Table of Contents - A handy way to check out my articles by topic
My most recent Guides:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
You can reach me at:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - How to Start a Campaign

I've run many campaigns over the last 3 decades. Some went really well. Some were fiascos. I've learned a lot and I want to share the insight I've gleaned from my experiences. I am going to cover what I think are the most important things to do before you actually start running your D&D campaign.

For those of you brand new to D&D, a "campaign" is a series of linked sessions. It could be anything from running the starter set adventure over a series of sessions, to running a massive adventure book like Storm King's Thunder.

"Session Zero"

A lot of people throw this phrase around. Basically what "session zero" means is that before you run the game, you need to talk with your players and find out what they want out of the game. You'll need to establish things like:
  • How lethal the game should be.
  • Make sure the players aren't going to abandon your whole story because it conflicts with what they want to do.
  • What the players like. Lots of combat? Lots of stealth? Lots of roleplaying?
  • Whether the characters are noble heroes or vile scoundrels.
  • What the characters are and how they'll interact. You'll want to nip any conflicts in the bud before the game even starts. The most common source of conflict is a party with a lawful good paladin and a selfish rogue who steals all the time.
The thing about "Session Zero" that I don't like is the actual "session" part. I don't want to have the group come over just to make characters for next time. To me, that is a waste of precious table time.

I prefer to have all of that stuff done over the phone prior to the game. It can be difficult working out people's schedules. If you actually have them at your house, to me it feels like a waste if you don't run a game.

Pre-game Communication

Let's say you have come up with a campaign idea that has you really excited and you can't wait to run it. There's a few I came upon recently that looked really awesome:
  • The world is covered in a weird cloud/mist, and there's a few cities on mountaintops above the clouds that use airships to travel between them.
  • The world is about to be destroyed except for a lone city. The heroes must race across the world to get to that city before it's too late.
  • The heroes must go on an epic quest through each of the nine layers of hell.
Before you get to work on your campaign, run the premise past your players. If they don't want to do it, then you do not have a campaign.

One time, in 2004, I bought this mega-adventure called The Lost City of Gaxmoor by Gary Gygax's kids. I have always loved "death-trap dungeons" and campaigns where death of your character is a real possibility.

My players hated this style, but I was so excited by Gaxmoor that I kept bothering them until they finally agreed to try it because I wouldn't shut up about it.

A few of them showed up to the game with "joke" characters with passive aggressive names like "Lack." They were killed by a spider that lived in a tree stump. They pulled out their back-up characters (I told them to come with three characters, as death was very likely). They got to Gaxmoor, found barrels of flour and had a flour fight. They rolled around inside the barrels, attracting monsters.

They didn't care. They hated the style and basically revolted against me.

While I was deeply insulted that they wouldn't indulge me after all the times I'd tried to accommodate them, I learned a valuable lesson: Don't bother trying to force your players to play a game that doesn't fit their preferences.

I also learned that I needed to find new players, and I did.

The Beginning Hook

Unless you are running a completely free-form sandbox, your campaign is going to have some kind of over-arching story, however loose. In order to avoid a disaster, some ideas that get you excited will need to be run by your players.

If you are running a campaign that starts out with the heroes getting captured, tread very carefully.

Skull & Shackles, the best campaign I have ever run, starts off with the heroes being drugged and forced to work on a pirate ship. The drugging must happen for the game to progress. Your best bet is to tell the players about the opening scenario well before you run the game. Tell them how it starts. Tell them it has to happen. Make sure they are cool with it and can deal with it (seriously, some people can not). When you run it, you can hand-wave the whole thing and get to the pirate ship.

Character Backgrounds

This is always tricky. I've always had a difficult time weaving backgrounds into a story. If your player comes up with a story they're excited about, go with it and try to plant it into an early adventure. Sometimes the best NPCs come out of a character's background.

If the player doesn't have any particular idea on a background, rattle off some things you know are involved in the campaign and see if anything grabs them. If you know the campaign involves a dwarven hall, maybe throw that out there and see if maybe the player wants to say that their character worked in the mines, and there was a collapse, and some entity saved him or her.

Some players just don't care about their backgrounds. Not every character needs to have a backstory. In fact, past adventures will become their backstory. It makes sense that some heroes simply grew up in a happy home and a happy town.

Flashbacks: One thing that was a huge success for me was when I started using flashbacks in-game. They have to be really short, so the other players don't get bored.

Here's an example as to how a flashback works. The heroes are told by a wizard about a legendary sword. Suddenly, the party fighter has a flashback to his youth. He's 11 years old, his village is under attack. A huge, evil knight in red and black armor is holding the very sword the wizard is referring to.

The evil knight is about to cut down the hero's father. Our hero jumps in to save him.. roll initiative. Play out the fight!

The best way to handle this is to just let the dice tell the story. Don't have it set in your head that the hero's father is slain. The only thing that is certain is that the young hero didn't die (at least, not permanently) and that he does not have the sword presently.

