Pitching Your New D&D 5e Game
So, here’s a dilemma that I think every Game Master will eventually run into. You’ve got too many ideas. Rolling around inside your head are the nuggets that, given enough time and attention, could provide about seven or eight fully-fleshed out and equally interesting games. You are not married to any one of them, and you’re sure that they would all be fun to run. How do you decide which one to prep for your group?
I just recently ran into this problem. One of these days, I’m going to just blow out the lines and vent about how hard it is to find a good stable group when you aren’t lucky enough to live nearby a local game store; your pool of in-person players is effectively nil, and online games tend to need some screening before you settle into a good group. To give you the broad-strokes, I was looking forward to not running the game this time, but due to changing circumstances, I’m stepping back into the GM role.
But, I haven’t run a game in almost a year, so I’m basically oversaturated with ideas for games that could be cool to run. Which one should I bring to this fresh group? I don’t know them as well as I have my players in the past, and all of these ideas sound cool to me. Because of course they do…they’re my ideas. But, how do I decide what I think they’ll enjoy most?
Short answer for all of you following along at home and screaming the old GM mantra, “talk to your players,” I decided to go to the source. I wrote up a quick elevator pitch for each of my ideas, and put it in front of them. The ball was then firmly in their court. We got some discussion on our Discord, and we’re hashing it out.
Now, I think I might’ve overdid it. I outlined seven potential games. I am in no way, shape, or form, advising that you commit every idea you have to paper and wag it in front of your players. I’m actually not even advising that you do this every time you start a game. But when you don’t know your players as well as you think you should, it’s a good way to get a feeling for how the group might interact with your content, and what kind of content they find exciting.
Here’s what I did.
The Elevator Pitch
So, to start, I condensed all of my ideas into a handful of elevator pitches. What’s an elevator pitch? Simply put, it’s an overview of an idea or product that gets the idea across in a short amount of time, usually between 30 seconds and two minutes. It generally focuses on the high-concept rather than the nitty gritty, and is generally more effective if it has a hook or an exciting element to really grab your audience.
Basically, I took a handful of starting set-ups and scenarios that I thought might be cool to run, and then stripped them down to what I would send to The Asylum if they were going to make a schlocky B-movie out of my campaign. Since I’m working in a written medium, and I can only talk to my players voice-style once a week, I kept it to a quick paragraph. I feel like there’s a real pull toward giving your players all of the detail and background right up front when you try and explain what kind of game you run, but if you frontload that much information, you’ll end up with a pitch that drags on. When you’ve got a pitch document that’s nine pages long, your players are going to skim it at best, and probably just close it out, hoping that someone will make the decision for them. If you do it face to face, they won’t remember the first pitch by the time you reach the end. That’s not what we want.
So keep it brief. Highlight the central tension, or the major theme, or something the separates this campaign from the normal romp through Fantasyland. Maybe it’s a cool faction or an interesting city. Maybe it’s the magic level, and you’re planning on running a grim and gritty low-fantasy meat-grinder. Or you’re going the other way and daily life in your campaign is going to be riddled with interesting magic and weird characters. It might be that you just binge-watched all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and you’re dying for a campaign with a nautical focus. I don’t know. But you do. Make sure your players do, too.
Dialing It In
In the document I sent to my players, under the elevator pitches, I added in little granular categories to characterize the campaigns further. There were five categories–though, you might do less–rated on a spectrum of low, medium, and high; Politics, to indicate how byzantine and inscrutable the maneuverings of the factions of the world might be; Roleplay, to show how much in-character negotiation and conversation would be integral; Magic, to illustrate the overall prevalence of the wondrous in the world; Combat, to give the players an idea about how often we’d be reaching for the initiative dice; and Lethality, because people should be aware when they’re walking into a meat-grinder. This is probably overkill, but I think it’s a good conversation starter when people are interested about the game.
When someone comes back that they love the idea of a megadungeon, but are talking themselves out of it because it’s marked Highly Lethal (spoilers, megadungeons work best this way), you can maybe talk about what about the megadungeon they find cool. That can help you tailor to your group.
However, be aware that the more flexible you are on the tinkering with the various sliders, the longer it’s going to take to come to a consensus. With a group of five, you’ll probably have an average of six opinions on what’s going to make a good game. Most of them will be contradictory. But, it’s a collaborative game. So long as your group isn’t prone to analysis paralysis, you’ll figure out something that everyone can enjoy.
The last thing I put on my pitch document was the player’s “buy-in.” Every campaign is not suited to every character–or player–and in that spirit, I was up-front on what kind of things had to sound cool and plausible for everyone to have a good time. No one is going to enjoy being the hulking Barbarian in a delicate game of social intrigue. No one wants to be the Con-Artist in the wilderness survival game. You don’t want to be a cloistered academic in a military game…actually, that one could be pretty cool.
The central conceit is that if you’re not able to self-direct in an open-world which is begging for self-direction, you’re not going to have a good time. If you’re running a narrative-heavy game that’s going to require the attention of the players, and they want to go pursue their own stories, no one’s going to have a good time. If you want the game to be serious, and you’ve got Bingbong the archer (he’s an archer and such), it’s not going to have the tone you’re looking for. And if you’re trying to play Hamlet in Wonderland, you’re probably have a hard time getting the kind of serious reactions you’re looking for. Identify these key points of buy-in early, and you’ll find it’s easier to run the kind of game that you advertise. Your players will have already bought a ticket, and knowing what to expect takes a lot of the anxiety out of going in blind.
So, in essence, the next time you sit down to start a new game from scratch, consider pitching your game to your group. Do this before you guys ever sit down for your session zero. Do this in that, “Hey, I think I want to play D&D again,” stage where everyone is determining when a good time to meet might be. Do it when everyone is looking at you when the question of “Who’s going to DM?” comes up.
You’d be surprised what kind of wacky stuff people bite off on when they know it’s coming!