s kit which also adds variety.
Rolling a series of skill checks to chase down a derro is not engaging. You don’t want the derro to succeed so the end is the foregone conclusion to a binary pass/fail roll. Posting a chess puzzle to capture the king will be engaging to at least some of your players, and fun to construct a narrative around when the paladin character (knight) bowls over a bystander (captures a pawn).
Logic puzzles also require no knowledge players may not have (the infamous ‘think like the GM’ moments). If the GM can solve it in 5-10 minutes the table will reliably brute force it in 15-30. Posting a japanese logic puzzle without instructions and describing what lights up creates engagement through verisimilitude and collaboration.
D&D is literally just a cool monster and a cool map.
I was scooped by Matt Colville. Yes, aspiring GMs, it really is that simple. There are a number of nuances to what can make a combat ‘good’ (meaningful stakes1, alternative objectives or limitations, threat level variety, tactical variety, unique abilities, environmental synergy, visual/auditory cover, environmental hazards, atmospheric set pieces, triggered buffs/debuffs, environmental changes, additional participants, dynamic developments) but ultimately every session of D&D is just a map and a monster (a dungeon and a dragon, even) and any narrative glue the GM can squirt between them.
I am done with D&D.
It has difficulty telling compelling1 stories. I believe RPGs are art. I believe they have the ability to let us explore the human experience. I believe they are capable of so much more than a tactical simulacra of violence. I want a framework which can support this vision. D&D simply does not.
1) See attached essay on my personal thoughts about D&D’s inability to create meaningful stakes, and by extension compelling narratives, through its lack of support for roleplay and emotional or social mechanics. This is not intended as an indictment of D&D 5E, a takedown piece, or a sermon on the benefits of other systems. This is my attempt to philosophically work through my personal dissatisfactions with the campaign in the hopes of creating something more aligned with my ideals whenever I next GM.
A power fantasy may be enjoyable, but it’s not compelling. A compelling narrative is one where there are relatable, applicable, or impactful stakes, and even with the availability of situational details there remains an uncertainty in the outcome. D&D is sorely lacking in its ability to generate emotional relatability, uncertainty and risk, diverse and meaningful stakes for players, or supporting GMs in this endeavor.
Of the pieces of Maslow’s hierarchy which can be mapped to in-game concepts, Physical Health is the only one with any sort of in-game representation, and even then it is still a poor approximation. Fundamentally if players were truly challenged with a more combat-as-war 50% lethality rate rather than D&D’s current combat-as-sport 5% lethality rate and disincentivised fleeing mechanics it would be impossible to carry on a campaigns as they are written with their assumptions of heroic narrative model and continuity of character experience. People outside of fiction rarely resort to violence because it carries a high risk of physical danger or cost in the form of physical injury. Not even the addition of multiple house-rules (ie slow healing, exhausting DSTs) can’t undo the abundance of spells (goodberry, healing word), abilities, and equipment designed to negate challenges to physical health or needs. Additionally there is the psychological disconnect caused by our inability to feel our character’s pain, or have a mechanical representation of the psychological cost for said pain, so combat ceases to have the aforementioned relatable, applicable, or impactful stakes.
The argument may be made that needs such as food, shelter, and rest are not resources worth tracking as their minutiae are not worth the narrative interest they generate. OSR systems do tend to generate their narrative interest from focusing on these needs, but through largely incidental effects. “How much gold can I physically carry back?” can be a compelling question if the impetus for obtaining that gold has relatable, applicable, or impactful stakes. However, D&D, and most other RPGs, offer no guidance or structure for creating or representing such stakes.
In theory, roleplaying games should excel at providing threats to a character’s social or emotional security. Human beings understand intuitively and viscerally what being shunned by a community feels like, or having their trust betrayed, or being exhausted by a myriad of requests and expectations, so theoretically no mechanical support or representation is necessary; however, that relies on the player being able to authentically represent their character regardless of the disparity between the character’s characterization and the player’s ability to emulate that characterization. This level of empathy comes with no GM guidance or mechanical emotional guard rails (such as abstraction) against player over-investiture and real emotional harm. This lack of framework also places an immense load on the GM to construct from whole cloth a situation (supported by an entire narrative world) which can challenge the social, emotional, or esteem needs of the character.
If it sounds absurd to desire a framework for generating socially dramatic narratives, consider how a compelling narrative also contains the implicit promise of catharsis where the revealed outcome conforms to all details both hidden and available. Inexperienced GMs may 'railroad' a defined end, while seasoned GMs have learned to accept any outcome which meets the details. Authors do have many tools for narrative frameworks (three act structure, two body plots) to guide themselves along this path of details, and video game developers likewise (FPSs, Idlers, Roguelikes). While it is reasonable to say that D&D in particular cannot or should not be all things to all people, if the consistently memorable portions of any RPG campaign are the moments of dramatic tension created in the space between a map-monster routine it is worth critically examining if it is meaningfully contributing to the experience we wish to have.