Tips For Running Your Own Tabletop RPG Game (from Brennan Lee Mulligan)

Brennan Lee Mulligan is a CollegeHumor cast member and writer, an all-around geek, and a veteran of countless tabletop RPG campaigns over the last several decades - and now he's taking those game master skills he's acquired to Dropout.tv, CollegeHumor's new subscription entertainment platform, where he's running a high school-themed RPG called 'Dimension 20: Fantasy High.' With player characters from Brian Murphy, Emily Axford, Zac Oyama, Siobhan Thompson, Ally Beardsley, and Lou Wilson, Brennan guides the crew through an adventure like none you've ever seen - and his skills are even being praised by the likes of Critical Role's Matthew Mercer:

Now, let's say you're INTERESTED in running a tabletop RPG campaign, but you need a few tips - there's few better people to turn to than Brennan Lee Mulligan, who has already been fielding questions from Dimension 20 fans in the exclusive Dropout Discord channel. Here's a small sampling of the advice Brennan has been ladling out...



1. "Any tips for a GM who has zero experience with tabletop GMs?"

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Have a dang ball! Stay keyed in to your players!

The only thing that matters is the experience people are having at the table. There are rules in the books, and there are the plans you wrote down in your notes, but plans and books will never look you in the eye and say "This is the most fun I've ever had," so make sure to remember which side your bread is buttered on!



2. "When you're running a campaign like this, how do you have players manage resources? Does each player have a specific amount of gold on them at all times, or do you just kind of assume they have a normal amount for a highschooler?"

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I only pay close attention to resources when monitoring those resources is part of the focus of the campaign's themes!

So for Fantasy High, the characters had starting wealth, and it only came up a handful of times!

But if we were doing a classic Thieves Guild game, it would be FRONT and CENTER, and how much things cost would be a big deal



3. "For Fabian, would there be "infinite" money for his father to give him (for story) or not (for balance).

And an addon to my question, how do you handle the balance between story and a 'fair' game?"

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Everything boils down to the concept of "The game we've decided to play"

Which exists either as an implicit or explicit agrement between a DM and their players

Hot Take: Balance between characters is not a prerequisite to having a fun game.

I just played a game where one of the characters was 17th level, and the other five were all 5th level and it was AWESOME

So, any set of rules should either be emphasized or deemphasized to more accurately support the "game" everyone's trying to play. In a game like Fantasy High, everyone has implicitly agreed to a game about teens and coming of age with a wild, absurdist, comedic tone

So being a stickler about encumbrance, or rations, or money, would not support the game we're all attempting to play. So to answer your original question, Fabian wouldn't be able to get infinite money, but he probably also wouldn't ask for it.

Because the problems Fabian and the other PCs are tackling are not inherently financial.

Similarly, I think balance is EXTREMELY important in a game that focuses on combat and dungeon crawling. And those game can be really fun! It's just important to realize that not every rule in the book will support YOUR game at YOUR table, and part of being a DM is looking at the rules as tools on your workbench, not as an angry boss that you have to satisfy.



4. "In my opinion you're one of the best Dungeon Masters I've seen. You're equal to if not better than Spencer Crittenden and Matthew Mercer. What's your process when designing campaigns and story lines? As a DM whose done almost a hundred sessions I still can't compare myself to you. PS. I love all your science, astronomy, and astrophysics references. #PhysicsForever"

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IMHO, world-building is emotional, not logistical. The world of Harry Potter makes ZERO logistical sense, but the FEELING of lucidity, cohesiveness and tonal, aesthetic harmony is so potent that people are talking about their Hogwarts House TO THIS VERY DAY!!

So when I design campaign worlds, it's about creating settings, characters, plots and mechanics that harmonize into the overarching themes of the story we all want to tell

If you want grimdark low fantasy game of thrones feeling, introduce rules for injury and disease. Create NPCs with horrific scars, and lost loved ones. You're conducting an orchestra more than you are drawing a map!



5. "How do you scale/award/calculate experience and levels in your campaigns?
[My friend] is trying to make her own tabletop and this seemed like something that could really mess things up if it isn't set up well at the start."

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Great question! In Dimension 20, we give a HIGHLY CONCENTRATED DOSE of a campaign. Every encounter is deadly difficulty, every combat session the entire party levels up!

I tend to follow the DMG guidelines for combat experience in home games, and award hefty RP awards as well! I used to always keep party members even XP wise, but I don't worry about that as much these days!



6. "When you create a campaign that's more story based, do you have a endgame in mind? Like some big bad that the players have to defeat, some goal they have to accomplish? And if you do, do you normally know the things that you want them to accomplish and learn before getting to the endgame?"

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Loosely yes! Having a villain is great, having scenes in your head is great, you've just got to be willing to be loose with it, allowing your PCs actions to take and reshape the story in your head!



7. "What are your thoughts on "destiny" being used a plot device in DnD? Do you think it has a place in such a fluid world?"

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It can be really fun! Just be aware that having "destined" characters can feel really good because it's a classic story trope, but also in a weird way can rob agency from characters, because they feel like something outside of themselves is calling the shots!



8. "Hey Brennan I've been loving Fantasy High and have some questions bout your GM philosophy. As a GM planning a new campaign, what is your process in planning out a story? How much lore do you try to get tacked down before characters come into play? Lastly how do you plan for unexpected decisions made by players?"

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Striking that balance can be very tricky! The way I think about it is like this: When you're creating your campaign world, you're not really designing a story. You're designing an amusement park. You're trying to create an environment, a playground, a puzzle. Now this structure you're creating, instead of having rollercoasters and concessions stands, has characters, settings and events.

The trickiest part of those three is of course the last one, events. Because if your PCs don't meaningfully impact the story of your campaign, then why are they the main characters?

But on the other hand, if events aren't occurring in your game world, the world won't feel real! You need villains doing villain things, you need holidays and sporting events, you need battles to be won, you need change to occur even OUTSIDE of the PCs, or it won't feel like a real place.

I would say the best way to plan out a campaign world is to have a very clear static image on a macro scale.

The places and people of the setting, in other words, are very known to you. They should be developed enough that you are comfortable going anywhere in your setting at any time, but not so developed that you've wasted a bunch of effort on work no one will ever get to see.

The threshold you're trying to hit is basically "Is this developed enough that I would feel comfortable improvising within it? Do I know enough about my dwarf city that I could improvise a random shopkeeper? Do I know enough about the goblins in these mountains that if the PCs decide to "capture a scout," I would know how to make that up on the fly?"

If solid means totally planned out, and liquid is totally improvised, you want your world and setting to be mostly solid with some wiggle to them, like jello

And your plots and event structures to be mostly fluid and capable of being influenced by the PCs, with enough structure that the world feels real. So like mashed potatoes.

I'm hungry.




If you're interested in D&D, tabletop RPGs, improv, comedy, or good entertaining things in general, then you're gonna love Fantasy High - check out the trailer:

But to see all of the episodes (and get access to the exclusive Dropout Discord), you have to sign up for Dropout! (but don't worry, you can just start with a free trial to get a taste of it if you're still unsure)