Engaging sessions are the heart of a great campaign. They excite players and give them something thrilling to do. Engaging sessions have three pitfalls they need to avoid. Player confusion (what is going on?) player apathy (this isn't exciting) and player frustration (are we on the right track?). Premise, promise and progress is a technique that will help you avoid those pitfalls. It will help you make your next session engaging and delightful for your players.
Premise: What is happening?
At the start of a session players are in limbo. The DM needs to quickly communicate the premise. Before anticipation and excitement dissipates into boredom and frustration.
A solid premise minimizes how long players feel confused or listless. It gives them the information and context they need to understand and enjoy the upcoming session.
For example, Star Wars (new hope) opens with a space battle, not Luke working on a farm. The battle lets the audience know that there will be exciting fights as the dark lord tries to recover the plans from the weak droids. Had the movie started on the farm the audience would be confused, is this movie about how hard it is to be a farmer? Or is it about a group of plucky underdogs fighting against an evil government?
Speed is critical because "it gets good later" often ends up "it gets good never" because people can walk away. Players may be too polite to walk out on a DM, but once they have disengaged, you'll have to work twice as hard to win them back. Start strong to stay strong.
An example premise that will be expanded throughout this post is:
In the old wood north of town is a ruined tower. In two nights when the moon is full, a necromancer will complete a dark ritual that will reanimate all who died in the war of leaf and field. You must stop them!
Promise: Why is it awesome?
It isn't enough to have something for the players to do. It has to be something awesome! Your promise is all the cool things that the premise sets up for the players to do.
Promises made by the the dark ritual premise include:
- A treacherous forest full of dangerous beasts.
- Fighting up a ruined tower filled with undead.
- A climatic fight with a necromancer atop a ruined tower! All while a horde of undead slowly make their way up the tower (delayed by all the barred doors the PCs left behind them).
Promises are things that draw your players forward and through the session. If the session has nothing exciting to look forward too, players won't be engaged.
Promises are not just what a DM says but what players hear. With skill you can take advantage of that discrepancy by promising X while delivering X plus more! Twists, if done clumsily, promise X while delivering Y, leaving the players who wanted the original promise unsatisfied.
Your core promises usually relate to the climatic conclusion the premise implies. A compelling promise draws players forward as they keep playing so they can see what happens!
Progress: Are we there yet?
A strong start and a climatic conclusion is the foundation of a good session. For a great session you also need progress.
How long would you wait for an application to load? If you had to wait 1 second, that is no problem. If you had to wait 1 minute you could glance at something else. If you had to wait 10 minutes you could comfortably grab a snack. Waiting less time is nice, but more important is knowing how long you have to wait. If you expected it to finish in 1 minute and it takes 10 minutes you would be upset.
Progress is about signposting how players are moving through the session. It is a way to let them know that their actions are moving them closer to the promises. For example, as the players advance up the ruined tower, each level acceded gets them closer to battle with the necromancer.
Without progress players can feel like they are going in circles. Unable to tell if their actions are doing anything. If the players spend an hour playing but aren't any closer to the promises, those promises can feel like mirages. Forever on the horizon but never within reach. Having ways to indicate progress avoids players feeling demoralized. It also lets them know that the promises are attainable this session not in some far off uncertain future.
The Dungeon is a natural fit
The Dungeon has persisted in DnD not just because it is in the name. It natural supports the premise, promise and progress structure. Dungeons have a premise (mad wizard tower or ancient temple). They have a promise (the wizard is a lich! Or cultists sacrificing to a god). And they have progress (each room advanced through). Together this makes dungeons effortlessly engaging. By using this technique you can make your next session as engaging as the classic dungeons that have stood the test of time.
- Go For the Heart
- Is there a good way to introduce a BBEG early in a campaign so that there is build up to the final fight?
- Herding cats and how to get around messy pacing.
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Premise, Promise, Progress: 3 parts of engaging sessions" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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