Your first instinct might be to run that flashback encounter thinking that the hero's dad must die, and that the evil knight must get away with the sword, but you should always leave room for twists caused by player ingenuity and the roll of the die.

If the young hero is slain, that's okay. We play a game with raise dead in it, right? Our hero is killed and once the raid is over, the town priest takes the poor boy's body to a temple and has him raised. Now our hero has a deep connection to that sword. In fact, maybe the sword is intelligent and our hero has somehow gained a psychic link to the blade - he can sense it, and it can sense him.

If by some crazy twist of fate, the knight is disarmed and defeated, that's ok too. Our hero or his father gain the blade, and it proceeds to corrupt them and cause great evil to spread.

The best flashback I ever did was in a campaign based on Monte Cook's Books of Eldritch Might. The heroes flashed back to their youth, were they lived on a beach. They came upon a magic talking book (In fact, this was the actual Book of Eldritch Might). The flashback was so well-received that I realized that I should have run the entire campaign with them as kids, as it was far more interesting.

Running Flashbacks: The thing about flashbacks is that they require careful planning. If a character's personality is well-established after 4 sessions, when you run your flashback, the story can't violate what's already been established in your continuity. You'll need to run things by your player when you are planning to make sure you know your player's vision of their character's life.

When I run a flashback, I do not run it like a normal game. I don't want to lose the interest of the other players and I don't want to eat up precious table time. So, using the above magic sword scenario, here's how I'd run it:

I tell the hero the scene. I tell him or her what is around them. I describe the evil sword, what it looks like, etc. I ask them what they do. Allow anything they can think of that is plausible. They are not restricted to a single action.

They come up with what they want to do. It could be using an object to disarm the bad guy. It could be sacrificing their life to try to save their dad. It could be going for a called shot by stabbing the knight in the eye with a flaming, sharpened stick.

Then the player makes one fateful roll, modified by stat bonuses or skills, and whatever feels right. Also, if  the player came up with a good idea, maybe they get more of a bonus.

If the player come up with an awesome idea, it just happens. The d20 roll is just to help describe how awesome the already awesome thing is.

Characters Evolve

Something you must keep in mind here is that it is very, very likely that one character in your group is going to change in the first 5 sessions.

Once the campaign gets underway, you will probably have a player who will want to change classes, change their name, or take on an entire different personality. That is because once the game has started, the character is just an idea. As the game plays out, the player sees what works and what doesn't in game and they need to tweak it.

A character going from human to half-orc might might make you balk. Don't worry about it too much. Just retcon it. Having a player who is really into their character is far more important than a minor continuity discrepancy.

The funny thing about it is that in a few weeks, nobody will even remember. They'll think the character was always a half-orc. It'll be this weird piece of trivia, like a tv show where an actor was replaced in episode 4.

How Do the Heroes Meet?

You'll need to work out whether the characters already know each other, or if they are just meeting when the game starts. Talk to the players and see what they prefer.

If they already know each other, maybe sit down with them and brainstorm the things they've done before together. Remember if they are level one, they probably haven't done anything worthy of XP. Possible ideas include:
  • They all trained together under a grizzled veteran.
  • They were town guards in a town with few problems. 
  • They were slaves who escaped their captors.
  • They were the only survivors of an earthquake or a dragon attack.
If they are meeting at the beginning of the first session, don't worry too much about avoiding cliches. Some tropes are used often for a reason - they're fun or convenient. The key is to put your own spin on it, make it fun.

The two most common tropes are:
  1. The heroes are all in the same bar at the same time
  2. The heroes are all hired by the same person to go on a quest or mission.
Tavern Clichés

I personally like the idea of starting a campaign in a bar loaded with every single cliché all at once. You could fill your bar with all of this:
  • A surly bartender with an eyepatch who shares rumors in exchange for tips.
  • A shady rogue picking people's pockets.
  • A hooded mysterious person sitting alone in the corner.
  • A bunch of people loudly gambling, accusing one another of cheating.
  • A well-muscled NPC who wants to arm-wrestle everyone.
  • A guy hitting on a waitress who clearly wishes he'd leave her alone.
  • A married woman looking to get into trouble.
  • A group of NPC adventurers looking for work, just like the PCs.
  • A bard singing songs by the fireplace. Her husband is probably the arm wrestler.
  • And of course, a wizard bursts in through the front door out of the rain in desperate need of aid.
Once your campaign is underway, now your job is to keep it fun and to keep it going.


Learn Tabletop RPGs - this is very newb-friendly
Nerdarchy has a nice post on this topic here.
Ask a Gamer - How to Start a Campaign 

1 comment:

Asaris said...

I actually like starting a campaign in media res. It's not actually terribly important how they met, and we can always go back to it later if necessary. But since it's a given they'll be working together, why not start off with "You are standing in front of the door to a tomb."