In late 2018, my weekly D&D group was just finishing up our Storm King’s Thunder campaign, for which I was the Dungeon Master. Over the course of the campaign, I’d learned a lot about being a DM and had worked hard to improve classic GMing skills such as improvisation, descriptive narration, and familiarity with the system. It was clear to me that the players at my table absolutely loved their characters, and they universally expressed a desire to tell epic-level stories. They wanted to go the distance, all the way to level 20! And who could blame them? Many of us (myself included) like to fantasize about a 20th-level version of our characters.
If there was any group of players in my life for which such a feat was possible, it was this one. After all, how many D&D tables are privileged to have regular attendance from each player, effective communication, and – to toot my own horn – a Dungeon Master who’s straight up obsessed with the game and making sure each player has fun? My D&D players are a collective unicorn when it comes to finding a solid gaming group, and I wasn’t about to let them down.
With few Tier 3 campaigns available at the time (Dungeon of the Mad Mage wouldn’t be announced until the following Spring), I knew that I’d have to write most of it myself. No worries. As a divination wizard IRL, I had been planting plot seeds and foreshadowing possible adventures for a couple of months. That said, I needed to check in with my players and make sure I was on the right track.
The Campaign Refresher
Knowing I had a long road ahead of me and much, much more to learn as a DM (spells like teleport and scrying would become regular occurrences), I set out to collect feedback from my players via a short survey of 10 questions. This campaign refresher was designed to:
- Determine what parts of my prep were most worth my time based on player enjoyment
- Learn what style of play and narrative my players desired
- Analyze key areas of our D&D sessions, such as combat difficulty and pacing
- See what moments, NPCs, and villains resonated with my players from the previous campaign and why
I broke that survey down in a thread on Twitter, but I’ve since revamped the survey for 1) my own players and 2) to share with others. You can see what the new campaign refresher is like by taking the survey using the button below. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone your answers.
In this blog post, I’ll provide a breakdown of my latest campaign refresher (the one accessible via the button above), explaining why I’ve decided to include certain questions as well as suggestions for how you could improve or customize it for your own campaign. At the end of this post, you can request a copy my campaign refresher, either to give to your own players or to edit the survey to better suit your table.
Other Forms of Feedback
In addition to electronic surveys, there are some less formal ways to solicit feedback from your players, such as:
– A regular post-session handout with no more than five questions
– Weekly 1:1 check-ins with each player through text, GroupMe, etc.
– Open time before or after session to talk about the campaign, ask questions, and comment on what did and didn’t work (also a great time to do some healthy snacking)
Section 1: General Refresher
I’ve divided my survey into three distinct sections, the first of which is a general refresher designed to remind the Dungeon Master of player preferences when preparing for session. Mainly, I want DMs to be able to weed out elements that their players dislike or want to avoid. This way, the DM can focus their efforts on aspects that will give them the most bang for their buck in terms of prep.
Typically, I like to use a 5-point Likert scale for these, with 1 being something a player would like to remove or does not have fun during, 3 being indifferent, i.e., “Keep it the same,” and 5 being something they love and would enjoy more of.
The Three Pillars
The survey starts with the three pillars of D&D. If you’ve never heard of these before, I’m glad I get to share them with you! Exploration is sometimes referred to as the forgotten pillar, but that’s mainly because it’s a slightly more amorphous compared to the other two. We all recognize when we’re in combat or role-playing, but we don’t traditionally think of the small choices in between as “exploring,” even though they probably are.
This is a high-level view of your players preferences. From a DM standpoint, it’s probably not going to lead to any epiphanies, but if half of the party says they hate social interaction, you should consider less dialogue and more dungeon crawls.
Common elements are where the survey starts getting good, in my opinion. This is a great question that you can customize with common elements from your D&D sessions. I, for example, enjoy writing and acting out villainous monologues (you should hear my evil laugh). The last time I ran this survey, my players said they loved them – my monologues even came up as a free-text answer later! However, some players hate monologues and gleefully interrupt the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) with an axe to the face.
I could still probably clean up this question. I mean, what players don’t love props? I may be biased since I work for Beadle & Grimm’s.
Other things you could include in this section:
- Unearthed Arcana, house rules, or other variant options
- Strongholds or businesses
- Images of NPCs or enemies that you painstakingly cut out each week and tape onto your DM screen
I got a lot of these adventure styles from the available adventure tags on the DMs Guild when you post a new product. You’re only allowed to select three on the DMs Guild, which made classifying my milk-themed carnival horror adventure a bit difficult at the time. Thankfully, there’s no such restriction here. Fire away!
The type of adventure has a huge effect on individual sessions and player enjoyment. I would have said before that my players enjoy any adventure, but after seeing them squirm during Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I’ve realized they can only spend so much time in the city before it begins to feel oppressive and constraining. That said, I did learn that they quite liked the mystery and investigation portions of that and previous adventures we’ve run, so there’s sure to be some element of that in future campaigns.
Styles of Play
Styles of play, like the three pillars, are more to get rid of the universally disliked options, rather than providing a helpful analysis of those your players enjoy. I can already tell you from looking at this question (which was not on my original survey from 2018) that my players don’t like Resource Management or Heavy Social Interaction enough to select those boxes. In fact, they will probably only select Gritty Realism and Comedic, but my players have surprised me before!
Some players don’t like open choice when it comes to narrative style. Mine fall into that boat. Every player wants their choices to matter, but I’ve found that my players get choice paralysis when their are too many options (another lesson learned from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist). I’ve found most players fall in the middle at Malleable, but some, like my wife Samantha, “just want to be part of our D&D movie.”
Many published adventures have multiple side quests, sometimes in each chapter. While some are relatively short, mine tend to run adjacent to the main plot and slowly develop over time. An individual side quest may take three or more in-game months and have five mini quests within it! If there’s too many irons in the fire, however, some players feel overwhelmed.
During our Storm King’s Thunder campaign, I introduced the party barbarian’s brother, Cantu. Cantu was a goliath sorcerer who sought to unite all of the northern tribes against the nations who had driven them into the Frozenfar and defiled their burial mounds. After two Cantu-themed side quests and given the urgency of the main quest, the players instead chose to pursue the main quest, leaving Cantu to develop his plans in peace. I got to ask myself, “How would Cantu’s plans proceed uninterrupted?” and as a result, the Pale Sorcerer played a pivotal role in the plot of our epic-level campaign.
Character-driven quests can be extremely rewarding given the play style of your table. While I hesitate to make this comparison, given that none of us are professional actors, our group functions similarly to Critical Role, in that our campaigns are heavily influenced by the characters and their individual arcs. Often times, they are tied heavily into the main quest, such that by the end of our 20-level campaign, it felt entirely personal. This style of play requires players to let other characters have the spotlight, sometimes for an extended period of time, and go on quests for which their character may not entirely relate. It’s not for everyone, but we very much enjoy it.
If all but one player answers positively to this question, you might consider talking to that player about it, keeping arcs short, or developing something special for their character that makes the time worth the wait.
Section 2: Campaign Refresher
You could give this section of the survey to your players every 5-10 sessions or after a major adventure. The true campaign refresher is basically a pulse check on combat and memorable moments. I tend to focus more heavily on combat (see below), but you could expand upon other important facets of your sessions.
If I wanted to make this survey longer or more thorough, I would probably add comparable sections on the other two pillars, as well as some general questions to look for common pitfalls of DMing, such as a problem player not being addressed.
Combat Difficulty & Frequency
Combat is a big part of our D&D games, so I ask a lot of questions about it. So much of the Player’s Handbook is devoted to combat, whether it’s through character abilities or battle magic. The designers of 5th Edition obviously thought combat was an important part of the game, so I want to give it proper attention and make sure that my players are enjoying it. At the same time, remember that even good combat can grow stale if it’s too frequent.
Other Combat Questions
Like I said, I wanted to know a lot about combat. A big part of what makes combat feel “fun” for me as a player is getting to use my abilities. One of these prompts, “I feel my abilities are being canceled out or subverted,” is a check on myself to ensure I’m not hindering that fun. While I never want to intentionally stifle a player’s abilities, I do like to challenge my players. There’s a fine line between challenging a player and negating a character’s capabilities. If the party monk suddenly finds themselves fighting only constructs after landing one too many stunning strikes, they’re going to think it’s your doing, even if you’re running Temple of the Stone Golems.
Memorable Villains, NPCs, and Moments
This one is relatively straightforward, but I wanted to know what resonated with my players. “What’s going right in the stories we’re telling together?” If an NPC or villain that I put a lot of work into doesn’t make the cut, why didn’t they, and is such an NPC worth that kind of investment the next time around? In addition, this is a chance for the players to reminisce about your games and validate the hard work of their DM.
These questions are open-ended, so it’s up to my players exactly how much use I’ll get out of them. Take the answers with a grain of salt, though. Even though your awesome NPC that was critical to the story doesn’t get a mention, that doesn’t mean they didn’t make an impact or that your hard work wasn’t necessary. It might just mean you did an especially good job at role-playing that eccentric gnome shopkeep, Fiddlesticks.
Section 3: Character Refresher
This last section is all about the player character. Platforms like this survey encourage players to ground themselves every once and a while. D&D brain may have set in over time, or a player may have forgotten their character’s roots. These questions prompt each player to think about their character and motivations. I’m a firm believer that the DM should take time to think about each character when prepping for a session, working in opportunities for them to shine, moral quandaries, or elements from their past – or perhaps their future. These answers hopefully will make that process easier.
In my opinion, a campaign can only hold about 10 major NPCs, i.e., individuals who the characters will see multiple times and who play a pivotal role in the overall story. Beyond that, I think you can probably have 20-30 lesser NPCs, i.e., those who play a minor role but are otherwise memorable, such as shopkeeps, town leaders, or a villain’s second in command. When writing adventures, or building stories off of existing adventures, consider working in at least one NPC with which each character can “bond,” whether that takes the form of a bitter rivalry, apprenticeship, or duty to protect.
The other question, “What’s something you want your character to do in this campaign?” is totally in the player’s court. I recommend watching James Haeck talk about the Heroic Chronicle from the upcoming official setting guide, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, for inspiration on making these “prophecies” happen in your games.
Lastly, selecting magic items rewards is such a critical part of prepping for a D&D session (though not every session) that it made it into the eight steps of Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master checklist. Not surprisingly, it gets its own slot here in my survey, as I like to select and/or create magic items specifically tailored to the desires of both the players and their characters.
Where Can I Get a Copy of This Survey?
Understandably, many people have requested this survey from me! However, some people on the internet like to ruin things for others, and I haven’t discovered a way to make the Google Form survey both copy-able and free from everyone having edit access. (If you know of a way, please let me know.)
If you’d like a copy of my Campaign Refresher, please send me a Direct Message on Twitter (@justice_arman) or reach out to me via the form on my contact page. I’ll get you a version of the survey that you can copy as soon as I am able!
UPDATE: Thanks to Maximilian (@maximilianhart_), you can actually make a copy of this survey directly using this link. Please reach out to me if there are any issues with the survey.
Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as my milk-themed carnival adventure, Step Right Up. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign (complete with three new and exciting background options), Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts, or Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.